The story about Laurie Oakes’ fifty years’ of political reporting, which appeared in the Weekend Oz of January 9-10, gives us a story of successful hypothesising to solve a mystery:
The Whitlam government’s plan to appoint Democratic Labor Party senator Vince Gair as ambassador to Ireland in 1974 to increase their Senate numbers is the scoop that Oakes is most proud of because it required detective work.
“My colleague John Lombard had been told there was a diplomatic appointment in the pipeline that was quite interesting and he mentioned it to me,” Oakes says. “So I rang people to ask about the appointment and they all clammed up. One person said, ‘I can’t talk to you about it – it’s big, big, big.’
“So I paced up and down trying to think what could be ‘big, big, big’ and came up with the hypothesis that Whitlam was planning to offer Vince Gair something to get him out of the Senate. Then I rang people as though I knew that to be fact and they said: ‘How did you find that out?’ and spilled their guts.”
When faced with a mystery, and finding himself frustrated by stonewalling, Oakes reflected on what might be the most likely path the government would take, given its main problem (frustration in getting its legislative agenda through the Senate) and the means available to deal with that problem (an ambassadorial appointment of an obstructive Senator), and lighted on the Senator who had least to lose and most to gain from such an appointment (the repulsive and easily-bought Irish catholic Vince Gair). He then set out to test that hypothesis, craftily making his guess sound like certain knowledge when talking to those in on the secret.
His hypothesising and craft paid off. Well done Laurie!