Robert Manne wants to do you slowly, just like he’s done anyone he’s ever disagreed with. His penchant for densely argued prose has made him one of the most respected — and feared — pugilists on the left-wing side of politics.
That doesn’t mean he picks fights with featherweights — La Trobe’s professor of politics relishes taking on the big boys. Just like he did last year with a 25,000-word piece for Quarterly Essay entitled “Bad News”, in which he painstakingly eviscerated The Australian.
“He’s a calm arguer, he uses facts and he gives you the facts,” Fairfax journalist David Marr tells The Power Index, adding he thought “Bad News” was “truthful, reasoned and grown up”.
“He’s forensic, y’know?” says friend Morry Schwartz, who publishes Quarterly Essay and influential current affairs magazine The Monthly (where Manne was once an editorial board member). “When he takes up an issue that he wants to investigate, he will bore-in in a way that no one else can in this country … When he takes a topic he makes it his.”
Many issues have received the Manne treatment over the years: communism, censorship and the culture wars being just a few. Most recently, he’s become a beacon of progressive thought in Australia, particularly on the Iraq war, asylum seekers and the power of News Limited.
“Overwhelmingly the most important Australian ever is Rupert Murdoch,” Manne tells The Power Index. “He is a kind of genius in combining his commercial interests with his political prejudices.”
Manne says it was the combination of The Australian‘s “extremely right-wing” politics and status as the most important newspaper for the political class which prompted him to write “Bad News”, adding: “I think that’s had a distorting and contorting effect on Australian politics for quite a long time.”
And if you measure influence by sheer reaction generated, Manne’s Quarterly Essay was a raging success. In the weeks after publication, The Australian sent forth a conga line of journalists, editors and columnists to attack the essay.
The criticism came so thick and fast that in order to work out just what people were saying about him, Manne started Googling himself. “I do that now to discover what’s being said about me,” he says. “It’s often quite unpleasant but also you develop a thick skin as I have.”
It’s not the first time Manne’s been successful in pissing people off. His dogged documentation of another pet topic, the Stolen Generations, has drawn praise as well as vitriol from his opponents, including conservative columnist Andrew Bolt and historian Keith Windschuttle.
“He’s an academic dilettante who has never done serious historical research on the numerous issues he has written about,” Windschuttle tells The Power Index, echoing a piece he wrote in Quadrant magazine about his hoary-haired rival. “His talent is less for scholarship than self-promotion.”
Manne has also angered his own side. Like when he came out in support of offshore processing as a more humane way to deal with asylum seekers. On that occasion, he balanced it out by saying Australia should increase its intake of refugees and end mandatory detention.
It wasn’t enough for some. As one prominent commentator tells The Power Index: “He’s a f-cking flip-flopper on refugees.”
And even then, what Manne says may not have a lot of impact on government policy anyway. As one senior ALP source explains to The Power Index: Manne is important, but his influence lies mainly with the so-called progressive “doctors’ wives” being seduced by the Greens. “If you can find any builder’s labourers who are influenced by Robert Manne let me know,” they say.
So does the man himself think he’s powerful? “I think I’ve had an influence on maybe five or six key debates,” he says. “Whether that’s power I don’t know, but it’s influence.”
When The Power Index meets up with Manne it’s for lunch at Adam’s Restaurant, at La Trobe’s Bundoora campus in Melbourne’s north-east. He looks every inch the public intellectual with white open-necked shirt, corduroy trousers and a slightly crumpled grey jacket.
As we walk towards our table a colleague congratulates him on his nephew David Manne, a prominent refugee lawyer, making The Age‘s recent most influential Melburnians list. “Ah yes, provocateurs,” responds Manne with a bit of a grin, in reference to the section under which the paper listed his nephew. Clearly it runs in the family.
“He’s had a profound impact in shaping what I do and how I come at the world,” David Manne tells The Power Index of his uncle’s influence. “He’s deeply loyal and generous.”