Chasing the Norm

Australian academic and blogger on politics, international relations, and culture

Book Review: The March of Patriots by Paul Kelly

The March of Patriots: The Struggle for Modern Australia by Paul Kelly Melbourne:Melbourne University Press $69.95 rrp
I had the good fortune of attending a lecture by Paul Kelly tonight on his book and Australian politics, so I figured this was a good incentive to polish off my review of his book which I promised over a month ago. His speech was largely a re-emphasis of the books main argument, or defence of some of its views, but where relevant I’ll add in his updated thoughts, indicated with a *.

One of the hardest tasks for writers of politics is to see how close you can get to normal events, whilst producing something substantial. Journalists are used to having most of their work quickly forgotten and in that temporariness, can find a freedom to formulate and re-formulate how they see the world. But for those producing something longer, a book, a thesis, there is an expectation that you can both obtain enough distance to properly observe an event and its characters, and still getting it out before the public demand for insight fades. In his earlier book ‘The End of Certainty’ Kelly charted the economic reforms of the Hawke/Keating Government, and yet his best formulation was not what they did, but defining what they removed via the concept of an ‘Australian Settlement’. Kelly’s latest idea is that Keating and Howard are best seen as Australian patriots, whose similarities are greater than their differences. Unfortunately its not quite so catchy, and his colleague George Megalogenis got there first with ‘The Longest Decade’ (and arguably proved the similarity thesis better).

Given Kelly’s conservatism, it is remarkable that this is actually his first book on the conservative side of politics. Despite the joint images on the title, Kelly devotes around 1/3 or 225 pages to Keating’s 5 years, and 2/3’s or 400 pages to Howard’s first 5 years, promising a second volume to come covering 2001-2007. The numbers give a fair ratio of his biases. Where Howard and Keating overlap on economics he is broadly supportive, even downright impressed by Keating’s bravery and genius, likewise on Asian Engagement as a Foreign Policy objective. Where they differ, on nationalism, culture, war, Kelly comes down firmly on Howard’s side. While there are already a number of books on Howard, the March of Patriots is going to become a cornerstone for interpreting the administration.

In Howard, Kelly sees four key impulses at work (1) Economic Liberalism, (2) Social Conservatism (3) Cultural Traditionalism (4) National Security vigilance. The first two are common wisdom, and the latter easily discernible though usefully brought together here. I’m less convinced by his claim that Howard isn’t a neo-liberal. There is of course a difference between rhetoric and policy, but given that Kelly awards the term of Cultural traditionalist to Howard whilst admitting his policy achievements in this area are ‘threadbare’*, it seems odd that he ignores so much of the rhetorical trend towards free-marketeerism under Howard. Indeed Kelly has said he deliberately ignored a lot of the politics so as to focus on the policy/governance issues, but both are significant to understand a governments thoughts. The Howard government relentlessly sold the idea that the unhindered market was the best way to run economic policy, and its occasional reticence (such as with banking or communications regulation) or their popularism (middle class welfare) doesn’t necessarily prove otherwise. In private Kelly argues Howard and Costello rejected the self-correcting market theory, which is largely true of the legislation that passed (via an a largely hostile senate) but had Howard enjoyed Senate control at the beginning of his government, not its tired final term, history’s judgement may have been very different.

In terms of foreign policy, Kelly makes a far bolder claim in both book and person that Howard “pioneered the idea of Australia as a regional leader”*. This is an interesting claim, in that Australians have always been reticent about claiming that Australia could lead this region. We have a profoundly different culture, history, background and way of life. Kelly points to the case of E.Timor as the first time Australia took the lead in a military role. However this downplays Australia’s role in creating APEC, encouraging the Cambodian peacekeeping, and advocacy on preventing WMD non-proliferation in the region. The Australian Government may have titled the policy as ‘Engagement’ but to my mind, it was an unabashed effort at positioning for and achieving regional leadership, under a much more PR friendly label. To grant Howard the credit seems to miss the critical set-up work that he inherited (though Kelly quotes Downer and others stressing the critical importance of Hawke/Keating’s creation of APEC to achieving success in E.Timor) The Foreign policy story is also incomplete, with the book ending at the unfortunate pivot point of 2001, which marks the end of the major economic policies, but fits half way between the big changes in Foreign Policy. For that I guess we will just have to wait…

Kelly’s book is in some ways hard to criticize. He lives up to his pledge* to focus on policy issues over the politics. His central thesis that Keating and Howard were both focused on restoring Australian patriotism, and had more in common than divided them/suited their parties to acknowledge is eminently defendable. But this insiders tale, with immaculate access to the powerful, also feels somewhat hollow. Kelly doesn’t manage to capture or even attempt to define the anger or resentment many in the public felt towards Howard. But you can’t understand Howard and Keating’s story without understanding the often ambivalent, sometimes hostile public reaction to them. Both men were loved within their tribes, hated by the other, and often polarised most of the public at various times of their leadership. Kelly perhaps rightly knows his argument that what unites them is more important is controversial, however it is notable how little popular sentiment seems to be considered, and his almost outright dismissal for their being any legitimate base of anger at Howard from the left. This is a sin by omission rather than fault, and one not unique to his book, but I think significant to understand the environment Keating and Howard were operating in. In fact even if limited to Howard, this would have been a big improvement (and given Kelly’s previous work on Keating and the proliferation of books on his government, this may have been better served as a book solely on Howard over his entire administration.)

Kelly is for better or worse Australia’s Bob Woodward (who traded in his watergate credentials for a white house all-access-pass). This insider status grants amazing access to the powerful, with often revealing interviews. These interviews let the major players speak for themselves, sometimes even hang themselves with their own claims, but it’s traded for a very conventional level of analysis. Indeed Kelly’s book screams conventional in its analysis, a thought only tempered by the knowledge that it was probably Kelly who set the common wisdom which everyone else has come to endorse. Where he speaks or acts, the press typically follows. For political junkies and close followers, Kelly’s book is a must read. There is not much that is brand new, but the book is very well researched, organised and its focus on policy over politics a welcome change, whilst in an very readable format.