World Leaders

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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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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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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My Story by Julia Gillard

by
December 2014, no. 367

Much like her government, Julia Gillard’s memoir resembles the proverbial curate’s egg. Where her passions are involved, as with education (‘Our Children’) or the fair work laws, we are provided with a compelling policy read. Where they are not, as in large slabs of foreign policy, the insightful competes with the pedestrian, enlivened admittedly with her personal talents in handling the great and the good – handballing a football with Barack Obama in the Oval Office, for instance. A chapter on ‘Our Queen’ and the republic is rather jejune, though Gillard has a nice line on changes in the royal succession as providing ‘equal rights for sheilas’. The fact that ‘every prediction the departments of Treasury and Finance ever made about government revenue turned out to be wrong’ makes for dispiriting reading on fiscal matters.

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Susan Mitchell’s fifteenth book is a biography of the Whitlams, published shortly before Gough’s death in November. As a broadcaster, journalist, and author who has examined the lives of prominent Australian women, Mitchell tells the story mainly from Margaret’s perspective. This is not surprising: Mitchell had already amassed a huge body of research for her book Margaret Whitlam: A Biography (2006), and had known her since the late 1970s. And, compared to his frank and affable wife, Gough was less willing to share his personal recollections.

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Gough Whitlam was fond of replying to requests for interviews from historians by saying that all the answers could be found in the archives. ‘Go to the documents, comrade’, was his refrain. However, official documents rarely tell the whole story, particularly those from the modern era, whose authors are conscious that their words could so easily be exposed to public scrutiny. In particular, they are usually bereft of the innermost thoughts and motivations of the politicians and public servants. By contrast, politicians’ diaries can be goldmines. Written contemporaneously, an unguarded diary entry can transform our understanding of people and events.

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A remarkable feature of the concept of political leadership is its apparently infinite elasticity: it stretches over presidents and prime ministers, dictators and popes, revolutionaries and reformers. Take the concept beyond politics, and its reach effortlessly expands to include business executives, platoon commanders, primary school principals, the captain of the cricket team, and many more. But is it useful, or even accurate, to describe all these figures as ‘leaders’ given they, and the entities they lead, have almost nothing in common? Are they really comparable as leaders?

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For countries, and none so important to Australia, have a political system as opaque as that of China. This is deliberate; since the turmoil of the Cultural Revolution, the Communist Party of China (CPC) has striven to make turnovers in its leadership as bland as possible. But the elevation of the country’s current ‘Fifth Generation’ Leadership was actually full of drama. The New Emperors, written by Kerry Brown, director of the China Studies Centre at the University of Sydney, tells us why.

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Wilhelm II, German Kaiser and King of Prussia, may be a shadowy figure for Australian readers, better known as the butt of funny-scary caricatures in British World War I propaganda or of black humour in popular soldiers’ songs, than as a political player in his own right. He remains enigmatic even for scholars. Some hand him the burden of responsibility for World War I, despite the immediate trigger being the military standoff between two other states altogether, Austro-Hungary and Serbia. Others see him as an incompetent figurehead who merely rubberstamped the territorial ambitions of the German military.

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Jenny Hocking concluded the first volume of her Whitlam biography (2008) on the eve of her subject’s electoral victory in December 1972. Gough Whitlam had been the most effective and creative opposition leader in Australian history: since 1967 he had dragged a protesting Labor party into the second half of the twentieth century; provided the party with a contemporary social democratic agenda; broadened the appeal of the party beyond its historic working-class base; and seen off one Liberal prime minister, with another to follow. The challenge for Hocking in this second volume is to explain how this promise turned to dust and ashes within three years, with Whitlam’s dismissal by the governor-general, followed by electoral repudiation. Meticulous and thorough research, a broad understanding of both the personal and structural factors underlying his government’s failure, and a commanding narrative drive enable Hocking to meet the challenge. There is no better account of how the triumph of 1972 turned into the catastrophe of 1975.

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