Host of Late Night Live on ABC Radio National and columnist in the Weekend Australian
Born in: Maryborough, Victoria
Friends: Paul Keating | Kevin Rudd | Bob Ellis | Barry Jones
Foes: Bob Hawke | Gerard Henderson
Home Town: Sydney
Phillip Adams is bearded, bald and undeniably brilliant. He's got the longest-running column in the national broadsheet, the top-rating program on ABC Radio National, and he's a perennial trendsetter. Adams embraced atheism at age five (despite being the son of a congregational minister), coined the term "corporate p-edophilia" and was one of the first Australians to warn of the threat posed by global warming. He sits on so many boards you'd have to chop down a forest to print his CV.
He's doesn't need us to tell him he's influential.
"I always was astonished at how easy it was to become influential," the left-wing crusader said in 2007. "I've never been powerful – that's a different phenomenon, you've got to have your hands on the levers. But I've had almost half a century now of a degree of influence."
He's also got a potty mouth.
"I'm so fucking tired I can hardly think," he says when The Power Index rings for a chat – only to regale us with a dizzying stream of jokes, anecdotes and razor-sharp observations.
It's a shame he hates going to dinner parties: he'd be a bloody good guest.
Adams' masterful use of the English language explains why he commands such respect – even among his ideological opponents. John Howard's famous plea for the ABC to unearth "a right-wing Phillip Adams" was a telling, if unintended, testament to his talents. Opposition Leader Tony Abbott is a big fan of his writing, as is right-wing columnist Janet Albrechtsen. Even Adams' arch enemy, Sydney Institute director Gerard Henderson, admits to enjoying his radio show.
"He is a brilliant writer," says Spectator Australia editor and former Liberal Party adviser Tom Switzer. "He's quirky, he's funny, he's on top of a wide range of issues. I think his radio program is outstanding.
"He's not influential in middle Australia or in the high-end public policy realm like [editor-at-large of The Australian] Paul Kelly is. However, he does give the red meat to his ideological base – that is, The Greens and the left of the Labor Party love him."
That's not to say he's universally loved by progressives. Indeed, Adams' greatest foes are his political bedfellows. Many in Labor – especially those on the Right – accuse him of clinging to romantic and outdated views. Bob Carr told Adams' biographer Philip Luker that he is prone to "smugness and predictability"; Bob Hawke described him as a "pain in the arse" and a "non-event as far as I am concerned".
Kevin Rudd, on the other hand, is a close mate and values his advice greatly. Adams was one of the first to spruik Rudd as a future Labor leader and was – so he tells us – the brains behind Rudd's 2006 The Monthly essay on faith and politics that helped make him a political superstar. Adams spoke on the phone with PM Rudd regularly, giving him better access than many cabinet members.
Now Rudd is gone and Adams' influence has diminished. He quit the Labor Party in disgust at Rudd's sacking in 2010 after five decades as an ALP member.
"John Faulkner and others have tried to persuade me to go back but rarely an hour passes when I don't think it was the right decision," he says, before joking that he's now a member of the Young Libs.
His decade-long campaign for refugee rights has crashed against the rocks of political reality; Julia Gillard is pushing ahead with a Malaysia people swap deal he slams as "gutless and immoral".
To win debates it's useful to know what your opponents are saying, but Adams says he doesn't read those he disagrees with – like Andrew Bolt or Janet Albrechtsen. And while Bolt & co. use every inch of column space to push a right-wing agenda, many of Adams' pieces concern whimsical topics like life on his Hunter Valley farm or his travels in China. The Australian's decision to drop his regular Tuesday political column at the end of 2008 has also pushed him further to the margins.
But it's not all bad news. The internet has exposed the 72-year-old to a new generation of listeners – his beloved "poddies". As well as the 350,000 people who tune in to Late Night Live every week, another 200,000 download the program every month.
Although he makes no effort to hide his opinions, Adams doesn't prosletise like the shock jocks do. What he does do is introduce new voices and issues – usually from overseas, and of a progressive bent – into our national conversation.
"We discuss abstract ideas," explains Adams. "It's not a political program. It's about ideas and being curious but it does, by ABC standards, pull a large audience. And the thing about them is that they're very smart. They're probably the most educated audience in the country."
Adams himself never had time for study: he left school at 15 (like his mate Paul Keating) and took up a job with one of the country's largest advertising agencies. At work he would plan campaigns for corporate clients such as Westpac and Myer; in his spare time he would pen articles for the Communist Guardian newspaper. He quickly became disillusioned with lining the pockets of the big end of town and decided to focus on "do good" advertising. It was Adams who devised the famous "Slip! Slop! Slap!" and "Life. Be in it" health campaigns.
He soon shifted into movie-making and did arguably more than anyone else to revive the Australian film industry during the 1970s. His debut feature, Jack and Jill was the first Australian film to win the Grand Prix at an international film festival; he also produced Aussie classics including The Adventures of Barry McKenzie, Don's Party and Hearts and Minds and played a key role in the creation of the Australian Film Commission, the Australian Film Television and Radio School and the Australia Council.
You don't achieve such success without a fire in your belly: Adams is a man used to getting his way. "He doesn't suffer fools and he doesn't mind putting people in their place if he thinks they deserve it," says a veteran Radio National insider. In 2001, two senior managers – under pressure from the ABC board – threatened to cut his show from eight hours a week to two. Adams fired off a six-page account of the exchange to ABC chairman Donald McDonald and his mate Bob Ellis roped in an army of supporters to protest the plan. The show remained unchanged.
He was furious when journalist Philip Luker wrote about his private life in a biography published this year, and fired off emails to publishers asking them not to print the book. "He did try to hurt me," Luker says. "He was quite willing to use his power to stop me publishing the book."
Adams has been dogged by health problems of late – a virus he caught two years ago in East Timor still lingers – but he sees no reason why he can't keep writing, broadcasting and agitating until well into his 80s.
"I find it infinitely interesting," he says. "I'm not going to stop doing it until I die at the mic."