In this instalment of Anything But, Julia Baird catches Patricia Karvelas in a spare moment to discuss the Radio National presenter’s regrets, frustrations and undying love of George Michael.
Patricia Karvelas is the kind of person who would find five perfectly apt words for something the rest of us would use one for. Voluble, loquacious, expansive, expressive and articulate, the fact that she wields words with such authority has made her one of the greatest new talents in radio.
The senior journalist was made the host of RN Drive this year, after covering politics for more than a decade at The Australian newspaper, most recently as Victorian Bureau chief. She is also a mother, inveterate walker and karaoke singer. But there is one place her personal views and years of reporting on Indigenous Australians converge: her admiration of the quality she considers to be the most important – resilience.
We tried to talk about Anything But her work, politics, radio, carbs, sugar, work-life balance and all the other cliches that dog women in public life. Karvelas is anything but cliched.
You meet a lot of people, you talk to a lot of people. What quality do you value most in a person?
For me, it’s resilience. Life, obviously, knocks you down. Things get bad at unexpected times. I think that ability to pick yourself up and get on with it is really impressive.
I suppose I’ve seen it most with the Indigenous people that I have got to know over the years, not only in my reporting but many have also become my friends. The consistent story among them is this resilient nature, to be able to come back after what are so many road blocks in their lives and be successful.
I find it so admirable and it also inspires me in terms of my own life to think, as bad as it gets, there are still ways to find success and happiness.
So what’s the key to resilience?
I think it’s a strong sense of self and responsibility for yourself, knowing there are reasons why certain things are happening to you, that there are lots of drivers that are leading to it. But instead of intellectualising it or wanting to rail against the world, actually realising that only you are able to pick yourself up, that no one is responsible for your happiness. That, while good policies can open doors, the real door opening can only happen if you want to open the door.
The people I find that are the most resilient are people who don’t allow what is entrenched disadvantage destroy their hope. So you learn resilience through life experience. I don’t think it’s something you can be taught. The only way you can really learn it is through actually being at the end of a hard knock, knowing what profound loss or failure feels like and knowing that you can rebuild from that. That is something you can only experience yourself. You can’t be told through instruction.
When was the last time you laughed so hard you could not stop?
I’m not an uncontrollable laugher type of person. You know how some people just lose it and fall off the chair?
I laugh a lot throughout the day but not like when you feel unstitched, like you might need to go to the toilet kind of thing. I often crack up at things my kids say. I’ve got a nearly six-year-old and a nearly four-year-old, and I find some of their observations about life, about me, extremely hilarious.
My five-year-old has developed this thing where she does this particular impersonation of my morning routine, where she barks orders and plays on her phone, checking her Twitter and her messages, kind of mocking me. It’s really funny because she’s little and small people impersonating old people is always funny. But also because it presses all the buttons of what is ridiculous about adult busy life and this whole, ‘oh, we’ve got to get there, the world’s going to fall apart’, and she makes me look really ridiculous.
It always brings me down to earth. The last time she did it, not only did it make me laugh, but it also took the stress out of everything in that crazy morningmb.
Do you have any routines or personal rituals that you swear by?
I do actually. I’m a huge walker. I never go to the gym – I’m against the gym on political grounds. I just don’t like being in a situation where I’m sweating with strangers in a kind of artificial environment – it’s a form of jail.
But I love walking because I find it really liberating. And I’ve only recently realised it’s a form of meditation. And I’m not a meditator. It’s a way of unpacking everything going on in my head.
And when I say walking, I mean I will walk really vast distances, Forrest Gump style but without the running. Having young kids and being really busy has reduced my walking time, but in my 20s and early 30s, three-hour walks were kind of an average amount of time for me to walk. I’d feel fantastic at the end. Not fast walking, but not slow either. Just walking to decompress.
I don’t do it as much as I’d like to now, so now we’re talking about an hour rather than three. I do it when I get a leave pass now [laughs] but I prefer the morning.
Do you have one big regret?
I do. I regret, overwhelmingly, not enjoying being a mother the first time. I had my first baby nearly six years ago. I was in Canberra and I’d only ever known work in Canberra. My life was just Parliament House and that was great but I found myself kind of socially isolated. I had a lot of visitors so I won’t pretend that I wasn’t more privileged than a lot of people. I look at all those Hallmark card experiences that women have and I just don’t feel like I had that.
Some of it, I regret, was my fault because I over-thought the whole thing. And I was so kind of over-educated about the things that could go wrong. I remember having a breathing monitor on my perfectly healthy baby. It was quite insane really. I would lean over the baby 24 hours a day to make sure that the baby stayed alive, in case the breathing monitor didn’t work. I think that it kind of complicated my whole experience of being a mother.
Now, years later, I’ve learnt a lot about living. I just didn’t let myself enjoy any part of it. I regret that but I changed a lot after I had my second child.
A lot of parents find that they’re just more relaxed with number two
It was really overwhelming and I think about it a lot when I spend time with her now. But again it’s one of those things that you can only learn from experience. I have a much older sister who is very much like a mother figure in my life and she tells me all the right stuff. But someone saying to you, “you know, you really need to loosen up a bit. Leave the baby, the baby will be fine. Enjoy your time out. Go out, have a good time.” None of these things mean anything unless you’ve experienced it yourself or learnt from your own experience.
How would you describe your twenties?
My twenties were a mix of work and travel. I worked really hard in Canberra. I lived and breathed politics and it was all I did but I loved it. And also travel. I got to see a lot of the world in my twenties, which I was able to do because I worked so hard.
I remember that entire decade as being a discovery … about the way this country worked and the way political institutions worked. I found being in Parliament House an amazing experience and learning opportunity. I also felt liberated and financially independent. I wasn’t raised in the biggest level of privilege so it was the first time I could afford things and see the world. I wish I could go back there [laughs].
What do you think your happiest decade has been?
Definitely the one I’m in. My 30s have been the best decade for me because I think with age comes power. It’s so much more enjoyable than being kind of an angsty teenager or even in your 20s, where yeah, there’s lots of enjoyment, but really you’re still learning the ropes.
When you think back on some of your favourite memories that get you through difficult time, would it be from that period? Or would you go back to your childhood?
I’m not overly nostalgic but I really have a strong sense of history and where I’ve come from.
I lived with my grandparents for a period of time and I was very close to my grandmother, who was illiterate. She’s a migrant village woman and her only message to me was the power of education, financial autonomy and little things like getting a licence, going to university. In just three generations, my life is so different to her life. That’s from people like her putting in the effort with people like me. That kind of gets me through. There are many people who built me and I think about that a lot actually.
Has faith been a part of your life?
I grew up pretty involved in the Greek Orthodox church and I was a committed Christian into my teenage years but then that stopped for me. I don’t identify as an atheist. I’m much more agnostic. I haven’t kind of given up on God. I’m just more uncertain about the existence of God and if the church had been more open to difference I probably wouldn’t be such a lapsed Christian.
Heaven is a concept I love. I love the kind of redemption it offers and that you can see people who are dead who you would like to see again. All of that is something that I would wish to be true, but I’m not convinced it is.
What is something you have absolutely no patience for?
The things that really get me are gender inequality and entrenched racism. I’m irritated they persist despite the efforts of people across so many generations to try and overcome them. Not that I feel defeated because actually I feel like we’re winning, like we’re broadly moving in the right direction.
I’ve been to remote Indigenous communities where the schools are so substandard and I feel really angered. And I still see the kind of gendering around me from the time that girls are little which I find so disconnected with what we are also telling girls as they get older – that they can take on everything. From a young age, I feel, we’re giving them mixed messages.
Who’s your greatest intellectual crush?
Definitely, Marcia Langton, Melbourne University’s Professor of Indigenous History and the Foundation Chair at Melbourne University’s Australian Indigenous Studies unit. She is one of the intellectual heavyweights in this country. Her views, sometimes very contentious, are robust and on sound principle. If we return to the first question you asked me, she is the biggest example of resilience. I find her writing so impressive, I find her brain impressive.
What quality do you possess that frustrates you?
I find it hard sometimes to stop and smell the roses! I’m very driven and it’s good. I get a lot done. I’m very excited, I’m very passionate. But in that process, occasionally, and it’s often one of my kids that’s the one that presses the button and reminds me, I realise I’ve forgotten to just enjoy the moment. And that frustrates me.
What is your favourite film of all time?
Life is Beautiful. It’s just really sad, the way that dad plays that game in the concentration camp with his son trying to delude him about the hideous situation they are in.
I’m not going to lie about it and pretend to be high brow. I’ve got very cheesy tastes – my other favourite film is definitely Beaches. I still laugh with my best friend about firstly The Wind Beneath My Wings and secondly the scene where she’s crying, she’s watching herself on television and saying she’s a deeply feeling person [laughs]. I’ve seen it many many times. And I’m not afraid to admit it. I also love Bette Midler.
What is a meal you will continue to enjoy for the rest of your life?
Well, I do love food but I can’t cook food. I’m not interested in cooking food at all. My partner’s a very good cook. It’s hilarious that not being Greek she has learnt how to make every Greek meal. I became a vegetarian, and deprived myself of my favourite foods for 10 years. But now I’m not, and haven’t been for a few years, so my access to Greek-style lamb is probably at dangerous levels. I think probably a bit less lamb would be important for my health, but that’s pretty much what I eat all the time.
And what about games? Do you like Monopoly? Uno? Chess? Minecraft?
I’m not into Minecraft. I play a lot of board games with my kids. Uno and Monopoly are more our games. Chess is on our list of things to do because, you know, if you read the list of how to create effective children, chess is on the list. But I’m not there yet.
Growing up we played a lot of board games. And I’m really competitive so I found I just couldn’t lose. But I’ve had to really recalibrate my brain to approach board games. Now I’m the one calming down my nearly six-year-old: “It’s OK, it’s OK to lose.” Even though I’m secretly thinking, “It’s not OK, you’ve been wronged!”
I don’t want her to become like me. I want her to be better. The games I like that involve computers are SingStar and all the fun games. I love SingStar and karaoke. And so we have sing-offs in my house.
What’s your No. 1 song?
Sweet Child O’ Mine, perhaps. George Michael is a big theme in my life, so probably Careless Whisper. I was a really jazzy, hands-on kind of kid. I went to the Johnny Young Talent School and I loved everything involved in pop music and ’80s dance moves – Wham and then George Michael on his own and I still love him. And I’m never going to let go. And my dancing hasn’t really advanced since that period either! Which is alarming to my children and embarrassing. But you know, 1987 was good and why should we change that?
An version of this article was published on ABC’s The Brief.