THE AUS­TRALIAN CRI­SIS

Paul Kelly’s lat­est work of po­lit­i­cal his­tory reaches a con­fronting con­clu­sion, writes

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books -

PAUL Kelly’s sem­i­nal work of Aus­tralian po­lit­i­cal his­tory and anal­y­sis, The End of Cer­tainty: The Story of the 1980s (1992), chron­i­cled the re­form­ing Hawke-Keat­ing gov­ern­ments. The trans­for­ma­tion of Aus­tralia, man­i­fest in the dis­man­tling of the Aus­tralian set­tle­ment pol­icy frame­work, re­flected the au­thor’s op­ti­mistic view of the coun­try’s fu­ture at the end of the 20th cen­tury.

Two decades later, Kelly’s new book, Tri­umph and Demise: The Bro­ken Prom­ise of a La­bor Gen­er­a­tion, ex­am­ines the gov­ern­ments of Kevin Rudd and Ju­lia Gil­lard and the rise of Tony Ab­bott. But this study of another pe­riod of La­bor in power led the au­thor to con­clude with a pes­simistic view of Aus­tralia’s fu­ture.

This is a sig­nif­i­cant and defin­ing fea­ture of Kelly’s lat­est vol­ume of con­tem­po­rary po­lit­i­cal his­tory. It marks a de­par­ture from his pre­vi­ous works, in­clud­ing The Un­mak­ing of Gough (1976), The Hawke As­cen­dancy (1984), Novem­ber 1975 (1995), 100 Years: The Aus­tralian Story (2001) and The March of Pa­tri­ots: The Strug­gle for Mod­ern Aus­tralia (2009).

Tri­umph and Demise takes Kelly’s long-run­ning nar­ra­tive se­ries in a new di­rec­tion with a provoca­tive and chal­leng­ing the­sis: that the po­lit­i­cal sys­tem is in cri­sis and the on­go­ing re­form nec­es­sary to main­tain and lift our stan­dard of liv­ing is un­der threat. The fi­nal chap­ter presents this the­ory in de­tail, although it per­co­lates through­out the book.

“The business of pol­i­tics is too de­cou­pled from the in­ter­ests of Aus­tralia and its cit­i­zens,” Kelly writes. “This de­cou­pling con­sti­tutes the Aus­tralian cri­sis.”

This view is ex­pressed not so much as a de­fin­i­tive and ir­re­versible con­clu­sion but as a hope he may be wrong. The dys­func­tion that char­ac­terised the Rudd-Gil­lard years may be an aber­ra­tion, but Kelly fears it is the new norm.

This cri­sis has pro­duced “re­form dead­lock”. Politi­cians seem in­ca­pable of un­der­stand­ing what vot­ers want from their gov­ern­ments. If they do un­der­stand, they lack the req­ui­site tal­ents to de­liver th­ese re­forms. It is “the in­abil­ity of po­lit­i­cal decision-mak­ers to ad­dress the prob­lems of their na­tions”, Kelly writes.

The crip­pling fac­tors in­clude: the en­croach­ing power of vested and spe­cial-in­ter­est groups; an in­creas­ingly frag­mented and of­ten overly crit­i­cal me­dia; and the sev­er­ing of a con­sen­sus be­tween the ma­jor par­ties on the core tenets of pub­lic pol­icy.

In­form­ing this di­ag­no­sis is the Rudd-Gil­lard gov­ern­ment. The re­volv­ing door lead­er­ship, the bit­ter re­crim­i­na­tions it spawned, the sys­temic pol­icy fail­ures, the se­rial poor po­lit­i­cal judg­ment and the at­ten­dant de­cline of La­bor with its con­fused ide­ol­ogy and struc­tural weak­nesses led Kelly to this con­clu­sion.

“Un­less the trend is re­versed, Aus­tralia will un­dergo a steady eco­nomic and so­cial de­te­ri­o­ra­tion un­til a cir­cuit-breaker or nasty eco­nomic crunch ar­rives, of­fer­ing the po­ten­tial for a new course,” he writes. Can Ab­bott buck the trend? Tri­umph and Demise: The Bro­ken Prom­ise of a La­bor Gen­er­a­tion By Paul Kelly MUP, 568pp, $49.99 (HB) The present Prime Min­is­ter “will ei­ther break the re­form dead­lock or suc­cumb as another ca­su­alty to the con­tem­po­rary Aus­tralian malaise’’.

Tri­umph and Demise is a su­perbly writ­ten book filled with rev­e­la­tions and sharp judg­ments that lift off the page with an au­thor­ity that is char­ac­ter­is­tic of Kelly, Aus­tralia’s pre­em­i­nent po­lit­i­cal jour­nal­ist and his­to­rian.

This book showcases Kelly at his best. It is the de­fin­i­tive ac­count the Rudd-Gil­lard years and serves as a guide for re­porters and his­to­ri­ans as to how they should ap­proach their craft. But this is a trap. Kelly has set a stan­dard that other writ­ers must be com­pared against but that seems im­pos­si­ble to meet. KELLY joined the Can­berra press gallery in 1971. The ex­pe­ri­ence of re­port­ing the Whit­lam years re­in­forced how pol­i­tics can make for riv­et­ing sto­ry­telling and mo­ti­vated him to write The Un­mak­ing of Gough.

He was also in­flu­enced by Alan Reid, a jour­nal­ist on Frank Packer’s The Bulletin mag­a­zine, who also worked in the gallery. Reid wrote a trio of books about John Gor­ton’s rise to the prime min­is­ter­ship, the Gor­ton gov­ern­ment and the Whit­lam gov­ern­ment.

Reid’s The Power Strug­gle (1969), The Gor­ton Ex­per­i­ment (1971) and The Whit­lam Ven­ture (1976) are clas­sics in in­sider po­lit­i­cal jour­nal­ism. He wrote with great drama to keep his nar­ra­tive fast and fresh, and pep­pered it with de­tails of se­cret meet­ings and un­pub­lished doc­u­ments.

Another in­flu­ence was the work of Lau­rie Oakes and David Solomon, who co-au­thored books on Gough Whit­lam’s elec­tion vic­to­ries. The Mak­ing of an Aus­tralian Prime Min­is­ter (1973) de­tailed La­bor’s 1972 cam­paign and Grab for Power (1974) gave an inside ac­count of Whit­lam’s re-elec­tion.

Kelly has taken this genre and made it his sig­na­ture style and ap­proach to his­tory. It is su­pe­rior to his­tory pro­duced in the academy, which of­ten lacks a re­alpoli­tik ap­pre­ci­a­tion of pub­lic life gleaned from many years of ac­cess, ob­ser­va­tion and writ­ing.

Tri­umph and Demise brings Kelly’s method to its peak. His nar­ra­tive is in­formed by the dis­clo­sure of se­cret con­ver­sa­tions and meet­ings, the dis­cov­ery of doc­u­ments, and in­ter­views with more than 60 peo­ple. The story gal­lops for­ward and is never dull. Events are de­scribed and in­ter­preted. Poli­cies are de­tailed and an­a­lysed.

The great strength of this book is that Kelly was able to en­tice most of the im­por­tant fig­ures from the Rudd-Gil­lard years, in gov­ern­ment and op­po­si­tion, to talk to him on the record. Some of the in­ter­views and con­ver­sa­tions, con­ducted while work­ing as a jour­nal­ist, go back sev­eral years, while oth­ers took place re­cently.

In­ter­views with lead­ing par­tic­i­pants be­came

Star-crossed: Kevin Rudd and Ju­lia Gil­lard

at the 45th ALP con­fer­ence in 2009

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