Politics

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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Barry Jones is a proud member of the Awkward Squad, one who follows his own convictions rather than the exigencies of day-to-day government. He confesses that in Parliament, ‘I was always aiming for objectives that were seen as beyond the reach of conventional politics’. The memo about ‘the art of the possible’ clearly never reached Jones’s desk. His time as a minister between 1983 and 1990 was a strain for both him and the then prime minister, Bob Hawke. Jones recounts with some glee that Hawke once referred to him as ‘Barry Fucking Jones’.

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Dennis Altman recently published a slice of autobiography, Unrequited Love: Diary of an accidental activist, addressing ‘his long obsession with the United States’. Now, as if to remind us that his training has been in political science, Altman presents us with this lively survey of monarchies old and new, constitutional and absolute, European and Asian. It has its origins in the Economist democracy index, according to which seven of the ten most democratic nations were constitutional monarchies. The list is dominated by the Scandinavian kingdoms, with Norway at the top, and former dominions of the British Empire, with Australia just scraping into the list at equal ninth with the Netherlands. As a committed republican, Altman was set thinking by this apparent alliance of monarchy and democracy.

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Writing this review of John F. Kennedy’s formative years soon after the end of the Trump regime has evoked some surprising parallels between these two one-term American presidents (and perennial womanisers). They were both second sons born into wealthy families dominated by powerful patriarchs. Against the odds, they emerged as their fathers’ favourites and were groomed for success. Thanks not just to their wealth but to their televisual celebrity and telegenic families, they managed to eke out close election victories at a time when just enough disenchanted voters were looking for a change of direction in the White House. Despite their administrations’ profound disparities in competence and their differences in political outlook, they shared a deep distrust of senior bureaucrats and military officials, as well as an inability to work effectively with Congress. Bullets and ballots, respectively, ended Kennedy’s and Donald Trump’s presidencies, but not the cults of personality they had inspired. In the space of just over half a century, they have tilted the trajectory of American democracy and diplomacy from the tragic to the tragicomic.

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In a recent interview, India’s foreign minister, Subrahmanyam Jaishankar, was asked whether his country was heading in what his interlocutor, the Lowy Institute’s Michael Fullilove, called ‘an illiberal direction’. Bristling, Jaishankar denied the charge. India is undergoing something quite different, he argued. It is experiencing a ‘very deep democratization’. This process might be hard for outsiders to understand, but it was positive, not problematic. After decades of rule by an English-speaking, Western-educated élite, the country was at last being governed by politicians who spoke and thought and behaved like ordinary Indians.

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William Darrah Kelley – a Republican congressman from Philadelphia – stood at the front of a stage in Mobile, Alabama, watching as a group of men pushed and shoved their way through the audience towards him. It was May 1867, Radical Reconstruction was underway, and Southern cities like Mobile were just beginning a revolutionary expansion and contraction of racial equality and democracy. The Reconstruction Acts, passed by Congress that year, granted formerly enslaved men the right to vote and to run for office in the former Confederate states. Northern Republicans streamed into cities across the South in 1867, speaking to both Black and white, to the inspired and hostile – registering Black voters and strengthening the already strong links between African Americans and the party.

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Doom by Niall Ferguson & The Premonition by Michael Lewis

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August 2021, no. 434

One of the disconcerting aspects of this pandemic is that there was no shortage of warnings. For decades, virologists foresaw the coincidence of urbanisation, human proximity with animals, climate change, and globalisation as ideal conditions for spreading deadly pathogens. Science journalists wrote books with titles such as The Coming Plague (Laurie Garrett) and Spillover (David Quammen), whose conclusions were amplified by TED-talking billionaires. SARS, MERS, Ebola, and swine flu were further clues. Yet come January 2020, authorities worldwide were slow, indecisive, and ill-prepared.

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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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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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