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