Peter Rees

Where would Australian publishers and bookshops be without popular military history? Door-stoppers with their green-and-brown dust jackets that shout ‘epic’ and ‘Anzac’, ‘hell’ and ‘tragedy’, might be less lucrative than cooking, diet, and self-help books, but they are up there with cricket memoirs and true crime. Where would we book-buyers be without them? They are a reliable standby when it is time to wrap another birthday or Christmas gift for that uncle, grandfather, or brother-in-law who likes to read and once marched off to war, or who is simply a recognisable product of that lost world that once did such things.

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In February 1996, as Australians prepared to elect the Howard government for the first time, Paul Keating addressed a trade union rally at the Melbourne Town Hall. Keating, knowing but not accepting that he would soon be ejected from the prime ministership, ran through a commentary on the leading figures in the Liberal–National coalition. Keating’s message was that these people were second-rate and would disgrace Australia if they won power. In reference to the National Party leader, Tim Fischer, Keating attracted a big laugh when he averred: ‘You know what they say – no sense, no feeling.’ Keating, who had previously described Fischer as ‘basically illiterate’, regarded his opponent as a joke. He was not alone. There were worries about whether Fischer would be up to the task of holding down a senior ministry, especially his chosen portfolio of trade, and of serving as acting prime minister when John Howard was ill or out of the country.

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