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Patrick Mullins

Books of the Year 2023

by Kerryn Goldsworthy et al.
December 2023, no. 460

What the authors of these three wildly different books share is a gift for creating through language a kind of intimacy of presence, as though they were in the room with you. Emily Wilson’s much-awaited translation of The Iliad (W.W. Norton & Company) is a gorgeous, hefty hardback with substantial authorial commentary that manages to be both scholarly and engaging. The poem is translated into effortless-looking blank verse that reads like music. The Running Grave (Sphere) by Robert Galbraith (aka J.K. Rowling), the seventh novel in the Cormoran Strike crime series and one of the best so far, features Rowling’s gift for the creation of memorable characters and a cracking plot about a toxic religious cult. Charlotte Wood’s Stone Yard Devotional (Allen & Unwin, reviewed in this issue of ABR) lingers in the reader’s mind, with the haunting grammar of its title, the restrained artistry of its structure, and the elusive way that it explores modes of memory, grief, and regret.

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When the first season of Aaron Sorkin’s Newsroom premièred in Australia in 2012, Foxtel had its own onscreen news talent cut a series of promos. A bevy of ageless news anchors – all dense hairdos and blazing white teeth – talked admiringly of how the series portrayed their profession. Journalism, in their telling, was fast-paced, often self-righteous, occasionally fallible, but ultimately always a noble occupation that served the public’s interest. Leigh Sales’s new book, Storytellers, follows a similar line, with the content and even the cover art – a black and white photo of Sales at her news desk, shot from behind, à la Will McAvoy – evincing the same reverence for journalism. Implicitly, too, there is the same nostalgia for the days when everything was just a bit more straightforward.

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In 1968, Rupert Murdoch was one step from acquiring his first international media holding, in the British tabloid The News of the World. That Murdoch was so close was a personal coup, given that his press ownership had begun sixteen years earlier with a much-diminished inheritance, largely based in Adelaide. To pull off the News of the World acquisition, however, Murdoch needed government approval to transfer $10 million Australian offshore. Speed, secrecy, and surety were pivotal, and in search of all three Murdoch went to John McEwen, the deputy prime minister and leader of the Country Party. The two had an enduring bond: McEwen had helped Murdoch buy his grazing station and family bolthole, Cavan, and when McEwen was appointed acting prime minister after the death of Harold Holt in 1967, Murdoch had argued in The Australian that McEwen should be prime minister in his own right. Now, in 1968, McEwen took Murdoch to the prime minister, John Gorton, who was also familiar with the young press baron. Gorton had briefly been lined up to work for Murdoch’s father in the 1930s and owed something of his present job now to the influence Murdoch had wielded when it became clear that McEwen could not remain prime minister.

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The Morrison Government: Governing through crisis, 2019-2022 edited by Brendan McCaffrie, Michelle Grattan and Chris Wallace

by
June 2023, no. 454

In June 1971, Sir John Bunting, secretary of the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet, observed that new prime minister Billy McMahon was ‘the most political of all politicians’: demanding, difficult, always reacting to new, feverish urgencies. The result, according to Bunting, was constant crisis. ‘In fact,’ he went on, ‘I have come to look forward to each new crisis because it is the only way I have discovered of being able to be rid of the existing one.’

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In early March 2023, Tanya Plibersek fronted an audience at the Australian National University to question historian Chris Wallace about her newly released account of twentieth-century prime ministers and their biographers. Coming shortly before the publication of Margaret Simons’s biography of her, Plibersek’s interest in the dynamics of writing about a living, breathing, vote-seeking politician seemed prompted by more than mere professional courtesy. ‘It’s like building a golem, in the shape of a person, in a way, isn’t it?’ she remarked. ‘And then you’re putting magic into it and animating it. It comes out of the mud.’

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Lachlan Murdoch will almost certainly be the next head of News Corp, one of the world’s largest media companies and the dominant force in Australia’s media landscape. In this week’s ABR Podcast, Patrick Mullins, visiting fellow at the ANU’s National Centre of Biography, reviews a new biography of Lachlan Murdoch by Paddy Manning, titled The Successor: The high-stakes life of Lachlan Murdoch. Listen to Mullins read ‘Dual Focus’, which appears in the December issue of ABR.

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In the 1990s, seeing a ‘hot-red weapon’ of a motorbike being ridden into the News Corp car park in Sydney, journalist Paddy Manning could not help but ask, ‘What’s that?’ Still wearing his helmet, the rider answered that the bike was an MV Agusta – at which point Manning realised he had yelled at Lachlan Murdoch.

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Since his (involuntary) retirement from politics in 2007, John Howard has gone to some lengths to encourage comparisons with Robert Menzies. He authored a lengthy paean to Australia’s longest serving prime minister (2014), appeared in a television series to appraise his leadership and era (2016), and curated an exhibition on him at the Museum of Australian Democracy. And while he does not don the knightly robes that Menzies did on the cover of his volume of essays, The Measure of the Years (1970), Howard does ape Ming’s serene, far-seeing gaze on the dust jacket of this, his third book, A Sense of Balance.

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When out of government, the Coalition parties resemble nothing so much as an ill-disciplined horde, by turns bombastic and bilious, riven with discord, forever tearing down putative leaders and searching for scapegoats to explain their losses and lot. The blame almost always falls on the departed. In the 1980s, it was Malcolm Fraser’s unwillingness to undertake proper economic reform that they most decried; after 2007, it was John Howard’s refusal to relinquish the leadership to Peter Costello. In Aaron Patrick’s new book, Ego, the blame is laid not at the feet of Scott Morrison, as might have been expected, but at those of Malcolm Turnbull.

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Curators at old Parliament House – now known as the Museum for Australian Democracy – have for many years maintained the prime minister’s suite much as it was when Bob Hawke vacated it in 1988. Visitors can gaze at a reproduction of the Arthur Boyd painting that hung opposite Hawke’s desk, gawk at the enormous, faux-timber panelled telephone Hawke used, and cast a wry eye over the prime ministerial bathroom, where curators have laid on the vanity toiletries and accoutrements belonging to the office’s last occupant: a box of contact lenses, a pair of black shoelaces, and a tube of hair dye.

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