Ben Hills investigates

It is midnight in Miami and Mitch Hooke has been on the phone for an hour from his suite in the luxurious Loews Hotel overlooking the beach. After a four-hour dinner with the big- wigs of some 40 of the worldʼs mightiest mining organisations thereʼs only the slightest slur in his voice as he tells me he still canʼt understand why he is helping with this profile. “Talking to the media is like crutching sheep,” he says, dragging yet another folksy metaphor from his seemingly-limitless repertoire. “Itʼs a shitty job, but someoneʼs got to do it. If you get it right thereʼs something satisfying about seeing those clean little white bums running down the race. If you get it wrong thereʼs a mess to clean up.”

Although heʼs been prowling the corridors of power in Canberra for 24 years, his pallid face owing more to neon strip-lights than the burning bush sun, Mitchell Harry Hooke loves to disarm people with what he calls his “Michisms,” good-ole-boy-style allusions to his long-ago life on the land and feats of arms on the college football field. “Iʼm just a busted-arse country boy,” is one of his favourites. “What would I know? Iʼm just the shed-hand,” is another.

The first time we meet, huddling under a tree in front of Parliament House waiting for a break in the rain for a photo-shoot, he launches into a rather cryptic tale of how after his first game for an Australian Rules team in Brisbane, in which he kicked a sorry single goal from nine attempts, an elderly woman screeched at him as he ran off the field: “Your mother wears army boots — and so do you. F—- off!” He then tucks his left hand down the back of his suit trousers, grasps an imaginary football in a right hand the size of a baseball mitt, and demonstrates a coaching trick that helped him shoot straighter. The only thing that saves him from total hokeyness is the accent — not the broad, flat upwardly-inflected vowels of Chips Rafferty but the more cultivated cadence of one of Australiaʼs more exclusive private schools.

To those who know him this self-deprecatory banter is a mask concealing a shrewd mind, a tongue like a razor strop and the take-no-prisoners stance for which he has been feared since his days as the hard-charging captain of his premiership university football team. In his two decades as a lobbyist in the national capital — a term he hates, preferring the more cuddly ʻpolicy advocateʼ — Hooke has climbed the greasy political pole defending some of Australiaʼs most powerful vested interests against the onslaught of public opinion, twisting the arms of politicians for favourable treatment on tax, regulation and subsidies.

Heʼs best- known for his fiery defence of the miners, as chief executive of the industry club, the Minerals Council of Australia, during the 2010 war over tax. But before that he was the public face of the food and grocery industry as it stared down consumer calls for greater accountability, and before that he steered the countryʼs grain farmers through the stormy seas of deregulation. He is the lobbyistsʼ lobbyist, featuring regularly on lists of Canberraʼs most influential operators.

It is impossible to find anyone who has seen the man in action, shoulders squared, dark eyes alight with enthusiasm, who does not have an opinion about him. Hooke polarises people. To his paymasters, the captains of Australian industry, he is a forceful and effective champion, a man whose “greatest strength and greatest weakness is his sense of justice,” according to one. To an opponent, however, a consumer rights campaigner, he is a “bully.” A Greens Senator who crossed swords with him, believes “a lot of (his) claims are total crap, but he gets away with it through sheer force of personality.”

Some would even say heʼs the devilʼs advocate. His was the face on TV in the 1990s reassuring mothers that the sugar in processed food was no bad thing, supporting a GST on food and explaining how unnecessary — not to say impossible — it would be to list all the ingredients on food packaging or declare if the product was genetically modified. He was the one, as a member of what the ABC dubbed the Greenhouse Mafia, trying to explain why signing the Kyoto convention on climate-change would be a waste of time. He appalled environmentalists by claiming, preposterously, that “The year they took DDT off the market a million Cantonese kids died of malaria.”

But most famously he was the spearhead of the campaign two years ago against Kevin Ruddʼs “resource super profits tax” that led to the defeat of the tax and the destruction of a prime minister, saving the mining industry — or costing the Australian tax-payer, depending on how you look at it — an estimated $60 billion over the next decade. Thatʼs a sum with so many zeroes it could finance the long-deferred national disability insurance scheme, with enough change left over to fund Denticare too.

Hookeʼs passionate advocacy for controversial and often-unpopular causes goes back long before this is what he was paid — handsomely — to do. A black-bound copy of the 107-page thesis which won him his degree in agricultural science from the University of New England in Armidale, reveals that he had an early interest in the export of live sheep, for instance. At the time the trade had prompted industrial action from abattoir workers who were protesting that it amounted to the export of their jobs. The young Hooke concluded that if Australia stopped exporting sheep to the Middle East — many of them to have their throats ritually slashed with daggers in peopleʼs back-yards to mark the end of the Moslem holy month of Ramadan — other countries would take our business and so the government should support it. I asked him if he had also considered whether the trade was cruel during his lengthy research for the thesis and he replied that “it wasnʼt an issue then.”

Even before being exposed to the dust-dry economics of agricultural science, Hooke grew up in a household in a conservative, Presbyterian part of the world — the Western Districts of Victoria which have never returned a single Labor MP to state or federal parliament. Though that is not to say the family was part of any wealthy Tory squattocracy.

Mitch Hookeʼs father, John Hudson Hooke, was a decorated fighter-pilot in World War II who survived three crashes, including being shot down by Messerschmidts in a Sicilian vineyard, emerging from the wreckage with his pipe still clenched firmly between his teeth. He was rewarded with a 500-acre (202 hectare) “soldier-settler” farm, carved out of a large property at Stockyard Hill, west of Ballarat, where he established Meulonga, a sheep stud.

In spite of the collapse of wool prices and the ravages of the 1967 drought the Hookes were determined that their five children (“Mitt” was the middle child) would have a private education. His mother Pat went to work as a school-teacher and John took a job as a commissioner of the Melbourne port authority to supplement the farm income, often leaving for work at dawn and getting home after dark. “I donʼt think the house got a coat of paint until they had all finished their schooling,” recalls Alethea Russell, a neighbour.

The four boys were all sent as boarders to Geelong College, a well-regarded private school which is the alma mater of many distinguished names in Australian politics, business, letters and the law. “Dad always said he wanted us to go out and get a career before we came back to the debt,” laughs Hookeʼs younger brother Andrew.

It was at Geelong College that Mitch Hookeʼs lifelong obsession with sport was kindled. “He was a natural athlete,” says Andrew, these days a management consultant in Melbourne. “He was a big guy, several sizes bigger than everyone else, and tough. He had every record in athletics: the high jump, the long jump, 100, 200, 400 metres, anything that required a burst of speed and strength. And he was an incredibly good footballer, Iʼd say he could have made the AFL if heʼd wanted to.” Studies came a long way last: “Youʼd not think of ʻMitchʼ and ʻacademicʼ in the same sentence in those days,” says his brother. Hooke himself confesses that until his final year or two at university he thought that ʻ51 percentʼ — a bare pass — was all he needed. “Could do better … needs to apply himself,” his report cards scolded.

It was at Geelong College that Hooke had his first character-building brush with the rougher side of life. “It was a pretty robust environment,” he says. “There was an element of what would be called bullying today. If you strived at sport you were a jock, but if you strived academically you were a nerd.” Flooding the dormitory with a fire-hose earned him “six across the arse” and on another occasion, for some petty infraction of the rules, he remembers a weird ritual in which he was forced to stand on the mantlepiece in the prefectsʼ room holding his football boots in outstretched arms while the prefects pelted him with football boots. Hooke graduated with the college cup for athletics, and just enough credits to get him into university.

Until his final years at university there was also little sign of the policy wonk who would be respected — if not universally liked — in the committee-rooms of Canberra. Football was his honours subject, although there are differing views on just how honourably he played. Ian Smith, once chief executive of Newcrest, Australiaʼs biggest gold miner, and Hookeʼs boss as chairman of the Minerals Council, was in a different college at the university, and clashed with him on the football field. In the past he has said that Hooke played “dirty” but all he will offer for this interview is : “This has become a bit of a joke between us… letʼs just say he was a good hard player.” Hooke at first denies ever hitting anyone: “You donʼt get best and fairest (awards) if you play dirty.” Then he laughs it off : “If he (Smith) says so he must have deserved it.”

Hooke says he was more interested in beer “boatraces” and barbecues and smuggling girls into the supposedly all-male colleges than in lectures on edaphology by Professor Bill McClymont. “We all had our utes and our bullbars and our moleskins and our riding boots and our Eskies full of beer,” he recalls. “We were the rough, tough country lads and this bloke started talking to us about integrated pest management, diseasing systems, epidemiology, agricultural eco systems.

He was 20 or 30 years ahead of his time. This was touchy-feely. This was wholemeal sandal-wearing stuff.”
But he took the lessons to heart, and after graduating went to work as an “extension officer “(a kind of field consultant) for the Queensland Department of Primary Industries, promoting McClymontʼs then-radical ideas about no-till farming. It was here that he began to develop the people-skills for which he is known. Encountering a farmer on a tractor on the fertile black soil of the Jimbour Plains near Dalby the following conversation takes place:

“What are you doing?”

“Iʼm ploughing, mate.”

“Why? Why are you working the country?”

“Iʼm getting rid of the weeds, working it up for planting.”

“Youʼre just a recreational farmer. Youʼre just going round in circles. You donʼt need to work this country, you could plant it with your finger if you got off it.”

Still in his early 30ʻs Hooke was head-hunted for his first job in Canberra, as deputy director of the Grains Council of Australia. His new wife Sarah “… cried all the way down. We were young. We had a three-year-old daughter. We were coming down to a place that was completely foreign to us — we were both country born and bred, never lived in a city in our lives.” Sarah, in fact, had been living on her parentsʼ property Rokeby, an Arabian horse stud near Warwick, where Hooke had been invited to advise on growing stock feed. He knocked on the back door “and this very attractive blonde-haired lady came out wearing a blue rugby football jumper, with Vegemite on her cheeks and (wearing) plaits.” Never criticised for his lack of decisiveness “Boom-boom, I knew instantly,” says Hooke.

The Grains Council — the grain producersʼ cartel — sounds like a boring but worthy organisation. In fact when Hooke took the top job it was in turmoil. Angry farmers were protesting outside parliament. The industry was heading for the chopping block of deregulation. Hooke proved to be “an outstanding performer with a great mind for policy,” according to Donald McGauchie, the former Telstra chairman who was the councilʼs president and remains a fan. Others were unconvinced. The West Australian and South Australian grain farmers tried to move motions of no confidence in Hooke and his secretariat (“Devastating, I can tell you, for a young buck”) and after four years as executive director as bruising as anything he encountered on the football field he was recruited by the heads of Australiaʼs largest food manufacturers to head up a new industry body, the Australian Food and Grocery Council.

He was there for seven years and, again, the reviews are mixed. Murray Rogers, the former head of the Kellogg breakfast cereal company in Australia and the councilʼs inaugural chairman remains a close friend. “His forte in life is strong policy,” he says. “In fact that can be a pain in the arse. Once a policy is developed he will defend it to the end.” Rogers, whose office was in Pagewood, near Sydney airport, remembers one afternoon finishing a long teleconference with Hooke and driving half an hour to his home on the North Shore. His wife greeted him at the door: “Mitch is on the phone for you — Iʼll turn the dinner off.”

However consumer advocates like the eminent Australian nutritionist Rosemary Stanton have little respect for Hooke — or his arguments. There were confrontations, on TV current affairs programmes and even in the halls of parliament where both were giving evidence on issues such as the excessive use of sugar in processed food, the listing of ingredients, and the identification of genetically modified products. Says Stanton : “Heʼs a bully… heʼs a man who if he doesnʼt get his way resorts to shouting and intimidating tactics.”

When I put this to Hooke he denied that he had ever met Stanton — which, in the technical sense of being introduced and shaking hands may be true. However, he then goes on to remind us of his footballing days:

Jab! in the ribs: “The difficulty we had… was that Rosemary Stanton didnʼt have any qualifications.”

And biff! on the jaw : “She was very anti-sugar … she was being supported, funded, by the artificial sweetener (companies).”

For the record, both statements are false. Dr Stanton has far more impressive qualifications than Hooke: a degree in biochemistry and pharmaceutical chemistry from Sydney University, postgraduate qualifications in nutrition and dietetics, a graduate diploma in administration from the University of Technology, Sydney and an honorary doctorate from Wollongong University. As for being funded by sugarʼs competitors : “Well, I donʼt and I never have (received funding). I donʼt like or use artificial sweeteners.”

After Hookeʼs father died in 2002 he thought seriously about abandoning the glass-and- concrete caves of Canberra. All heʼs ever wanted to do, he says, is go back to the land — his high profile job was not a career he sought, just something that happened. But he did the maths and decided that Meulonga didnʼt make financial sense : “I didnʼt possibly think I could educate my (three) girls in the way that we were educated. That place did five kids through boarding school — youʼd be flat out doing one now.” As luck would have it, just at that time head-hunters were looking for a new chief executive for the Minerals Council and Hooke “got a tap on the shoulder.”

That was 10 years ago this month (MEMO SUBS : June). Heʼs sprawled in a chair in his corner office, a carpeted expanse the size of a squash court with its wide windows taking in the flag flying over Parliament House a few minutesʼ walk away. Still straight and lean, the only concessions to his 56 years are the grey gullʼs wings above his ears and a millimetre or two of subcutaneous fat softening the sharp planes of his face. He admits that when he took the job he had no idea of the bloody battles that lay ahead. Although it does have its compensations. He wonʼt disclose his salary (the average for the councilʼs top 13 employees is $242,000), but it is probably in the high six figures, double what the prime minister earns. Late in 2010 while the whiff of grapeshot was still in the air after the tax victory (as the big miners see it) he was able to fork out $2 million for a three-hectare property near Bowral, in the NSW Southern Highlands, where his wife at last has room for her horses, and he can commute in his silver BMW for the weekends.

Life as the only male in a household of five was “incredibly grounding,” says Hooke. He would come home occasionally to find one or other of his daughters convulsed with laughter on the carpet if they thought he had been performing pompously on TV — and demanding his autograph. He did his best to make room for the family in his crowded schedule, though often it would be Sarah watching the girls riding their horses at country shows while Hooke sat in the shade catching up with the news on his iPad.

His daughters have now all left home, although Hooke stays in close touch and the family holidays together, most recently skiing at the ritzy resort of Aspen in the Rocky Mountains. Like his own parents, Hooke insisted on a first-rate education for his children — private school then tertiary studies — and all have done well. Jemima, the oldest at 27, recently married Gene Fairbanks, a midfielder with the Western Force Super Rugby team, and moved to Perth. Phoebe, 23, works for Channel Seven’s Sunrise show. And 19-year-old Harriet is studying for an Arts degree at Sydney University.

In a mirrored alcove in his office sit some souvenirs from his years jet-setting around the world: a minerʼs lamp from Canada, a painted ostrich egg from South Africa, and two objects like black petrified macaroons. Brown coal briquettes, Hooke explains, from a pilot plant in North Dakota using new technology and owned by GTL Energy Ltd, a company of which Hooke is a director and (he sighs rather ruefully) investor. Later this year a commercial plant should start up in New Zealand and Hooke says he will be doing something practical about reducing pollution from the most polluting of all energy sources. All in all a much more sensible investment than his other flutter, Designer Caviar Pty Ltd, a company which claimed it could produce counterfeit caviar from various secret ingredients, and which went bust after a dispute with some Russians who owned the intellectual property. He doesnʼt want to go into the details, other than insisting “it wasnʼt a scam.”

Hookeʼs decision to join the council was a big call for several reasons, the elephant of which was the fact that he knew nothing about the economics and the politics of mining, let alone the geology — in fact he still has no academic credentials in any of these areas. But heʼs a quick study. When he joined the Queensland Primary Industries Department “I had to ring up a bloke and say ʻMate, what is a subsidy? What is a tariff? What is industry assistance? How does all that work?ʼ”

The battle over the mining tax was to be the toughest test of his decade at the helm. Sensing that the Rudd government intended to “shirt-front” the booming industry with a tax expected to raise $99 billion over a decade, Hooke organised an advertising campaign that, at $17.5 million dollars, was more high-powered than anything short of the launch of a new car or “a super new Big Mac,” according to the man who created the ads, Neil Lawrence, the executive creative director of STW, Australiaʼs largest communications group. Says Senator Scott Ludlam, the Greens mining spokesman : “They ran a very effective shock and awe style campaign that played on peopleʼs fears that the tax would kill the mining industry, kill the goose that laid the golden egg. They went in hard and fast and you couldnʼt fault it for sheer political brutality.”

Even Lawrence, who ironically ran the ʻKevin ʼ07ʼ campaign that brought Rudd to power three years earlier, says he felt “some uncomfortableness” when after 54 days of this high-rotation cacophony Rudd was overthrown by his party, Julia Gillard was installed as prime minister, and in a “room with no windows” deep inside Parliament House secretly negotiated a new deal with Australiaʼs three biggest mining companies that reduced the tax to $39 billion and shrinking fast, according to the latest Treasury estimates.

Hooke accepts no responsibility for the political consequences, and curiously enough one of the fallen leaderʼs closest allies, his former senior press secretary, Lachlan Harris, agrees. Blaming the mining industry for Ruddʼs downfall would be like “blaming the tow- truck drivers for the accident. Labor had already collapsed into civil war and all the miners did was take advantage of that,” he says. Hooke categorically denies a gloating quote attributed to him: “ Thereʼs been a bit of give and take, and we are happy with that. Specifically we gave them tax dollars and they took away Kevin Rudd.” He says it was the Labor Partyʼs decision, and claims that at the height of the campaign be bumped into Bob Hawke in the chairmanʼs lounge at Brisbane airport. “He put his arm around me,” says Hooke “and he said (he imitates the former prime ministerʼs raspy voice) ʻWe wouldnʼt have done it like this.ʼ”

In fact, says Hooke, if there was a victim it was him. “If you want to know what it feels like to be a dart board, that was me. We were subjected to intimidation, bullying, abuse — but we didnʼt flinch. Thereʼs another football saying : ʻIf youʼre going to hit me make sure I stay down, because if you donʼt I am going to come after you.ʼ” But, once again, opinion is split on his performance. He says that when the stoush was at its fiercest people came up to him in the streets of Canberra and asked for his autograph. But also he had to put up with the best-selling writer Bryce Courtenay accosting him over dinner at his favourite restaurant, Ottoman Cuisine, and demanding “When are you going to start sharing your wealth?” Hooke says he replied : “Bryce, when are you going to stop beating your wife?” and then proceeded to reel off the statistics showing how in 2003/4 the mining industry paid $4 billion in tax, and seven years later this had soared to $23.4 billion.” There are, of course, lies, damn lies and statistics but the answer appeared to pacify the ailing author.

Probably the most wounding of all the criticisms, however, came from within the ranks of the mining industry itself. Several hundred smaller miners and explorers — who are patronisingly referred to as the “juniors” and who have their own industry association, the Association of Mining and Exploration Companies — believe that they have been sold out by the Minerals Council, and that the new deal favours the ʻbig three,ʼ BHP Billiton, Xtrata and Rio Tinto at their expense. Julian Malnic, the chairman of the Sydney Mining Club, has even nicknamed Hooke ʻBaghdad,ʼ a reference to George Bush Seniorʼs failure, after winning the Gulf War, to push on to the Iraqi capital and overthrow Saddam Hussein. “If they had just kept running with the campaign for another few days or weeks the whole thing (tax) would have been killed,” he argues.

There are those who argue that Hooke has come to the end of his usefulness, that the campaign was his last hurrah. The Minerals Council has been effectively sidelined as a lobbyist at least until there is a change of government. To which Hooke shrugs his shoulders. His board understands that if they want him gone heʼll go, he says. And he finishes our last conversation with yet another Michism: “If youʼre not playing well, nobodyʼs going to worry about you. Itʼs only if you are doing a good job you are going to cop it.”

Publishing Info

Pub: Sydney Morning Herald
Pub date: Saturday 30 June 2012
Section: Good Weekend
Page: 24