13 May 2016, The Age offices, Melbourne, Australia
Thirty-five years ago, a 17-year-old from Kangaroo Ground arrived at The Age to be interviewed by three of the heavyweights of Australian journalism: Creighton Burns, Peter Cole-Adams and Cameron Forbes.
He was quietly confident, having been dux of humanities at Ivanhoe Grammar, where he was also school vice captain. Spelling and grammar were no problem and an interest in current affairs was his strong suit, but it didn’t go well.
He didn’t make the second round.
Paul may care to expand on the idiosyncratic nature of that encounter when he responds, but suffice to say he did better at Flinders Street where Bill Hoey was the interviewer (Bill, incidentally, had interviewed me a few years earlier and I didn’t get past first base).
A few months later, Paul Austin started his career in journalism as a cadet on the Melbourne Herald and in the next 35 years he did it all: covering state politics, being Sydney correspondent, joining The Australian and covering two federal elections, being national news editor and deputy editor before coming here in 1995.
Paul performed a wide range of roles here, too, including being deputy editor, breaking big state political stories, writing terrific features and sharp analysis and columns, but it’s fair to say his passion was editing the opinion pages and that was fortuitous for many Age writers, myself included.
As Shaun Carney puts it:
“As a columnist, you have an idea of the perfect editor. That editor always has time for you, listens to your ideas, engages with them, tests them. He never hassles you about filing late. He always welcomes your copy when he gets it. He reads your copy finely, checks it for logic and language, always improves it. He consistently makes you look better than you are. For many of the years I wrote the Saturday politics column for The Age, I never had to daydream about what it would be like to work with an editor like that because I had that perfect editor. His name was Paul Austin.”
In recent years, Shaun shared the role with Sushi, whose professionalism, rigour and contribution we also honour today.
I’d like to share some of what Sushi had to say about Paul over lunch the other day:
“It’s been a delight to work alongside someone so clear-eyed and empathetic. You’re a great listener and you see gaps in an argument where others don’t. You never approach anything by asking: do I agree with that. You always start from: is this a strong argument. You’re a thinking editor. You may be a man who holds his cards close to his chest, but when you play your hand, you play if deftly.
You have been a rock all these years offering guidance and friendship. And whenever doubt has crept into my mind, you’ve always been there to dissect, analyse and assess then issue your verdict. Not to mention the reassuring way you always say: CORRECT.”
Paul, you have also been a terrific mentor to many Age reporters, including Josh Gordon, who says:
“When I started in state rounds not long after the 2010 election one of the most daunting things was the thought of stepping into Curly's shoes. The man had a formidable reputation. Paul was inscrutable. Politicians almost feared his approval, because it meant the next week he come back and hit them over the head twice as hard. Never gratuitously, but always with a level of clarity, insight, incisiveness, calmness and logic that is held up as a benchmark in political journalism to this day. And because of this it had all the more impact.
He carried this into his work on the opinion page. If ever bereft of an idea, or searching for a punchline to a column, all you need do is phone up curly. He was always so generous with his ideas, perhaps because they came to him so effortlessly and gracefully.”
Another protégé is Rich Willingham, who says:
"Curly was an excellent mentor when I was a trainee during the 2010 state election and helped push me into the political world.”
And then there is me. Paul, you have been a valued colleague, a constant source of sage advice, a great friend and, most of all, a tremendous support these last couple of years.
Thirty-five years after it all began, a new journey is about to begin and, in a sense, you are walking out the door with the same emotions swirling around as when you arrived as a 17-year-old boy: anticipation, fear, nervousness and, most of all, excitement.