Australian Politics

‘In fifty years’ time,’ Robert Haupt and Michelle Grattan write in 31 Days to Power. ‘historians will look at the 1983 elections, see that inflation, unemployment and interest rates were at high levels compared to the past, and conclude that Fraser could never have won’.

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I will always remember the first time I heard Kim Beazley Sr speak. It was at Kingswood College at the University of Western Australia, a year or two before the election of the Whitlam government. He spoke on the question of Aboriginal land rights, culture and spirituality. It was a spellbinding address which put the sword to the prevailing doctrine of assimilation. It wasn’t just the content of the speech which captured the interest of the student audience but the passion with which it was delivered. Like many there, my own thinking on the subject changed forever.

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Australian conservatism, for all its political dominance, is little understood and has been studied by surprisingly few scholars. The very industrious and perceptive Peter van Onselen is almost single-handedly determined to correct this imbalance. He has brought together a timely collection of essays on the Liberal Party and its future, coinciding with yet another term in unaccustomed opposition, an experience invariably chastising for the conservatives. The immediate predecessors to the modern-day Liberal Party on the non-Labor side of politics disintegrated on losing office, and the Liberal Party’s own spells in opposition have been periods of both blood-letting and soul searching. There is a happy focus (for the Liberal Party, at least) on the latter in this necessarily mixed bag.

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Those who have hopes or fears of a Reagan–Thatcher hardline conservatism arising in Australia can forget it, if this newest attempt by the local ‘right’ to define itself is any guide. For a major topic, it is a listless, sickly growth from Australia’s whiggish soil that struggles – mostly unsuccessfully – for anything new to say.

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No Australian feminist is likely to forget the moment when Germaine Greer appeared on Q&A and declared that our first female prime minister should wear different jackets to hide her ‘big arse’. Greer, of course, has blotted her copybook many times before and since, but if we needed proof that a woman leader could not catch a break in this country, here was Australia’s most celebrated feminist joining in the new national pastime of hurling sexist invective at the prime minister.

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If journalism is the first draft of history, this book is a rough-hewn draft of some important historical chunks. Greg Sheridan, the foreign editor of The Australian, may not match some of his colleagues there in gravitas, intellectual depth, or analytical precision, but he compensates with an abundance of enthusiasm and enviable access to those in high office. In the early and mid-1990s, when The Australian was prominent among those boosting Asia and Australian–Asian relations, Sheridan was cheerleader for the boosters. His columns and books were often based on long interviews with presidents and foreign ministers, recounted in a tone more often found in celebrity journalism than in diplomatic reports. Sheridan’s obvious delight at being granted personal interviews with the powerful aroused some envious comments, but his technique served a purpose.

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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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