- Read the latest author interviews from our monthly newsletter
North Melbourne Books: Your book gives ten essential rules to win an election. What inspired you to write such a brutally frank guide to winning elections?
Chris Wallace: I am sick of waking up the morning after the election night before knowing the wrong government is in office again for another three years unnecessarily - that had Labor been better in its basic political craft across a range of really obvious areas, it could have and should have won. Don't forget, the Morrison Government's majority is just two seats. Two seats!
Federal elections are so often so close in Australia that I have this experience way too often. Labor has been in office federally for only 6 of the last 24 years. The result is bad government by political parties wholly-owned by mining interests and increasingly dominated by religious fundamentalists. To break this cycle of political dystopia and bring back decent government and good policy federally, Labor has to learn again how to win an election. My book is designed to flick on a light bulb in the heads of Labor politicians, staffers and party officials about the ten essential things they have to systematically do during and between elections to avoid unnecessary losses like the one suffered in 2019.
NMB: The ten rules lean heavily towards realpolitik. Should we be depressed that politics is often more calculation than inspiration?
CW: No. We should draw inspiration from the fact that systematic attention to the ten things outlined in How To Win An Election can make the election of decent governments way more likely, more often. I use sporting analogies a lot in the book, especially AFL ones. I argue that if political parties were managed as well as professional sporting teams are in Australia, and if political journalists covered politics as well as sports journalists cover sport, our politics would be way better - and certainly Labor would win more often.
With climate change toasting the planet, neoliberalism intensifying the redistribution of wealth to the rich, and Morrison Government pandemic policies making Depression-era levels of unemployment likely (and sending women back to the kitchen in the process), it's urgent for everybody that federal Labor stops failing at the only poll that counts: the one on election day.
NMB: The style and tone of How to Win an Election is at times darkly comic. Do you have any favourite political writers who inspire you?
I've taken the unusual step of putting myself in the mind of the 'failed leader' in a short passage at the beginning of each chapter, starting with the morning after an election loss, moving over the course of the book through the political equivalent of the 'seven stages of grief', and coming out the other side. I don't think we do this enough, put ourselves in the shoes of key players and explore their mindsets. The scales fall from the eyes of the 'failed leader' in the process. They learn a lot about their unnecessary loss but too late to put it into practice: someone else has become leader of the opposition. Hopefully readers will enjoy the insights provided by this intimate, imagined view!
As for favourite political writers, I'm just reading Blanche d'Alpuget's 'Plantagenet' series on Henry II and Eleanor of Aquitaine, the fifth book of which - The Cub's Roar - is about to be published. Now that's politics! I'm also a British politics swat and love Mick Herron's 'Slow Horses' series about a bunch of fallen MI6 operatives banished to the outer reaches of the organisation, overseen by 'Jackson Lamb' (think a somewhat psychopathic spy service version of Dalziel from Dalziel and Pascoe). The series features a politician called 'Peter Judd' who is uncannily like a certain UK prime minister who shall remain unnamed (B*ris J#hnson) - so alike I can't believe Herron hasn't been sued. There's a pretty good N1gel F@rage impersonation and even a certain Royal who has been in the news of late. When you read the publication dates on the books, it's like Mick Herron has a crystal ball he's seeing the future through and channelling it as a key thread in his 'Slow Horses' plots. Great stuff.
NMB: One of the paradoxes you highlight is that leaders need great self-belief, but not to the point that it hampers clear thinking. Do you see these qualities much on display at the moment?
CW: Leaders are incredibly important - not everything, but crucial. It's up to all of us to show leadership, whatever our position. The trouble with party leaders is that they tend to come to the job thinking they uniquely understand how to do it, and do it better than their predecessor. What happens too often instead is that they repeat their predecessor's errors rather than learning from them, and externalise the costs of their mistake onto all of us all by helping the other side get elected through their own underperformance. How To Win An Election is partly designed to break that cycle, not least by drawing attention to this problem and highlighting the role of 'group think' that insulates leaders from a realistic view of their performance and prospects.
Are these qualities much on display at the moment? I'll pass on that. Let's give the incumbents the chance to read the book, reflect and readjust first. It's only fair.
NMB: What books are you enjoying reading at the moment?
CW: Just finished Kate Grenville's fabulous A Room Made of Leaves and just beginning Cass Sunstein's How Change Happens, in parallel with reading d'Alpuget's 'Plantagenet' books. Barry Maitland is about to visit Canberra and I can't wait to hit him up at lunch for another Brock and Kolla book which surely can't be far off.
How to Win an Election, by Chris Wallace. Published by New South Books. $29