It is fast becoming an essential building block of an aspirational political life to write a book about your career at a carefully chosen moment.
By spinning your achievements, or arranging with a famous author to include you in a book, you may convince voters that you are the right person to go the top, or return there, if they will back you right now. Tony Abbott did this successfully with his book Battlelines.
Perhaps, you may just want history to treat you favourably.
So, let me comment on a few of the latest political epistles, some written by MPs, and others by eminent commentators, in the hope that a debate can be generated on the value, if any, of politicians to the life of the nation.
It could help us evaluate where politics should be reformed in the years ahead.
I will start with Triumph and Demise, a massive tome written by legendary journalist Paul Kelly, now Editor-at-Large for The Australian.
Twenty years ago, Kelly wrote a splendid book called The End of Certainty, which I regard as one of the best and most informative political books I have ever read. He wrote it admirably from the centre of the political divide, with no apparent bias to the left or right.
Now, he has moved decisively to the right, so it is necessary to water down some of his more one-sided comments and spend a little time calling a few of the participants in the political battles to check on what actually happened. Perhaps Kelly has been working for Rupert Murdoch for far too long.
Nevertheless, this is a very readable book, filled with interesting background to major events and containing astute observations that are worth knowing and debating.
It covers the period from when Rudd defeated Beasley for the leadership of the ALP through to the election of Tony Abbott as Prime Minister.
You won’t be surprised when I tell you that Kevin Rudd comes out of it badly. He is depicted accurately as a very flawed personality who is a great campaigner, but a hopeless manager of people, policies and projects. The book leaves the clear and correct impression that Julia Gillard had absolutely no option but to remove him, not just to save the government or promote herself, but to protect the nation from his incredible irrationality.
Gillard is pictured as a very good one-on-one negotiator, a talent to which I can personally affirm. She was superb at getting things done, even though she had to battle every inch of the way with a hung parliament. But, she did not excel at handling political crises and created a public image that she was a poor communicator. All of this culminated in a number of significant policy blunders that had a key role in her being overthrown.
Kelly is tough on Wayne Swan over the mining tax and his failure to produce a budget surplus in six years as Treasurer, but he fails to acknowledge that Swan had to overcome an enormous liability in getting an indecisive Rudd to sign-off on anything and, even when he did get decisions, then find that Rudd had changed his mind before it could be implemented.
Tony Abbott gets better treatment than anyone in the book, but Kelly does point-out that Abbott has not yet overcome his personal unpopularity with voters. He won the 2013 election solely because a majority of voters wanted a change of government, no matter who led it.
But, the most memorable part of Triumph and Demise is the chapter about the fight for the heart and soul of the Liberal Party over Climate Change, resulting in Turnbull losing the leadership to Abbott by just one vote. It was a bitter struggle, as Turnbull tried to come to a bipartisan agreement with Rudd for an Emissions Trading Scheme. He almost got there, but the climate deniers felt that they had to stop him forever.
Most of the caucus did not want Abbott as their leader but, when Hockey chose to sit on the fence on the issue, they had no option but to back Abbott. Hockey would have won easily if he had backed the deniers. Perhaps, it is to his credit that he chose not to.
It was during this momentous battle that Rudd lost his only chance to get the ETS into law. Had he made strategic concessions to Turnbull, it would have passed through Parliament. But, he chose to publicly and constantly denigrate Turnbull, whom he feared as his political opponent for the 2010 elections, and did all he could to destroy him. This destabilised Turnbull to such an extent that his enemies in his own party felt confident enough to replace him with Abbott, and so Rudd lost the only significant ETS supporter that he had outside of his own party — the Greens having given it the thumbs down as being inadequate.
It was dumb politics. In his mind, he placed the winning of the 2010 election above the passing of legislation to overcome the “greatest humanitarian challenge of all time.”
My Story was not written by Gillard as a response to Paul Kelly, but it nevertheless fills this role. It’s interesting to absorb their differing versions of major events.
The huge problem that Julia had as PM was that she did not ever have the clear air necessary to allow her to be herself and achieve her political goals.
From the moment that she rightly and correctly removed Rudd, she was vilified everywhere as a political assassin, and was relentlessly hounded by Rudd, who became seriously pathological in his hatred of her. She then had to concentrate on successfully maintaining a minority government and achieve important goals.
Everything she sought to achieve had to be negotiated with the Greens and Independents, and was almost invariably a compromise. She also had to keep Unions onside, as they were the cornerstone of her survival within her own Party. On top of this, she faced the most negative Leader of the Opposition in Australian political history, Tony Abbott, who was relentless. That she survived for three years was an achievement of significance.
So, I found that her book is an epistle from the heart that is a very good read. It will further disturb those who developed such an irrational hatred of her, but will raise her stature in the eyes of many who have previously written her off as a failure.
It is refreshing that she admits to a range of political errors, such as appointing Rudd as Foreign Minister, where he sought a higher profile than she had. Then, she compounded the problem by making Bob Carr his successor without taking time to assess that Carr was seriously out of his depth (as his book makes clear). She also hugely alienated the business community, particularly the mining industry, when it would have taken little effort to get them onside.
My belief is that she overplayed the misogyny issue, even though I am appalled by the manner in which she was seriously and persistently insulted by viscous attacks on her gender.
Mary Delahunty has written a well-researched account of how difficult it is for a woman to be accepted as Prime Minister in Australia. Her book Gravity tells of the final year of Gillard’s leadership. I read it a few months back and felt it presented a balanced assessment of how so many treated Gillard as something less than human.
For myself, I will always hold an shakeable belief that, while she would have lost to Abbott, she would have won more seats than Rudd at the 2013 Election had she not been wrongly deposed. The action of the ALP caucus in re-electing Rudd, whom 90 per cent quite rightly despised, was the greatest and most appalling act of political prostitution of my lifetime. I hope that politics will not descend to such sordid depths again.
Be this as it may, My Story will be read for many years to come as an important contribution to Australian history.
I enjoyed reading The Good Fight, having known Wayne Swan for more than 20 years, and negotiated pensions and other Senior’s issues with him through six Federal Budgets.
While it covers his full term as Treasurer, it is essentially his account of the Great Financial Crisis that hit the world in 2008, and explains his strategies and policies in ensuring that Australia came through it as unscathed as possible.
Indeed, Australia survived it far better than most nations and, so, we owe Wayne some acknowledgement of gratitude for this. But, as he points out himself, there will be a continuing debate on whether or not his stimulus package was more than was necessary.
His view is that it was better to overspend than to leave Australia in a similar position to that of USA, but his critics will never let him forget that it ran up a lot of debt that now has to be repaid.
I recommend that you read it. It sets-out in readable form the wide range of issues he had to take into account when faced with the GFC. After you have read them, sit down with a quiet whisky and work-out what you personally would have done if you had been in Swan’s shoes at the time.
One interesting sidelight of the book is his detailed account of the circumstances in which Rudd finally pulled the plug on the Emissions Trading Scheme after the failed Climate Change Conference in Copenhagen. Rudd has claimed that Gillard and Swan forced him to drop the legislation, causing him great personal humiliation in light of his ‘over the top’ advocacy of it.
Swan says that Rudd was so disillusioned with Copenhagen that he wanted to banish it all from his mind and switch to another great project he felt the nation would remember him for — a Commonwealth takeover of hospitals. He fluffed that too and Nicola Roxon had to make some sense out of it.
A final comment on Swan: After being deposed as Treasurer on the same night as Gillard lost her job, he decided to run again for his seat of Lilley and become a hard working local member with no aspirations beyond that. While most ALP MPs either lost their seats or had their votes slashed, Swan increased his vote, doubling his small majority.
Optimism is the title of Bob Brown’s book.
Many will find this title hard to comprehend as his image is that of being negative.
Nevertheless, I must say that this book, which is quite small compared with the efforts of Gillard, Swan and Kelly, is worth the time it will take you to read it. It consists of a couple of dozen chapters on significant incidents that occurred in his long environmental pilgrimage in public life.
Can I suggest that my readers, especially those on the far right, take a deep breath, overcome all prejudices against Brown, especially those that relate to him being atheist and gay, and make an objective assessment of what he tried to achieve.
Brown comes over as a genuine environmentalist who has lived for many decades in a small cottage in a remote, heavily-wooded valley in the mountain country of Tasmania, where he has a deep love and detailed knowledge of its flora, fauna, rivers, lakes and fish. His brand of economics is extreme and unworkable, but his concern for humanity, and the environment in which we live, is genuine.
I got to know him well in many visits to Parliament. He was a strong backer of all advancements in the well-being of pensioners, and often told me that I was far too moderate in my requests to governments on their behalf. He also told me that he fervently backed my railway projects, so long as I didn’t transport the coal that would pay for them.
His fame was at its height when he interrupted the speech of President George W Bush to the Australian Parliament a decade ago, and he must be given credit for establishing a long-term place for the Greens in the political life of Australia.
Bob Brown will not easily be forgotten.
In the New Year, Tony Windsor will publish his account of the pivotal role he had in the hung parliament of the Gillard years.
It will be crucial reading for all objective students of politics.
I am one who believes that our hung parliament of 2010-2013 showed that democracy really works, when every piece of legislation has to be carefully negotiated and every vote counted, thereby causing a large number of lazy politicians never to be able to skip parliament. Windsor, more than anyone else, made that Parliament work to the extent that 500 pieces of legislation were passed.
While we wait for Windsor’s book, Ruth Rae has written his biography. It is an informative account of his life’s journey. She is clearly a Windsor fan, but manages to objectively report on a few of his errors of judgement.
The key factor that shines through in the book is that, right from his schooldays, Tony has been an environmentalist and a foe of miners who desecrate farmlands and contaminate water. His public record shows that clearly, and is further indicated by his pioneering work in new methods of sustainable farming.
Those who claim that he deserted his natural constituency when he backed Gillard are simply right wing bigots. After all, the National Party twice rejected him as their candidate for state and federal elections because they thought he was too far to the left.
There is certainty about any book written by Mark Latham.
It will be colourful, filled with invective, heavily laden with controversy, spiced with imaginative language and having several declarations that the world is full of scumbags.
He usually gives the clear impression that the only non-sinner in the world is the author. This is true of Latham’s latest book, The Political Bubble, but it is a much better effort than his earlier ones.
This time he correctly identifies the almost total public disrespect of the political establishment and the belief of most voters that any statement by a political leader is simply spin that can be ignored. He makes a reasonable attempt to offer solutions to this problem, and this is worth more than passing consideration.
The weakness of his position is that, during his term as Leader of the Opposition, he contributed mightily to the cause of generating disrespect for politics. Nevertheless, we should recall that, two weeks out from the 2004 Federal Election, he lead Howard in the polls, only to blow it all by driving Tasmanian forestry workers into Howard’s camp in one of the extraordinary acts of political suicide I have ever witnessed.
This indelibly prints in our minds the chilling memory that, at a point in our history, a majority of voters gave serious thought to actually electing Latham as our Prime Minister.
It is interesting, from time to time, to take a break from current politics and go back to an earlier era that was controversial so as to compare it with the situation today.
To assist us with this, Mungo MacCallum has written another delightfully irreverent political classic called The Whitlam Mob, and I regard it as essential reading.
Each chapter is about one the main characters in the Whitlam and Fraser teams of the 1970s, and he does a credible job of outlining the strengths and weaknesses of each one. Of real interest is that he tells us at the end of each chapter what happened to each one of them after he or she left politics. Some of them made a greater contribution to national life after they departed Parliament than they did while they were in it.
As you would expect, the opening chapter is a warts and all assessment of Gough Whitlam. He suggests that history will regard him as one of the giants of political reform in Australia, and also one of the most controversial.
Importantly, MacCallum also makes the valid point that Whitlam towers above anyone on the Australian political scene today, whether ALP or Liberal. He was a class act.
A large pile of political books have arrived on my shelf awaiting some reading time. There are some to which I will happily give priority.
Top of the list is John Howard’s book on Menzies. I grew up in Menzies’ time of power and regarded him as a giant, not only in physical stature and his immense ability as an orator, but by the respect with which he was held, even by those who voted against him. He looked and acted like a Prime Minister, something that can’t be said about most of those who followed him.
I enjoyed Howard’s previous book Lazarus Rising, and I reckon that this one, The Menzies Era, may be better, as he told me on many occasions of his great respect Menzies as a statesman.
Then, I will read Greg Combet’s book, Fights of my Life, which covers not just his work as a Cabinet Minister, but his role in the great waterfront dispute with Chris Corrigan. I have always regarded Combet as Prime Minister material, but his health has declined considerably in recent years. When you read the Gillard book, you will note that, in the dying days of her reign as Prime Minister, she called Combet and offered to stand aside to allow him to run against Rudd, but he declined for health reasons. Had he run, Bill Shorten would have thrown his hat into the ring as well, and it is difficult to predict what the result would have been in a three-way contest, but I can tender the thought that the final vote would have been between Combet and Shorten.
There are many others that I could read, but I will give priority to Gareth Evans’ book on his years with Hawke and Keating. Evans was an interesting character and I think his book, Inside the Hawke Keating Government, will be similar. In browsing through it, I note that it tells us a lot about how governments actually work and what must be done to successfully get any proposal past the Public Service, Ministers, Cabinet, Prime Minister and Parliament. It is a work of art for stayers only.
What staggers me is that most of the political books on sale now are written by those on the political left, with Howard being the only exception.
Why is the Right so tongue tied? Have they nothing of value to say? There is a biography of Joe Hockey on sale, but it is a lightweight job. Another is Malcolm Fraser’s book, Dangerous Allies, about our supposedly bad foreign treaties which seems to be another effort by Malcolm to be a bit nasty.
There are lots of political books on sale internationally. I am about to read Jimmy Carter and Henry Kissinger, also books about the politics of Ukraine and the Irish Rebellion of 1916. On the home scene, there is a fine one by Ian McCalman about the Barrier Reef. Perhaps more interesting is Annabel Crabb; she has written about The Wife Drought. I have a feeling that it will make old chauvinists like me feel a little uncomfortable.
All of this tells us that life is interestingly challenging, and I reckon the future is fascinating for those who are curious.