Thursday, January 07, 2010

The March of Patriots: The Struggle for Modern Australia, by Paul Kelly

Viewers of the ABC’s political program Insiders and readers of The Australian will know of Paul Kelly. Every Sunday morning he descends, Zeus like, to give his authoritative commentary on the week in politics.

In the past, I must confess myself to being a fan of Kelly’s books, and an occasional reader of his columns in The Australian. I especially liked his The End of Certainty, which covered Australian federal politics in the 1980s.

The title of his new book, The March of Patriots, worried me from the beginning. Why such a turgid, militaristic title? It’s in Kelly’s style, I guess. He doesn’t so much write, as chisel his words out of granite.

I was glad to get to the end of The March of Patriots. I whinged frequently while reading it. Kelly is so conceited, he gave me a headache in the end. He is always claiming to reveal some deeper truth that no one else knew about, or to hold the definnite answer to any number of political conundrums.

For example, on page 198 the author talks about Keating's commitment to indigenous affairs.

"For the first time a prime minister made indigenous justice his main priority in time and politics. This had never happened before, and it will not happen again."

How can Kelly possibly know? This is an astonishing thing to say.

Kelly also likes to use a lot of religious language and religious metaphors. It’s just hyperbole. Bad writing, I think. Like this on Howard’s opportunity to apologise for the so-called stolen generations:

"Like Saint Peter, Howard had three opportunities to apologise – in 1997, 1999 and 2000 – and he refused on each occasion."

Kelly talks on and on about Howard in mystical terms. He obviously loves powerful men, hence the title.

Yet the patriotism that he attributes to Keating and Howard is difficult to find. Both Howard and Keating had their own idiosyncratic ideas about what Australia was or should be. For example, Keating wanted to cut with the British monarchy and establish a republic, whereas Howard was a staunch monarchist. Where ideology ends and patriotism begins is hard to figure out.

Of course there is plenty to interest readers and political junkies in the book. Kelly does a good job at covering all the major political and policy events of the Keating-Howard era.

Especially of interest (for me anyway) was the notion of how the population has not embraced free markets, unlike the political class, and Kelly’s admission that free trade has not got a firm footing in the electorate, and hence its future is not sure.

I also liked the section that discussed how much of a welfare state we actually live in, something Howard did not wind back.

"Professor Ann Harding, Director of the National Centre for Social and Economic Modelling (NATSEM), concluded in 2005 (analysing the first half of the Howard era) that the top 40 per cent of earners were supporting the bottom 60 per cent and, in particular the bottom 40 percent due to Howard’s redistribution."

You wouldn’t know it, would you?

If you like ‘authoritative’ style texts, with little to no sense of humour and absolutely no sense of self-doubt, then give this book a go. Kelly has a capacious mind and extraordinary intellectual stamina, but his book takes itself too seriously.

No comments: