Thursday, June 18, 2009

To The Bitter End, by Peter Hartcher




My lord, what a title! Not only that, its big block type takes up some eighty percent of the book’s front. You don’t think of Australian politics as being that dramatic.

Peter Hartcher is one of my favourite commentators. He wrote one of the best quarterly essays, called Bipolar Nation. Happily he has decided to write a book about the last days of the Howard government, and Kevin Rudd’s inexorable rise.

Academic Peter Van Onselen has written a similar book, but Hartcher’s is by far the superior effort. Van Onselen makes it fairly obvious where his sympathies and prejudices lie, whereas Hartcher is intellectually more independent. So when he gives an opinion, you know it’s less likely to be informed by cant or ideology, but more by having arrived at an opinion through considered thought. What I’m trying to say is, if you want more of the truth of the matter, you should turn to writers like Hartcher, or George Megalogenis at The Australian.

Another thing I like about Peter Hartcher is his willingness to use literary analogies. Throughout the book the author makes allusions to Herman Melville’s Moby Dick, suggesting that John Howard’s single minded obsession with implementing Work Choices was akin to Captain Ahab’s obsession with capturing the great white whale. Peter Costello is likened to Captain Ahab’s first mate Starbuck. I have a theory (pretty obvious really) that journalists who read widely in literature as opposed to just reading other newspapers, come up with a richer and more rewarding prose. Hartcher is a case in point.

What do we learn about John Howard’s downfall from this book? Well, if the Captain Ahab analogy is not enough, then basically To The Bitter End tells the story of how one of Australia’s most seasoned, politically savvy politicians, a man who could pirouette through the most fraught media interviews and come out looking fresh as a daisy, how that very man who had such masterful self control of himself and his party, suddenly lost it and went feral.

I never voted for Howard, and was no fan of his government, but I did admire his insistent message to the electorate that he never took them for granted. I thought it was smart, and would save him from his own hubris. Implicit in this was Howard always staying one step ahead of public opinion. This ‘everyman’ image, or reality, or whatever it was, came unstuck for some reason once Howard got control of the Senate in 2004. He promised to be prudent, but soon went overboard.

The flipside of this, as described in the book, is Greg Combet, secretary of the ACTU, being sharp enough to penetrate Howard’s thinking and actually start organising a campaign against any new industrial laws, even before they had come out of Howard’s mouth. This was perhaps one of the most extraordinary thing about Howard’s demise. This was a David and Goliath battle. The resolve of the unions was amazing, and devastatingly effective. The Labor Party, with Kevin Rudd as leader, were free riders on this campaign.

What of Kevin Rudd? I could never see the appeal. John Howard also failed to see the appeal, stating the electorate would never elect a nerd for their PM. Shows how even those with the best of all political knowledge and experience can get it so wrong. Howard didn't know Australia as well as he thought he did.

If anything, this book shows how Rudd was well organised and expert at avoiding falling into traps. He ran a smart campaign and out foxed Howard by describing himself as a proud economic conservative, this against a back drop of profligate Howard government spending.

Another good thing about this book is all the detail on party polling, how we in the electorate are poked and prodded for our opinions, how these opinions are written up in reports and sweated over by party strategists. This is one creepy aspect of our democracy today. The electorate are like mice in a maze, with white coated lab assistants holding clipboards and writing down our frenzied and irrational behaviour. Scarier still, it’s a science and it works.

We are also given a peep into the close relationship between media and politics. Friendships, intimate dinners and what not between journos and pollies are regular fare. We need a media unit that reports on the media! Whenever you hear a politician moan about the media, you should roll your eyes, because politicians love the media, almost literally.

Speaking of love, one last point should be noted: the awesome influence of Janette. Apparently she got the nod on a lot of stuff. Campaigns would be worked on for weeks, teams of specialists would prepare this, that and the other, then Janette would be asked for her opinion. If she had a view, no matter how idiosyncratic, then things had to be dropped.

I must end with a favourite quote from Howard:

‘The fact that you are better off now – everybody’s better off – is lost if you compare yourself with your neighbours who might have done even better than you, and if you don’t have as much as you’d like.’

No wonder we bought so many big TVs and houses during the Howard era.

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