A series of essays that look examines how Australia could improve its current policy settings by following the example of progressive Nordic countries.
What can Australia learn from Nordic countries Sweden, Finland, Denmark, Norway and Iceland? Quite a lot, according to editors Andrew Scott and Rod Campbell. Marshalling an array of Australian and Nordic writers and thinkers, The Nordic Edge examines the most pressing policy questions confronting Australia today.
There is much received economic wisdom that Australians swallow without demur. Politicians especially like to tell us that low taxes equal a strong economy, but the authors demonstrate that high taxing Nordic countries have strong economies and their populations experience high levels of well-being. Norway's sovereign wealth fund is a particular cause for envy, having generated an enormous national nest egg by investing ethically and with great transparency.
Sweden leads the way in making foreign policy from a feminist perspective, calling for gender equity and combating violence against women, with research showing that more women involved in peace processes leads to more positive outcomes. In another essay concentrating on gendered accounting (considering how policy impacts women) it is shown that more equal societies have better economies and health outcomes. Other essays concentrate on global warming, media and the prison system.
Progressives will shake their heads that we don't have these policies in place already; sceptics may find some of the research presented here nudges their thinking. An urgently needed re-evaluation of Australia's policy direction that deserves a broad audience.
The Nordic Edge: Policy Possibilities for Australia, edited by Andrew Scott and Rod Campbell. Published by Melbourne University Press. $32.99
Review by Chris Saliba
First published at Books + Publishing.
An engaging look at gender inequality and how to fix it.
Former Australian prime-minister Julia Gillard and Nigerian-American economist Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala see it as a matter of urgency that women fill more leadership roles. The statistics for female participation in politics, business and leadership roles generally are abysmal. To help foster change, they teamed up to write a level-headed manual on how to navigate a male dominated world where the cards are stacked against women.
While Women and Leadership uses a wealth of research on the subject of gender inequality, one of the book's main attractions is its real life examples. Okonjo-Iweala and Gillard interviewed eight prominent women leaders, from a variety of different countries and cultures. They sought out personal stories of how these women achieved what they did, but also asked questions on a range of subjects. Does having supportive parents help young girls? Is there an unfair presumption that women should stay home to raise children? Is too much attention paid to the way a woman dresses? Do women really support women?
The resulting answers make for an engaging and insightful book that is accessible and could also appeal to young adult readers. It's most practical lesson is the proverbial "forewarned is forearmed", arguing preparation and war-gaming are the key to success. The world is not fair for women, the issues are often deeply rooted and structural, but that is all the more reason, the authors assert, to forge ahead and make lasting change.
Women and Leadership is sure to become a classic text on gender inequality and how to fight it. It's hard to think of a more perfect manual to put in the hands of aspiring women and supportive men.
Women and Leadership: Real Lives, Real Lessons, by Julia Gillard and Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala. Published by Vintage. $34.99
Review by Chris Saliba
The classic text about racism in America
In 1959, journalist John Howard Griffin took the extraordinary step of changing his skin colour in order to pass as a Black man. Under the guidance of a dermatologist, Griffin took oral doses of a drug to darken his skin pigmentation, went under a tanning lamp and applied make-up. His first step to test if he passed among African-Americans was to go out in public and catch a bus. No one could tell he was actually white. African-Americans accepted him as one of their own.
The reason for Griffin changing his skin colour was not to test the reactions of African-Americans, but of white people. Passing as a Black man he spent six weeks travelling the deep south, reporting for Sepia magazine (who also funded the experiment) and later turning the magazine articles he wrote into the book, Black Like Me.
We often think we understand what racism is, how it impacts people and why it's wrong. However, it's an entirely different thing to literally walk in the shoes of a coloured person. It opens up a whole world of subtle and not so subtle politics, soul destroying rules on behaviour and barely contained, seething rage. Early in the book, Griffin highlights a simple problem in the segregated south. If you're a coloured person out in public and you need to use the bathroom, that can be a major problem. You can be made to walk miles because there are no toilets available to you. Planning a trip can be fraught for this simple reason – there will be nowhere to go to the toilet. On one bus trip that Griffin describes, the driver refuses to stop the bus at a segregated restroom, meaning none of the coloured commuters could relieve themselves.
Another thing Griffin describes is the “hate stare”, being stared at by white people who utterly loathe the colour of your skin, and you because you inhabit it. Many a time Griffin would meet white people he thought were decent and civilised, but it didn't take long for the veneer to come off and racist attitudes to prevail. White people essentially think life as a person of colour is not so bad and can't see what all the fuss is about. They are blind to the structural disadvantage caused by white society. Black and white live side by side in America, yet there are major misunderstandings about each other's experience.
Griffin was shaken to the core by his experiences as a Black man. Shaken by his own latent racism that he didn't realise he harbored, and profoundly disturbed by the depth of hatred in white America. He dreaded publishing his experiences for fear of the backlash. He and his family received death threats and moved to Mexico for a year. He later worked in the Civil Rights movement and many of his friends and associates were assassinated by white supremacists.
Black Like Me is powerful and shocking. It provides deep, unique insights into racism in America and should be essential reading.
Black Like Me, by John Howard Griffin. Serpent's Tail. $22.99
Idealism clashes with reality in this thoughtful and revealing memoir.
A Promised Land was supposed to cover Barack Obama’s entire presidency, but it stops after 700 pages at 2011. A second volume is in the wings.
Let it be said at the outset, this is a very fine memoir. Its standout feature is an intellectual honesty that allows Obama to confront his personal limitations and the limitations of US democracy. Everywhere the overarching theme is the clash between idealism and reality. Good policy regularly takes a backseat to pointless political bickering and naked self-interest. US democratic politics doesn’t lend itself to reform and improvement, but is frustratingly weighted to maintain the status quo.
Often Obama fondly remembers his younger idealistic self, romantically wishing he could join progressive global protest movements, but finding himself inert, ironically hamstrung in the world’s most important political office. The US presidency might seem to confer power, but the reality is it is often a straitjacket. For all the personal sacrifices to attain the presidency – family, privacy, a normal life – a question constantly hangs in the air: how much is really being achieved? For the most part, achievement is measured in the ability to stop even worse things happening.
It is this honesty and candour that makes A Promised Land so compelling. The book gives a penetrating view into the presidency (we learn much about how the office actually works) and exposes the limitations of power. Obama remains optimistic about change, but this memoir, while deeply insightful, is also a sobering reminder of blunt political realities.
A Promised Land will go down as one of the great political memoirs.
A Promised Land, by Barack Obama. Vintage. $65
Review by Chris Saliba
Ten hard rules on how to win an election.
Journalist and biographer Christine Wallace's How to Win an Election can be read two ways. Firstly, as an autopsy of Labor's shock 2019 defeat, and secondly as a witty yet Machiavellian explainer of how to win at contemporary politics. While the book's tone is often playful and tongue-in-cheek, its aim is deadly serious.
The book is divided into 10 key rules for success. Among other things: develop sensible policies that have a chance of getting up, use polling judiciously (the chapter on polling should be mandatory reading), work productively where possible with oppositions, engage positively with journalists, and make good cut through ads (including social media). Another important rule: a leader must be a good performer who connects emotionally with people. While an important requisite of leaders is that they have profound self-belief, this can block clear thinking. Bruised egos can cause leaders to shut down and surround themselves with uncritical supporters. A delicate balance between self-belief and self-restraint is required.
he bottom line? Labor lost due to a wooden leader whose strategists failed to read the polling properly. Worst of all, Labor tried to win government with a suite of ambitious policies while in opposition - history shows that serious reform is best done whilst in government. How to Win an Election is essential reading for politicians and their staffers; it will also greatly appeal to voters of all ages and persuasions.
How to Win an Election, by Chris Wallace. Published by New South Books.
Review by Chris Saliba
This review first published at Books + Publishing. Click here.
An entertaining memoir from Liberal Party insider Christopher Pyne.
Christopher Pyne entered the Australian parliament at age twenty-five with high hopes of becoming prime minister. He traveled a long road to finally become a minister in the Howard government, and then in the Abbott and Turnbull governments. But he never reached the top job. Rather than indulge in bitterness and self-pity, he accepted his limits and graciously retired. His memoir, The Insider, covers the later years of the Howard government, when he was appointed Minister for Ageing, the opposition years and finally, the tumultuous Abbott and Turnbull years.
Don’t expect much in the way of political philosophy or policy interest in these pages. Pyne espouses an amorphous Liberal party philosophy of the individual rather than the collective, coupled with a blunt opposition to anything Labor. It’s all a case of Liberal equals good, Labor equals bad. Having said that, Pyne is a cheery fellow who relishes the work of parliament, its dynamic personalities and power plays, and all of its attendant bustle and energy. Despite his professed antipathy to Labor policy, he has cultivated many friendships with the non-liberal side of politics. Like a character out of P.G. Wodehouse, Pyne doesn’t hold grudges and sees parliament as ripping good fun.
The Insider is an enjoyable and engaging read. Pyne takes us on a grand tour of the political life, introducing the reader to a large cast of the most important political players from the last twenty years. If anything, his book gives a good idea of how the machinery of politics works, how elections are fought and won, and how reputations are made and lost.
An intriguing and candid look into how parliaments work from an affable guide.
The Insider: The Scoops, the Scandals and the Serious Business within the Canberra Bubble, by Christopher Pyne. Hachette. $34.99
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