Australian Politics

In a long career talking to and about politicians, I have learned one thing. While many fantasise about being prime minister, the key driver is to get close to the centre. Christopher Pyne captures this immediately in The Insider, comparing the political world to the solar system in which the skill is to know one’s place relative to the sun (the prime minister), and the aim is to get as close to the sun as possible. To be an insider, to know how things work, with privileged information that few others share, is the allure.

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Neal Blewett reviews three books on Kevin Rudd

Neal Blewett
Friday, 10 July 2020

The political assassination of Kevin Rudd will fascinate for a long time to come. As with Duncan’s murder in Shakespeare’s play it was done, as Lady Macbeth cautioned, under ‘the blanket of the dark’, literally the night of 23–24 June 2010. The assassins heeded Macbeth’s advice: ‘if it were done when ’tis done, then ’twere well it were done quickly.’ And as in Macbeth, the assassins were in the shadow of the throne. Even the old king approved: Bob Hawke, himself deposed in 1991, recognised at last that the removal of a Labor prime minister is sometimes necessary.

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Needless to say, yet needing to be said, Australia’s twenty-third prime minister, R.J.L. Hawke, emerges from this interesting, sometimes engrossing yet disconcerting book smelling like roses. When MUP decided to publish, it must have seemed like a good idea. Deployed on television, Bob and Blanche were a marketing dream. But the result has a fatal flaw; it neither enlarges Hawke as a political leader nor advances d’Alpuget as a writer.

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Queensland MP Charles Porter’s book, The ‘Gut Feeling’ (1981), relates the story of former prime minister Billy Hughes being pressed in the 1940s to pass judgement on a Liberal Federal Council statement on an industrial issue. ‘No bloody good,’ he pronounced. ‘Not sufficiently ambiguous!’ If, as Hughes implied, ambiguity is a key virtue needed for political survival, then by 2001 the Howard Liberal–National Party Government appeared to have embraced it. Indeed, any objective analysis of the Howard era is fraught with difficulties because of these two factors: the verbal, unrecorded nature of some political incidents, and the emotive left-versus-right culture war that marked John Howard’s prime ministership (1996–2007).

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Australians have a healthy appetite for political memoirs and biographies at a federal level. It is not only the scandal-ridden set of recent prime ministers with juicy details of political assassinations that sparks interest. The popularity of David Headon’s First Eight Project has demonstrated that the lives of Australia’s first national leaders are still a source of deep fascination. Even Earle Page, who only held the top job for nineteen days, is being rediscovered, thanks to Stephen Wilks’s 2017 PhD thesis from ANU. That Barnaby Joyce, one of Page’s distant successors as party leader, could secure a book contract speaks more to popular interest in federal leaders than to the quality of his prose.

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Malcolm Turnbull looks us straight in the eye from the cover of this handsome book, with just a hint of a smile. He looks calm, healthy, and confident; if there are scars from his loss of the prime ministership in August 2018, they don’t show. The book’s voice is the engaging one we heard when Turnbull challenged Tony Abbott in July 2015 and promised a style of leadership that respected people’s intelligence. He takes us from his childhood in a very unhappy marriage, through school and university, his astonishing successes in media, business, and the law, his entry into politics as the member for Wentworth, and ends with his exit from parliament.

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In Australia, debate about population runs in well-worn grooves. The focus is on size – ‘big Australia’ versus ‘not-so-big Australia’ – and the tool used to regulate numbers is immigration. When politicians link population growth to excessive house prices, traffic congestion, unemployment, or crime, they call for immigration cuts, not for birth control.

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There seem to be fewer post-election books doing the rounds after the 2019 federal campaign than has been the case in recent decades. Why is this? The 2019 campaign may have been achingly bland, but the result shocked pollsters, voters, and a news media that had long predicted a Labor win. Morrison’s ‘miracle’ victory is probably Australia’s most historically significant one since the last ‘unlosable’ election, back in 1993, when another cocksure opposition took its own ‘big target’ tax package to the people.

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The dismissal of the Whitlam government by the governor-general, Sir John Kerr, on 11 November 1975 was one of the most tumultuous and controversial episodes in Australian political history. The government had been elected on 2 December 1972 and returned at the May 1974 double dissolution, with Whitlam becoming the first Labor leader to achieve successive electoral victories.

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In the last twenty years, the belief in a transformative left – socialist, communist, whatever – has collapsed more comprehensively than at any time since its beginnings in 1789. The Western working class is overwhelmingly oriented towards individual life, acquisition and consumption; the working class of the developing world has not developed major radical parties in the face of substantial repression of trade union organisation; faith in central planning, market socialism, interconnected cooperatives and the like drained away in the late 1970s, and no alternative plan for running the economy is on the table. 

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