Michael Cooney
The Gillard Project

The campaign to elevate Julia Gillard to the pantheon of Labor Party greats continues, this time at the deft hand of her former speechwriter Michael Cooney. His memoir of his thousand days – an ambitious allusion to Arthur Schlesinger in the court of JFK – wants for the insider-style gossip of a White House or Downing Street tell-all. But it is a well-crafted account of life inside the bunker of a prime minister under remorseless siege from enemies within and without her party.

Cooney’s book is likeable on two fronts. He rejects the lazy orthodoxy, beloved of the Murdoch press, the economic elites it serves and the self-styled “Labor modernisers”, that says the Hawke–Keating years of deregulation and privatisation represent an end-of-history moment for Labor, the only legitimate model of supposedly responsible social democracy. For Cooney, the actions of Gillard, treasurer Wayne Swan and, yes, Kevin Rudd in staving off the worst of the global financial crisis using a Keynesian stimulus package was a case of “learn[ing] the lesson of the Hawke–Keating generation’s terrible failures in 1991”, when the government induced a recession that drove unemployment to 11 per cent.

Cooney also cannot resist a tickle-up of “poor old Nick Cater, then writing for The Australian, now leading the Liberal Party’s think tank [who] probably sincerely thinks he invented this critique” of a once working-class Labor Party dragged to the left by middle-class radicals. “The truth is he could have fished it out of any Tory ashtray or brandy glass in the eastern suburbs in the past hundred years.”

The other endearing feature of the book is Cooney himself. He is honest about his shortcomings as Gillard’s speechwriter, especially regarding the “we are us” speech to the 2011 ALP national conference. Such was the derision that greeted it, Cooney writes he “will never erase the regret of having served Gillard so badly”. A confession such as that takes guts.

His humility redeems blokey asides, such as “some stupid inner west dinner party” and “good riddance, you morons”. Along with Swan, Cooney is the force behind Labor’s new emphasis on economic inequality, and he is possibly a better strategist than writer. 

In Don Watson’s memoir of his time as Keating’s speechwriter, you got the impression Watson thought he was honouring the nation with his service. With Cooney it’s clear that here is a true believer who has experienced no greater privilege.  PT

Viking, 320pp, $32.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on May 9, 2015 as "Michael Cooney, The Gillard Project". Subscribe here.

Reviewer: PT