After the game
Maxine McKew’s ‘Tales from the Political Trenches’ and James Button’s ‘Speechless: A Year In My Father’s Business’
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In these two absorbing political memoirs one finds a common theme, that of the professional observer who decides to turn activist. It must occur to any journalist who covers the Canberra dogfight to ask: how would I perform in the spotlight? Could I withstand the pressure? What would I say or do differently? It certainly occurred to Maxine McKew, moved as she was by Paul Keating’s fiery ‘Placido Domingo’ speech in 1990 in which he declared, “There are two types in this world – voyeurs and players. And who wants to be a voyeur?” McKew never forgot it and by 2007 had decided she wanted to join up as a player: “I didn’t want to die wondering.”
The same desire overcame veteran Fairfax journalist James Button when in 2008 he was offered a job in the Canberra bureaucracy, in part as a speechwriter for Kevin Rudd in the Department of the Prime Minister and Cabinet. The example of his father, John Button, a former minister in the Hawke–Keating governments, was one spur and the words of a family friend, former Victorian premier John Cain, another. Political involvement, said Cain, is a duty of citizenship. And yet, writes Button, “I had never put myself in the service of an ideal, never worked with a group of people, year after year, on something bigger than ourselves.” With this in mind, it’s possible to read Speechless as a high-minded version of the Oedipal narrative: has the son failed to live up to the ideals and achievements of his father and his father’s generation? Has he, as a mere writer and commentator, taken the easy path? Like McKew, Button uses the word ‘voyeur’ to describe journalists, and even invokes the same cri de coeur in the title of his first chapter: “Would you want to die wondering?”
Thereafter it is the differences that make for interesting reading. Button is a backroom boy, McKew a public figure. Button is an insider virtually from birth, McKew a lateral recruit in mid life. Button has an instinctive sympathy with politicians: he knows all about the difficulties, the complexity of even the smallest issue, the decades of drudgery behind the scenes and, not least, the sacrifice of family. He also offers revealing insights into old Labor, as when the young tyro, his father, began his rise in the ranks of the party. We see John the law student and a friend join the Carlton branch in what was then a working-class suburb, only to be told by a veteran branch member, “Students … It’s never happened before.” There is hostility to overcome, the tedium of committee meetings, stuffing leaflets in letterboxes, years of grind before a candidate is entitled to put him- or herself forward.
Button fils owns up to a “buried desire” to be an activist but his sense of vocation as a writer inhibits any move towards seeking preselection. Instead, he aims to make a difference by using his skill with words. Politicians may be seasoned electoral warriors but that doesn’t mean they can communicate. Too often they fail to “tell the story”. There is a consensus that Rudd’s speeches are “long, dense and dull”. Keating is critical of the Rudd government’s lack of “narrative”, its inability to sell the big picture, and Button feels he might be able to make Rudd’s language “a bit simpler, clearer and warmer”. Soon he is inducted into the slippery world of political rhetoric. He is told never to use the word ‘problem’ – it is a “deficit word” – Rudd prefers ‘challenge’. Button wants to move hearts and minds but comes up against the prime minister’s predilection for lists and facts, as when Rudd and his department specialists want to include 126 government achievements in a short speech. “Trying to shepherd cherished phrases and sentiments through this process,” he writes, “is like trying to walk a baby gazelle across an eight-lane freeway at rush hour.” This doesn’t mean that Button adopts a sneering tone in his commentary on the bureaucracy. If the reader is hoping for some Yes Minister moments, these are relatively few, and leaving aside the enforced discretion of his non-disclosure agreement Button evinces genuine admiration for the competence and dedication of the boffins who have co-opted him.
Our speechwriter – “a kind of elevated tradesman” – never succeeds in gaining much access to Rudd and is frustrated in his attempts to develop an intimacy that might assist him in capturing the man’s voice. In Oedipal terms, the writer endures a form of castration: his words are rarely used and he is rendered speechless in a way that reflects the wider dilemma of a government unable to tell its story. On large issues Rudd emerges as having an “endemic lack of focus”; with small issues he’s a control freak who paradoxically creates chaos rather than order. Button admires Rudd’s intellect and his audacity in the area of international relations, citing the example of his push to have Australia admitted to the G20, but in the end he is a Julia Gillard partisan and supports her leadership coup. When Rudd in turn challenges Gillard and she gives a doorstop interview to explain belatedly her frustration with Rudd’s prime ministership, Button feels that he is hearing “a woman of courage, speaking the truth”.
Unlike Button, McKew put herself in the line of fire. She launched a history-making attempt in Bennelong to topple a prime minister, a campaign during which her energy, intelligence and courage never faltered. Trenches is a vivid account of the gut-wrenching excitement of storming a marginal seat, and of McKew’s instinctive feel for what William E Connolly calls “the visceral register” of political discourse, the way in which, for example, voters develop an uneasy sense that important boundaries have been violated. McKew recounts the case of a Liberal voter who tells her he has three “boofhead” sons and would like to think if they did something stupid while overseas, the Australian government would at least intervene on the side of due process. He is referring, of course, to the case of David Hicks.
McKew was 53 when she joined the Labor Party and put up her hand for Bennelong. She did not intend to be owned by a faction and her loyalty was focused on her mentor Kevin Rudd. Herein lies her strength and her weakness. Bob Hawke once argued for lateral recruitment into the ministry, even from outside the Labor Party, and it’s true the faction machine throws up a number of duds. But it’s also true that a politician needs to be tempered by long years of experience in the give and take of internal party politics, to learn how to ride the tiger and develop a thick skin.
Compared to survivors of the faction wars – and this applies as well in the Liberal Party – lateral recruits can look out of place, as if they are hanging off the edges. Even as authoritative a character as Malcolm Turnbull can sometimes appear to be hovering in his own stratosphere of disdain. The lateral move is a difficult transition, and when McKew works for a time as the parliamentary secretary for early childhood education in concert with Gillard as education minister, she feels that Gillard is condescending to her as a novice. It doesn’t help that McKew’s professional bullshit detector compels her to abandon the fatuous phrase ‘working families’ and object to the scripted ‘talking points’ issued daily by the prime minister’s office as “bilge”. Inevitably she is accused of not being a team player.
As events transpire McKew is given little time to carve out her niche. Kevin Rudd is her light on the hill; her ideals on entering politics are high and her subsequent disappointments great. She cannot forget the manner of her mentor’s demise and Trenches is utterly unforgiving of Gillard and Wayne Swan. One of McKew’s more intriguing stories concerns a meeting of Rudd and Gillard at Kirribilli House, where Gillard “shirt-fronted her leader”, denouncing the ETS scheme and threatening not to campaign for it if Rudd called a double dissolution. McKew quotes an unnamed member of the Labor caucus as saying that Rudd should have told Gillard and Swan “to get stuffed”, but instead Rudd suffered a massive failure either of judgement or of nerve.
Though a loyalist, McKew is not uncritical of Rudd – “where he needed to charm, he scolded” – but she is inclined always to lay the bulk of the blame elsewhere. In her account of the flawed plan for a mining tax, brought first to the table by Swan and Treasury, the fault is all with Swan, not with Rudd for his failure as leader to get across the detail. She rightly gives a good deal of space to Rudd’s triumphant handling of the 2008–09 global financial crisis, but does not note that in the end this success in crisis management, significant as it was, proved to be the exception rather than the rule. When she writes that Gillard “substituted deal-making for leadership” she is fudging an essential point. As Rudd loyalist John Faulkner observed in his 2012 HV Evatt memorial speech, the deal is at the heart of the political process. A politician who cannot stitch up a deal is swimming in air.
To read these two books together is to be reminded that there is no definitive story. For McKew, “the outstanding question … has always been why a group of senior ministers did not approach Rudd at some point in 2010 to vent their concerns”. But Button, presumably drawing on other sources, says he “heard many times” that for most of Rudd’s tenure Gillard was loyal. “She had tried to get him to confront the dysfunction in his governing style while protecting him from his critics. I am certain she did not want to be Prime Minister at this time.” Who is right? Perhaps only John Faulkner knows for certain and he’s not telling.
Political memoir is a tough genre. Writers must take into account Australia’s defamation laws as well as their professional obligations, enduring friendships and hopes for future political patronage. How much space to give over to the personal without sounding self-absorbed and how much to policy without becoming dry? McKew writes with passionate decency while Button has a fine turn of phrase – Canberra is “a city of words, permeated with an immense silence” – but neither the melancholy depth of Don Watson’s Memoirs of a Bleeding Heart nor the manic wit and candour of The Latham Diaries are to be found here.
Reflections on the state of the Labor Party tend to fall into the category of lame sociology and there is rather too much run-of-the-mill hand-wringing. Neither Button nor McKew questions the role of the traditional party in the postmodern era or reflects on why the decline in membership of both major parties may have little to do with mass disillusionment with the political process. Button at least acknowledges the significance of the Greens as a social movement. McKew is overgenerous in her assessment of Australians’ innate conservatism and default bigotry, but if it’s a flaw in her analysis it’s an attractive one. She believes Rudd had the potential to bring out the best in the public and I think there is truth in this. The pity is that he lacked the ability to bring out the best in his colleagues. Neither author answers the question of why several of the current Labor front bench, including some of its most talented, have said they would resign rather than work again under Rudd. For the general public this will remain one of the enduring mysteries of Australian politics, at least for some decades.
But perhaps the most interesting subtext in both memoirs is that Kim Beazley emerges as the man who has disappointed more than either Rudd or Gillard. The amiable small-target leader who failed to defend and further prosecute the Hawke–Keating agenda, or to reform, rethink and restructure the party, and who sat back and waited for the GST to hand him victory rather in the manner of Abbott waiting for the carbon tax to garrotte Gillard – well, his was a lacklustre effort at best. Both Button and McKew decry Beazley’s tenure as wasted years.
For now at least, Button appears to have accepted his vocation as a writer and that the telling of a good story can be its own form of activism. Ex-politicians understand this only too well; they like to set the record straight and, for them, writing history is one way of remaining a player. In her book’s acknowledgements, McKew thanks the Vice-Chancellor of Melbourne University, Glyn Davis, for “the provision of a fellowship that allowed me the time and space to write this book”. Davis is a close friend of Rudd’s and Melbourne University Press has issued Trenches at a time when Rudd was expected to make another leadership challenge. Lindsay Tanner, meanwhile, is a Vice-Chancellor’s Fellow at Victoria University and also just happens to have published a scathing attack on the Rudd dismissal at around the same time as McKew. Gillard must feel at times that her purgatory is unending. In a curious way, her prime ministership resembles that of Malcolm Fraser – the original sin of its coming into being dogs its best efforts at redemption. The warrior queen’s caravan moves on but those bloody dogs never stop barking.
Amanda Lohrey is a writer. Her books include Reading Madame Bovary, The Philosopher’s Doll, The Reading Group, Camille’s Bread and A Short History of Richard Kline.