New historical material coupled with biographer Troy Bramston's meticulous research makes for a worthy re-appraisal of Robert Menzies, Australia's longest serving prime minister.
Journalist and former political advisor Troy Bramston’s new biography of Robert Menzies, Australia’s longest serving prime minister, aims to refocus the historical lens. Too often Menzies is written off as an antediluvian character, hopelessly devoted to Queen and Empire, while his ardent supporters keep him on an unrealistic pedestal. Using newly released material and a broad range of author interviews with friends, family and colleagues, a portrait emerges of a brilliant yet flawed man.
Menzies’ best qualities were his ability for personal reflection and change. After the crushing failure of his first prime ministership (1939-1941) he managed to re-invent himself and create a new political force, the Australian Liberal Party. Philosophically gifted, he fashioned an appealing narrative of progressive values based on the rights of the individual. There were also serious missteps: his support, in 1938, for Hitler’s Germany; his attitudes towards race; the testing of nuclear bombs on Australian soil; a lax attitude towards apartheid; volunteering our troops for the Vietnam war.
Robert Menzies: The Art of Politics is always judicious and balanced, providing a multifaceted portrait of a key figure of Australian history. Essential reading for students of politics and history, or anyone interested in the Liberal Party and its deep national influence.
Robert Menzies: The Art of Politics, by Troy Bramston. Published by Scribe. RRP: $49.99
Review by Chris Saliba
This review was first published at Books + Publishing. The original article can be seen here.
Following on from Stan Grant’s 2016 memoir Talking to My Country comes Australia Day, an eloquent and neatly organised series of essays that examine how two centuries of British cultural and political hegemony have impacted Australia’s First Nations People.
Stan Grant, a Wirdadjuri and Kamilaroi man, tries to weave into a harmonious whole the differing parts of his identity: First Nation, personal and Australian citizen. A lover of European thinkers such as Hegel and Kant, some of whom he admits were terrible racists, Grant nonetheless admires their philosophical brilliance. The question remains: how to appreciate the triumphs of European culture, law and politics when your people’s history is one of dispossession and loss? The First Fleet didn’t bring European Enlightenment, but dispossession, disease and death.
It is this unresolvable tension that is at the centre of Australia Day, making it a work of acute personal struggle. Grant stretches his intellect and compassion in order to reconcile his admiration for Australia’s law, political culture and good citizens with its treatment of First Nations People. In the end, the attempt can’t proceed much beyond being an act of cognitive dissonance. The pain and suffering Grant feels, for his family, his ancestors, his people, is a wound that can’t heal. Many pages are spent weighing emotional and philosophical strategies for dealing with the legacy of dispossession, but none will work. What makes the pain so much greater is the blithe attitude of the non-Indigenous. There is a critical lack of understanding of what it means to be a First Nations Australian.
Grant provides many personal stories that highlight ongoing humiliation. Family members being arrested on the most spurious of reasons, Grant’s experiences at school, where he was asked why his skin colour was so dark. And then the trauma of the Don Dale detention scandal, a tragedy that hits home as the victims were the same age as his sons.
The book’s arguments are made all the more potent by Grant’s luminous prose and clear thinking. He has thought and read deeply on race, history, trauma and nationhood, providing thought provoking discussion while referencing an impressive array of other writers. Australia Day is both erudite and passionate.
Stan Grant lays down the challenge for non-Indigenous Australians. We need to learn to walk in someone else’s shoes. Our ignorance alone is the cause of so much suffering. To heal the divide calls for listening and an open heart. Australia Day offers an opportunity that must be grasped.
Australia Day, by Stan Grant. Published by HarperCollins. RRP: $34.99
Review by Chris Saliba
Energy expert Matthew Warren explains the politics, economics and science of our power grid. Non-partisan, accessible and illuminating, Blackout is a breath of fresh air.
Who can make sense of Australia's energy policy over the past decade? It's been a time of time of hot, often over-the-top political debate. In such a noisy atmosphere the average punter has little hope of sorting fact from fiction. Into this breach steps Matthew Warren, an energy insider with fifteen years experience.
As Warren explains in Blackout, his guide for the perplexed, in the past none of us had to pay much attention to how energy was produced, transmitted and marketed. The grid was run (mostly) on coal, and that was that. Then came climate change, a scientific theory we are reminded, not a proven fact, and everything started to change. Insurance companies, who were key stakeholders when it came to climate variation, started to price in climate change. While politicians on the right and left bickered, business started moving, accepting that climate change was most likely real and entering it into their decision making. Soon enough it was no longer viable to invest in new coal generation. As coal plants have continued to close, with more slated to wind down in the coming years, Australia's electricity grid has become more fragile.
On top of this there has been a mammoth uptake of rooftop solar, the result of a shambolic series of government policies giving subsidies to middle-class home owners. Prices for solar have dropped, making it a cheaper source of power generation than coal. The problem now for the grid is to integrate intermittent renewable power with traditional thermal power, such as coal and gas. This is not as easy as it seems, there being many technical problems that need to be overcome. The process is not helped by the ad hoc policy making of politicians, most of whom don't understand energy or climate change.
Matthew Warren has done us all a service by writing this lucid explainer on how Australia's energy grid works. It's a complex, sometimes messy story where science, technology and politics clash. Despite this, Blackout offers a clear narrative that is often fascinating. Read this non-partisan book and feel better informed.
Blackout: How Is Energy Rich Australia Running out of Electricity, by Mattew Warren. Published by Affirm Press. RRP: $29.99
Review by Chris Saliba
How to manage stress in a busy world.
Stan Rodski is a cognitive neuroscientist based in Melbourne. He created the colouring book stress management technique that, for a period, took the publishing world by storm. (Yes, he’s responsible for that craze.)
The Neuroscience of Mindfulness is a multi-faceted book. It explains in very simple language the basic principles of neuroscience, with updates of the latest findings on how the brain works. Research has revealed that basic, repetitive tasks have a powerfully calming effect. The brain is most relaxed when it experiences pattern, repetition and control. Happily, we learn that mindfulness can be incorporated into our everyday activities: walking, driving, brushing your hair. The book includes useful sidebars and practical exercises, guiding the reader through the thought processes required to live mindfully.
Some of the more fascinating research Rodski discusses concerns what is known as the mind-body connection, or MBC. Science has discovered that when we experience stress, a harmful protein known as amyloid protein builds up in the brain, affecting the immune system. Negative thoughts can physically damage the body.
Part practical workbook, part scientific digest, The Neuroscience of Mindfulness offers real help in managing stress in our busy modern world.
The Neuroscience of Mindfulness, by Stan Rodski. HarperCollins. $34.99
Staff review by Chris Saliba
Swiss-Irish economics professor Kevin O'Rourke explains Brexit, focusing on English and European history.
A Short History of Brexit is essentially divided into two halves. The first half examines Britain's history within Europe, especially its relationship and attitudes to the continent. It also builds up a complex picture of all the treaties and agreements that have been signed onto over the decades, resulting in a complicated web of economic integration, delivering many benefits. The promotion of free trade within Europe, however, wasn't always primarily about economics. Another key goal was political, to hopefully avoid devastating future conflicts.
The British have always remained ambivalent about the European project. For many decades Britain hoped to maintain trade within the Commonwealth, with countries such as Canada, Australia and New Zealand. Britain clung to fantasies of empire. Nonetheless, the European economy powered along, making trade with Europe inevitable. This rankled in some quarters. To highlight this ambivalence, O'Rourke gives the example of Margaret Thatcher. She did more than any other politician to sign Britain up to European free trade, all the while remaining virulently anti-Europe.
The second part of the book looks at recent history, since the referendum. Possible explanations for why the Leave vote succeeded are teased out. It's noted that regions deeply affected by austerity were more likely to vote leave, even though this was government policy, not EU policy. Unscrupulous politicians, who were unschooled in the intricacies of what Brexit would actually mean, campaigned hard to leave. Boris Johnson is a case in point. He wasn't sure on which side he stood – remain or leave – until the very last minute. He seemed to enjoy the politicking, rather than have a policy.
The sections that deal with the technical aspects of Brexit are fascinating – and horrifying. So many responsible ministers didn't have the most basic grasp of the rules and frameworks that governed EU trade, hence found themselves dumbstruck by reality. And this doesn't even take into account the border between Northern Ireland and the Republic of Ireland, a complex difficulty never discussed during the Brexit campaign, but a terrible hangover for the day after the euphoria of winning. This is the great tragicomedy of Brexit. The British thought they could magically enjoy all the benefits of the EU, and pluck out the unpalatable bits. There is even a new expression that encapsulates this thinking: cakeism. That is, having your economic cake and eating it too.
It's quite clear that Kevin O'Rourke is of the remain persuasion, and there are some sections where this bias comes through clearly. Overall, however, this is a cool-headed and informative study of a rare phenomenon, a country that decides to cut its nose off despite its face.
A Short History of Brexit: From Brentry to Backstop, by Kevin O'Rourke. Penguin $35
Review by Chris Saliba
Professor of politics Judith Brett offers many reasons to be cheerful about Australia.
Despite there being much despondency about contemporary Australian politics, Judith Brett finds plenty to be cheerful about. In From Secret Ballot to Democracy Sausage, Brett argues that the politicians, bureaucrats and citizens who developed our voting system deserve as much recognition in the popular imagination as the soldiers who fought at Gallipoli. A big claim, but worth paying attention to.
The story begins with the first parliamentary elections in 1843, held at Port Jackson (now Sydney). Elections in those days were rowdy affairs, with bribery and bullying the order of the day. An early innovation was the secret ballot, leading to a more orderly and secure vote. When concerns that first-past-the-post voting could lead to a candidate winning with a minority vote, a system of preferential voting was introduced. It was a woman, Catherine Helen Spence, who was at the forefront of this reform. By 1924, with the introduction of compulsory voting, Australia's modern voting system was pretty much in place.
Compulsory voting is the jewel in the crown of Australia's electoral culture, rare among modern democracies, one that tempers extremism as politicians must pitch policies to all voters – whether poor or rich, migrant or native born. Brett also argues that without compulsory voting, the disaffected would drop out of the process altogether. Compulsion makes them park their vote somewhere, allowing new voices to appear – Cliver Palmer, One Nation, the Greens. None perfect, by any means, but at least offering a way for the disenfranchised to let off steam.
The record is not perfect, however. There are dark stains on our voting history, namely the treatment of our first peoples. The aboriginal vote was by and large suppressed; rights were legislated away. Some aborigines, in some states, could vote, but it was always made difficult. Many worried about giving the vote to aboriginal people due to their dominant numbers. Shamefully it took until 1983, under the Hawke government, for full equality to be achieved when voting was made compulsory for indigenous Australians.
The last few chapters examine recent votes, with special attention paid to the same sex marriage survey. Brett is quite critical of this survey (it wasn't technically a vote) and its unusual process. The eight week voting period was far too long, the process wasn't secret, the postal surveys were easily tampered with and the method of announcement, by the head of the Australian Bureau of Statistics who conducted the survey, unorthodox.
This is a terrific read. A pithy and engaging history of how Australia developed a first class voting system that has saved us from much division and extremism. A celebration of what Australia does best: fair, progressive, inclusive elections.
From Secret Ballot to Democracy Sausage: How Australia Got Compulsory Voting, by Judith Brett. Text $29.99
Review by Chris Saliba
North Melbourne Books