Political Biography

Scott Morrison has now been prime minister longer than any of his four predecessors: Kevin Rudd, Julia Gillard, Tony Abbott, or Malcolm Turnbull. He has won one election by the skin of his teeth and faces another by May next year. So what sort of man is he and how good a prime minister? These three publications give us slightly different takes on these questions.

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Contemporary Australian parliamentarians tend to be focused firmly on the present. Speechwriters may liberally sprinkle the speeches of politicians with references to a political party’s golden past, but an MP’s sincerest interest in history often emerges when he or she gets around to publishing a memoir of their time in office. A politician’s autobiography is an exercise that encourages selective, rather than frank, reflection on how history will portray them, their enemies and friends. Some politicians, thankfully, embrace a broader, less self-interested view of the importance of history. Labor Opposition frontbencher Chris Bowen is the latest serving politician to display a commendable fascination with historical research. His new book tells the stories of six relatively forgotten figures who made a strong contribution to the Australian Labor Party.

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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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Every biographer has a relationship with their subject, even if they have passed away. A real advantage for biographers of the dead is that the subject cannot say what they think about the book. The relationship between Margaret Simons and Penny Wong was fraught. That this mattered is evident from the opening sentence: ‘Penny Wong did not want this book to be written.’ Simons, a journalist, biographer, and associate professor at Monash University, uses her preface to complain about how difficult it was researching the book without Wong’s assistance and against her will. 

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Paul Keating has been much written about; his trajectory is familiar. His is a story of leadership and the exercise of power, about a man who led from the front and – like Gough Whitlam – was willing to ‘crash through or crash’ when following his convictions. No prime minister since has displayed a similar propensity. Troy Bramston’s biography conforms to ...

Paul Keating continues to fascinate. Influential commentators such as Paul Kelly and George Megalogenis now celebrate the golden age of policy reform in which he was central, while lamenting the policy desert of recent years. Still, it is not enough: Keating, the master storyteller, wants to control the narrative of his legacy. Yet he professes disdain for biography ...

Paul Keating has an enduring allure. He has been out of politics since 1996, yet in the past year or so we have seen the ABC screen an unprecedented series of four one-hour interviews with him by an unusually respectful Kerry O’Brien; a book of his sayings still sells well, his speeches and pronouncements receive wide publicity, and now historian David Day has giv ...

John Howard has long been concerned with countering what he regards as the domination of Australian historical writing by the left. His project was initiated before he gained the prime ministership, most notably in his Menzies Lecture of 1996, in which he claimed that most of the distinctiveness and achievements of Australian politics were grounded in the liberal tradition. It continued during the ‘history wars’ from 1996 to 2007 – a subsidiary element in his largely successful attempt to reshape the contemporary understanding of liberal individualism. His massive new book on Menzies and his times is the summa of this enterprise.

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Rupert (‘Dick’) Hamer proved to be one of Australia’s most innovative premiers. One sign of his unusual prestige is that this history of his life and times has perhaps been publicly praised more by Labor leaders than by his own Liberal colleagues.

Hamer’s family background was in the church, law, business, and politics. His paternal grandfather was the minister of the wealthy Independent Church (now called St Michael’s) on Collins Street, where he was distinguished for his highbrow sermons and the astonishingly high salary he received. Hamer was born in 1916 and was formally christened Rupert after a relative who had died at Gallipoli the previous year. He was a studious boarder at Geelong Grammar, eventually winning first class honours in three languages – Latin, French, and Ancient Greek. A school friend described him as never ‘fussed or flustered’. Those qualities remained with him. He could come home to suburban Canterbury after a turbulent week in parliament and sleep like a rock, then dig happily in the garden next morning.

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In modern Australia, politics and public policy appear to reflect a narrow range of managerial, political, and economic opinions. Even the much publicised ‘listening tours’ conducted by politicians seem designed to show that they are sensitive to community concerns, but not so sensitive as to want to change policy direction. What makes current discussion of political issues so dispiriting is that over the last three decades, economic measurements and business ideas have come to dominate public life. Citizens are now treated by the public service and their masters as ‘consumers’, former public goods such as education are now narrowly viewed as a form of economic productivity, and community service providers, such as Australia Post, are written about in the media as mere businesses ripe for privatisation. Between 2007 and 2010, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd gave the impression that he might become the ‘circuit breaker’: a leader whose professed faith in the potential for government intervention and community consultation might lead to a more engaged and empowered citizenry, as well as a government more in tune with the needs of the electorate.

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