I studied 31 Australian political biographies published in the past decade — only 4 were about women


Mick Tsikas/AAP

Blair Williams, Australian National University

This week, a new Australian political biography will appear on bookshelves. This is The Accidental Prime Minister, an examination of Scott Morrison by journalist Annika Smethurst.

While a prime minister makes for an obvious – and worthy — biographical subject, it also continues Australia’s strong tradition of focusing on the stories of men in politics.

History as a discipline may have been grappling with gender issues since the 1970s, but political history has been especially resistant to questions about women and gender.

In a recent study for the Australian Journal of Biography and History, I looked at Australian political biographies over the past decade. I found female political figures are almost always ignored.

Why biographies matter

Political biographies add life, colour and depth to historical events and personalities. They can shape the legacies of politicians long after they’ve left politics. They also show us who is worthy of being written about and who is overlooked in the pages of history.

However, most Australian political biographies have been written about men, particularly male prime ministers.

This inevitably calls to mind the enduring myth of the “Great Man” as the architect of historical change. This is best described by 19th century historian Thomas Carlyle, who believed “the history of the world is but the biography of great men”.

Labor senator Penny Wong.
Labor senator and former finance minister Penny Wong is one of the few women MPs to be the subject of a recent biography.
Mick Tsikas/AAP

As women were largely excluded from politics until the end of the 20th century, it could be argued they simply haven’t had the opportunity to be seen as “great politicians” worthy of literary examination.

Yet, as political biographies define which personal and political qualities suggest “greatness”, it could also be argued we tend to associate these qualities with men and masculinity. Male leaders’ gender is never discussed or explored in their political biographies. Masculinity is portrayed as the unseen norm while gender is an attribute only ever identified with women.

This argument gains further support from the fact there are more women in Australian politics than ever before, yet there remains a notable lack of political biographies covering their lives and stories. In my study, I examined Australian political biographies published in the past decade. Only four out of 31 were on women politicians.

This small minority includes Margaret Simons’ Penny Wong in 2019 and Anna Broinowski’s 2017 biography of Pauline Hanson, Please Explain.

Why are women ignored?

There are three key factors that can explain the lack of biographies written on Australian women politicians.

First, as previously noted, there is the lack of gender parity in Australian politics. The 1990s saw a surge of women enter politics, partly due to Labor’s gender quotas. Yet at the moment, only 31% of the House of Representatives are women and all major leadership positions are held by men.




Read more:
Why is it taking so long to achieve gender equality in parliament?


Second, Australian political biography itself has a role to play here — the Great Man narrative is an enduring problem. It leads to an overemphasis on so-called “foundational patriarchs” and overlooks the impact of political players who don’t conform to this stereotype.

In the past decade, two biographies each were written on former Labor prime ministers Paul Keating and Bob Hawke and former Liberal prime minister Robert Menzies. Another biography on former Labor prime minister Gough Whitlam added to the ever-growing stack of tomes dedicated to these leaders.

Third, women politicians might be more hesitant to expose their private lives to the same extent as their male counterparts. Women politicians frequently experience sexist media coverage that often scrutinises their personal choices as a reflection of their professional capabilities. It is hardly shocking that they might be hesitant to cede agency over their own story and endorse an official biography.

So, there are several glaring omissions in Australian political biography. Where is the biography of our first woman prime minister, Julia Gillard? Former deputy prime minister Julie Bishop is another that comes to mind.

There is also pioneering former Labor minister Susan Ryan, who was pivotal in the passing of the Sex Discrimination Act, the Equal Employment Opportunity Act and the Affirmative Action Act. And Natasha Stott Despoja, the youngest woman to sit in the Australian parliament and former leader of the Australian Democrats.

Sisters must do it for themselves

So where are all the great women political figures? Well, they’re in the memoir section.

Through my research, since 2010, I found 12 autobiographies and memoirs have been published by women premiers, party leaders, federal and state MPs and senators, lord mayors and, of course, our first and only woman prime minister (though I also counted over 30 written by male politicians).




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


Autobiographies can be a valuable way for women politicians to recover their voices, reassert their agency and reclaim their public identity by telling their own life story.

An ambition to take charge of their public image is a common thread running through these books, usually paired with a desire to expose sexism. Gillard’s autobiography My Story, published in 2014 (the year after she left politics), is a notable example of this, holding her opponents and the media to account for their frequently sexist behaviour.

Many women from across the political spectrum have now published comparable memoirs, including Labor MP Ann Aly, former Greens leader Christine Milne and former independent MP Cathy McGowan.

This year, former Labor cabinet minister Kate Ellis’ Sex, Lies and Question Time and former Liberal MP Julia Banks’ Power Play have provided two more examples of how women politicians — particularly those who’ve left politics — use the power of memoir to reclaim their stories and critique the sexist culture in parliament.

History/herstory

While it’s great women are using memoirs to voice their stories, we should not give up on conventional political biography.

Former prime minister Julia Gillard in 2018.
There is no definitive political biography of Julia Gillard.
David Mariuz/AAP

As this genre continues to shape our understanding of political culture and history, it is more important now than ever that women are included to dispel once and for all the myth that their stories are not worth recording.

Rather than adding to the sexist speculation that women politicians experience, political biographers should offer their support for these stories to be told in a consensual and meaningful manner.The Conversation

Blair Williams, Research Fellow, Global Institute for Women’s Leadership (GIWL), Australian National University

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

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.




Read more:
The ‘madness’ of Julia Banks — why narratives about ‘hysterical’ women are so toxic


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.




Read more:
Why is it taking so long to achieve gender equality in parliament?


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.




Read more:
Politics with Michelle Grattan: Former MP Kate Ellis on the culture in parliament house


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.

Politics with Michelle Grattan: Christopher Pyne on being ‘the ultimate insider’


Michelle Grattan, University of Canberra

Former Liberal Minister Christopher Pyne attracted critics for his political front. But he always had plenty of friends and networks, enabling him often to be a player, if not always a “fixer”.

After his election to the South Australian seat of Sturt at age 25, he went on to hold senior portfolios, notably education and defence, and to stride the parliamentary stage as Leader of the House of Representatives.

In his memoir, The Insider, the former politician provides his take, humorous and candid, on a tumultuous 26 parliamentary years.

In this podcast, Pyne talks about life after politics, and stories from the ‘Canberra bubble’.

“I don’t miss politics at all – because I left happy, and I wanted to go.

“So I’m not one of these politicians that was dragged kicking and screaming. I left when people wanted me to stay, which is a great rarity.”

Pyne is ultra candid about his ambition to be prime minister:

“I think when you’re 15, and you decided you want to be a member of the House of Representatives, you kind of think ‘I’m going to dream big.’ So of course I dreamt to be prime minister”.

Reality, it appears, didn’t hit for quite a while.

“I think that week when Malcolm [Turnbull] was deposed and nobody was suggesting that I should be running for leader, it dawned on me that the generation that was being elected, which was Scott Morrison and Josh Frydenberg, were a generation different to me.”The Conversation

Michelle Grattan, Professorial Fellow, University of Canberra

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

What should politicians be reading at parliamentary book club? Our experts make their picks


Jane Howard, The Conversation

You might picture a book club around your neighbour’s coffee table, or over beers at the local pub – but what if it took place in Parliament House?

This is the question being asked by Books Create Australia as they open up nominations for their inaugural parliamentary book club. Anyone can nominate an Australian book written in the last five years to their MP or senator, and one book will be picked for all participating representatives to read.

From fiction to essays to poetry, we asked our experts for their recommendations.

Portable Curiosities

For this crowd, I’d recommend Julie Koh’s Portable Curiosities (UQP, 2016). It’s a sharp and funny collection of stories that expanded my sense of what it is to be Australian. On the assumption that parliamentarians skew demographically to my (Anglo, male, privileged, economically secure) demographic, they too deserve a bit of satirical poking with Koh’s delicate and sharp instruments.

What would it be like to be a young, poor, bright woman born of Asian immigrants in our wealthy but extremely expensive cities? Many thousands are living exactly that, and millions are living parts of it. Koh provides a dark yet joyous window on that world. It wouldn’t do our representatives any harm to look through it for a bit.

Recommended for: our Anglo, male parliamentarians.

-Robert Phiddian, English Professor

A Sand Archive

Gregory Day’s A Sand Archive (Pan Macmillan Australia, 2018) deals with perhaps the most crucial issue we face – environmental management – in lyrical mode. FB Herschell is an engineer concerned about how to maintain the Great South Road against the constant shifting of the sands on which they are built.

He selects marram grass to stabilise the dunes, but further research reveals that marram, an introduced species, harms the dunes, seabirds, and native plants. His appeals to reverse this, and all his evidence, fail to shift the local council, but the writings he leaves put on record the value of the environment, and the capacity of scientific investigation to help it heal.

Recommended for: Minister for the Environment Sussan Ley

–Jen Webb, Director of the Centre for Creative and Cultural Research

#MeToo: Stories from the Australian movement

Given the fact violence towards women is a national crisis, I would recommend #Me Too: Stories from the Australian movement (Pan Macmillan Australia, 2019), an anthology I co-edited. This book gives an overview of the problem of violence towards women and non-binary people in Australia. Through a myriad of different and diverse voices it points to the insidiousness of sexual violence and traces the roots of this problem to the everyday sexism which still permeates Australian culture. The book also offers ideas about how we might find a way through this crisis and into a more equitable and safer Australia.

Recommended for: Prime Minister Scott Morrison

–Natalie Kon-yu, Lecturer in Literature and Gender Studies

The Natural Way of Things

In Charlotte Wood’s The Natural Way of Things (Allan & Unwin, 2015), women who accuse men of sexual harassment or are themselves accused of illicit or improper sexuality are imprisoned and isolated in an outback prison. It’s like an Australian version of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale.

Because it reads like a dystopian fantasy, it might be easy to dismiss the novel as “unrealistic”. But it is ruthless in its analysis of the way contemporary news media and gossip cycles still demonise and sexualise women. The novel explores the very different ways women resist or accommodate to their treatment; but it is really about the structures of patriarchy, influential far beyond the confines of the nuclear heterosexual family.

Recommended for: any male politician who says he is sympathetic to women because he is married to one or has daughters.

–Stephanie Trigg, English Literature Professor

Writing to the Wire

I must acknowledge a possible conflict of interest here by noting that I have a poem in this anthology, but Writing to the Wire (UWA Publishing, 2019) is an extraordinarily powerful collection of poems by and about maritime asylum seekers. The anthology includes poems by senior and emerging Australian poets, and work by those who “would like to be Australians”, as the book’s blurb puts it. As the editors write in their introduction, Writing to the Wire is a little like “bashing your head against a brick wall [but also] very much a book of hope”.

Three years later, the editors and the contributors to this anthology — not to mention those indefinitely detained by the Australian government — are still hoping.

Recommended for: the whole parliament.

-David McCooey, Writing and Literature Professor

Hearing Maud: A Journey for a Voice

Hearing Maud (UWA Publishing, 2019) by Jessica White is a beautifully told story about two people living nearly one hundred years apart, and their experience of deafness. The first is the author herself, Jessica White, who suffered significant and permanent hearing loss following an illness at the age of four. The other is Maud Praed, the daughter of the Australian writer Rosa Praed (1851-1935). Jessica looks into the life of this forgotten daughter of a largely forgotten writer and finds haunting parallels with her own situation. The story is an insider’s account of hearing impairment but, more than this, reminds everyone — not least legislators and policy makers — that what we call disability has an interior life.

Recommended for: Minister for Families and Social Services Anne Ruston and the Minister for the National Disability Insurance Scheme Stuart Robert

–Tony Hughes-D’aeth, English and Cultural Studies Professor

Dark Emu

In Dark Emu (Magabala Books, 2014), Bruce Pascoe amasses a cogent case that Indigenous Australians farmed their land, lived in villages, built houses, harvested cereals and built complex aquaculture systems – and how settler Australians wilfully misunderstood this.

Occupying the western Sydney fringe, Ed Husic’s electorate of Chifley has the rare distinction of a border that follows an important waterway (South Creek) and contains significant colonial-Darug contact sites. Western Sydney is home today to Australia’s largest Aboriginal population; the Aboriginal Land Council is the largest non-government land holder; and some 46 Indigenous organisations are working to sustain their community.

Recommended for: Ed Husic, MP for Chifley

–Heidi Norman, Social and Political Sciences Professor

hope for whole: poets speak up to Adani

It’s hard to go past The Swan Book (Alexis Wright) for its testimony regarding the climate crisis and the NT intervention, and Jess Hill’s new book See What You Made Me Do on the endemic of domestic abuse. But I’m settling on hope for whole: poets speak up to Adani (Plumwood Mountain, 2018) featuring many of Australia’s finest poets. Anne Elvey and Plumwood Journal: An Australian Journal of Ecopoetry and Ecopoetics hosted Poets Speak up to Adani Day of Action in 2017, an event during which poets poemed protests at Adani for 12 hours. The resulting anthology is even more pertinent post-Federal election, and the recent diplomacy fail in Tuvalu.

Recommended for: all parliamentarians who support the mine or seem soft on climate action.

–Meera Atkinson, Creative Writing Lecturer

No Friend But the Mountains: Writing from Manus Prison

Reading expands our capacity for empathy. It forces us to exercise our ethical imagination by putting ourselves into somebody else’s situation; particularly somebody who may be unlike us in the way they think, speak, or feel, or in the situations that they face. No Friend But the Mountains (Pan Macmillan Australia, 2018), Behrouz Boochani’s work of prose poetry, sent out in text messages from Manus Island, bears witness to death, torture and traumatic deprivation. It asks its reader not to treat the fresh hell it narrates as an anomaly but to understand “Manus Prison” as part of a system of oppression and injustice that is far larger, and ongoing. But to learn from Boochani’s text, the reader must give themselves to the work, and read with generosity.

These values may be of assistance to all members of the parliamentary book club.

–Camilla Nelson, Media ProfessorThe Conversation

Jane Howard, Deputy Section Editor: Arts + Culture, The Conversation

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

For centuries, anonymous insider accounts have chipped away at ruling regimes – and sometimes toppled them



File 20180912 133898 1ffx51y.jpg?ixlib=rb 1.1
Copies of Bob Woodward’s ‘Fear: Trump in the White House’ are displayed for sale at a Costco in Virginia.
AP Photo/Pablo Martinez Monsivais

Rachel Carnell, Cleveland State University

Bob Woodward’s new book, “Fear: Trump in the White House,” seems to contain scant new information.

Like Michael Wolff’s “Fire and Fury: Inside the Trump White House,” it portrays President Donald Trump as an “emotionally overwrought, mercurial and unpredictable leader,” whose senior staff struggle to contain his most dangerous impulses.

This same view of Trump was reiterated in a Sept. 5 anonymous New York Times op-ed, which, as Nebraska Sen. Ben Sasse observed, is “just so similar to what so many of us hear from senior people around the White House, you know, three times a week.”

But whether “Fear” tells us something new matters less than the fact that the book is yet another broadside against Trump’s image. It adds more fuel to the suspicions many have about the president’s behind-the-scenes behavior.

In fact, Woodward’s “Fear” – together with Wolff’s “Fire and Fury,” Omarosa Manigault’s “Unhinged” and the anonymous op-ed – is part of a long tradition of political “secret histories,” a genre that recounts salacious and scandalous details about the dealings, relationships and temperaments of those in power. It’s a practice that goes back centuries, and it’s one that my co-editor and I explore in our book “The Secret History in Literature, 1660-1820.”

Secret histories tend to take two forms. There is the plain-spoken, just-the-facts approach, similar to Woodward’s “Fear.” Then there are novelistic accounts with major figures depicted using pseudonyms, as in “Primary Colors,” a lightly fictionalized dramatization of the Clinton White House.

But the secrets unveiled in these works usually don’t come out of nowhere. Instead, they contain anecdotes that have long been whispered or suspected. The goal of secret histories is to emphasize embarrassing stories about a ruler or government – to propel the drumbeat of negative coverage in order to strengthen the opposition and, in some instances, to even topple governments.

Justinian was the subject of a secret history circulated by the military historian Procopius.
Petar Milošević

Secret histories date back at least to the sixth century, when the military historian Procopius wrote down sordid anecdotes about Byzantine Emperor Justinian and his wife, Theodora, in a work that became known as “Anekdota,” which translates to “unpublishable things.” Ten centuries later, it appeared in Latin as “Historia Arcana,” or “Secret History.”

As a military historian, Procopius had helped create the myth of Justinian’s greatness in his eight-book treatise “The Wars of Justinian.” But in his “Anekdota,” Procopius finally told the ugly backstory of Justinian’s reign: his lust, his seizure of others’ property, his petty vengefulness and his persecution of non-Christians. The work was almost certainly circulated in manuscript scroll among Justinian’s enemies. While it probably damaged his standing, Justinian was nonetheless able to retain his grip on power.

After French and English translations of Procopius’ “Anekdota” appeared in 1669 and 1674, secret histories in the same style began to appear about King Charles II of England.

These tended to focus on his mistresses – particularly the infamous Duchess of Cleveland, who manipulated Charles for over a decade, persuading him to grant her land and money and bestow titles of nobility on their illegitimate children.

Speculation over King Charles II’s relationship with the Duchess of Cleveland was rampant during his reign.
National Portrait Gallery

These reports, which read like tabloid-style gossip, were never just about sex.

Readers of one account, titled “The Amours of the King of Tamaran,” likely realized that if the king could be duped and controlled by his powerful mistress, he was also susceptible to being influenced by England’s adversaries.

Indeed, he was: Another secret history, Andrew Marvell’s “Account of the Growth of Popery and Arbitrary Government in England,” described the backstory of the Secret Treaty of Dover, in which Charles II accepted large sums of money from the French king in exchange for promising to return England to Catholicism.

These publications didn’t bring down the politically skilled Charles II, who was glad to take Louis XIV’s money but savvy enough to decide against changing his country’s religion.

They did, however, sow suspicion towards Charles II and his family. After Charles II’s death, his openly Catholic younger brother, James, ascended the throne in 1685, instilling fear that England would return to Catholicism. Seven Englishmen wrote to Prince William of Orange – who was a Protestant – pleading that he invade England. In the Glorious Revolution that ensued, James II fled to France, and Parliament declared William and his wife, Mary, joint monarchs of England.

The Glorious Revolution of 1688 helped inspire American colonists to rebel against another British monarch, with the not-so-secret history of George’s III’s “repeated injuries and usurpations” enshrined in the Declaration of Independence.

Some might disparage Woodward’s book as “anonymously-sourced gossip.”

But gossip has always been important to humankind. As Israeli historian Yuval Noah Harari notes in “Sapiens,” his best-selling account of early human history:

“It is not enough for individual men and women to know the whereabouts of lions and bison. It’s much more important for them to know who in their band hates whom, who is sleeping with whom, who is honest, and who is a cheat.”

Those who dismiss Woodward’s book underestimate the power that gossip and behind-the-scenes revelations wield over politics – and the way it has shaped the course of human history.The Conversation

Rachel Carnell, Professor of English, Cleveland State University

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

Political tracts: the good, the bad and the badly written


Christopher Kremmer, UNSW Australia

If it’s an election, you can bet that our cash-strapped publishing industry is preparing to unleash another volley of those hardy perennials known as the election campaign diaries. Penned by seasoned political observers who tail our leaders on their madcap journey to the ultimate opinion poll, you can expect several of these to be appearing soon in bookshops near you.

Political writing encompasses many different types of books. There are histories of governments, biographies and memoirs of politicians (John Howard’s 2013 Lazarus Rising), scholarly studies of the political process (Ian McAllister’s 2011 The Australian Voter: 50 years of change) and diaries.

This last category may be written by practitioners (The Latham Diaries (2005) and Bob Carr’s Diary of a Foreign Minister (2014)) or observers, usually journalists, and of these, the election diary has been a growing niche.

For publishers, I suspect, not much thought goes into them. The logic is, “If we don’t publish a campaign book, someone else will. Let’s be proactive. Somebody call Laurie Oakes”.

The popularity of the campaign diary owes much to the prevalence of tragic intrigues and power plays in recent Australian politics. The opinion poll-driven cutting down of leaders by their colleagues, inextricably linked as it is to the election cycle, personalises political discourse, thereby accentuating the gladiatorial, or perhaps Shakespearean aspects of the campaigns that follow.

From the journalist’s point of view, it’s money for nothing. Keeping a diary is just another form of taking notes, very useful when checking your facts down the track. The advance will cover drinks and won’t need to be repaid if the thing doesn’t sell.

For the public, campaign diaries are a godsend for spouses and relatives of impossible-to-buy-for men who are expected to be (but aren’t) interested in that kind of thing. It’s a slightly upmarket version of getting Dad a pair of his favourite socks.

Within the sub-genre of campaign books there are a variety of approaches to telling us what happened, or analysing what it means, or both.

At one end of the spectrum lie books that discern and expand on a theme, like Christine Jackman’s 2008 Inside Kevin 07: The people, the plan, and to a lesser extent Barrie Cassidy’s The Party Thieves: The story of the 2010 election (2011). At the other end, lie documentary-style first person accounts like Mungo MacCallum’s The Mad Marathon: The story of the 2013 election (2013).

The irony of political books generally is that, while publishers are fixated on them, they are usually the first to be remaindered, a sure sign of having over-estimated the market.

Despite, or perhaps because of, his chronic intake of massive doses of dangerous drugs, the American “Gonzo” journalist Hunter S. Thompson found politics compelling. But as he confessed in Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72 (1973), most political reporting disappointed him.

The most consistent and ultimately damaging failure of political journalism in America has its roots in the clubby/cocktail personal relationships that inevitably develop between politicians and journalists – in Washington or anywhere else where they meet on a day-to-day basis. When professional antagonists become after-hours drinking buddies, they are not likely to turn each other in.

My sense is that we have less to fear on that front in Australia, where competition for stories between news organisations remains vigorous. When it comes to campaign diaries the problem is not timidity, but a lack of ambition when it comes to the writing itself.

Political journalists place great weight on the quality of their information, but are less prone to crafting beautiful sentences. Because their books are produced in a hurry, they fail generally to take full advantage of the techniques of Longform journalism. They also assume there is intense, widespread interest in election campaigns.

This is a courageous assumption that leads to an even more toxic presumption; that the significance of the outcome of an election necessarily makes every detail of the campaign gripping. Not so.

It is 40 years this year since Laurie Oakes published a quickie that is arguably the finest work of book-length narrative non-fiction ever written about Australian politics, Crash through or crash: The unmaking of a Prime Minister (1976).

As anniversaries go, this one is passing quietly, but amid the cacophony of a federal election campaign it’s worth noting. Crash was the third in a trilogy of books Oakes wrote about the rise and fall of Labor leader Gough Whitlam, who died in 2014.

Whitlam’s victory at the 1972 polls ended a 23-year drought for his party, and ushered in an era of unprecedented reform and upheaval in Australian politics which ended with his dismissal by the Governor-General. Oakes, who was already regarded by many as the country’s leading political journalist, published his book the following year. From its opening sentence there is a sense of a writer in full command of the literary form.

The study at Government House is an imposing room. The mushroom colored walls provide a suitably muted background for the Governor-General’s collection of aboriginal bark paintings and for a beaten copper plaque presented to him during an official visit to Papua New Guinea. There are bookshelves on two sides. One wall is dominated by a large window overlooking the spacious grounds and Lake Burley Griffen beyond. The window forms an alcove, furnished with comfortable lounge chairs upholstered in brown fabric, for informal conversation. At the end of the room furthest from the door there is a carved desk where Sir John Kerr conducts formal business.

There had been no shortage of tumultuous moments in Whitlam’s career. Any of them might have made an arresting opening for the book. But Oakes’ chose instead to set the scene by juxtaposing the stillness and quietude of the room against the savage political act that would take place there, when an Australian prime minister was trapped, deceived and disposed of by the unelected representative of our foreign head of state.

It is exactly the right place and moment to begin the book, as the journalist-author uses the authority of his material, and the research and reporting skills that gathered it, to best advantage.

Even Oakes doesn’t write books like this anymore. The reason? We are all in a terrible rush, and in our increasingly fast, complex world, we are taking refuge in commentary and opinion, as opposed to reporting and analysis.

It’s 13 years since another literary landmark. Don Watson’s erudite and majestic Recollections of a Bleeding Heart: A portrait of Paul Keating PM (2002) set the bar for quality in political writing so high. But not all the quickies are bad.

Bob Ellis is an acquired taste, which many of us have never acquired, and I came to his book about the 2010 federal election Suddenly, Last Winter: An election diary (2010) with deep foreboding.

The rather lengthy author bio that precedes it informs readers that Lord Bob has written “twenty-one books, fifty-five screenplays, two hundred poems, five-hundred political speeches (including one for Kamahl), a hundred songs and two thousand film reviews”. But, hey, who’s counting? We’re into quality, right?

Okay, so he’s a character, and part of his character is a Promethean capacity for name dropping which does tend to intrude upon the job at hand, that is, writing about the election that pitted Australia’s first female Prime Minister, Julia Gillard against Tony Abbott.

9.40 a.m – A call from Denny Lawrence in New York. The play we co-wrote, Intimate Strangers, has just been given a public reading at the Vaudeville Theatre in London…

11.40 a.m. – A phone call from George Miller (for whom I’m writing spare dialogue in Fury Road) eager to know how Canberra was

4.40 p.m. I begin a journal-letter to John Ralston Saul (the world’s greatest thinker)…

Diaries, by their very nature, include much minutiae, such as when Ellis’s beloved northern beaches retreat is invaded by a bush turkey that knocks over chairs, plates, DVDs and bookshelves, “banging his fool head against closed windows, and with shrill cries beseeching whatever deity he worships to help him”.

But the book survives all its author’s efforts to ruin it, mainly due to a bravura 40-page preface, or as Lord Bob prefers to call it a “curtain-raiser” (written by a Hell-raiser), that hurls the reader into the world it describes.

Bob’s world is one in which politics still matters, and Australia is a country in which politics is still imbued with sectarian passion. However, those who practice politics as opposed to observing it are, shall we say, distracted, a “generation of drongos”, as Ellis describes them, “seizing their preselections and bringing us to ruin.”

A typical drongo leader may be

in make-up for the Today show at six-thirty. He may then be at a business breakfast attempting genial oratory at eight and at a Caucus meeting at nine-thirty for an hour of punitive admonition. His brain arrives at eleven, there’s a press conference at noon, a lunch with the President of Palau at twelve-thirty and Question Time at two…In all this he’s supposed to be running the country and he can’t…And so the roof-batts crisis occurs, and the climate change backflip, and the fight with the mining giants … None of these things he would have done had he been awake. And he hasn’t been awake for two years.

The above description is of Kevin Rudd, who is later characterised as “a cocksure twerp who deserved his downfall richly”. But the debilitating political culture it evokes hasn’t changed, except perhaps in degree.

Like Hunter Thompson, Ellis casts off the fetters that neuter most political reporters. The reader may not share the author’s view that the political rivalry between Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott was “erotic”, but the observation is interesting.

Ellis reports, but from a subjective point of view that is at turns, lively, cranky, contentious, silly, surprising, but rarely dull. It’s the kind of writing that lasts, partly because it doesn’t report politics on the campaign’s own terms, but translates it into a conversation that the rest of us can participate in, get irritated by, and at times even enjoy.

When the dust had settled and the minority government was formed, Ellis surveyed the political landscape and found signs of life in the north.

I look forward especially to the ramshackle, whinnying rural-socialist manifestos of Bob Katter. Because I do admire this brilliant wayward white-hatted yodelling dingo-kelpie cross and his untamed, yelping twists of soul.

We get the politics we deserve, but not always writing about it of the quality we expect. Bob’s rude charm saves the campaign diary from itself, and his foibles at some point become endearing.

Always has it been so. Just ask our current Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, who as a university student once planned to write a political musical based on the life of the Depression era New South Wales Premier Jack Lang.

Bob recalls it well, as he himself (who else?) was involved. He even has a few surviving scraps of some of the songs, one of which features Hitler, as he reveals to Annabel Crabb in this year’s best quickie so far. Crabb’s Stop at Nothing: The Life and Adventures of Malcolm Turnbull showcases the journalist’s knack for the well-turned phrase. Take this, for example

Something is missing in Australia. It’s been missing since about 9.30 p.m. on 14 September 2015… It’s the sound of Malcolm Turnbull wanting to be prime minister.

Crabb has a fine ear for the quotable quotes of others too. Recalling his mother Coral’s decision to leave his father (and nine-year-old Malcolm) Turnbull suspects she “sort of got bored with the role.”

Elsewhere in the book, discussing the PM’s diverse pre-politics careers in journalism, law and business, Attorney-General George Brandis remarks that “Malcolm has more hinterland than any previous Australian prime minister”.

And referring to the strains between our current leader and his party, another supporter observes that,

Malcolm doesn’t always realise that in the Liberal Party, when somebody raises an eyebrow at you, it actually means something.

But the chatty spiel that makes Crabb such a successful communicator on television doesn’t always translate well to the page. A blow is “ghastly”, a family farm is “beautiful”, the loss of death of Turnbull’s father (whose affairs were “tangled”) “smashed him up” and the son’s subsequent decision to keep the farm was “crazy brave”. That’s just from page one, and the “adjectivitis” keeps resurfacing throughout the text and becomes very wearing.

Yet the book succeeds mightily, due mainly to the author’s bower-bird instincts, her deep interest in character and astute choice of subject. The reader of her book, and Paddy Manning’s Born to Rule (2015), will find themselves observing those TV images of Malcolm on the campaign trail through the lens of the stories told by these writers.

And they will worry that, win or lose, the current truce between Mr Turnbull and all the people he has offended along the way, including many in his own party, might be short-lived.

The Conversation

Christopher Kremmer, Senior Lecturer in Journalism, School of the Arts & Media, UNSW Australia

This article was originally published on The Conversation. Read the original article.

A Cartoon History of the George Dubya Bush Years, By Elena Steier


 I have just had a quick look at ‘A Cartoon History of the George Dubya Bush Years,’ by Elena Steier. This book is a collection of cartoons from the George W. Bush years as president of the United States. They are a comical look at those years and I’m sure will produce a laugh or two for some people. I however found little in it that amused me – perhaps because I live in Australia and don’t get all the political jokes based on the US political scene of the George W. Bush years.

I have to say that I found some of the cartoons quite offensive and a good number without anything that made them funny to my way of thinking at all. I quite openly state that I am a Christian and therefore some of the material in these cartoons is particularly shocking and offensive to me.

I have had a good laugh at a good number of the cartoons I have seen of George W. Bush in Australian papers, so I do not base my opinion of this book on my appreciation of George W. Bush as a president or for not being able to have a laugh at politics. I simply did not find this book particularly funny or appealing in any way. In fact, I have rid myself of it completely.

Available at Amazon:
http://www.amazon.com/Fringe-Cartoon-History-George-Dubya/dp/1439211744

There is a copy here:
http://www.scribd.com/doc/23408494/A-Cartoon-History-of-The-George-Dubya-Bush-Administration

 

Edmund Barton, by John Reynolds


Yes, I have finally managed to put up another post on this Blog – been quite a while I know. I apologise for that – been very busy with other pursuits.

Today’s book review is on ‘Edmund Barton,’ by John Reynolds. This book is the first in a series on Australia’s Prime Ministers by Bookman Press. The Bookman Press series sought to re-publish the best biographies on each of the Australian Prime Ministers to coincide with the centenary of Australian Federation. ‘Edmund Barton,’ by John Reynolds, was first published in 1948.

This book, though about Edmund Barton, is also a good introduction to the process of Australia becoming a federation of colonies to form the modern day nation of Australia. A biography of Barton must be a study of the beginning of Federation as Barton was probably one of the most important players in bringing Federation to pass, which also meant the creation of Australia as one nation. It is a fascinating introduction to just how a modern Australia was born from the federation of the various colonies that were then situated on the Australian mainland and in Tasmania.

As far as reading goes, I found the book to contain much that interested me, as I have not read or studied a lot on the federation of Australia and the process by which it was achieved. For me this has been an important addition to my understanding of Australian history in an area in which my understanding was quite poor. Having said that, I do not think the book is necessarily an easy read, but requires discipline to keep at it.