Paul Kelly’s new book was launched this morning at Parliament House, by no less than the Prime Minister. Kelly is, after all, a doyen.
Rudd, the most ruthlessly on-message politician in Australian history, didn’t miss the opportunity, with most of the Press Gallery and any number of politicians from both sides assembled before him. He got stuck into the Liberal Party, claiming it hadn’t supported genuine economic reform. It was boorish and boring. Kelly might think twice before inviting Rudd to launch his next book.
Kelly, as I said, is a doyen, as well as having the safari-like title of “editor-at-large” for The Australian . Except, I’ve always had the sneaking suspicion he doesn’t have a lot to say. At least, certainly not as much as the other doyens of the Gallery (now that Ramsey has retired), Michelle Grattan and Laurie Oakes, both of whose powers of political analysis remain acute, even if Oakes’s are primarily on display in his Saturday column for News Ltd.
Instead, Kelly has a tendency to dress the commonplace up as profundity, invariably couched in slow, deep tones that denote gravitas regardless of substance.
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Rudd described The March of Patriots as a sequel to The End of Certainty , Kelly’s epic work from the early nineties (which unfortunately ended looking forward to what direction a Hewson-led Government would take the dramatic story of Australian economic reform). Rudd called The End of Certainty a classic work. Perhaps it is.
There does remain the slight problem that, despite being an eminently readable account of 1980s politics, it appears to partly borrow its central tenet of a Federation social and economic settlement from Gerard Henderson’s Australian Answers published three years earlier.
The taster extracts from the new book also have a slightly warmed-up feel to them. So far we’ve heard John Howard actually knew there were no children overboard, that Noel Pearson advised Howard on how to get re-elected, that Howard didn’t trust Peter Costello and thought he lacked judgment, that his Government didn’t get advice on the legality of the Iraq War, and that Howard found Tony Blair too quick with the smart-alec remarks.
None of which are exactly major revelations. Howard didn’t like Costello? They lied about kids overboard? Noel Pearson helping the conservatives? They neglected to check whether the illegal, immoral attack on Iraq was legal? You could knock me down with a feather.
The only odd thing was the strange claim that Howard and Alexander Downer — whose stint as foreign minister looks more and more impressive the longer Julie Bishop remains in the shadow job — somehow cooked up the idea of freeing East Timor. As Peter Brent has shown it’s a bizarre claim. If indeed the Australian Government had originated a plot to dismember its closest neighbour, the ramifications would, even now, have been dramatic and an extremely hostile reaction from Jakarta justifiably expected. The fact that it sank without trace shows the real tenor of the “revelation”.
One hopes there is more substance and actual surprises in the book itself.
As for the partisan point Kevin Rudd was making this morning at the launch: he claimed that the Liberals had failed to support key elements of Labor’s economic reforms, meaning they couldn’t claim a bipartisan share in the major reform achievements of the last two decades.
Bollocks. John Howard didn’t support all of the major Hawke-Keating reforms — he was particularly recalcitrant on compulsory super, most notably, and for the most childish of reasons, because he hated unions — but he supported most of them and far more than Labor supported during Howard’s term in office. To its lasting shame, the ALP didn’t even support the GST, which could have sailed through unamended by Mad Meg Lees’s ridiculous schoolmarmish demands – and all the more efficient and socially just for it — if the ALP had accepted Howard’s hard-won mandate for it.
Still, opposing worthwhile reforms is what oppositions do, as Malcolm Turnbull now relishes showing us. But the thought remains that in Hawke, Keating and Howard Australia had a generation of genuine reformers whose like we won’t see again for a long time, regardless of who is in power.