Books

Paul Kelly
Triumph and Demise

From the moment he entered the Canberra press gallery in 1971, Paul Kelly quickly built a national reputation as one of Australia’s leading political journalists. In a series of books published over four decades, he honed his obvious talent for “contemporary history writing”. This was history in its most classical sense: a chronicle of executive government and the machinations of the political class; a gripping insider’s account of the corridors of power that revealed the grand ambitions, personal rivalries and petty vanities of our political leaders. Yet Kelly was no mere chronicler. What marked his work as distinctive from the outset was his ability to frame his political narratives in larger, spectacularly bold historical arguments.

In The End of Certainty (1992), widely acknowledged as his finest book, Kelly proposed the concept of “the Australian settlement” to describe the foundational principles of Australian society since Federation in 1901 – white Australia, protection, wage arbitration, state paternalism and imperial benevolence – which he argued were ultimately dismantled by the Hawke–Keating government. Throughout the fin-de-siècle introspection of the 1990s, journalists, historians and political scientists placed Kelly’s thesis under the microscope. His detractors argued he had simplified Australian history, yet what few acknowledged was that by providing them with an all-encompassing catchphrase for Australia’s 20th century, he had provided a template with which to test and engage their own ideas. He had succeeded in provoking a sustained debate regarding the political and economic course of Australian history. 

Triumph and Demise, Kelly’s account of the six tumultuous years of the Rudd–Gillard Labor government (2007-13), contains his trademark style: revealing interviews with the key players, in this case Rudd, Gillard, Abbott, Swan and Turnbull; selective use of Hansard, speeches, press releases, government reports and political commentary; absorbing fly-on-the-wall documentary narrative that depicts the political landscape largely through the prism of leadership crises; and a provocative, overarching thesis. As he admits, it is a difficult period to understand: “More than any other era I have covered in book form, it is plagued by contested views over facts, events, conversations and policy assessment.” One year after their drubbing in the 2013 election, the Gillard and Rudd camps remain as divided over their recollection of events as they were over the leadership when they were in power. Kelly’s task is also made more difficult by the fact that many of his interviewees have already published their own accounts in a deluge of recent political memoirs, with which his account now competes. Gillard certainly gave Kelly several revealing insights, yet how much she held back will only become known when her own book is published.  

Kelly carefully weighs the claims and counterclaims of the factions and manages to convey the “Shakespearian quality” of Rudd’s rapid rise and tragic fall, before concluding that the end of their partnership doomed the party to “premature destruction”. Like many others, he believes that by challenging Rudd, “Gillard signed the death warrant of the Labor government”. As he points out, a Newspoll conducted just before Rudd’s execution showed Labor with a two party preferred lead of 52–48, while earlier polls had both parties evenly split at 50–50. Rudd was not in terminal electoral decline. By removing Rudd before he could face an election as prime minister, Labor denied the electorate the opportunity to pass judgement on him. Kelly’s critique of Labor’s policy failures during its six years in power is telling, much of it built on Labor’s own admissions and internal critiques. He persuasively depicts a party trapped between old and new Labor, one that is still to represent the class of people Hawke’s and Keating’s reforms created.

Few can write this kind of political history better. Kelly is both insider and outsider, someone who asks us to believe that he is one step removed from “the political class” he observes with such alacrity and insight. But his stance is not hard to detect. He, too, is a player in the recent “intensification of Australia’s culture war” he describes, and in the “poll-driven” media culture he laments. He castigates “progressive opinion makers in the ABC, Fairfax, SBS and the education, arts and cultural sectors, along with social media”, for their blinkered view of Abbott, and he appears to chastise them for projecting “an ideological view hostile to Howard–Abbott values”. Kelly’s politics are also betrayed by his sources. He quotes the work of David Marr only as an example of progressive prejudice against Tony Abbott. Marr’s Quarterly Essay on Rudd, however, which had a significant impact on debates about Rudd’s leadership style, is completely ignored, so too the influential political analysis of Robert Manne, and nearly all academic writing for that matter. To disagree with your intellectual adversaries is one thing. To pretend they don’t exist is quite another.

Triumph and Demise begins and ends with Kelly’s damning critique of Australia’s contemporary political culture, which he claims has lost the capacity and political will to carry out significant economic and social reform. Political leadership is captive to “the tyranny of the polling and media cycle” while the electorate, fat from the mining boom, has become deluded into thinking that economic growth will continue indefinitely without any need for personal sacrifice. “Australian politics,” he maintains, “empowers negative political campaigns, privileges sectional and special interests over the national interest, [and] struggles with a fragmented media less equipped to facilitate sensible debate.” This dire situation is what Kelly collectively describes as “the Australian crisis”. Agree with him or not, the synthesis and clinical force of Kelly’s diagnosis, like so much of Triumph and Demise, comprise one of the most compelling accounts of political history published in recent years.  WW

MUP, 568pp, $49.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Sep 6, 2014 as "Paul Kelly, Triumph and Demise ". Subscribe here.