Mungo MacCallum

Tim Bowden, ABC journalist and historian, hosted a television program called BackChat between 1987 and 1994. Viewers could write in with their comments on Aunty’s offerings. One correspondent criticised the Rob Sitch-inspired spoof of the commercial current affairs programs, Frontline ...

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The 2010 federal election fell on my wife’s birthday: 21 August. Being political tragics, we didn’t stop for birthday cake. Instead, we handed out roughly 1600 how-to-vote cards for the Australian Labor Party in suburban Melbourne. Our local polling booth is the Vista Valley Kindergarten, in Bulleen. This kindergarten cum polling booth, which sits in more of a gully than a valley and offers no vistas, is located in the north-eastern corner of the electorate of Menzies, held by ultraconservative Liberal frontbencher Kevin Andrews. The battle for Vista Valley mirrored the national poll. In the Vista Valley count, the ALP’s primary vote collapsed, the Greens’ soared, more people voted informal than backed Family First, yet, thanks to the preferences of Greens voters, Labor fell across the line by four votes.

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Exit Right by Judith Brett & Poll Dancing by Mungo MacCallum

by
February 2008, no. 298

Since the November federal election, kicking John Howard while he’s down has become something of a national pastime. While Howard’s take no-prisoners-except-on-Nauru behaviour has now exposed him to gleeful mass taunting, the idea that the end of his resilient political career has instantly created a noble Australia, its citizens and institutions cleansed and renew ed, is wishful thinking. In this context, Judith Brett’s new Quarterly Essay injects some welcome clear-headedness. Brett rains blows on Howard, but she is not a Howard-hater in the counterproductive and grandiose style of, say, Phillip Adams. Instead, she takes aim at the former prime minister in a characteristically nuanced and astute way. She bridges a gap – too often in Australia, a gulf – between scholars and interested laypeople, offering prose that is accessible and lively but that avoids dumbing down complex issues.

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By the time I arrived in Canberra in the late 1970s, Mungo MacCallum was already a legend in his own lunchtime, which, as he admits in this latest book, ‘frequently dragged on towards sunset’. He was famed for introducing a new style of political journalism into Australia: irreverent, opinionated, witty, at times scurrilous. He was impatient of cant, and punctured pomposity. These qualities are all apparent in Mungo: The Man Who Laughs. It is avowedly neither autobiography nor history. It is an odd hybrid, divided distinctly into two parts: a set of autobiographical sketches devoted to his early life, laced with politics and laughter; and a personalised chronicle of the age of Gough Whitlam.

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It seems strange to describe Diamond Jim McClelland as, really, rather an old-fashioned man. Few septuagenarians have anything like his energy, his forthrightness, his optimism, or, most of all, his receptivity to new ideas. But if there is a continuous thread in his extraordinarily full and complex life, it can probably be best summed up as a very untrendy, passionate commitment to morality. The catch is that his ideas of what constitutes morality – or at least what is the best way of achieving it – have gone from here to there and back again.

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