Monday, September 29, 2014


Normally no one cares less about a book. Publish and be dammed. 

But sometimes books are weapons . . . political weapons. 

Even if they appear to be driven by personal motives, they can have a very political effect. 

That's probably the case with these two, recently published books (one of which Rudd described as a "work of fiction"), as I wrote in the Canberra Times . . . 


Close up, I found Kevin Rudd to be not a particularly attractive person. Others disagree. Perhaps we shouldn’t really be surprised if the demands of public life don’t always bring out the best in people. Individuals are complex and their actions and motivations, their stories, change over time. It would be terrible to have your image suddenly frozen in stone; permanently set and riveted to an unchanging position.

Yet that’s what biographies (and autobiographies) seek to do: fix shifting characters in a permanent snapshot. My unauthorised biography of Rudd was never intended to be hostile and, by-and-large, it wasn’t. Nor was it hagiography – the story of a saint. That didn’t suit his purposes and he refused co-operation; fair enough. Back then he needed to control the narrative so he could ensure nothing (certainly not a pesky journalist) stood in the way of his forthcoming election. But today our needs are different.

Anyone wanting to make sense of the six years of Labor government has a plethora of rival interpretations from which to pick and choose. Patrick Weller’s Kevin Rudd duels with Julia Gillard’s My Story. Both represent the visions of their protagonists, which is perfectly fine. Everybody can manufacture their own reality. The issue comes when the various interpretations meet. Unfortunately, this is the point at which individual biographies become flawed attempts to define our joint history.

Recently the ABC showed Brilliant Creatures; a particularly selective portrayal of the lives of a couple of Aussie expatriates. Germaine Greer was one. The narrative line of the “documentary” is pretty well encapsulated in the title, and anything that didn’t fit into the smooth pastiche of the pre-defined legend, a story of the cleverest abandoning the cultural desert that Australia had been was jettisoned. All quite accurate, of course: yet it forms simply one picture of our joint reality and a pretty banal one at that. Not a narrative of society – just a selective portrait of a few individuals. The degree to which people are prepared to allow others to pick over the scabs of their lives provides a pretty good indication of their capacity for self-delusion.

Years ago Greer refused to be interviewed by Christine Wallace, although this didn’t stop the Canberra author from providing us with a far more definitive account of a real human being than the sloppy yarn appearing on TV. Wallace later scrapped her own book on Gillard. Perhaps it was too accurate for us to handle. More recently, at least one of our former leaders has refused to co-operate with ABC journalist Chris Ulhmann. He wanted to explain what really happened during Labor’s six-year period in office; perhaps they don’t care for the truth. One interview with Ray Martin, no matter how good, doesn’t allow the history of that time to be pulled into perspective.

Whatever you may think of them individually, at least both Bob Hawke and Paul Keating were keen to tell their side of the story. They submitted themselves to rigorous examination. They believed their tales would hold up. Personality wasn’t allowed to overawe policy. Perhaps this is the only real issue a political biography must address – that central question of ambition. What drives someone who so desperately desires the top job? Is it the squalid urge of personal ambition, or a genuine desire to create a better world? And then, what happened on the way to that end? Did our hero act nobly, or did they simply pull others down to join them in the gutter?

The individual narratives of Rudd and Gillard intersect in another story: the tale of Labor and, more specifically, that of Bill Shorten. It’s quite understandable that both former leaders want to proffer their own, self-justifying yarns explaining why their colleagues successively and unceremoniously dumped first one, then the other. But these biographies are the whispered stories of the playground. “He was hateful and nasty. I never had a chance in the face of his manoeuvring to destroy me.” “She’s a plotter and incompetent to boot. I was God’s gift.” Rival interpretations of reality will never intersect. So who cares?

Shorten should. There’s that famous photo of him on the phone the night Rudd’s dreams crashed to earth. When it was snapped he was, apparently, talking to his wife about a parent-teacher night. That’s his story, anyway. He was, nevertheless, intimately involved in the hi-jinks that transformed the Lodge into a short-stay doss-house until Tony Abbott’s eventual election. But his problem is rather that these biographies reveal the depths to which Labor sank barely a year ago and they’re not narratives on which anyone can build a case to return to government. Quite the reverse. You can imagine the Liberals’ next campaign adds already. Abbott would be well advised to send copies of these books to swinging voters around the country.

That’s because they don’t intersect. The work of building a nation involves giving up on your own interpretation of reality in order to share the perspectives of others. There’s got to be room for everyone to flourish. Neither of the former PM’s can bear to do this, even for a moment. There’s no room for anyone else in their stories, not even the Labor faithful. They are asked to choose. It’s not a solid foundation for a party marching to government.

Shorten’s attempting to construct a new narrative for the party by ignoring the past. He will need, at some point, to explain how the last government came to fail so abysmally. Until Labor gets its story straight; until the party explains how government was allowed to become the plaything of such flawed, squabbling, and self-obsessed rivals, returning to government will be fraught with difficulty.

Shorten trashed both leaders. What’s his story?


  1. What about the Nic Stuart book about Rudd the Dud ?

  2. Indeed! It was tempting to revisit the entire period when he was re-elected by the Caucus . . . but good sense prevailed, There just wasn't enough for a book and Patrick Weller's biography (or should that read 'hagiography') of Rudd proves it. It's very tempting now, as I read Kelly, to attempt to go back and write a 'definitive' book of the time. I can see bits in Kelly's book where he hasn't given credit where it was due (Lenore Taylor, Chris Ulhmann, etc); other bits where I think he's made the wrong call; some places where I think there's more information that should be disclosed to the read . . . but then again, so what?
    Perhaps a bit more time may help to put it in perspective. But perhaps by then it won't seem so important.
    More to the point, I suspect, is that I just don't want to rake over the petty-minded squabbling by sad people I don't respect.