Australian Politics

Amid the daily dramas and momentous impact of the ongoing coronavirus pandemic, it’s easy to forget that, just four years ago, Australia was enduring a very different – and much less serious – kind of political crisis. In July 2017, the Australian Greens’ Scott Ludlam resigned from the Senate, having been advised that his failure to renounce his long-dormant New Zealand citizenship meant that he was a dual citizen, and in breach of section 44 of the Constitution. This kicked off a farcical procession of resignations, High Court referrals, by-elections, and countbacks. This ultimately resulted in fifteen MHRs and senators from across the political spectrum being ruled ineligible to sit in the federal parliament.

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Peter Job, a former East Timor activist, has written a careful, dispassionate account of the stance of Gough Whitlam’s and Malcolm Fraser’s successive governments in relation to Portuguese East Timor. He has consulted a commendably wide range of oral and written sources, interviewing, for example, several retired senior Australian officials formerly engaged in the design and implementation of Timor policy. His story ends in 1983, with Bob Hawke’s election to office. Job should be encouraged to complete his account in the future to acquaint readers with developments up to at least the UN intervention in 1999 that gave Australian diplomacy a new role.

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Leadership by Don Russell & A Decade of Drift by Martin Parkinson

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July 2021, no. 433

In 1958, the Australian political scientist A.F. Davies (1924–87) published Australian Democracy: An introduction to the political system, one of the first postwar attempts to combine institutional description with comment on the patterns of political culture. It introduced a provocative assertion: Australians have ‘a characteristic talent for bureaucracy’. Disdaining the myth of Australians as shaped by the initiative and improvisation of our bush heritage (Russel Ward’s The Australian Legend was published in the same year), Davies argued:

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Following 200 pages of at times harrowing detail in which former Labor MP Kate Ellis outlines the extent of the sexist and misogynist behaviour she endured as a member of the Australian Parliament, she asks herself: ‘Is it worth the hard days, the unnecessary crap?’ ‘Yes’, she replies. ‘Every. Single. Second. No question.’

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How Good Is Scott Morrison? by Wayne Errington and Peter van Onselen

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June 2021, no. 432

Flash back to that election night in May 2019, when Australians, depending on their party affiliation, were either overjoyed or appalled at the Coalition’s return despite the opinion polls. That evening, Scott Morrison – a man little known to Australians until assuming the prime ministership just nine months before after an ugly leadership coup – summed up Coalition sentiment and his own Christian faith: ‘I have always believed in miracles,’ Morrison said, before asking, rhetorically, ‘How good is Australia?’

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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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