Games of chance in the cor­ri­dors of power

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Richard Fer­gu­son

An­drew Leigh is one of the stars of La­bor’s front­bench. He doesn’t have a union back­ground — he’s been an eco­nom­ics pro­fes­sor and an as­so­ciate to for­mer High Court judge Michael Kirby — and he’s not aligned with any fac­tion. But af­ter six years in par­lia­ment he’s the op­po­si­tion’s as­sis­tant Trea­sury spokesman.

Now, like sev­eral of his col­leagues, he’s writ­ten a book, and what a cracker it is. The Luck of Pol­i­tics is Leigh’s take on how chance and strange events can change the course of history. De­ploy­ing both hard data and po­lit­i­cal anec­dote, he mounts a per­sua­sive ar­gu­ment that while lead­er­ship and pol­icy count, a bit of bad luck can de­rail even the most pow­er­ful politi­cians. Some­times the fate of the na­tion is as ran­dom as a throw of the dice.

Leigh de­fines luck as “events the in­di­vid­ual con­cerned does not con­trol or pre­dict’’. He of- fers coin toss­ing as an ex­am­ple: “When you toss a coin in the air, the side that lands face up is de­ter­mined by how hard you throw it, the wind con­di­tions and what sur­face it lands on … The per­son toss­ing the coin can­not con­trol or pre­dict the out­come.”

And what luck some of our politi­cians have had. Leigh ex­am­ines how pre­s­e­lec­tion and in­ter­nal bal­lots, so of­ten mat­ters of con­fi­dent pre­dic­tion, can throw up re­sults no one imag­ined. Scott Mor­ri­son, the new Trea­surer, pre­vailed in pre­s­e­lec­tion af­ter a dis­puted bal­lot. Ju­lia Gil­lard, the first fe­male prime min­is­ter, was very nearly “Sen­a­tor Gil­lard” in 1996 but missed out. One Na­tion sen­a­tor-elect Heather Hill found out she was a Bri­tish na­tional as she was about to take her seat.

And then there’s that luck­i­est — and un­luck­i­est — of prime min­is­ters, Gough Whitlam, who missed out on a lo­cal coun­cil seat and a spot in state par­lia­ment be­fore end­ing up in Can­berra. As he once mused: “I could have been lord mayor of Syd­ney, premier of NSW or even pres­i­dent of the Suther­land Shire. Alas, the fates were against me.’’

Leigh’s data crunch­ing shows how the cir­cum­stances of birth can make the jour­ney to par­lia­ment tougher. Women have a 0.33 per cent disad­van­tage in elec­tions (an im­prove­ment on the 10 per cent when they were first el­i­gi­ble to run in 1903). Peo­ple with Asian names suf­fer a 1.5 per cent penalty in elec­tions; Mus­lim can­di­dates fare worse at 2.3 per cent. As for indi- genous can­di­dates, Leigh points out there’s not enough data to tell, which says it all.

He thinks we dwell too much on fail­ure. He takes Robert Men­zies and John Howard, two men whose ca­reers came crash­ing down be­fore they rose to power, as ex­am­ples of how bad luck can be fleet­ing. He also of­fers his own coun­ter­fac­tual history, the what-ifs and the mighthave-beens. What if Whitlam had sur­vived in 1975, only to be fol­lowed in the 1980s by An­drew Pea­cock and Howard with a max­i­mally Thatcherite agenda? What if Men­zies had re­placed Churchill as Bri­tish PM? Such spec­u­la­tions un­der­line Leigh’s cen­tral the­sis.

“If you omit luck from your view of pol­i­tics, you’ll be too quick to re­vere the win­ners and re­vile the losers,’’ he writes. “Putting chance back in the pic­ture al­lows for a more bal­anced per­spec­tive on pol­i­tics, and a re­minder of the myr­iad ways that luck shapes all our lives.”

This is a fun book, and an op­ti­mistic one: Leigh wants to re­as­sure us a lot of things come right in the end. It’s through ap­pre­ci­at­ing luck and the lack of it, he reck­ons, that we can un­der­stand fail­ure and suf­fer­ing, and rise above it.

is a free­lance jour­nal­ist.

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