John Button

It is usually sports fans and politicians who are uncharitably accused of being biased. The new British prime minister, Gordon Brown, is literally one-eyed. He was blinded in both eyes in his youth as a result of an accident playing rugby. Part of the treatment for his blindness required him to lie still in a darkened room for six months. It half worked, and he recovered his sight in one eye. Asked about this experience some years later, Brown said that he had felt ashamed, lying there doing nothing, when the only thing he had wrong with him was that he had lost his sight. This sounds Scottish Presbyterian (which he was) and stoical, which he must be to have survived eleven years as heir apparent to the ebullient Tony Blair. Brown and his predecessor are very different kinds of men. The Conservative MP Boris Johnson captured some of these differences in an article in the Spectator, in which he referred to Blair’s humour and ‘passion with a sense of optimism’. With the arrival of Gordon Brown, ‘a gloomy Scotch mist has descended on Westminster’.

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The Victorian Premiers 1856–2006 edited by Paul Strangio and Brian Costar

by
February 2007, no. 288

Gough Whitlam was sometimes naughty. Descending in a crowded lift from a conference attended by a number of state parliamentary delegates, he looked down on his fellow passengers and growled ‘pissant state politicians’. It was the sort of remark he liked to get off his chest. In a more deliberative mood, Whitlam, in his 1957 Chifley Memorial Lecture, wrote of state parliamentarians in the following terms: ‘Much can be achieved by Labor members of the state parliaments in effectuating Labor’s aims of more effective powers for the national parliament and for local government. Their role is to bring about their own dissolution.’ These remarks reflect a widespread dissatisfaction with Australia’s ‘colonial’ constitution and with the division of powers between the three tiers of government. The Whitlam government favoured increased powers and responsibilities for both Canberra and local government.

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Selling books is a difficult business. Publishing, too. Booksellers and publishers need courage and imagination. A book about a contemporary Federal politician with the adjective ‘new’ in the title displays both these qualities. Tony Blair may have got away with ‘New Labour’ in Britain. In Australia, a large part of the disenchantment with politics and politicians stems from the feeling that, apart from the fresh face of Natasha Stott-Despoja, there’s nothing new around; no new ideas, no articulated vision of where the country might be in ten or twenty years’ time, nothing inspirational. Perhaps something might emerge before the next election. But no one’s holding their breath. All the signs, surveys, focus groups, radio talk-backs, flirtations with maverick independents show that Australians are looking for something better from Canberra. And they have vestigial hope. So the word ‘new’ in the title is not so stupid after all. It’s based on the theory that hope usually triumphs over experience. People might buy the book hoping for the revelation of a ‘new Liberal’.

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Since the Federal Parliament moved to the house on the hill, the rose garden on the Senate side of the Old Parliament House has been neglected and uncared for. Escapism, from parliament, from Canberra, from the intensity and claustrophobia of being locked up in a remote building, has always been a secret ambition of most politicians during parliamentary sittings. The rose garden used to be a beautiful and tranquil place to enjoy a reflective half-hour. On special days, like the opening of parliament, a military band would play in a marquee, and politicians, parliamentary staff and invited guests would stroll on the lawns, enjoying the music, an atmosphere of easy-going irrelevance, and the roses. It was like a scene from the last days of the Raj, filmed by Bertolucci.

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