Politics

Melbourne’s Moreland City Council recently agreed to adopt a new name, after petitioning by Wurundjeri Woi-wurrung community leaders and prominent local non-Indigenous representatives. The petitioners argued that the name ‘Moreland’, adopted in 1839 by Scottish settler Farquhar McCrae, derived from a Jamaican slave plantation. Renaming the council was an opportunity to bring about greater awareness of both the global legacies of enslavement and the history of Indigenous dispossession. In this week’s episode, Samuel Watts reflects on the politics of memorialisation and its impact on public conceptions of history.

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In this accessible contribution to the burgeoning literature on democracy’s travails and what to do about them, Jan-Werner Müller makes a case for hard borders and fundamental principles. These are not the hard borders desired by authoritarian leaders. Instead, Müller asks us to go back to basics (he uses the concept riduzione verso il principo) to establish some hard borders in our understanding – and hence practice – of democracy. Those borders should be drawn around the fundamental democratic principles of uncertainty and equality. At its most basic, this is a call to reimagine and reinvest in the intermediary institutions of representative democracy – particularly parties and autonomous media – to restore the infrastructure of democratic politics in the developed world.

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Landslide by Michael Wolff & Peril by Bob Woodward and Robert Costa

by
January–February 2022, no. 439

The Trump presidency (2017–21) has generated more books across its four years than most presidencies have across eight. It is ironic that an avowedly anti-intellectual president, who advertises his dislike of reading, has had such a profound impact on political literature. These two books – Landslide and Peril – will likely remain the most read of that growing collection. As their titles suggest, each is a chronicle of the chaos that consumed the United States during and after the 2020 election campaign.

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Letter writing thrives on distance. Out of necessity, in the early years of European settlement, Australia became a nation of letter writers. The remoteness of the island continent gave the letter a special importance. Even those unused to writing had so much to say, and such a strong need to hear from home, that the laborious business of pen and ink and the struggles with spelling were overcome. Early letters reflected the homesickness of settlers as well as their sense of achievement and their need to hold on to a former life. It’s possible to see the emergence of a democratic tradition of letter writing in those needful times. Rich or poor, well educated or semi-literate, they all felt the urge to connect.

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Judith Brett, historian and La Trobe University emeritus professor of politics, is characteristically direct – in her questioning, her analysis, and her engagement with readers. If there is something declarative about ‘Going Public’, the title of Doing Politics’s introductory chapter, that is exactly what Brett intends: to go public, to offer a general reader her considered reflections on Australian political and cultural life. This is not an assemblage of opinion pieces, though her writings have a related journalistic conciseness and impact – they speak to the times. What distinguishes Brett’s collection of essays is their scholarly depth and habit of enquiry. They prompt thought before they invite agreement, or conclusions. Even the bad actors, the political obstructors, the wreckers in Brett’s political analysis, are psychologically intriguing. Why are our politicians like this? What’s going on? Judith Brett studied literature and philosophy as well as politics as an undergraduate. Perhaps Hamlet drills away in her consciousness: ‘There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, / Than are dreamt of in your philosophy.’

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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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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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