The Australian carried an op-ed piece
yesterday by Wayne Errington and Peter van Onselen which made some
interesting points about John Howard’s political strategy and the
government’s prospects for the remainder of this term. But the piece
was particularly interesting in light of the fact that it noted its
authors (both political science academics) are “writing a biography of
John Howard.”

I don’t know if they have a publisher lined up,
but anyone who cares about Australian politics should wish them luck.
The lack of biographical attention to Liberal Party figures is a
national disgrace.

Howard is the most notable example, with his
only biography to date being an embarrassing book by David Barnett with
Pru Goward (Viking, 1997). But think how many others would be material
for a good story: Andrew Peacock, Malcolm Fraser, William McMahon,
Rupert Hamer, Steele Hall, Fred Chaney, Bill Snedden and many more.
It’s the same for earlier eras – even Joe Lyons, one of our most
important prime ministers, still lacks a proper biography. But books
about Labor politicians fill many shelves and keep coming.

Part
of the problem is that a good biography involves getting close to its
subject, and there are some people we don’t really want to get that
close to. I was informally approached by a publisher to write about
Howard but, as I explained last year in The Age, “most people don’t want to spend that time getting inside John Howard’s head. It’s not that inviting a place to be.”

But
there is clearly a more general cultural problem: publishers lack
enthusiasm for books about non-Labor politics because they think the
reading public isn’t interested. Michael Duffy, himself a former
publisher, told the 7.30 Report
last November that “everything else being equal a book about a Labor
subject or person will sell five to ten times as many copies as a
Liberal one.”

It looks as if the Right’s persistent
anti-intellectualism has come back to bite it. If its supporters won’t
buy books, then books that reflect their worldview, or even try to
understand it, won’t get written.

Peter Fray

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