Sir Hilary Bray from On Her Majesty’s Secret Service, the inspiration for Christian Kerr’s nom de plume (Image: Supplied)

Christian Kerr and I had both been parliamentary advisers, him for the in the ’90s and me for the Democrats from 1994 to 2000. We probably met at the time, but if so I don’t recall.

When Hillary Bray exploded on to the scene with Crikey, like many who had been deep in the political and media world, I was fascinated. I knew the characters and many of the events Bray was writing about. Not all of it, but enough to know how devastatingly accurate it was. The insight and accountability Bray created with a gossip column was extraordinary and it was the must-read on every publication of Crikey.

I sent him the odd piece of info, either to correct or expand on something, and we started an email correspondence — not so much over the politics, but over the policy. We shared a hope for policy reform and frustration about policy deform and were probably both surprised by how much we agreed, considering I am centre left and he was a unique kind of centre right.

We both hated blind ideology, craven responses and stupidity. We both still bought Mad magazine and enjoyed reading (though not always agreeing with) Christopher Hitchens.  

Of course we were at odds over a number of things. I was more forgiving of the , and we had differing views on some environment, economic and foreign policy matters. I was interested to hear his perspectives and learnt quite a bit from him, and I like to think I evolved or changed his thinking on some issues as well.

After I became a journalist, we exchanged infrequent emails over the years and one day I asked him who he really was and said I’d be interested to do the story. He wrote back to say if he would tell anyone it would be me and one day, when he was ready, he would. I was immensely surprised by this as he knew so many journos and asked why. He simply said he trusted me to be fair and that I understood.

We kept in touch and one day he started to tease me with clues about who he was. The clues were quite cryptic and fun to follow. I had to dig back through some documents and check in a few books we had in common. I narrowed it down to two people and he asked me to guess. I didn’t know either name well and picked the wrong one and he said: “Oh Susan!”

He sent his phone number and we talked about his background, motivation for being Hillary and motivation for coming out and not being Hillary any more. He needed to kill Hillary off to be himself again as he didn’t know where Hillary stopped and started any more. I said when he was ready I would check with an editor I thought would do the story justice and call back. He knew there would be a considerable flurry when it came out and there would be a lot of recriminations.  

When he was ready, I wrote to Moira O’Brien-Malone who was editor of The Sunday Age at the time. She was excited to get the story and we talked it through. Christian trusted me, and I trusted her.

During the interviews I scribbled furiously and, given word limits, relatively little went in, but I’ll always remember being ever more interested in the depth to which Christian could go on so many topics — from self-determination for Australians to European history to French cuffs. I was also impressed by his bravery. Behind the too-often alcohol-fuelled Hillary rants or gossipy tidbits, there was so much anger at the decline of his beloved small l Liberals, their increasing use of wedge politics, and the decreasing intellectualism behind a joined-up policy architecture.

Moira organised a photographer to take pictures. It was the first time I had seen his face and I remember thinking there was pain behind his eyes and a quiet strength in his body and stance.

Christian didn’t ask to see a draft before the story ran. He was resolved to let the cards fall where they may.

After the story was published and some of the craziness died down, we met in Brisbane and spent a long afternoon together. I’ll never forget the kindness and blueness of those eyes. And he was so tall. He wore a black leather jacket and jeans with a quiet confidence. He had a presence.  

A few months later I moved to Europe and we kept in contact over the years. I watched his rise as a mainstream journalist and he wrote to me when he was being boxed out. We exchanged over fabric motifs, American politics, ice cream, his love of speaking French. He wanted to move to Geneva, but didn’t because he wanted to stay close to his kids. His daughter and I shared a birthday. On my last trip in 2019 we were set to meet in Lygon Street but his inner-ear and balance problem floored him at the last minute so we had an arrangement to meet on my next one. Or over here. I’m incredibly sad that won’t happen.

Christian was complex; he was not always right or easy, but was always in public a fearless contrarian. He set a fire in Australian politics and created a form of accountability which lit up many dark corners. He had more self-doubt than many realised. He loved his kids with a heart and pride the size of the universe. He had brilliant taste in music. He had a deep humanity and he suffered a lot for his , hunger for knowledge and strong values.

When he was suffering a lot physically, I wrote to him in 2019 to say I was going to Lourdes. I said I was an imperfect vessel being an atheist, but knowing he was a very devout Catholic asked if he would like me to say a prayer for him. He came back with: “Would appreciate that very much Susan. Just three key words, please. If I could be granted health, strength and wisdom.”

The prayer sums up who he was and why so many of us who knew him will miss him so much. He was always looking for more and better, and thinking he could and should do better.