Books in review

By Roy Williams BA '84 LLB '86

In this issue:

Punch & Judy

Cover illustration of Punch and Judy

Last year’s federal election was among the strangest in our history. Australians were bitterly and almost evenly divided: the final result not determined in Labor’s favour until nearly three weeks after polling day. Six months on, and several books later, it’s timely to assess what happened, and to remind ourselves of the crucial role of this university in our national life, because remarkable numbers of key figures in the 2010 election are alumni of the University.

The Leader of the Opposition, Tony Abbott (BEc ’79, LLB ’81), got his start in the rugged arena of student politics. He battled his way to the Presidency of the Student Representative Council, no mean feat for a conservative, and it proved an omen of things to come. In the ballot of 1 December 2009 for the leadership of the federal parliamentary Liberal Party – probably the pivotal event in Australian politics since the 2007 election – Abbott prevailed by one vote over then-incumbent Malcolm Turnbull (BA ’77 LLB ’78) and the amiable Shadow Treasurer, Joe Hockey (BA LLB ’90).

On the Labor side, Kevin Rudd (ANU) and Julia Gillard (University of Melbourne) received their tertiary education elsewhere. But many important players can be counted as alumni, including David Bradbury (BA ’97 LLB (Hons) ’99), member for the bellwether western Sydney seat of Lindsay. Chalk in, as well, the pugnacious former leader Mark Latham (BEc ’83), who caused such a stir as a “special reporter” for Channel Nine’s 60 Minutes.

The roll call continues with Greens’ leader Bob Brown (MBBS ’86) and rural independent Rob Oakeshott (BA (Hons) ’98), whose impassioned, lengthy announcement on 9 September 2010 confirmed that Labor would stay in office.

Then there are High Court justices Dyson Heydon (BA ’64 LLD ’07), Susan Crennan (LLB ’79) and Virginia Bell (LLB ’77). The Court’s decision on 6 August 2010 in Rowe v Electoral Commissioner, declaring invalid certain provisions of the Electoral Act introduced by the Howard Government in 2006, re-enfranchised about 100,000 voters and probably helped Labor get over the line.

The list includes some heavy-hitters in the media. The Sydney Morning Herald’s David Marr (BA ’68 LLB ’71), for instance, author of a damaging profile of Rudd (“Power Trip”) in the first Quarterly Essay of 2010. So too the veteran Laurie Oakes (BA ’66), recipient of high-level Labor leaks in the early stages of the campaign, and the redoubtable Phillip Adams (DLitt (honoris causa) ’05) to whom, a week or so later, Rudd poured out his heart on ABC Radio National.

Two other names belong on this imposing list, those of authors Bob Ellis and Mungo Wentworth MacCallum (BA ’63). Both attended Sydney around the same time as other national icons-to-be – Germaine Greer, Clive James, Les Murray and John Bell among them. (Ellis, never actually graduated!)

Both MacCallum and Ellis are consummate – and prolific – prose stylists. Whatever else they got up to on campus, they learned to write. Each has penned a highly entertaining account of the 2010 campaign. MacCallum’s Punch and Judy (BlackInc) is distinguished by his droll wit and comprehensive knowledge of Australian political history. The book gives every appearance of having been effortlessly dashed off; once a doyen of the Canberra press gallery, MacCallum now lives contentedly on the NSW North Coast.

On balance, MacCallum’s distance from the day-to-day hurly-burly of politics was an advantage. He confesses late in the book that he regarded the prospect of an Abbott government as “the stuff of febrile nightmare”, but, for the most part, he maintains a wry detachment. His judgments are fair and sensible.

Suddenly, Last Winter

Cover illustration of Suddenly, Last Winter

Ellis’ Suddenly, Last Winter (Penguin) is a different animal. For a start, unlike MacCallum, Ellis frequently turned up in person at key events. The book is written as a diary, in the style of Hunter S Thompson. It’s a bizarrely eclectic mix of fine socio-political commentary, trenchant invective and personal gossip and reminiscence.

Ellis is an unabashed Labor groupie. (Disclosure: he’s also a personal friend in whose boisterous company I sat through election night.) But his views are a hotch-potch: he regularly excoriates Gillard (“evasive, wayward” and “a political drongo”) and exhibits decidedly mixed feelings about Rudd (“a f***ing sententious pest … and yet, and yet, a humble upward-striving man of decency and probity and worth”). He admires both Wayne Swan and Bob Katter.

As is now notorious, Ellis’ opinion of Abbott the man is surprisingly favourable (“assured, skilful, plausible and handsome”). At page 214 he issues a caution, as much to himself as the reader: “It is time, therefore, to look at his policies, lest we be too tempted to vote for him.”

By comparison, Barrie Cassidy and Paul Howes are pedestrian writers. But both are genuine political insiders, with some fascinating insights. Cassidy is a distinguished broadcaster, and was once press secretary to Bob Hawke; Howes, the head of the Australian Workers Union, played a significant role in Rudd’s overthrow. (Neither went to university, by the way, let alone Sydney: both attended local state high schools, at, respectively, Rutherglen in country Victoria and Blaxland in the Blue Mountains. Howes left in Year 9.)

The central thesis of Cassidy’s The Party Thieves (MUP) is that Rudd and Malcolm Turnbull were both fish out of water on their own side of politics. Each had “a manic desire to get his own way”. Eventually – and, Cassidy insists, justifiably – their colleagues rebelled. He rates “the drama that took place from December 2009 to August 2010 … as one of the top political events of the last fifty years”.

Confessions of a Faceless Man

Cover illustration of Confessions of a Faceless Man

Howes’ Confessions of a Faceless Man (MUP), also in diary format, is slight but diverting. He has an endearing sense of humour. He shares Cassidy’s poisonous views of Rudd and Latham but expresses himself more colourfully, and is breezily contemptuous of Abbott. Although admitting admiration for Turnbull (“at heart, an honourable, good man”), he mostly derides the conservative side of politics. He defends trade unions with spirit, but his incessant if sometimes hilarious bucketing of Mark Latham becomes tiresome and he too glibly lauds Gillard (“one of the most outstanding politicians or leaders I’ve ever seen or heard”).

Great election books are rare. Theodore H. White’s The Making of the President series (1960-72) is a must-read, although my nomination for best-ever is An American Melodrama: The Presidential Campaign of 1968, by English reporters Lewis Chester, Godfrey Hodgson and Bruce Page. (They did have momentous material to work with!)

Only two books about an Australian election year merit “classic” status: November 1975 by Paul Kelly (BA ’69 DScEc ’07), and Dark Victory, the scathing account of 2001 by David Marr (BA ’79) and Marian Wilkinson. None of the four about 2010 is in that league, but read together, they confirmed several personal opinions.

First, we need more right-of-centre commentators in Australia who are prepared to write serious books about elections.

Second, Labor ought not to have ousted Rudd. The evidence appears overwhelming that, in private, he behaved dreadfully towards many people, and in that sense “deserved” his fate. But he had led a dignified and mostly competent government (“a lot better than fair”, as MacCallum puts it). Despite his ill-advised decision to shelve the Emissions Trading Scheme, and the ham-fisted introduction of the mining tax, his and the Government’s opinion poll ratings remained reasonable.

In any case, the electorate ought to have been the judge. For what it’s worth, I share the view of John Howard (LLB ’61) that Rudd would have won easily. In March he thrashed Abbott in their only one-on-one debate, on health.

Third, the election campaign was ghastly. The 24-hour news cycle now rules. Both sides squibbed the toughest issues: federalism, Afghanistan and – the core reason why Labor haemorrhaged one million primary votes to the Greens – climate change. Abbott downplayed his one visionary policy (generous paid maternity leave) and was incoherent when forced to talk about Labor’s (the National Broadband Network). Both sides pandered to the “bogan vote” on issues of race, a sad and unseemly spectacle that all four authors rightly denounce. Howes’ recurring treatment of this issue is the best thing about his book.

Finally, beyond trivial point scoring about alleged waste in Labor’s school-buildings program, there was little mature discussion about education policy – tertiary education, especially. This was a great shame, if unsurprising, and it makes you wonder whether any of our post-Rudd leaders properly appreciate the importance of the issue. Sydney alumni have no excuse.

Roy Williams is a lawyer and author. His most recent book is God, Actually