Australian Politics

At the time of writing, Julian Assange – an Australian citizen – is detained at Her Majesty’s Prison Belmarsh in Thamesmead on the outskirts of London. Belmarsh is a high-security facility; Assange’s fellow inmates are terrorists, murderers, and rapists. The WikiLeaks founder is being held in solitary confinement, permitted out of his cell for just one hour each day. His crime? Assange is awaiting the outcome of extradition proceedings, in relation to charges brought against him by the US government. In 2019, he was indicted on one count of computer hacking and seventeen counts of violating the Espionage Act (1917) for his role in obtaining and publishing military and diplomatic documents in 2010.

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It is not surprising that a book on the politicisation of intelligence in Australia should begin and end by referring to the invasion of Iraq in 2003. For many Australians, that episode will long remain the classic example of the misuse of intelligence for partisan political purposes, in sharp contrast to the ideal that intelligence analysts should speak truth to power, giving policymakers their unvarnished assessments, rather than telling them what they want to hear.

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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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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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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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