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On Writing

Political tracts: the good, the bad and the badly written

If it’s an election, you can bet that our cash-strapped publishing industry is preparing to unleash another volley of those hardy perennials known as the election campaign diaries. Penned by seasoned political observers who tail our leaders on their madcap journey to the ultimate opinion poll, you can expect several of these to be appearing soon in bookshops near you.

Political writing encompasses many different types of books. There are histories of governments, biographies and memoirs of politicians (John Howard’s 2013 Lazarus Rising), scholarly studies of the political process (Ian McAllister’s 2011 The Australian Voter: 50 years of change) and diaries.

This last category may be written by practitioners (The Latham Diaries (2005) and Bob Carr’s Diary of a Foreign Minister (2014)) or observers, usually journalists, and of these, the election diary has been a growing niche.

For publishers, I suspect, not much thought goes into them. The logic is, “If we don’t publish a campaign book, someone else will. Let’s be proactive. Somebody call Laurie Oakes”.

The popularity of the campaign diary owes much to the prevalence of tragic intrigues and power plays in recent Australian politics. The opinion poll-driven cutting down of leaders by their colleagues, inextricably linked as it is to the election cycle, personalises political discourse, thereby accentuating the gladiatorial, or perhaps Shakespearean aspects of the campaigns that follow.

From the journalist’s point of view, it’s money for nothing. Keeping a diary is just another form of taking notes, very useful when checking your facts down the track. The advance will cover drinks and won’t need to be repaid if the thing doesn’t sell.

For the public, campaign diaries are a godsend for spouses and relatives of impossible-to-buy-for men who are expected to be (but aren’t) interested in that kind of thing. It’s a slightly upmarket version of getting Dad a pair of his favourite socks.

Within the sub-genre of campaign books there are a variety of approaches to telling us what happened, or analysing what it means, or both.

At one end of the spectrum lie books that discern and expand on a theme, like Christine Jackman’s 2008 Inside Kevin 07: The people, the plan, and to a lesser extent Barrie Cassidy’s The Party Thieves: The story of the 2010 election (2011). At the other end, lie documentary-style first person accounts like Mungo MacCallum’s The Mad Marathon: The story of the 2013 election (2013).

The irony of political books generally is that, while publishers are fixated on them, they are usually the first to be remaindered, a sure sign of having over-estimated the market.

Despite, or perhaps because of, his chronic intake of massive doses of dangerous drugs, the American “Gonzo” journalist Hunter S. Thompson found politics compelling. But as he confessed in Fear and Loathing: On the Campaign Trail ’72 (1973), most political reporting disappointed him.

The most consistent and ultimately damaging failure of political journalism in America has its roots in the clubby/cocktail personal relationships that inevitably develop between politicians and journalists – in Washington or anywhere else where they meet on a day-to-day basis. When professional antagonists become after-hours drinking buddies, they are not likely to turn each other in.

My sense is that we have less to fear on that front in Australia, where competition for stories between news organisations remains vigorous. When it comes to campaign diaries the problem is not timidity, but a lack of ambition when it comes to the writing itself.

Political journalists place great weight on the quality of their information, but are less prone to crafting beautiful sentences. Because their books are produced in a hurry, they fail generally to take full advantage of the techniques of Longform journalism. They also assume there is intense, widespread interest in election campaigns.

This is a courageous assumption that leads to an even more toxic presumption; that the significance of the outcome of an election necessarily makes every detail of the campaign gripping. Not so.

It is 40 years this year since Laurie Oakes published a quickie that is arguably the finest work of book-length narrative non-fiction ever written about Australian politics, Crash through or crash: The unmaking of a Prime Minister (1976).

As anniversaries go, this one is passing quietly, but amid the cacophony of a federal election campaign it’s worth noting. Crash was the third in a trilogy of books Oakes wrote about the rise and fall of Labor leader Gough Whitlam, who died in 2014.

Whitlam’s victory at the 1972 polls ended a 23-year drought for his party, and ushered in an era of unprecedented reform and upheaval in Australian politics which ended with his dismissal by the Governor-General. Oakes, who was already regarded by many as the country’s leading political journalist, published his book the following year. From its opening sentence there is a sense of a writer in full command of the literary form.

The study at Government House is an imposing room. The mushroom colored walls provide a suitably muted background for the Governor-General’s collection of aboriginal bark paintings and for a beaten copper plaque presented to him during an official visit to Papua New Guinea. There are bookshelves on two sides. One wall is dominated by a large window overlooking the spacious grounds and Lake Burley Griffen beyond. The window forms an alcove, furnished with comfortable lounge chairs upholstered in brown fabric, for informal conversation. At the end of the room furthest from the door there is a carved desk where Sir John Kerr conducts formal business.

There had been no shortage of tumultuous moments in Whitlam’s career. Any of them might have made an arresting opening for the book. But Oakes’ chose instead to set the scene by juxtaposing the stillness and quietude of the room against the savage political act that would take place there, when an Australian prime minister was trapped, deceived and disposed of by the unelected representative of our foreign head of state.

It is exactly the right place and moment to begin the book, as the journalist-author uses the authority of his material, and the research and reporting skills that gathered it, to best advantage.

Even Oakes doesn’t write books like this anymore. The reason? We are all in a terrible rush, and in our increasingly fast, complex world, we are taking refuge in commentary and opinion, as opposed to reporting and analysis.

It’s 13 years since another literary landmark. Don Watson’s erudite and majestic Recollections of a Bleeding Heart: A portrait of Paul Keating PM (2002) set the bar for quality in political writing so high. But not all the quickies are bad.

Bob Ellis is an acquired taste, which many of us have never acquired, and I came to his book about the 2010 federal election Suddenly, Last Winter: An election diary (2010) with deep foreboding.

The rather lengthy author bio that precedes it informs readers that Lord Bob has written “twenty-one books, fifty-five screenplays, two hundred poems, five-hundred political speeches (including one for Kamahl), a hundred songs and two thousand film reviews”. But, hey, who’s counting? We’re into quality, right?

Okay, so he’s a character, and part of his character is a Promethean capacity for name dropping which does tend to intrude upon the job at hand, that is, writing about the election that pitted Australia’s first female Prime Minister, Julia Gillard against Tony Abbott.

9.40 a.m - A call from Denny Lawrence in New York. The play we co-wrote, Intimate Strangers, has just been given a public reading at the Vaudeville Theatre in London…

11.40 a.m. - A phone call from George Miller (for whom I’m writing spare dialogue in Fury Road) eager to know how Canberra was

4.40 p.m. I begin a journal-letter to John Ralston Saul (the world’s greatest thinker)…

Diaries, by their very nature, include much minutiae, such as when Ellis’s beloved northern beaches retreat is invaded by a bush turkey that knocks over chairs, plates, DVDs and bookshelves, “banging his fool head against closed windows, and with shrill cries beseeching whatever deity he worships to help him”.

But the book survives all its author’s efforts to ruin it, mainly due to a bravura 40-page preface, or as Lord Bob prefers to call it a “curtain-raiser” (written by a Hell-raiser), that hurls the reader into the world it describes.

Bob’s world is one in which politics still matters, and Australia is a country in which politics is still imbued with sectarian passion. However, those who practice politics as opposed to observing it are, shall we say, distracted, a “generation of drongos”, as Ellis describes them, “seizing their preselections and bringing us to ruin.”

A typical drongo leader may be

in make-up for the Today show at six-thirty. He may then be at a business breakfast attempting genial oratory at eight and at a Caucus meeting at nine-thirty for an hour of punitive admonition. His brain arrives at eleven, there’s a press conference at noon, a lunch with the President of Palau at twelve-thirty and Question Time at two…In all this he’s supposed to be running the country and he can’t…And so the roof-batts crisis occurs, and the climate change backflip, and the fight with the mining giants … None of these things he would have done had he been awake. And he hasn’t been awake for two years.

The above description is of Kevin Rudd, who is later characterised as “a cocksure twerp who deserved his downfall richly”. But the debilitating political culture it evokes hasn’t changed, except perhaps in degree.

Like Hunter Thompson, Ellis casts off the fetters that neuter most political reporters. The reader may not share the author’s view that the political rivalry between Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott was “erotic”, but the observation is interesting.

Ellis reports, but from a subjective point of view that is at turns, lively, cranky, contentious, silly, surprising, but rarely dull. It’s the kind of writing that lasts, partly because it doesn’t report politics on the campaign’s own terms, but translates it into a conversation that the rest of us can participate in, get irritated by, and at times even enjoy.

When the dust had settled and the minority government was formed, Ellis surveyed the political landscape and found signs of life in the north.

I look forward especially to the ramshackle, whinnying rural-socialist manifestos of Bob Katter. Because I do admire this brilliant wayward white-hatted yodelling dingo-kelpie cross and his untamed, yelping twists of soul.

We get the politics we deserve, but not always writing about it of the quality we expect. Bob’s rude charm saves the campaign diary from itself, and his foibles at some point become endearing.

Always has it been so. Just ask our current Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull, who as a university student once planned to write a political musical based on the life of the Depression era New South Wales Premier Jack Lang.

Bob recalls it well, as he himself (who else?) was involved. He even has a few surviving scraps of some of the songs, one of which features Hitler, as he reveals to Annabel Crabb in this year’s best quickie so far. Crabb’s Stop at Nothing: The Life and Adventures of Malcolm Turnbull showcases the journalist’s knack for the well-turned phrase. Take this, for example

Something is missing in Australia. It’s been missing since about 9.30 p.m. on 14 September 2015… It’s the sound of Malcolm Turnbull wanting to be prime minister.

Crabb has a fine ear for the quotable quotes of others too. Recalling his mother Coral’s decision to leave his father (and nine-year-old Malcolm) Turnbull suspects she “sort of got bored with the role.”

Elsewhere in the book, discussing the PM’s diverse pre-politics careers in journalism, law and business, Attorney-General George Brandis remarks that “Malcolm has more hinterland than any previous Australian prime minister”.

And referring to the strains between our current leader and his party, another supporter observes that,

Malcolm doesn’t always realise that in the Liberal Party, when somebody raises an eyebrow at you, it actually means something.

But the chatty spiel that makes Crabb such a successful communicator on television doesn’t always translate well to the page. A blow is “ghastly”, a family farm is “beautiful”, the loss of death of Turnbull’s father (whose affairs were “tangled”) “smashed him up” and the son’s subsequent decision to keep the farm was “crazy brave”. That’s just from page one, and the “adjectivitis” keeps resurfacing throughout the text and becomes very wearing.

Yet the book succeeds mightily, due mainly to the author’s bower-bird instincts, her deep interest in character and astute choice of subject. The reader of her book, and Paddy Manning’s Born to Rule (2015), will find themselves observing those TV images of Malcolm on the campaign trail through the lens of the stories told by these writers.

And they will worry that, win or lose, the current truce between Mr Turnbull and all the people he has offended along the way, including many in his own party, might be short-lived.

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