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Book cover: elderly man in a suit leans toward a woman holding a teacup and saucer. They're both gazing at something out of frame. The book's author and title are printed in white text above their heads.

Chris Wallace
Political Lives: Australian prime ministers and their biographers

Chris Wallace’s new book, Political Lives, is fascinating. Yes, it’s primarily about prime ministers, white men both dead and alive, wielding power. But her vivid writing, her eye for intriguing detail and, above all, her format bring it all alive. We see Australian leaders via a study of the biographies of these men and the journalists and the odd academic who wrote about them. The biographical details and preoccupations of the writers shed almost as much light on their times as on the lives of the political men they survey.

Wallace is a professor at the University of Canberra’s faculty of business, government and law and a contributor to The Saturday Paper. In Political Lives, the chapters are sequential. After some useful and interesting preamble, she starts with Federation and Australia’s founding prime minister, Edmund Barton, and his five successors Alfred Deakin, Chris Watson, George Reid, Andrew Fisher and Joseph Cook. None of these men earned a contemporary biography, though all but Cook were studied later.

Her next chapter, “The Great War to the Great Depression”, focuses on Billy Hughes, who was PM from 1915-1923, first as a Labor then as a Nationalist member. He was a good speaker and the author of several books and, writes Wallace, “used words as the kindling of an extraordinarily long political life”. Some biographies of Hughes were published in London during his time as prime minister and the explanation of Australians to English readers is sometimes amusing.

After Menzies, who warrants two chapters for both his longevity and his surprising resurgence of influence after World War II, there are chapters on Gough Whitlam, Malcolm Fraser and Bob Hawke, with some brief examination of the grey men of the era, such as John Gorton, Billy McMahon and Harold Holt.

Wallace’s eye for detail in historic moments doesn’t let up. John Gorton, for example, not only failed to carry a vote of confidence in the Liberal party room but also cast the deciding vote against himself and deliberately forfeited office. Those who hated McMahon dropped their veto to let him into the leadership, merely for want of a better option. Gough Whitlam, waiting in the wings for his moment 18 months later, said at the time, “[McMahon] was determined, like other little Caesars, to destroy Mr Gorton. He sat there on the Isle of Capri [in Surfers Paradise] plotting his destruction – Tiberius with a telephone.”

Whitlam deposed McMahon in December 1972. And that’s when the political climate, and its reporting, changes. Whitlam, with his middle-class origins, university education and upper-class accent, was an unusual Labor leader. Likewise, Laurie Oakes was a new kind of journalist, university-educated rather than a journeyman product of a working cadetship. He also turned away from the partisanship or antagonism of earlier political writers to attempt a kind of impartiality.

Oakes himself said, “There is no such thing as a good objective journalist. If you are not sensitive enough to feel for your subject, to have a point of view, to suffer joy or agony or sympathy about a story you are covering, you will never be a good journalist. Don’t strive to be objective. Strive to be fair.”

All sorts of snippets about Whitlam come out among Wallace’s powerful, broad brushstrokes of his time leading up to and in office, and its portrayal by Oakes and others. The fact Whitlam was powerfully shy, for example. And a word picture of him celebrating his 1972 win with 500 supporters shouting “We want Gough!” in his outer suburban Cabramatta backyard, while McMahon mourned in Bellevue Hill on the other side of Sydney, in a “far grander residence in a far grander suburb”, reaffirms Whitlam’s working-class support over his snooty demeanour.

The path through Whitlam’s ascendancy into Fraser’s prime ministership continues to be painted through the press reports and biographies of the day. Fraser, it turns out, is far grimmer than Gough, not due to shyness but because of his steeliness and a refusal to pander. His background was also more patrician.

By the time we get to Bob Hawke and his superb biography by Blanche D’Alpuget, who knew inside out both the economics of the time and the man she was sleeping with, we find the new “science” of political psychobiography developing fast in Melbourne academia, alongside a fine style in writing. Wallace clearly admires D’Apulget, which makes the descriptions of Hazel Hawke’s deep unlikeability a little suss.

Paul Keating and John Howard receive a small chapter between them, and Julia Gillard – the final leader mentioned in this book – only passing references. Wallace decided, she says, to confine her study to the first 100 years after Federation in order to get the benefit of historical distance.

Certainly, more recent biographies – of Scott Morrison (The Game: A Portrait of Scott Morrison by former Labor Party adviser Sean Kelly), for example, and of the fall of Morrison and the rise of Albanese (Bulldozed, by Niki Savva, who had been a Liberal adviser) – show a new willingness to bring a disinterested approach to bear on analysis that might have been assumed to be more partial.

Wallace has certainly produced a deep and satisfying examination of Australian prime ministers and their biographers – from the early days of the partisan writers to those since Laurie Oakes’ day – who stepped back from the political action to attempt a more clear-eyed explanation of the times.

UNSW Press, 336pp, $39.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on March 4, 2023 as "Political Lives: Australian prime ministers and their biographers, Chris Wallace".

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