Book review

'My plans for the nation' – Labor politicians' designs on Australia's future

14 Jun 2006

Wayne Swan Postcode: The Splintering of a Nation North Melbourne, Pluto Press Australia, 2005 (180 pp). ISBN 1-86403-360-6 (paperback) RRP $26.95.

Craig Emerson Vital Signs, Vibrant Society: Securing Australia’s Economic and Social Wellbeing Sydney, University of New South Wales Press, 2006 (233 pp). ISBN 0-86840-883-2 (paperback) RRP $29.95.

Modern Australian politicians are usually busy people, balancing the demands of party, parliament, and electorate—and perhaps even family life, friendship and occasional relaxation. And writing a book of any worth takes a pretty large commitment of time, energy, and resources. The political memoir is usually a product of the leisure that follows voluntary or forced retirement from the tumult and the shouting. It allows politicians to advertise their own achievements, settle old scores, and influence the writing of history by others. It can also attract very tidy royalties. For US presidents, of course, this business is a veritable cash bonanza, and presumably a welcome supplement to the piddling millions they receive on the lecture circuit. Political leaders in power, being especially busy, might arrange for their better speeches—now largely written by professionals—to be collected and published, an exercise involving little or no commitment of time from the busy one.

But the ‘my plans for the nation’ book—if it hasn’t been ghosted by a speechwriter—would normally be written during scraps of time snatched from the heavy duties of a working politician. It would also, at least in this country, be read by a relatively small number of people, while laying authors open to having their words quoted back at them in uncomfortable or inconvenient circumstances.

So why do politicians write such books? This generation of Australian politicians isn’t, of course, the first to produce this kind of publication. John Dunmore Lang’s Freedom and Independence for the Golden Lands of Australia (1852) and Billy Hughes’ The Case for Labor (1910) belong to this tradition, as do more recent examples such as Arthur Calwell’s Labor’s Role in Modern Society (1963), ghosted by his speechwriter, Graham Freudenberg (2005, p. 47), and Gough Whitlam’s Fabian pamphlets and published lectures of the late 1950s to early 1970s. All of this would suggest that the practice is essentially the preserve of Labor politicians or, at least, of radicals such as J. D. Lang, although there are some notable examples from the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth century of non-Labor politicians such as Bruce Smith (1887) Henry Wrixon (1896), and Anthony St. Ledger (1909) producing works articulating their own political philosophy, and/or condemning the dangerous socialism of their political opponents. Robert Menzies’ The Forgotten People: And Other Studies in Democracy (1943), based on a series of radio broadcasts, is perhaps the best known example of a non-Labor politician attempting to lay out, in book form, a philosophical foundation for the conservative side of politics. But his effort seems among a few exceptions to the rule that such works are most commonly produced by the Left.

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