World Leaders

Scott Morrison has now been prime minister longer than any of his four predecessors: Kevin Rudd, Julia Gillard, Tony Abbott, or Malcolm Turnbull. He has won one election by the skin of his teeth and faces another by May next year. So what sort of man is he and how good a prime minister? These three publications give us slightly different takes on these questions.

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John Howard has long been concerned with countering what he regards as the domination of Australian historical writing by the left. His project was initiated before he gained the prime ministership, most notably in his Menzies Lecture of 1996, in which he claimed that most of the distinctiveness and achievements of Australian politics were grounded in the liberal tradition. It continued during the ‘history wars’ from 1996 to 2007 – a subsidiary element in his largely successful attempt to reshape the contemporary understanding of liberal individualism. His massive new book on Menzies and his times is the summa of this enterprise.

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My Story by Julia Gillard

by
December 2014, no. 367

Much like her government, Julia Gillard’s memoir resembles the proverbial curate’s egg. Where her passions are involved, as with education (‘Our Children’) or the fair work laws, we are provided with a compelling policy read. Where they are not, as in large slabs of foreign policy, the insightful competes with the pedestrian, enlivened admittedly with her personal talents in handling the great and the good – handballing a football with Barack Obama in the Oval Office, for instance. A chapter on ‘Our Queen’ and the republic is rather jejune, though Gillard has a nice line on changes in the royal succession as providing ‘equal rights for sheilas’. The fact that ‘every prediction the departments of Treasury and Finance ever made about government revenue turned out to be wrong’ makes for dispiriting reading on fiscal matters.

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Susan Mitchell’s fifteenth book is a biography of the Whitlams, published shortly before Gough’s death in November. As a broadcaster, journalist, and author who has examined the lives of prominent Australian women, Mitchell tells the story mainly from Margaret’s perspective. This is not surprising: Mitchell had already amassed a huge body of research for her book Margaret Whitlam: A Biography (2006), and had known her since the late 1970s. And, compared to his frank and affable wife, Gough was less willing to share his personal recollections.

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Gough Whitlam was fond of replying to requests for interviews from historians by saying that all the answers could be found in the archives. ‘Go to the documents, comrade’, was his refrain. However, official documents rarely tell the whole story, particularly those from the modern era, whose authors are conscious that their words could so easily be exposed to public scrutiny. In particular, they are usually bereft of the innermost thoughts and motivations of the politicians and public servants. By contrast, politicians’ diaries can be goldmines. Written contemporaneously, an unguarded diary entry can transform our understanding of people and events.

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A remarkable feature of the concept of political leadership is its apparently infinite elasticity: it stretches over presidents and prime ministers, dictators and popes, revolutionaries and reformers. Take the concept beyond politics, and its reach effortlessly expands to include business executives, platoon commanders, primary school principals, the captain of the cricket team, and many more. But is it useful, or even accurate, to describe all these figures as ‘leaders’ given they, and the entities they lead, have almost nothing in common? Are they really comparable as leaders?

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For countries, and none so important to Australia, have a political system as opaque as that of China. This is deliberate; since the turmoil of the Cultural Revolution, the Communist Party of China (CPC) has striven to make turnovers in its leadership as bland as possible. But the elevation of the country’s current ‘Fifth Generation’ Leadership was actually full of drama. The New Emperors, written by Kerry Brown, director of the China Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, tells us why.

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This book is long overdue. It is eighty years since affable Joseph Lyons, often depicted by cartoonists as a koala, was elected as Australia’s tenth prime minister. He would be re-elected twice before dying in office in April 1939. During his seven years as prime minister, Lyons had to grapple with the Depression ...

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Don Watson sits low in his chair, shy and silent when faced with a group of university administrators gathered to hear him talk about management speak – those weasel words that Watson has hunted down with grim enthusiasm. He speaks hesitantly at first, struggling to recall examples of misleading expression, evasive phrases, dishonest communication. Soon the rhythm quickens. There is indignation now in the voice, derision anew at the decay of public language. The speaker rocks forward, ranging more widely as he explains the link between thought and expression. Jargon hides intentions. Clichés abandon serious engagement with an issue. This is not the pedant’s obsession with grammar, but anger when the contest of ideas is undermined by impenetrable language.

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Tariq Ali, proclaims the Guardian, ‘has been a leading figure of the international left since the 60s’. If his latest book is the best the left can muster, I fear that its chances of influencing political debate are minimal – and, even worse, undesirable.

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