There are people on the Oceanic Viking who will disagree with me, but few have fared worse from the recent refugee crisis than Paul Kelly (the journalist that is — the footballer and singer appear to have emerged unscathed). As the boats hove into view, Kelly floated his own standard assessment — on the one hand this, on the other that, hard heads, soft hearts, cautious governance, damn the Left and Right, but damn the Left more.

It should have worked. Instead it all went kablooey. A couple of weeks into the crisis, both sides were plunging around, trying to find an angle. But the running was not with any easy division of hard and soft.

For 48 hours, it was the Liberal party baiting Labor on its alleged cruelty, while both parties got down to a tussle on who had put more children behind razor wire. Then part of the Libs swing into a mode of Muslim-baiting, which was struck down by the central part of the party. Then the AWU pushed from the Left, reminding the government of what Labor was supposed to stand for. And on it went. Despite the chastening effect of Labor’s sudden drop in Newspoll — whose significance is yet to be fully determined — the issue simply wasn’t following the script.

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Kelly’s analysis, like that of many others, was hopelessly oversimplified. The complexity of political and social forces unleashed by the refugee crisis in the Howard years had come around in an entirely different direction — in part as a reaction to those years. It caught Kelly napping and a lot more people besides.

That is a miniature of the virtues and problems of The March of Patriots, Kelly’s political history of the fall of Keating, and the first two terms of the Howard government, concluding in the aftermath of the 2001 election. The book is in the style of The End of Certainty, only more so — elephantine, exhaustive on matters behind closed doors, scrupulously researched and multi-sourced. It is also flat-footed and dull, very much in the Kelly style.

One staggers for hundreds of pages desperate for a pen-portrait, a physical scene, a context. Save for the occasional second-hand apercu — a telling one about George W. Bush’s pre-presidential office having no books, only sporting trophies on the shelves — we are floating in a space that is more like a Beckett novel than a real world of clashing humans. Doesn’t anyone have bodies, surrounds? Doesn’t anything occur in place? By now, one simply expects that in a Paul Kelly book, but it makes the reading of it dull but dutiful work. It’s the literary equivalent of cleaning out the garage on a grey Saturday afternoon.

That flatness of form is indicative of a limitation of understanding, but on certain areas it’s very good indeed. Kelly gives a clear picture of way in which Keating’s post-1993 budget was founded on pure hubris and, more than his national identity adventures, blew a hole in Labor’s ship of state. There are probably other takes on the events, but this one seems strong.

Though he is reasonably sympathetic to Howard’s argument that social conservatism was a necessary corollary to economic liberalisation in a fraying world, he is scathing about the fairly half-hearted way in which Howard went about this, the lack of real change he made in areas he purportedly wanted to transform, such as the ABC and education.

Yet his overwhelming sympathy for Howard’s “suburban patriotism” also has him veering from description into prescription where it suits. Howard is chastised severely for his failure to stand-up to Pauline Hanson, and denounce her politics, while others in the party — most audibly Peter Costello and Jeff Kennett — were gnashing their teeth.

Yet of course Howard’s refusal to condemn Hanson was absolutely vital to his politics, which was to have nothing significant to the Right of him. One can talk about “social conservatism” all one likes, but Howard’s appeal was to a reactionary strand within areas of the electorate, and the withering of the One Nation movement (quite aside from its own corruption) is part-proof of that. Prior to the crazy period of the Tampa Pauline Hanson had suggested that a policy for boat arrivals be to “give them food and water and tow them out to sea”. By 2001, given Hanson’s insistence on food and water, that policy was to the left of where the government was at.

That The March of Patriots doesn’t encompass that is partly because Kelly wants to preserve notions of Howard as a statesman rather than a populist. In a mirror-image of the alleged “Howard haters”, he sets up an idealised Howard, the principled mainstream conservative he’d like to see. When the real Howard departs from that, in the process of being the real Howard, Kelly then judges it as a falling short. It’s a bit like judging a high jumper by the standards of a long jumper — well he may have got over that bar thing, but he didn’t get very far did he? Kelly is utterly blithe to the simpler and more direct explanation — that Howard politically is far more of a Nixonian schemer than he is a steady as-she-goes Tory, his core principles long ago dissolved by the nihilism of everyday politics.

Culturally, though no redneck, Howard is a mild racial chauvinist, of a sort of Edna Everage style, a xenophobe and a nostalgist. These two tendencies, mild in themselves, become noxious when combined, as they did in the Tampa period, producing an utter indifference and disdain for people of a different race. Howard didn’t go soft on Hanson out of a failure of political calculus — he went soft on her because he agreed with the thrust of a lot of her comments, and it was politically advantageous to do so. It was a win-win for Howard.

Kelly’s account is thus marred by the fantasy he projects on to Howard — but it’s also a victim of the author’s focus on mandarin history, who said what to whom in which corridor. Kelly could not be expected to undertake a social-political history of Australia in one volume, but there are moments when some mention of the social context is simply essential, and the absence of such constitutes omission. You can’t really give the full flavour of the waterfront dispute or the Tampa crisis, without summoning up debate in the media or movement on the streets.

But Kelly will not consider this because of the great flaw that runs through his work — an almost visceral dislike of some amorphous group, variously known as “progressives”, “the Left” etc. People from this group are rarely, if ever, quoted — they’re an amorphous chorus of noises off, for much of this book, and much of Kelly’s journalism. About 300 pages in, even Kelly realises he is a little light on evidence.

“Countless examples could serve,” he notes of the sins of the demon progressives before quoting … a Leunig cartoon. And Gideon Haigh denouncing “effete cosmopolitanism”.

Leaving aside the question of who a speccie flyweight scribbler is calling “effete”, the reliance on a cartoon is obviously weak. Cartoonists, satirists deploy whatever rhetoric they can, for an effect. If Kelly wanted to really examine the way in which progressive opinion was interacting with the Howard mainstream, it would have been better to consider someone like David Marr’s writings in the SMH, or shock horror Julian Burnside, or a dozen other equally formidable types.

Yes much was said that was silly and irritating, but something else was happening, that becomes of much greater importance for the second volume of the Howard era, if Kelly writes it. That is, that the social movements would transform the relationship of politics to policy quite substantially over a few short years such that Howard’s last throw of the dice would be not a hip-pocket nerve bribe, but an initiative on Aboriginal Australia, that the union movement would put a stake through the heart of WorkChoices, and that refugee politics would become a blame game over who locked up children first.

What has come to the centre of Australian political life is the politics of shame, and moral obligation, and it began in the years described in The March of Patriots. Kelly can’t see it, which is why he remains badly behind the game today. He ends with an approving quote of the equally sour Les Carlyon, scathing about people who were concerned only about: “…how can I say to my children what Howard did to the [tick box] Aborigines/republicans/refugees/the long-faced potoroo…”

Yeah. Land rights for gay whales man. Leaving aside the republic — the leader of whose movement now leads Howard’s party — these became central issues, on which Howard not only lost his government , but his seat, to a female ABC journalist. Carlyon returns the favour by giving Kelly a blurb quote praising his “gift for distillation” which is fair enough and his “cut glass prose” which is ridiculous.

The over-valuation of Kelly makes the man looks exposed. Every week they throw to him on Insiders as if the Oracle was on the line from Delphi — and we get a political analysis that any competent cadet political rounder could be expected to give. Kelly’s skills should not be undervalued. Not everyone could write this sort of book. But it’s increasingly embarrassing to put a merely dogged and efficient writer in a position where his utter lack of imagination and depth of perception is put on weekly display.

The intended effect of Carlyon’s blurb is that of elder statesmen, but they sound more like two old Muppets in the balcony, railing at the show beneath. Kelly gets away with a conventional political account of the late 90s — just — but he is going to need to expand his thinking radically if he is going to understand what happened to the country after 2001.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
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