Having fun with Bob Hawke, driving a Gandhi and not getting lost in Canberra - 50 years of Comcar secrets

Tony Harriott as he retires from driving COMCARs after 50 years. Picture: Elesa Kurtz
Tony Harriott as he retires from driving COMCARs after 50 years. Picture: Elesa Kurtz

Since 1971, Tony Harriott has been earning a crust driving cars and keeping secrets.

He's created a safe space as he has driven prime ministers, parliamentarians, world leaders, governors-general, High Court justices, defence chiefs and their families.

Now after 50 years on Canberra's roads, Mr Harriott has closed the door of his last Comcar and a remarkable career. He is Australia's longest serving Comcar driver and likely the last of a generation that will clock up 50 years.

"It's time to go. One must start another life. If I can say that. I'm looking forward to it," he told The Canberra Times.

"I just had a wonderful time."

High office holders can't drive themselves. Well mostly. And they mostly don't when in the capital and they attend federal parliament.

It is a specialised driving job that is required mainly in parliamentary sitting weeks. The car becomes an extension of the office. Or it is a getaway. Deals are clinched. Secrets are spilled. There's connection with loved ones. Briefings. Interviews. Strategies. Stuff-ups. Silence.

That's where the agency, Comcar, comes in.

Comcar promises "high quality, secure and confidential" cars. The driver is a security guard as much as a navigator and chauffeur. When the doors close and windows are up, the car is its own island.

"Well, what you hear, stays in the car. You don't repeat it at all," he said.

"There's a lot of things I never even told my wife that went on. Top secret stuff. You just didn't repeat anything because you can get yourself in big trouble."

Tony Harriott waiting to pick up Bob Hawke at The Lodge in 1989. Picture: Supplied

Tony Harriott waiting to pick up Bob Hawke at The Lodge in 1989. Picture: Supplied

But he has been privy to some extraordinary conversations, especially in the early days.

"A minister would order a car and he would come down the steps at Old Parliament House, he and his other person who was with him, and they would get in the car and talk about whatever," he revealed.

"I would just turn off by concentrating on driving, but he'd say 'oh can you go for a drive for half an hour or so while we have a bit of a talk' because he was out of the House away from journos. That suited me fine. I'd take him for a drive and hear nothing, say nothing."

Tony Harriott was 24 years old when he first signed up to Comcar and took the wheel of a Ford Galaxie. The prime minister was Liberal leader Billy McMahon and Labor's Gough Whitlam was on the ascendancy.

No mobile phones. No sat-nav. Working up to 16 hours a day driving dignitaries around Canberra.

Unsurprisingly, the best advice he got was "be careful where you pull up" and "don't get lost".

"I was only very young then and I sort of looked for the older drivers for a little bit of how shall I say? share the knowledge with them which they were very good at," Mr Harriott said.

"They would say 'this is the way we would do it' and 'maybe next time you can do it this way' and those sort of things.

"Over the years it would just come natural. You didn't sort of worry about too many situations."

Bob Hawke, pictured with Princess Diana in 1983, was the first prime minister Tony Harriott drove for. Picture: Getty Images

Bob Hawke, pictured with Princess Diana in 1983, was the first prime minister Tony Harriott drove for. Picture: Getty Images

The 1986 visit of Indian prime minister Rajiv Gandhi was tense. Mr Harriott was driving around a world leader who had lost his mother, prime minister Indira Gandhi, through assassination two years earlier and he himself was under under a credible threat.

"There was a few problems there. Everything was kept under control, but it was a bit scary at the time," he said.

"It wasn't that long after he went back that he was assassinated and we had seen films of things that have happened overseas. There was [in the films] small sort of bombs and they'd just blow up a car and throw them over the roof. It was a little bit scary, but the police assured us that things would be pretty good.

"They said 'well, if you're not happy you can walk away from this and we will not hold it against you'. Nobody walked away. We're all there for the experience I suppose you could say."

Mr Harriott has driven a who's who of a golden age of Australian politics. He drove Kim Beazley as defence minister for 10 months and he become close to him and his family. There's Liberal minister Michael Hodgman from Tasmania, Labor powerbroker Graham Richardson, Mick Young, Tom Uren, Fred Daly, High Court Justices Gerard Brennan and William Deane - the latter later became governor-general.

He wasn't assigned a prime minister until one day there was a surprise job with Bob Hawke. Keeping discretion, he will go so far as to say he had "fun with Mr Hawke".

"It was pretty amazing really," he said. "I'd driven Mrs Hawke for a little while and then the PM's driver wanted the night off so I took over. That was a little bit scary, but he made things very comfortable for you.

"And you know he was just very pleasant in the car. He knew what was my first day and he made sure I enjoyed it.

"Hawke and [Paul] Keating I both drove. I have seen the nicer side of Hawke and Keating. The family man, little things that happened at The Lodge. Just what normal people would do."

It is Mr Hawke's then-wife Hazel Hawke who left Tony Harriott with the biggest impression.

"Mrs Hawke was something special," he said.

Hazel Hawke left an impression on Tony Harriott. Picture: Getty Images

Hazel Hawke left an impression on Tony Harriott. Picture: Getty Images

The memory overwhelms him. The 1980s don't seem that far away and his protective role kicks in again.

"She was just, just a lovely woman to have in the car," Mr Harriott recounts.

"We seem to get on pretty well together. And you weren't only the driver, sometimes you were the security officer as well. She was special.

"She was just a normal person. Just made you feel at home and felt comfortable in the car with her. Yeah, it was just a good time."

He also enjoyed driving the Keating family and seeing the other side of prime minister Keating.

"I know some people that didn't like him and they would say 'how can you drive him?' And I would say 'well, I have seen the nice side of him.' [After picking up the Keating children] Paul would be standing on the back step waiting for you to come home."

Mr Harriott drove father and son Labor MPs - Joel Fitzgibbon and his late-father - the preceding federal member for Hunter, Eric Fitzgibbon.

"Tony is your quintessential Australian and a model public servant," Mr Fitzgibbon told The Canberra Times.

"Professional, competent, friendly, good humoured and discrete. Most of all, he's an all-round good bloke. I'll miss him and I look forward to the book."

It is extremely rare for anyone to do 50 years in one job, let alone in the high pressure environment of federal politics. There's a casualisation of the Comcar workforce and Tony Harriott reckons the money isn't there as the basis of a career.

We are indebted to you and we thank you. You symbolise the great work that all Comcar drivers do for all of us.

Labor Leader Anthony Albanese

He is held in such high regard that several parliamentary motions were made upon news of his retirement, leaving his name now enshrined in Hansard.

Days before losing his position in the Nationals leadership spill, the then-deputy prime minister Michael McCormack paid this tribute.

"It's a big effort," he told parliament. "Five decades in any job is a remarkable achievement, but 50 years serving the parliament and its custodians is more than an achievement; it's an act of faith in our democracy."

Labor Leader Anthony Albanese also got to his feet for Mr Harriott.

"Comcar drivers are famously among the most discreet people on earth, and all of us rely upon that," the Federal Opposition Leader told parliament.

"The member for Fenner, your local member, asked you a question about your experience, and you responded with just this statement: 'We had some fun with Hawke.' I bet you did, Tony!

"I hope you had fun and a great experience with so many more of us. We are indebted to you and we thank you. You symbolise the great work that all Comcar drivers do for all of us."

Now in full retirement, Tony Harriott has handed back the Comcar keys and is headed to the golf course.

Driving himself of course.

This story Secrets of a Comcar driver first appeared on The Canberra Times.

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