Simon Jackman is the chief executive officer of the United States Studies Centre and closely follows politics, religion and US President Donald Trump. He spoke with Donna Lynch about some of these subjects.
Q: Have you always had a passion for politics?
A: As long as I can remember, yes indeed.
Q: I did read that when you were at school, you were a big debater, but not only that, this thing blew me away: you had a subscription to Hansard?
A: Yes, I did.
Q: What did the other kids think of that?
A: I don’t think I told too many. It was back in the day when, for about $20 a year, they would arrive in print… It was a great way of getting exposure to how parliament really operated. And I remember (St Patrick’s) up at Shorncliffe, where I went to school, they would get the state parliament Hansard up there as well. I was one of those kids who used to disappear at lunchtime and go have a trawl through there from time to time.
Q: With the early days, describe yourself.
A: Eldest child. Big, loud family.
Q: Catholic family?
A: You got it. The family, look, were very prominent in the church down Sandgate way. My grandfather in particular, (he was a) real patriarch of the scene down there, helped establish St Patrick’s in the (1950s). You sort of were aware of that family history, which was a great thing actually. You felt real pride in that and a deep connection to the community and the church. You were expected as the eldest son of this family that had this sort of long connection to the Church, that some sort of participation like that was to be expected… St Pat’s was home. You’d live there – from early in the morning to after sport’s training, five days a week, we’d go up there and knock around and play cricket with mates on the weekend.
Q: Do you think we miss those moments now, because it just isn’t the same anymore is it?
A: I think you would find that experience being replicated, not so much in Brisbane anymore… That story is happening somewhere in the world. Institutions like Catholic schools and Catholic churches are central to building that sense of community.
Q: Do you think religion plays a part in politics in our country much anymore?
A: Nowhere near as much as it used to. But every now and then – yes.
Q: What do you think, I have to ask you this question, what do you think of President Trump?
A: Oh dear. It’s an ongoing puzzle for me how people of faith in the United States reconcile their support for Trump. So, a majority of people of faith support Trump. Given some of the things he said and was recorded saying, why is that the case? That remains a live puzzle for a lot of political analysts, myself included. It comes back to the abortion question that is so important for American people of faith. Protestants perhaps more so than Catholics if you look at the data on this, in terms of where the energy is on that issue in the United States. That said, though, I look at all the values that I was taught, instilled in me, in my Catholic education, I look at the way that we expect presidents to behave – I just don’t see that, those norms of presidential behaviour coming from President Trump. It’s distasteful, sometimes it crosses beyond the distasteful into another domain entirely. It is an ongoing puzzle as to how so many decent people in the United States were willing to put all that to one side and support him to be perfectly blunt.
Q: We often say: only in America don’t we. He gives off a persona that he is of religious belief, do you think there’s something in that or do you think that that’s a show?
A: I think it’s a show. No doubt in my mind about that. I think everything’s a show with Trump; he’s been doing it his entire adult life. It’s second nature to him; he doesn’t even have to think about it. There’s no one advising him what to Tweet. He’s been waking up in the morning thinking about how he’s going to get himself on TV or in the newspaper that day, he’s been doing that since 1975 basically.
Q: At this stage in your life, how do you keep your faith?
A: My family. My kids. That changes a lot. You recognise that this is a very serious business, being an adult. You also understand that this is not set and forget. There is a certain amount of innate good that’s in our DNA, but there’s a lot… and I’d say the lion’s share, comes through parenting. Comes through schooling. And comes through example. What you model in your own behaviour to your children. It also comes in leading an organisation now.
Q: In your position, you’ve got a very successful media career over the years. Been a pollster, how do you get it so right?
A: Because you get it wrong from time to time and you learn from your mistakes. Rule number one about forecasting is learning from your errors. And some humility, a good Christian virtue by the way, understanding that you don’t have all the answers and a good forecast is constantly looking back over your shoulder.
Q: Since Kennedy, who was a hero of mine, who do you think was the best president?
A: I would have to go, way back historically, to Lincoln.
Q: How about our road ahead for Australian and America?
A: Yeah look it’s so interesting and it’s the topic we concern ourselves with at the studies centre. The United States has announced that it finds itself back in an era of great power rivalry. That the main game for the United States is less to do with counter-insurgency and counterterrorism, and more to do with: while they were doing that from 9/11 to about the end of the Obama presidency, China was getting on with business and Russia was getting on with business. Countries that a) aren’t democratic and b) have quite expansionist designs on the world. That poses an acute set of questions for Australia given our trading relationship with China… We’re increasingly turning to our own backyard, and (that) is expanding out of traditional military focus to the alliance, blossoming into something a little bit bigger because the things we need to do together to build resilience against anti-democratic initiatives in the world will only succeed if democracies like Australia and the United States… work together, in particular in our region, and so that means things like democracy promotion, getting back to basics, doing things Australia and the United States used to do very well but took their eye off the ball for a little while. Making sure we’re reaching out to friends in the Pacific Islands and south east Asia and all the things like scholarships for studying, helping build hospitals and roads, and all that stuff. That is not about showing up in a battleship. But it’s about showing up with the institutions of civil society and frankly offering the region a choice to the west, to the democratic world, open and transparent institutions and ways of doing business versus other models that are on display that are not democratic and I think that is perhaps the single biggest question the two governments are grappling with right now. Finding ways to do that together in a very robust way from time to time. But its very delicate for Australia given how much trade we do with China.