None of these is a diary in the traditional sense of a journal kept for reflection rather than publication. All were commissioned beforehand. Cassidy’s and Howes’ — both contracted by Melbourne University Press — are artful in the sense of selfconscious. I will review them in order from more to less conventional but, for the reader with limited time and budget, there is no contest. Only Ellis’s meandering entertainment deserved to be published.
Barrie Cassidy is enmeshed in political reporting. Husband to Heather Ewart of the 7:30 Report, he anchors ABC television’s Insiders programme on Sunday morning. Belying his background as a well-connected ‘insider’, Cassidy’s book rolls along as a blow-by-blow account, but could almost have cut’n’pasted election narratives from Google News. The more useful chapters are those written in retrospect, about events prior to the campaign, such as the Grech affair. Yet even then, this is not a work for posterity. Too often the focus veers onto the interactions of press and politicians, rather than revealing anything about underlying forces or policy issues.
Cassidy’s prose is readable, in a faux conversational style, but rarely more. From the opening stanza’s references to Mark Latham ‘trashing’ and ‘imploding’, the book moves in short chapters with glib titles like ‘From Rudd to the Ranga’. The simple message from The Party Thieves, as the title suggests, is that both Rudd and Turnbull were interlopers, ill-fitted as intellectual internationalists to be leaders of inwardlooking Labor and conservative parties. Cassidy would have us believe that, chaotic as events have been since their deposing, the major parties have been returned to more natural guardians, in the forms of Mother Gillard (student activist then labour lawyer, with a consensual style) and Father Abbott (a pugnacious career politician schooled in a reactionary Catholicism). Certainly the diaries, and other evidence — such as his evaporative caucus support — point to Rudd as a controlling figure with no organic roots in the Labor Party. But just to recognise that invites consideration of Labor’s deeper problem, which none of these accounts confront, namely its ability to survive without a social base. Whether it can re-emerge from its present doldrums as a vital social democratic party, whether it just waits its electoral turn by hoping electors forget perceptions of maladministration, or whether we experience a conservative ascendancy propped up by jostling on the left between Greens and Labor, only history will relate.
Howes’ Confessions of an Insider has been described as self-serving. But its banality is such that it is not clear what purpose it serves. It is easily the thinnest of the three diaries. Of course Howes, as a busy union leader, may have little time for diary-keeping let alone polished reflection. His book, like a lot of political memoirs, reminds us that the profession is neither glamorous nor, for all the talk of ‘power’, particularly momentous. Instead it is a set of daily chores, a routine of meetings and media, lived out against a bitching soundtrack of jealousies, rivalries and fears.
What demarks Howes’ diary is that, for all the media and publishing hype about him being a ‘faceless man’, a factional boxer entering the ring of the heavyweights, it is a lightweight account. Howes embraces the media limelight to the point of being a regular commentator. While hardly unusual in a world of post-modern politics and an obsessively reflexive media, that a ‘player’ should simultaneously be a scribe in his own interest is a curious thing. Patently, this is not the realm of a ‘faceless’ apparatchik.
Despite an eyewitness chronicling of a disastrous campaign, Howes is left reciting his mantra that Rudd-had-to-go-because-he-had-to-go, goading anyone to prove that Rudd would have fared better than Gillard. The question left haunting author and reader alike is whether Rudd-had-to- go because he was non-factional (if so, what does this say for the future of talented but non-aligned Laborites?) or whether Rudd-had-to-go because his caucus resented his leadership style (if so, where was the evidence of a caucus revolt?) As a perceptive blogger on The Piping Shrike has summed it, the entire year reveals nothing if not Labor struggling with its increasing baselessness. Rudd had no base within his party, and only a thin one in the electorate; but the same can be said for the powerbrokers who toppled him.1
One of Howes’ supporters in the movement is Bob Ellis. Ellis, one of Australia’s most accomplished writers, has long also made a sideline of political commentary. But his is not the bland journalese of Cassidy, nor the self-serving rhetoric of Howes. Ellis, a sometime speech writer for many Labor luminaries, is an earnest, wilful puppy dog with a lifetime’s attachment to the party. In Suddenly, Last Winter, his prose bubbles, for he is a writer almost incapable of cliché. Nothing has been sanitised, and little edited, from Ellis’s account. We learn, several times, of his and his wife’s sleeping habits. Though he reminds us, more than once, that he was a practising advocate of free love, this is not a work of gonzo journalism. Monstrous fears of conservative rule plague this man’s broken sleep.
Curmudgeonly, even morbid by temperament, Ellis’s enthusiasm for Labor politics contrasts starkly with the wooden political actors and journalists he chronicles, the ‘matronly’ Julia Gillard chief amongst them. As with Cassidy and Howes, Ellis’s disdain for Rudd runs deep. But through that dark dislike also shines a brutal spotlight on Rudd’s successor. Whilst Ellis’s anxious portents often fall wide of the mark, on Gillard’s fate — electoral limbo — he is proven perceptive. Early on in Gillard’s reign, he publicly but unsuccessfully beseeched her not to rush to an early election. Midway during Labor’s stricken campaign he mocks the great flaw in its battle plan: ‘Assassins have honeymoons. What a great idea that was’.
Sometimes, however, his political antennae are fickle. There are his ludicrous but repeated assertions that women don’t vote for women. And regular hand-wringing over the potential for ‘cluster-bombs’ of gendered prejudice about Gillard’s life to derail her leadership. In contrast, whilst detesting Abbott’s politics, Ellis anxiously admires Abbott’s rascally persona, describing it as ‘artfully dodging, sinuously amiable’. Though touching 70 and no feminist, Ellis is not sexist either. Rather, he seems scarred by his Adventist upbringing. Haunting him is a belief that the wider electorate, most especially in ‘that other country’ of Queensland, is not merely socially conservative, but swayed by apparent irrelevancies such as their leaders’ religiosity and fecundity. Readers of this journal will either laugh, or nod with the same fears. Ellis’s account oscillates — not merely from page-to-page, but sometimes within pages — between hope and despair.
Unlike the diaries of the other two ostensible ‘insiders’, Ellis litters his book with revealing anecdotes, laudatory and libellous, about party figures and fellow travellers. Ellis is immersed in ‘comrades’, political and artistic, whose names and conversations are scattered tastily, like parmesan on pasta. Bob Carr, Mike Rann, Paul Howes himself and Julian Burnside QC appear. Then there is reverence for those Ellis adulates, notably Kim Beazley Jr, Maxine McKew and Bob Hawke (whose March 1983 coronation Ellis captured in a tighter election journal titled Things We Did Last Summer).2 Ellis also pads out his story with endless background news, international events and, in true diary-style, the detritus of his life, brainfarts, burps and all.
Above all, the diary features Ellis’s encounters, leisurely and professional, with actors (Rudd’s confidante, Rhys Muldoon appears prominently) and fellow producers, screenwriters and playwrights. A sense of the dynamic, creative yet insulated Sydney-based arts scene rises from the pages.
Some readers will be puzzled by this juxtaposition of politics and the arts, and think the author too indulgent. If so, at least he indulges us as well. Ellis has a gifted pen, and his inkwell floweth over. He writes in a stream-of-consciousness, but fortunately rarely in a stream-of-blither. Ultimately, there is seamlessness to it. Not just within Ellis’s life, which is so interwoven with artistic and literary endeavours, and political encounters and events, that the warp of politics meets the woof of creativity to form the fabric of his life. But also because Ellis, in his own fevered way, has two implicit observations to make, observations which befit a playwright.
One insight is that a career politician, as Gillard and so many are, needs humanising. Though not a new point, it is one exacerbated by the shift from the loyalties of party democracy to what Manin calls ‘audience democracy’.3 The other insight, which Ellis’s writing bears out, is that worthwhile politics is theatre, dramatic and passionate, at least as much as good theatre can be political.
GRAEME ORR teaches law at the University of Queensland.
1. Book review: Paul Howes’s Confessions of a Faceless Man, The Piping Shrike: A perspective on Australian Politics
2. Bob Ellis, Things We Did Last Summer: An Election Journal (1983).
3. Bernard Manin, The Principles of Representative Government (1997).