Niki Savva: An insider’s view

Niki Savva, senior journalist and later advisor to Peter Costello, talks to Neos Kosmos about her new book, So Greek: Confessions of a conservative leftie

Fotis Kapetopoulos
Niki Savva’s parents Elpiniki and Andreas, left Choli in Cyprus, a village “remote and poor, hidden away in the mountains,” and found themselves in Melbourne’s working class outer suburbs. In fact, Andreas left first in 1951 while Elpiniki with her children Steven and Niki arrived later.

<p>”I understood the reasoning behind it, [Tampa] but anyway… as I said in the book, we ended up paying a price for that later, it affected the way people felt about the government after that. Especially when there were many women and children in detention, then there were attacks on Muslims, and I was very, very, uncomfortable with that.” </p><p>- Niki Savva previous advisor to Peter Costello</p>

Like the thousands of other Greek immigrants, they might as well have “landed on Mars,” as Savva writes in her new book, So Greek: Confessions of a Conservative Leftie.

Yet it was out of those dusty working class suburbs that Niki Savva emerged a journalist and later, political advisor to Australia’s longest serving treasurer, Peter Costello. Costello a successful treasurer was an unsuccessful aspirant for the position of prime minister.

In the start of her book Savva paints a picture of the Press Gallery in the 1970s and 1980s, or “the beast”, as she calls it, as infatuated with the left, fuelled by political intrigue and underwritten by sex and booze.

It was a world occupied by middle class Anglo men where a Greek Cypriot working class girl from the ‘burbs would need a heart of steel to survive.

“The media was Anglo Saxon, middle class and I had to learn very quickly, a sense of humour helps you get through. If you don’t have that, you can’t survive really,” Savva crackles a dry laugh over the phone as she talks to Neos Kosmos.

Tenacity, grit, outspokenness and humour characterize Savva. She ended up heading the Canberra bureaus of the Herald Sun, The Age and The Australian and in 1997 did what few journalists do, she defected to the right and took on the role of media advisor to Peter Costello.

It was that same passion and outspokenness that had Costello pick out her Greekness with, “you’re so Greek!”, or “she’s so Greek!” whenever Savva let it rip.
“When Peter [Costello] would say, ‘she’s Greek you know’ it was because I was passionate about things and because I would always say my piece.”

And on the issue of Tampa, Pauline Hanson’s One Nation and the incarceration of women and children in detention camps under the Howard Government, Savva maintains she said her piece.

She was able to convince her boss to place One Nation last in his preferences, against Howard’s wishes. She tried to soften Costello’s antipathy to what he termed, “mushy multiculturalism” and to be more forthright with his support for an apology to the Stolen Generation of Aboriginal children.

Howard in 2001 turned back the Norwegian tanker Tampa which was laden with rescued refugees, thus winning the election by airing the flames of xenophobia. -Savva still harbours regrets:

“I understood the reasoning behind it, [Tampa] but anyway… as I said in the book, we ended up paying a price for that later, it affected the way people felt about the government after that. Especially when there were many women and children in detention, then there were attacks on Muslims, and I was very, very, uncomfortable with that.”

So what is it that turns a lefty to an advisor to one the most conservative governments in post-war Australian history?

On 11 November 1975 after Gough Whitlam’s dismissal by Governor General Kerr, Niki Savva writes about how grabbed Liberal Party staffer Vincent Woolcock by the lapels and warned him: “You won’t get away with this” – but they did, and she ended up marrying Woolcock later.

There is nothing worse than a lover spurned to make one turn. -Niki Savva’s love-hate relationship with Paul Keating, matured into a hate-hate relationship. Keating shifted from calling her “my darlin” to “a Tory bitch.”

Savva outlines her core political narrative when talking to Neos Kosmos, “As I say in the book, the principle reason I shifted from the left was because of Keating’s ‘recession that we had to have’ in 1990 and 1991.”

She adds, “The Labor Government began selling off public assets like the Commonwealth Bank and Qantas, after years of telling us that the conservatives are evil for wanting to do this they then turn around and did it themselves and the put millions out of work.”

Keating was once dubbed the “World’s Greatest Treasurer” by financial journalists, for ushering major structural economic chances like bank deregulation and compulsory superannuation.

Costello, soon after the Coalition won the 1996 election, praised Keating’s handling of the economy when talking to Wall Street and Washington D.C.
“Costello was talking about tariff reform and micro economic reform, but he was not talking about the recession and millions unemployed,” she says.

She does acknowledge, “He would of course agree with the sale of public assets – that is conservative philosophy, but to my mind I thought, ‘what’s the difference?’ “

A profound element of the book is they way Niki Savva deals with her sister Christina’s long-term illness and her final battle with cancer. Christina’s illness ushers the ultimate watershed in Savva’s political transformation.

As senior political journalist for The Age there was, as Savva writes in her book, little empathy, or flexibility, for her at her time of greatest need.

She had a choice, leave work and take care of her sister, or work for The Age.
“The left are sanctimonious, yet they preach one thing and do something quite different,” she says.

It was then that the shift from journalist to advisor came about; “The circumstances were such that once my sister was diagnosed with cancer, I was put in a position that I had no choice but to resign from The Age and I knew Costello and was friendly with him, and I had to have a job.”

It is the great reserves of strength that exemplify Niki Savva as she takes the reader through the at times tense, concentrated, never ending hours of work which characterize the life of a senior advisor to Peter Costello.

“It was hard, but although the work was very intense and the days were very long, it was also distraction, a diversion. I had to do the job and obviously I was thinking of my sister and my family, but it was good to have something to keep me occupied.”

The illness and pain that Christina endured also provided Savva with “perspective.”
“I’d think, ‘nothing is as serious as this.’ Bad things happen and you have to deal with them, but nothing is a serious as this, I can handle anything”

Like the Greek that she is, family came first for Savva and the life and death of her sister Christina made all else pale into insignificance for her.
Not least, the troubling and irritating lack of will by Peter Costello to take on John Howard, even as the ship was sinking.

At the end of Howard’s reign both men’s antipathy towards each other was barely disguised.

One can not help but view Peter Costello as a Hamlet like character, washed over by deep insecurities, regardless of what Savva describes as his “big head,” his intelligence, understanding of his portfolio as well as humanity and deep values.

“The fact that he never went for the prime minister’s position, I think was very regrettable, I wish he had, I wish he had done a few things differently. He would have done a very good job. But it was never to be.”

The Liberal Party, after a period of being led by the liberal Turnbull, is again a hostage to the right under the aegis of Tony Abbott.
Savva is philosophical; “It goes through phases, with Turnbull it went to one side and now with Abbott it has swung to right.

But say if Andrew Robb was to be elected as leader it will swing back again.
Savva’s respect of Andrew Robb is evident; “As a possible leader he most certainly will be excellent, he has a lot of respect in the party.”

Savva calls Kevin Rudd, the “body-snatcher” for acting and looking like a younger John Howard.

“Rudd is been incredibly successful” she says and adds, “But as a government, I would give him a B Minus. They did well to stave off the recession, but they spent billions trying to do that.” Niki Savva is Greek.

The chronicle of her personal and political odyssey makes for intriguing and rewarding reading.

She details with humour and pathos the imploding Howard government, as it clutched at straws while Costello waited to be tapped on the shoulder. A moment that never came.

The possibility of Abbott leading a government, Savva feels is “Very remote! You never know …”

And on the recent airing of Abbott’s view on women’s chastity, she laughs, “He’s so old fashioned, he reminds me, as I wrote in my book, of one of my relatives who offered me money to keep my virginity till marriage.”