Julia Banks’ new book is part of a 50-year tradition of female MPs using memoirs to fight for equality


James Ross/AAP

Joshua Black, Australian National University

Political memoirs in Australia often create splashy headlines and controversy. But we should not dismiss the publication of former Liberal MP Julia Banks’ book, Power Play, as just the latest in a genre full of scandals and secrets.

There is a long tradition of female parliamentarians using memoirs to reshape the culture around them. Banks — whose book includes claims of bullying, sexism and harassment — is the latest to push for equality and understanding of what life is like for women in Canberra.

The power of a memoir

There are many ways to tell your story — from social media posts to podcasts and speeches to parliament.

But there is something enduring about memoir. Sales figures aside, the political memoir can be a significant event. The inevitable round of media interviews, book tours and literary festivals can allow an author to stamp their broader ideas onto the public debate and shed light on the culture of our institutions.




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They also have the advantage of usually being written when women have left parliament, and no longer need to place their party’s interests ahead of all others. Indeed, Banks tells us that her story is that of “an insider who’s now out”.

It started with Enid Lyons

In 1972, Dame Enid Lyons (the first woman elected to the House of Representatives and wife of former prime minister Joe Lyons) published Among the Carrion Crows.

In her memoir, she offered a compelling insight into how she dealt with the male-dominated environment of parliament house. She recalled feeling like a “risky political experiment”, as if the very “value of women in politics would be judged” by the virtue of her conduct. She joyfully described how her maiden speech had moved men to tears.

In that place of endless speaking … no one ever made men weep. Apparently I had done so.

She also recorded key moments when she had vigorously presented her views in the party room and the parliament. She asserted the right of women to stand — and more importantly, to be heard — in parliament.

Encouraging women, challenging men

Since Lyons, women have continued to use autobiographies to promote women’s participation in politics and challenge the masculine histories of political parties.

When the ALP celebrated its centenary in 1991, it was the male history that was celebrated. Senator Margaret Reynolds (Queensland’s first female senator) “decided that the record had to be corrected”.

Former Labor minister Susan Ryan.
Former education minister Susan Ryan wanted to encourage other women to go into politics.
Lukas Coch/AAP

Reynolds’ writings on Labor women occurred alongside the ALP’s moves toward affirmative action quotas in the early 1990s. As well as a memoir, she wrote a series of newsletters called Some of Them Sheilas, and a book about Labor’s women called The Last Bastion. In it, she recorded the experiences and achievements of ALP women over the past 100 years.

In her 1999 book, Catching the Waves, Labor’s first female cabinet minister Susan Ryan acknowledged there was “a lot of bad male behaviour in parliament”. But she argued this should not “dissuade women from seeking parliamentary careers”. Importantly, Ryan saw her autobiography as a collective story about the women’s movement and its “breakthrough into parliamentary politics” in the 1970s and 1980s.




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While Labor women like Reynolds, Ryan and Cheryl Kernot were publishing their memoirs, few Liberal women put their stories on the public record. Former NSW Liberal leader Kerry Chikarovski’s 2004 memoir, Chika, was billed as the story of a woman who

learnt to cope with some of the toughest and nastiest politics any female has ever encountered in Australia’s political history.

In 2007 Pauline Hanson published an autobiography called Untamed and Unashamed, telling journalists, “I wanted to set the record straight”. But these were exceptions to the rule.

Julia Gillard’s story

Following the sexism and misogyny that disfigured her prime ministership, Julia Gillard’s 2014 memoir My Story helped revitalise the national conversation about women and power. Hoping to help Australia “work patiently and carefully through” the question of gender and politics, Gillard promised to “describe how I lived it and felt it” as prime minister.

Former prime minister Julia Gillard at the Sydney Writers' Festival
Julia Gillard released her memoir in 2014, the year after she lost the prime ministership.
David Moir/AAP

Importantly, she held not only her opponents but also the media to account for their gender bias. Critics like journalist Paul Kelly derided Gillard’s version of history as “nonsense”, but the success of her account suggests otherwise. My Story sold 72,000 copies in just three years.

In her 2020 book, Women and Leadership co-authored with former Nigerian finance minister, Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala, Gillard interviewed eight women leaders from around the world, further showing how gender continues to shape political lives.

The risks of writing

A political memoir can be fraught, however. After a decade in parliament, Democract-turned-Labor MP Cheryl Kernot published her memoir Speaking for Myself Again in 2002.
She had hoped it would argue the case for Australian women “participating fully” in politics to promote “their own values and interests and shift the underlying male agenda”.

Former MP Cheryl Kernot
Former MP Cheryl Kernot’s memoir release was overshadowed by controversy.
Julian Ross/AAP

But the release was quickly overshadowed by revelations of an extra-marital affair with Labor’s Gareth Evans (which were not in the book). Her book tour was halted amid the fallout. Kernot later despaired journalist Laurie Oakes — who broke the story — had managed to “sabotage people’s interest in the book”.

Others, such as Labor’s Ros Kelly, have told their stories in private or semi-private ways. Kelly’s autobiography was privately published as a gift to her granddaughter, but she also gives copies to women in politics, many of whom “have read it, and sent me really nice notes”.

Power in numbers

In the past five years, several women from across the political spectrum have published life stories.

In her memoir, An Activist Life, former Greens leader Christine Milne argued that women should perform feminist leadership rather than being “co-opted into being one of the boys”. In Finding My Place, Labor MP Anne Aly, showed women of non-Anglo, non-Christian backgrounds belong in parliament too. Independents Jacqui Lambie and Cathy McGowan used their memoirs to show female MPs can thrive without the backing of the major parties.




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Most recently, former Labor MP Kate Ellis published Sex, Lies and Question Time, which includes reflections on the experiences of nearly a dozen other women in parliament.

For fifty years, Australia’s female politicians have used their memoirs to assert the equal rights of women in parliament, party rooms, and the media. Drawing on that lineage, Banks is the latest to help reveal and disrupt the sexism and misogyny in political life.The Conversation

Joshua Black, PhD Candidate, School of History, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

Friday essay: trees have many stories to tell. Is this our last chance to read them?


Unsplash/David Clode, CC BY

Gregory Moore, The University of Melbourne

As tree scientist, I am fascinated by the magnificent biology of trees. I also find it enthralling and encouraging that trees are being appreciated by writers around the world right now.

Three fresh books (chosen from a wider field of titles on the topic) exemplify how trees can be written about as more than just background or an incidental part of a landscape, but as integral to meaning.

My Forests: Travel with Trees by Janine Burke, The Heartbeat of Trees by Peter Wohlleben, and Tree Story, a collection curated by Charlotte Day and Brian Martin — are mixed in style and content. But all make clear the close relationships between people and trees and the vital importance of those connections.

It is not surprising that at a time of significant climate change, where natural ecosystems around the world are being devastated and after 18 months of a global pandemic, books on trees are proving popular.

There is an air of desperation in these three titles. Things are changing fast, trees and forests grow slowly, we are wasting time.

Hardy annuals

book cover trees

Abe Books

Books about trees are published every year. Some are beautifully illustrated with photos or hand-drawn images of special trees in large coffee table formats. Some, like J. R. R. Tolkien’s Lord of the Rings, have trees and forests as characters. Tolkien told a fan that his magnificent Ents were “either souls sent to inhabit trees, or else were folk who slowly took the likeness of trees owing to their inborn love of trees”.

Tolkien’s writing, including a story collection called Tree and Leaf, reminds us of the differences between tree time and human time — we humans are hasty folk. This is something I dwell upon often.

The Magic Faraway Tree by Enid Blyton was one of the first books I can recall reading where a tree played a major role and it helped set me on a path of lifelong reading and interest in botany.

That childhood favourite connects to Richard Powers’ The Overstory, which draws together a disparate fictional band of tree protectors. After his book became a hit, Powers recommended 26 other titles for tree-loving readers.

This library of tree books has served a wide and varied readership well and sustained those of us who despair at the wholesale clearing of forests and trees in our cities and suburbs.




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Legacies lost

In most Australian cities we are losing trees and canopy cover at a rate of about 1-1.5% per year. I’m still saddened by the loss of a lemon scented gum (Corymbia citriodora) that grew at the city end of the Tullamarine Freeway in Melbourne. I miss its shade in summer but also the delicious scent that wafted through the car window at certain times of the year.

In October last year, protesters mourned a sacred 350-year-old Djab Wurrung Directions Tree, cut down along Victoria’s Western Highway.




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There has been a growing disconnect between people and trees and vegetated spaces, particularly for those living in cities. Many people have become so focused on urban survival they have become distanced from the essential and intimate dependence that human beings have on plant life.

Earth as we know it, and the lifeforms it sustains, depend upon and have been shaped by plants and their evolution. Human beings can only survive on our planet because of the ecosystems made possible by plants and trees. If these systems are put in jeopardy because people fail to appreciate the importance of plants, then entire ecosystems are put in peril with profound consequences for humankind.

Climate change is giving us a glimpse of how these important relationships are affected by bushfires, stronger winds from unusual directions and more frequent storms with heavy rainfall that can lead of the loss of grand old trees that have stood as silent sentinels for decades and centuries.

All plants in an ecosystem are important to its function, but the large size and long lives of trees explain why they are often focused upon as representatives of their communities. Their size makes them obvious and contributes to the ambience of any landscape, but can also inspire a sense of awe and in some urban-dwellers, fear.

Their long life spans provide a sense of certainly and continuity in uncertain times of rapid change — their presence can link several human generations, when other connections have been lost. They also provide a tangible prospect, if they are left alone or are properly managed, for links to future generations. All of this can be very reassuring for people who feel vulnerable and oppressed by rapid change.




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A fresh crop

All three of the new books selected tend to anthropomorphise trees and aspects of their biology, attributing to them distinctly human qualities. Sometimes they are described by a mood, such as an upbeat growth in spring or by a willingness to share resources with other species. While this may be annoying to some scientists, it allows many people to relate or even identify more closely with trees, especially when there is complex biology and ecology involved.

book cover. trees

Black Inc.

Peter Wohlleben’s bestselling 2016 book The Hidden life of Trees, took readers on a voyage of discovery with a blend of science, philosophy and spiritualism.

Like that first book, his latest — The Heartbeat of Trees — can be enthralling and annoying almost in equal measure. But the author clearly relates the importance of using our senses when we are in forests to explore the complexity of tree biology. By doing so not only will we achieve a better understanding of trees, but also of ourselves and the importance of trees and vegetated places for human development, our physical and mental health and the sustainability of our societies. It will surely resonate strongly with readers after the pandemic lockdowns of the past year, which saw people flocking to parks, gardens and forests.

book cover trees

MUP

A personal and professional travelogue woven together by trees is the framework of My Forests: Travel with Trees, by Janine Burke. As an art historian Burke weaves her own experiences with trees with those depicted in paintings, ancient mythology and historic and literary texts.

It is a set of idiosyncratic connections that may not resonate with all readers, but the strong cultural links between trees and ancient human history are undeniable. The reader can learn a great deal about people but relatively little about trees themselves — they remain illusory, almost furtive.

book cover trees

Monash University Press

Tree Story, curated by Charlotte Day and Brian Martin catalogues a recent exhibition at Monash University Museum of Art. It is an eclectic mix of style, content, form and media. Some of the images and text do not do justice to the works, but the book does provide a permanent and curated record of what was offered.

The book makes it clear that people see and connect with trees in different, varied and curious ways. While the works may look at the past, there are clear implications, messages and lessons for the present and importantly for the future. Indigenous voices and perspectives speak loudly, longingly and desperately. The works plead that we cannot go on treating trees in this way: for our own health and sustainable futures we must recognise that ultimately all earthly life is essentially one.

Strengthening the bond

The three books, in their own and different ways, challenge how we think about and interact with trees. They broaden the relationship that exists between trees and people and encourage an active and positive interaction. There is a unifying theme that healthy relationships will benefit both people and trees.

Authors and artists recount their personal stories of trees benefiting their own physical and mental well-being. Research shows that trees along streets and roadways have a traffic calming effect that results in slower speeds and more courteous driver behaviour. In a huge study of women’s health in the United States it was shown that green spaces (parks, gardens and trees) significantly correlated with many aspects of improved health.

Plants and trees are not passive participants in ecosystems. They actively contribute to the complexity, resilience and survival of these systems and while the environment affects and changes them, they also modify the environment. Shade from trees cools the understorey and soils, making it possible for a more diverse range of species to thrive. Shade on creeks and rivers helps native fish survive and breed.

Felled trees
Great Otways National Park.
Unsplash, CC BY



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These books highlight the complexity of the relationships that many of us have with trees – relationships that can bring change to both us and the trees.

Wohlleben asks that we use all our senses when we interact with trees and forests. There is more going on than meets the eye. Burke reminds us that culture and tradition influence our perception of trees and forests. The works exhibited in Tree Story help us to explore these influences and their meaning.

Tree in forest
The stories trees tell …
Unsplash, CC BY

We are far from knowing all there is to know about plants, trees, forests and ecosystems. The scientific approach is but one method of questing for truth. The open-minded approaches explored in these books could stimulate new discoveries.

The books remind us of the pace of change being wrought on trees and forests by climate change and that the stakes, if we don’t reverse this decline, are very high.

Scientists should never dismiss what they don’t understand. Neither should readers. As climates change, the presence of trees and green space will be recognised as a priority. Trees will be a part of our futures no matter where we live because we cannot have economically viable, environmentally sustainable or liveable places without them. The Conversation

woman reading under a tree
Books can remind us what we have, and what’s at stake.
Shutterstock

Gregory Moore, Doctor of Botany, The University of Melbourne

This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.