Politics

‘Our age,’ begins the epigraph to Anne Applebaum’s book Twilight of Democracy, ‘is indeed the age of the intellectual organization of political hatreds.’ This disarming quote from French writer Julien Benda dates back to 1927; how little has changed in a century. Just one generation after the triumphant ‘end of history’ – and notwithstanding the impact of Covid-19, fleetingly referenced here – Western democratic societies are prey to institutional decline, increasing distrust, violence, and hatred.

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Australian conservatism, for all its political dominance, is little understood and has been studied by surprisingly few scholars. The very industrious and perceptive Peter van Onselen is almost single-handedly determined to correct this imbalance. He has brought together a timely collection of essays on the Liberal Party and its future, coinciding with yet another term in unaccustomed opposition, an experience invariably chastising for the conservatives. The immediate predecessors to the modern-day Liberal Party on the non-Labor side of politics disintegrated on losing office, and the Liberal Party’s own spells in opposition have been periods of both blood-letting and soul searching. There is a happy focus (for the Liberal Party, at least) on the latter in this necessarily mixed bag.

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In some ways, John Hirst presents his tale of colonial New South Wales as if it were a book for today. In the preface he comments: ‘But why should we care what it was like? – because in many fundamentals this is the political world we still inhabit.’ This theme is sketched and hinted at several times in the text but it is never argued in a systematic and rigorous manner. What are we to make of the claim?

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Those who have hopes or fears of a Reagan–Thatcher hardline conservatism arising in Australia can forget it, if this newest attempt by the local ‘right’ to define itself is any guide. For a major topic, it is a listless, sickly growth from Australia’s whiggish soil that struggles – mostly unsuccessfully – for anything new to say.

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Bob Ellis is the quintessential Labour groupie, and Goodbye Babylon the latest instalment in the saga of his love affair with the ALP, which began with The Things We Did Last Summer, a slim and evocative volume, published twenty years ago. By contrast, Goodbye Babylon is a fat book; rather like Ellis himself, it is sprawling, dishevelled, undisciplined but likeable, witty, and gregarious. His prose, though prone to excess, can be rich and compelling.

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Edward Gough Whitlam bestrode the Australian political stage like a colossus for over a generation: first as federal Opposition leader, then as prime minister, and finally as martyr. A legend in his own lifetime, this last role threatens to turn him into myth. More books have been written on aspects of his short and turbulent government than on any other in Australian history. There are already three biographies: a competent quickie by journalist Laurie Oakes in 1976; an eloquent political biography by his speechwriter Graham Freudenberg in 1977; and a psychobiography by the political scientist James Walter in 1980, which depicts Whitlam in terms of a particular personality type – the grandiose narcissist.

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In 2016, Hillary Clinton received nearly three million more votes for president of the United States than Donald Trump. Despite this sizeable margin, Clinton was not elected. The reason was the electoral college, a method for picking presidents that emerged as an ‘eleventh-hour compromise’ at the Constitutional Convention at Philadelphia in 1787 and that has never been abolished.

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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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Sometime in 2017, one of the world’s largest academic publishers started quietly removing thousands of articles from its websites in China because they covered topics deemed politically sensitive by the Chinse Communist Party (CCP). Much of the offending material related to the three Ts: Taiwan, Tibet, and the Tiananmen Square protests of 1989. At the time I was a China correspondent for the Financial Times, and an academic who was horrified by this censorship tipped me off. I contacted the publisher, Springer Nature, which admitted that it had begun censoring to comply with ‘local distribution laws’. I naïvely thought that the exposure of such craven behaviour by the owner of Nature, Scientific American, and the Palgrave Macmillan imprint would prompt a huge backlash from academics, universities, and governments.

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Peggy Holroyde reviews 'Gods and Politicians' by Bruce Grant

Peggy Holroyde
Wednesday, 19 August 2020

At a time when one is reading of Cabinet decisions to cut many of the remaining constitutional links with Britain (Premiers’ Conference, June), thus moving Australia closer to national sovereignty, it is timely to be reminded of events only just over the contemporary horizon which could be said to have matured this nation into quickening the pace towards that independence of British dominion – no matter how tenuous politically, yet still incipiently present in the Statute Books and by Privy Council.

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