Friday, January 30, 2009

Howard's End: The Unravelling of a Government, by Peter Van Onselen and Philip Senior

How many times have we seen the title of E.M Forster’s novel, Howard’s End, used as a media headline during John Howard’s long prime ministership? Here it is again, as a book title about John Howard’s decline and fall. (Okay, I just fell into the same trap myself using the title to Edward Gibbon’s famous history.)

Peter Van Onselen wrote a fairly sympathetic and admiring biography of John Howard with Wayne Errington. This time Van Onselen teams up with Philip Senior, a PhD student from Sydney Uni, to write an end days of the Howard Government. The blurb on the back of the book says it’s in the ‘tradition of Pamela Williams’ The Victory'. Tradition of? I didn’t realise it had become a tradition.

My recall of the Williams book is that it was a better read. I think it was about a hundred pages longer, so it had more detail. Van Onselen and Senior do their best to give this book a racey, breathless pace. This is coupled with their obvious skills as students of political science. They give a fair amount of relevant background material and know how the political machine works.

For example, they give us the real reason why the parties give their official campaign launches so close to an election: it’s so they can continue to charge all their travel expenses to the public purse. The law says this practice must cease once a party’s campaign officially begins, hence each party draws it out as long as possible. This is another thing the public needs to know as a headline, not something embedded in an academic book. Then again, we do get these headlines, then fall asleep again.

So happily, this book does not lower itself to the level of being a cut-and-paste job, stringing together newspaper articles to give a narrative of major daily events. Its content is fairly substantial. It also contains quite a bit of original interview material with the major players. Despite this, and just like the other Van Onselen collaboration, there seems to be something missing. Van Onselen reminds me of a brilliant A+ student. He crosses all the i’s and t’s, but lacks the ability to say anything really interesting or insightful about politics and the politicians he covers.

This is disappointing, because he seems intent on styling himself one of the new up and coming political commentators. It’s important to have up and coming new young voices, but I really don’t know what he is the voice of.

In the Howard biography, or perhaps it was in an interview I saw with him, he said he didn’t mind political leaders involving themselves in some of the more unsavoury aspects of politicking. How else do you get to be PM? While this may be true, it shows a bit of a lack of imagination on Van Onselen’s part. He seems to see politics and its possibilities in this reduced, Hobbesian manner. Then again, maybe this is the ultimate truth and he’s right not to get too starry eyed. Yet one needs hope and optimism in order to keep believing in our political system and its ability to serve its citizens.

This is a book for political junkies only. Much better books on the Howard years I am sure will be written in the future, whether it be from a left or right or somewhere out-of-field perspective.

Someone should write a joint biography of Menzies and Howard, to sum up post war Australia. Together they governed Australia for some 30 of the last 60 years (Menzies from 1949-1966 and Howard from 1996-2007.) A biography of the two men together would surely be akin to a biography of the nation. Now that's a book I'd love to see written.

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