Insights from the Insider: An interview with Christopher Pyne

Interview by Felix Eldridge

On Dit Magazine
13 min readAug 6, 2020


Former Federal Minister and active student politician Christopher Pyne

Rising to become a senior ‘moderate’ in the Liberal Party, Christopher Pyne was elected to Federal Parliament in 1993 at the age of 25, representing the seat of Sturt. He held several Cabinet posts during his 26 years in Parliament including Minister for Education, Minister for Defence Industry, Minister for Defence, and Leader of the House. He is also a law graduate of the University of Adelaide and has served as the Vice President of the Students Association of the University of Adelaide (SAUA). I sat down with Christopher to ask him a few questions about his time at university and his career in politics.

What was student politics like when you were at University?

This was before rise of the so called ‘independents’. It was exciting and fun. The Hawke Government was in power and they had introduced the Administrative Charge and the Higher Education Contribution Scheme (HECS). People find it surprising today to learn that universities weren’t very left-wing. The protests on King William Street and North Terrace were anti-Labor government protests because they were introducing charges on students. It was also a swing away from the hedonism and leftie nirvana of the campuses of the 60s and 70s.

As a society, the 80s generally represented a swing back to the centre and conservatism. It’s where the phrase the ‘Sloan Ranger’ comes from. Princess Dianna and others were dressing far more conservatively, and universities generally, but students particularly, were far more conservative than they had been in the 60s and 70s. Students of the time were more focused upon jobs. The drug culture had peaked in the 60s and 70s. The Vietnam War was over so the moratorium marches and the “Peace Now” movements and sideburns and crazy hair, etc., diminished. The 80s were much less radical.

So, the Liberals on campus were actually the majority political force in the 80s and that’s why I was Vice President of the Students Association. There were a certain welter of Liberal leaning Presidents of SAUA such as Anthony Snell, Greg Mackay and James Neate, who was the President of the Union. It was not uncommon at all for Liberals to be the dominant faction on both the Union Board and the SAUA Council. In fact, it was unusual if they weren’t. So, electorally, we were quite successful. We ran as Liberal Students; we didn’t come up with names to try and disguise who we were. I was always the Liberal candidate for roles like Education Committee, SAUA Council Union Board, Vice President. This is interesting because these days that would be very unlikely.

And the Labor Party on campus was very left-wing. They had been taken over by the left and they were unelectable because ‘soft labor’ or ‘labor right’ voters didn’t seem very interested. If they were, they tended to be in the debating society, of which I was also a member. Penny Wong and Mark Butler came along around about the same time as Natasha Stott Despoja and Sarah Hanson-Young were gaining prominence. There was also a shift away from both the Liberals and Labor to the so called ‘independents’ who were almost unbeatable for a long time. They all tended to run under the latest fashionable idea as a rallying point.

It was an interesting time at university because for the first half of my education there were no fees, and in the latter half there were fees. We had about 11 contact hours in law school, so law was more so a pastime for us rather than a full-time degree, despite the fact that it was a full-time degree. There were automatic supplementary exams… they changed that in my third year. I remember one of my friends throwing up on the steps of the Ligertwood building because they were so shocked!

It was the days of the perennial students. There were students at uni who had been there since the early 1970s who were active in student politics, and because education was free, they went from one degree to another, receiving the tertiary education assistance scheme (TEAS). Once the government introduced HECS, all of that changed. So, the 80s were a hinge moment for universities from the point-of-view that it was government policy driven by resourcing as opposed to national security or defence that changed the system.

As a former Education Minister, do you think that Minister Tehan’s new university funding system will properly address key issues in the sector?

I think the most important reform to bring about in universities is to introduce market principles when charging for degrees. The idea that you can have the same cost for a degree at whatever institution it might be across Australia is clearly not sensible economics and does not value the product being received by the consumer, who in this case is the student. That was the reform that I tried to bring about as Minister in 2013–15. It was to allow universities to focus on the things that they did well, to charge accordingly, and to discard the things that they were only doing because they needed the revenue. There’s no reason, for example, that every university in Australia needs to have a law school or an arts school, but they have them because they’re cheap to run and they can charge students for them. However, no one can tell me that a law degree at the University of Sydney is the same value as a law degree at every university in Australia.

It was my view that other universities should be able to differentiate their product, that there should not be a ‘one size fits all’ offering from universities to students, and that universities should be able to spend more of their own money on things they want to spend them on, whether that’s research or higher salaries for professors or tutors. They should be allowed to do what they do best. But the problem with university reform is that there is always someone that doesn’t want to do it. In the case of my reforms, it was the students who pointlessly argued for free education despite the fact that this was never going to happen. They managed to convince the crossbenchers in the Senate that they were going to hand out how-to-vote cards for them and campaign for them if they blocked the reforms. The same thing is happening with Dan Tehan’s reform. So, of course, universities need to be reformed, and it was no coincidence that all the Vice-Chancellors, bar one, supported my reforms because they could see the need to do so, and they are the ones that will have to run their universities and deliver their research outcomes.

So, Minister Tehan’s reforms, which are designed to give universities more freedom and to allow a differentiated charging of fees for different courses, are very sensible and I hope that they will be supported. Simon Birmingham tried to reform the system when he was the Minister and, again, elements of the university sector tried to stop it. The problem with the university sector is that they are diffuse, often disunited, and rarely upset the status quo. While that happens, Australian universities, except for the top-tier, will start to slide in the quality of research and in the world rankings, which is a great pity.

What constitutes the ‘University Sector’?

The university sector refers to all stakeholders in the sector, such as students and staff. The problem is that someone in that group always has a vested interest in keeping the status quo. Students invariably are disconnected from reality because their leadership — student politicians — who take an interest in politics, seem to hold fast to this ‘holy grail’ of ‘we have to fight for free education’, which is about as likely to happen as me playing full forward for the Crows this coming season. Yet, they seem to hang onto it because it’s an easy thing to say over a beer in the Unibar. It’s a long way from ever happening. All Governments support the Higher Education Contribution Scheme because it’s fair.

As a former Defence Industry Minister, how do you analyse the present situation with the manufacture of submarines in Australia?

Well, it’s on track, it’s on budget, it’s on schedule, and it will deliver exactly what was intended, which was to remake our strategic industrial base here at Osborne. It will provide jobs and futures for people who are interested in science, technology, engineering, and maths. It’s given us a manufacturing capability second to none in the world that was lost when we lost the car manufacturing industry, and it will be delivered in the early 2030s as was intended. There’s a lot of misinformation put about regarding the Attack Class submarines. Most of it is ill informed. But it’s easy to manipulate because Defence doesn’t have an eye to the public relations of their projects. So, they are sometimes naïve in the information they give to the media. If the media wants to, they can twist and use it against the Department of Defence.

A classic example of that is about the delivery of submarines. You don’t ‘deliver’ a submarine at one particular point in time. Technically, defence will say that a submarine is delivered when it has been through all of its sea trials and operations. Then at a point in time it is handed over, ceremoniously, to the Navy, and it is said that it is now ‘delivered’ to the Navy, that it’s been ‘commissioned’. But there is a period, at least two years before that, where in layman’s terms it is handed over to the Navy. So, it’s certainly true to say that the first submarine will be delivered in about 2034, and the media will write that it has been ‘delayed’ because it was promised in 2032. The truth is, it will be handed to the Navy in 2032 and the Navy will technically say that it has been handed over after all of its trials in 2034. There’s been no change to the schedule. So, the submarine project is going very well and according to plan. It is transformative for our strategic-industrial base, and anyone who goes down to Osborne will be astonished at the size and scale of the shipyard that’s been built there for the Hunter Class frigates, which will be the anti-submarine warfare frigates. And regarding the sheds built for the Attack Class submarines, those are about four times the size. They are bigger than the Adelaide Oval stadium.

From an outsider’s perspective the Liberal Party seems deeply divided between moderates and conservatives. As an insider, how do the factions co-exist at a practical level?

Well, that’s a very broad statement to make about moderates and conservatives being divided. They are no more divided than they’ve ever been in my experience, which now goes back to 1985. The Liberal Party is made up of both liberal philosophy and conservative philosophy. It is natural, therefore, that there are competing interests within the Liberal Party between those who regard themselves as more liberal and those that regard themselves as more conservative. We don’t have factions in the Liberal Party, and people laugh when we say that, but the reality is that there aren’t. It’s not like the Labor Party.

We have very loose groupings of people who share common views. It’s quite a porous boundary because I’m conservative on some things like euthanasia or stem cell research, but I’m not on something like marriage equality. However, I’m clearly a liberal and regarded as a ‘moderate’. But that doesn’t mean that I’ve spent my life trying to defeat conservatives within the Liberal Party because, as our great party founder Robert Menzies said, “A bird can’t fly with one wing.” The reason that the Liberal Party is so electorally successful, and as I once described as being an “election winning machine”, is because we do represent the broad spectrum of philosophical thought. You can be a Liberal in Norwood and vote for the Liberal Party and you can be a miner from Cooper Pedy and vote for the Liberal Party. We represent both, which has been one of the Labor Party’s difficulties in defeating us at the national level. At the national level, the issues are more broad than they are at the state level, where they are more practical. For example, we don’t run trams at the national level, they do at the state level. We don’t run hospitals at the national level, they do at the state level. Issues like national security, the economy, the taxation system, the borders, these are broader issues, so political philosophy comes into play. I don’t think that conservatives and moderates are at each other’s throats at all, quite the opposite in fact. They seem to working quite well together, particularly under Scott Morrison and Steven Marshall. It’s the most united team we’ve had in the Liberal Party in this state since the 1960s.

What is your greatest achievement in politics?

From a policy perspective, there is no doubt that remaking our strategic-industrial base around combat reconnaissance vehicles, loyal wingman aircraft, offshore patrol vessels, pacific patrol boats, hunter class frigates, attack class submarines, will leave a lasting legacy for many decades. In the Turnbull Government, we made a policy decision that rather than spending 200 billion dollars on U.S. Government kit, equipment, and platforms, to instead replace the car industry with the defence industry. A remaking of our strategic-industrial base will remake our economy, jobs, and induce growth for fifty or more years.

My personal favourite was the creation of Headspace, which I did as Parliamentary Secretary for Health during the Howard Government. We came across 100 million dollars in the Health budget for youth mental health that hadn’t been allocated and I had serendipitously been to Origin Health in Melbourne with Pat McGorry. I said, “Well, if we’ve got 100 million dollars, we should try and replicate this across the country.” So, we did. We created Headspace. I gave it the logo, the colour, the name, the CEO, the Board, and I’m really happy that this has had such an impact upon so many young people’s lives over a long period of time. So, while it hasn’t been the headline story that defence has been, I think it’s impacted a lot of people. When you go into politics, you gain power in order to get your hands upon the levers of power, and make a difference to create policy that impacts upon people’s lives. There’s no doubt that Headspace has done that, as has the remaking of the defence industry.

What is your biggest regret in politics?

I’ve had a few but, then again, too few to mention. I think one of my biggest regrets is not being able to save Malcolm Turnbull’s Prime Ministership. That was a deep regret because I think that Malcolm is the kind of person who should be Prime Minster of Australia, and I think that it’s a great shame that he was torn down by people within the party. Not that it’s new. It happens all the time, Labor and Liberal.

I think I regret going into Parliament so young because when I was twenty-four, twenty-five, I thought I knew everything I needed to know. But it really took me a good ten years to work out that I didn’t and how to be open to other people’s ideas and suggestions, rather than being quite so dogmatic about my own. I think you learn that with age, and by twenty-five I didn’t know that, so I made quite a few mistakes.

Why did you never run for leadership of the Liberal Party?

Because I wasn’t going to win. Politics is about arithmetic. If I was going to run for leader, it would have had to have been in the week that Malcolm Turnbull was being destroyed. But I couldn’t win, so I supported the person who I thought could, being Scott Morrison. When I realized that this was my opportunity gone, because I was in the previous generation and because Scott Morrison was in the new generation, I decided then I needed to think about whether I should go.

What was On Dit like when you were at University?

The editors were people like Samantha Maiden and David Penberthy. I thought On Dit was fun, actually, but a lot of people didn’t like it because it was a university rag. But it was edgy without being distasteful. It was amusing, and I wouldn’t describe it as particularly left-wing, but obviously it wasn’t Liberal-leaning either. Student newspapers are great fun because you can say and do things that you would never be able to do in the mainstream press. I’d say it was a professional outfit, run by people who cut their teeth and went on to do great things. Adelaide University in the 80s has produced an amazing array of influential people in politics and journalism. Mark Butler, Penny Wong, Jay Weatherill, Natasha Stott Despoja, Andrew Southcott, Sarah Hanson Young, David Pemberthy, Samantha Maiden, Annabel Crabb, Tim Satchell, Christian Kerr, Chris Kenny. It’s amazing that this generation has produced so many people who were interested in public policy.

What advice do you have for budding student politicians?

Don’t take yourself too seriously. “Dance with the one that brung you.” It means that whoever you to the formal or the town dance, you dance with them, you don’t dance with the other people. In politics, if you are elected by the law school or the engineering school or the left, don’t turn on the people who elected you because they won’t vote for you again. Ronald Reagan used to use this phrase a lot to justify his actions because he needed to keep his base happy, which were the conservative republican voters. While he was a good President and liked by a lot of people across the political divide, including some Democrat voters, (he used to have Reagan Democrats who voted for him who were like Howard Battlers), he had to do certain things in order to keep his base happy.

I remember one incident when I was a student politician and I was in my third or potentially fourth year, and I was worried that I didn’t have enough new voters to compete with a new generation of fresh candidates competing for votes on the Liberal side. So, I said to the law students that the engineers were trying to get rid of me. In those days the engineers and law students were terribly competitive because the poor engineers had about 40 contact hours a week at least, whereas law students had hardly any. So, we used to swan about at the refectory doing very little and the engineers were very resentful. I conceived this idea of spreading the story through the law school that the engineers were trying to get rid of me. I had a lot of friends who were engineers, but this story spread quite readily. I was elected again that year. I never lost an election at university. Student politics is good fun and you don’t want to take it too seriously.

Hachette Australia has recently published Christopher Pyne’s second book, “The Insider”, detailing his career in-depth, ranging from his tenure as a backbencher in the Howard Government through to his time in Opposition, and then as a Minister in the Abbott, Turnbull and Morrison Governments and he shares various stories about his colleagues in Parliament.

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