Frank Bongiorno

Quo vadis, Australia?

by Joy Damousi et al.
July 2022, no. 444

Following the recent federal election, we invited several senior contributors and commentators to nominate one key policy, direction, or reform they hope the Albanese government will pursue.

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When Scott Morrison called the federal election in early April, he did so on an apologetic note: ‘I get it that people are tired of politics.’ This was a predictable gesture from the prime minister: his term has been marked by a series of controversies that have raised many questions about his capacity to lead on some of the country’s most pressing issues, though relatively few about his skill in internal party politics.

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Earlier this year, Ray Hadley was interviewing Scott Morrison on 2GB when the subject turned to the internal preselection battles of the Liberal Party in New South Wales. ‘And so it’s time for those who, you know, don’t do this for a living, to really allow those who really need to get on for the sake of the Australian people here,’ Morrison declared, none too coherently.

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The brief and unpretentious biography of Noel Pearson on the dust jacket of Mission: Essays, speeches and ideas describes him as ‘a lawyer, activist and founder of the Cape York Institute’. Although surely accurate, this gives little indication of the stature this remarkable man has assumed in Australian public life over the past thirty years. If Pearson is an activist, it is of an unusual kind: one who has combined the roles of insider and outsider, agitator and wonk, intellectual and politician, in highly original and productive ways.

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To write of Herbert Vere Evatt (1894–1965) is to venture into a land where opinions are rarely held tentatively. While many aspects of his career have been controversial, his actions during the famous Split of 1955 arouse the most passionate criticism. Evatt is attacked, not only on the political right but frequently from within the Labor Party itself, for his alleged role in causing the catastrophic rupture that kept Labor out of office until 1972.

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David Kemp, formerly professor of politics at Monash University and minister in the Howard government, has a fairly simple thesis about Australian politics in the years between the mid-1920s and the mid-1960s. Put crudely, Australians were offered a choice between socialism and liberalism.

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In the mid-1990s, the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade paid me to research the year 1948. Although a little narrowly conceived for my liking, it wasn’t a bad job for a recently graduated PhD in history. I lasted a year. Most days I would head to the National Archives of Australia, then nestled among the panel beaters and porn shops of a Canberra industrial estate. My task was to work through departmental files, identifying and photocopying the most promising candidates for inclusion in a series of published foreign policy documents. The idea was that the general editor, a formidable old historian with a large corner office back in the city, would then select the documents to be included. The job itself, or at least the way it was organised, was itself redolent of an industrial world that was flourishing in 1948 and on its last legs by 1995. Indeed, I recall a demonstration in the department that very year of a newfangled thing called the World Wide Web. I took away from the demonstration that it was the internet with fancy pictures.

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In the frantic days after the recent US presidential election, Donald Trump’s team – led by his attorney Rudy Giuliani – held a media conference in a suburban Philadelphia carpark. The establishment that formed the backdrop to this unusual performance is called Four Seasons Total Landscaping. Neighbouring businesses included a crematorium and an adult entertainment store (soon translated on social media into a ‘dildo shop’). At the time of writing, the explanation for how this had happened is still not forthcoming, but most commentators assumed a mix-up with one of the city’s major hotels, also called Four Seasons.

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John Curtin and James Scullin occupy very different places in whatever collective memory Australians have of their prime ministers. On the occasions that rankings of prime ministers have been published, Curtin invariably appears at or near the top. When researchers at Monash University in 2010 produced such a ranking based on a survey of historians and political scientists, Curtin led the pack, with Scullin rated above only Joseph Cook, Arthur Fadden, and Billy McMahon. Admittedly, this ranking was produced before anyone had ever thought of awarding an Australian knighthood to Prince Philip, but the point is clear enough: Curtin rates and Scullin does not.

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In July 1924, a Tasmanian senator from the conservative Nationalist Party, Herbert Payne, introduced a bill to bring about compulsory voting in Australian national elections. His proposal aroused little discussion. Debate in both the Senate and the House of Representatives – where another forgotten politician ...

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