November 2008

Arts & Letters

The conflict business

By Peter Hartcher
Australian political memoirs

One of the standout episodes illustrating the tomfoolery of federal parliamentarians is the time that Peter Costello flung a sheaf of paper across the table into Paul Keating's face. It ranks with the occasion when Gough Whitlam tossed a glass of water into Paul Hasluck's face, but because it happened in the era of parliamentary cameras Costello's effrontery will prove more enduring. And he isn't too proud to revisit the moment in his memoir. If anything, he seems a touch pleased with himself in looking back on his antics.

Keating, seven months from oblivion, was defending one of his ministers, Carmen Lawrence, over a scandal that had followed her to Canberra from her previous job, as premier of Western Australia. Under Lawrence's leadership, a Labor member in the state parliament tabled a petition claiming that a Perth woman, Penny Easton, had perjured herself in the Family Court. Four days later, Easton killed herself. Lawrence said she had no foreknowledge of the parliamentary claim. But a royal commission found otherwise, and she now stood accused of lying to parliament.

In Canberrra, the Opposition was in hot pursuit. Its leader, John Howard, asked the prime minister in question time whether he accepted that Lawrence had told the truth about the matter in a speech before the National Press Club some months earlier. Keating began by doing Howard the favour of giving him a character assessment: "You are a joke, you are a fraud." He said he had not read the speech. "Why should I?"

Costello takes up the tale:

I then sought leave to table Lawrence's Press Club speech. When leave was refused, Keating invited me to table it. I tossed a copy across the table. Unfortunately it was held together by a large bulldog clip. The clip went up in the air and landed on Keating. I was very surprised. I was not aiming at him. Keating immediately jumped up as if to take a swing at me.

The Speaker decided that the parliament could do without the services of Costello for an hour. If Australia's longest serving treasurer has any regrets over the 1995 incident, they are not in evidence:

When I was returning home from Canberra at the end of that week, a taxi driver at the airport walked across to me and said in broken English, "Mr Costello, you throw papers in Mr Keating's face. Next time you throw brick." Ron Walker, then treasurer of the Liberal Party [now chairman of Fairfax Media] asked for a copy of the papers. He thought they would go for a fortune at a fundraiser. I gave them to Tony Smith [now shadow assistant treasurer] for safekeeping. He still has them.

Some political diaries are dashed in the reader's face. The Latham Diaries is the case in point. The former Labor leader complained bitterly about "Parliament House's culture of small talk and smear", then proceeded to write a 400-page book full of small talk and smear.

Mark Latham made no entry for the two great events of his time. He wrote nothing about September 11 because, he said, he had nothing to add. And he wrote of the Southern Asian tsunami of Boxing Day, with societies destroyed and hundreds of thousands dead and suffering, only as a media-driven "nuisance" to spoil his holiday.

But there was no end of smear. Latham criticised at least 17 of the Labor Party's key figures, including the former leaders Gough Whitlam and Paul Keating, as well as the leader at the time the book was published, Kim Beazley, and the future leader, Kevin Rudd. Indeed, Rudd was one of his principal targets. He was "treacherous, a nasty piece of work, addicted to the media and leaking", and "a junior minister in government, at best". Worse, Latham accused Rudd of exploiting sympathy over his mother's death in an effort to get promoted in the shadow ministry.

In common with many political memoirs, including Peter Costello's, Latham's diary devoted most of its time and energy to a critique of his own side of politics, rather than an assault on the putative enemy. For example, Latham mentioned Rudd, then the shadow foreign minister, 37 times in his memoir, but Alexander Downer, the actual foreign minister, only nine. Similarly, Costello gives his opposite number for half his time as treasurer, Wayne Swan, a mere three glancing mentions in his 337 pages (374 if you count his old speeches reproduced in the back of the book).

Yet Malcolm Turnbull, though he spent a scant ten months in the Howard cabinet, appears ten times in the Costello narrative. And he doesn't look his dashing best in a number of these appearances. Costello fits him up for leaking a cabinet discussion, and for undermining the success of the Howard government in campaigning on its record of cutting income tax. He also implies that Turnbull was either a bit slow on tax policy or a bit hypocritical: "I explained to Turnbull that the best way to cut tax further was to restrain expenditure ... He understood this point and accepted it as a backbencher. Later in that term, when he became a minister in charge of expenditure programs, he produced an array of them."

To Latham and to Costello, political opposition is a backdrop to the real action: the internal intrigues of their own parties. Winning power over the opposing side is, apparently, incidental to the true business of winning power over colleagues.

Both diaries are the work of frustrated men, wannabe prime ministers who were but a single step from the job. And both were frustrated by the same man: John Howard. Nevertheless, Costello's memoir is a very different proposition to the former Labor leader's. It is put before the reader with good humour and considerable restraint. It is not flung into the reader's face but presented for inspection.

Latham's diary was promoted as offering "an insult on every page", and it boasted at least as many profanities. In politics, which Keating likes to call "the conflict business", public figures have to expect the odd insult. The unforgivable injury that Latham committed, and committed repeatedly, was to claw at the wholly innocent bystanders: the spouses and families of his former colleagues. It is an extended horror story of gratuitous insult and hurt.

His writing utterly lacked self-awareness. This led to some very revealing anecdotes. He couldn't bring himself to go to the 1999 Labor dinner to farewell Gareth Evans from politics, so instead he and his wife, Janine Lacy, and his mate Joel Fitzgibbon, now the defence minister, went to dinner by themselves and made prank phone calls to the Evans function. "In my best deep African accent I convinced the hotel reception that I was Kofi Annan and needed to speak to Gareth Evans urgently," Latham wrote. When the staff informed him that Evans was on his feet speaking, Latham left a message: "Please call Kofi Annan urgently in New York. He has good news about the African votes for the UNESCO job." Next, he phoned the Labor frontbencher Bob McMullan and left him a voicemail "asking a few questions about his comb-over. He never got back to me - totally humourless."

Costello's is a much more measured, thoughtful and, needless to say, grown-up piece of work. That doesn't make it dull. He has an eye for an anecdote. He recalls, for instance, the comprehensive final briefing he gave the Howard cabinet in 1998 on the tax-reform package that included the GST. His briefing ran for seven hours. The treasurer used a PowerPoint presentation, the first time one had been used in the cabinet room. As the meeting broke up, Costello asked a fellow minister what he thought of the briefing. "I didn't understand much of it," came the reply, "but I thought the coloured diagrams looked great!"

Latham's book was written in a bitter fury; Costello's is written more in sorrow than anger. Latham flung himself about in a froth-mouthed frenzy for someone to blame; Costello knows exactly who to blame. Latham blamed everyone - including the Australian people, for daring to elect someone other than him. "Maybe my mindset is not suited to the consumerism of middle Australia," he pouted. Costello's book carefully, deliberately, leads the reader to the man he blames: "Leadership is not only about winning: it is also about departing," he writes. "Unlike Menzies, Howard never managed a transition. He did not accomplish generational change ... We lost because we failed to renew." Costello accepts no responsibility.

These diaries, like all diaries, are firmly about the past. Certainly, both men offer a glimpse of their views of the future. Latham's was dismal and despairing of politics as a way of achieving anything useful. Costello sees a country with its best years ahead, but with a policy agenda whose top items - fixing federalism and addressing Aboriginal disadvantage - are already on the Rudd agenda.

No, these diaries are not about the future. These are men with more behind them than in front. The purpose of each diary is for the author to give an account of himself. At the exit points of their political careers, Latham and Costello each wanted to try to tell his own version of what he did and, most importantly, why he failed. George Orwell wrote in Nineteen Eighty-Four that "who controls the past, controls the future." Latham and Costello no longer pursue power over the country's future, but they crave power over the future of how the country regards their past.

Costello's version will not go uncontested. Howard plans to write his account next year. As for Latham's diaries, there was no need for anyone to respond. What sane person would take such ranting seriously?

One prominent federal politician is writing a book about the future, though. Tony Abbott is writing not a memoir but a manifesto, under the working title ‘Conservatism After Howard'. One of the strengths of the Howard government was that Howard, John Hewson and others had done a good deal of thinking in the Liberals' 13 years in Opposition, and this had equipped them intellectually for government, Abbott argues. "I think it's important we don't wait seven or eight years to start thinking - I think this is potentially our point of political recovery."

His book, due in April, will set out broad philosophical directions as well as specific policy ideas. "In the end, the best policy ideas don't necessarily emerge from a committee." One radical concept: Abbott will detail a plan for a constitutional referendum to give the federal government the power to override the states whenever it so wishes. "When it comes to the crunch, the federal government is in charge," he proposes.

Abbott agrees that the book is, in part, a job application for the leadership: "I accept that I'm unlikely to be leader any time soon but I think I have reasonable credentials to be considered for the leadership at some point and I hope I can burnish my credentials," he said in July. It will be much more than a personal statement, however. Abbott represents the conservative wing of the Liberal Party; Malcolm Turnbull is the leading figure in its liberal wing. Abbott's work is likely to be a piece of competitive philosophical and intellectual direction-finding for the Coalition.

It's routine for federal Labor politicians to write books setting out their ideas: Wayne Swan's Postcode: The Splintering of a Nation, Lindsay Tanner's Crowded Lives, Craig Emerson's Vital Signs, Vibrant Society: Securing Australia's Economic and Social Wellbeing. Kevin Rudd did not write a book but he did pen a pair of substantial articles for this magazine - one on religion and politics, the other on the limits of the marketplace in public policy - as part of his campaign for the Labor leadership. Abbott's book, though, is startling in its rarity. It will be the first of its kind by a conservative in 65 years.

The closest thing to a precedent came in 1943. It was The Forgotten People and Other Studies in Democracy, by the Liberal Party's founder, Robert Menzies. The book, based on a series of radio broadcasts, sought to set out the philosophical basis for the party. Menzies, at this point, had already served two years and four months as prime minister and leader of the United Australia Party. Now, in Opposition, he was trying to craft the platform for a new political party.

Abbott's publication promises to make the manifesto-style book as important for conservative politics as it is for the progressive side. This would be no big deal in the US, where John McCain has five books to his name and Barack Obama two. But in Australia, it would be a serious intensification of the intellectual effort that goes into political campaigning. This is a happy development. For the key figures on both sides of politics to canvass ideas for our political future, rather than just settle scores from their political pasts, offers the prospect of a leadership class that is better prepared and a voting public that is better informed.

Tony Smith, custodian of the Carmen Lawrence speech, may think that he has an important historical artefact on his hands. But sometimes old papers are just old papers.

Peter Hartcher
Peter Hartcher is a Gold Walkley Award–winning journalist and a Visiting Fellow at the Lowy Institute. His books include To the Bitter End, Bubble Man and The Sweet Spot.

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