Chasing the Norm

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

The Gillard Project

The Gillard Project by Michael CooneyCooney - Gillard Project

It is often noted that the Labor Party sells more books than their opponents. One reason they do is because there is a vibrancy to their work that resonates widely. (well save Wayne Swan’s contributions). Cooney’s ‘The Gillard Project’ helps show why.

Taking us down the path of an ALP speechwriter (whose ground Graham Freudenberg, Don Watson, James Button and others have magisterially illuminated) this is a passionate defence of the life of a political staffer. It fairly drums along, proudly pulling back the curtain to show the resilience and humour that sustained the Gillard Government.

This is also a somewhat grumpy book. For all Cooney’s erudition he doesn’t offer many telling blows against his political opponents (indeed the Liberal Party is virtually absent from the text while the Greens are just occasional subjects of abuse). Likewise the defence of tribalism and unity makes sense when you consider the pressure faced during the mad summer of 2012-13. But it hardly persuades as a long term justification for the ALP’s union links and organising principle. Indeed it somewhat cheapens it. A means becomes an end. A cause established for the ‘making and unmaking of social conditions’ ends up a club seeking merely to sustain itself.

The easiest path in literary criticism is to attack a writer for not writing the book you think they should have written (or would have written yourself if you could). Let me therefore walk the road most often travelled. The segments and glimpses of how Prime Minister Gillard’s key speeches were put together were a highlight for me and I would have loved much more of it.

Cooney could easily defend himself by noting that many others have tried this approach (most recently James Button). But Gillard’s was a government that was centrally criticised for lacking a narrative and widely assumed to be unable to connect to the punters. Cooney himself regularly attributes a ‘failure to sell’ as crippling to a PM he clearly loves.

So, enquiring minds would love to know, how did his words play into that? We get an honourable mea culpa with the problems of the carbon tax label and ‘we are us’ lines, but why didn’t the bigger picture cut through? Can big picture rhetoric work anymore in this social media age? What’s the purpose and merit of speeches these days? Especially when even the author admits many were purposeless or boring.

The same could be said for policy issues. Again, this is a criticism of what I’d like to have read, rather than did read. But Cooney is not just a word smith but a policy wonk. And the two are intimately involved. So in which direction would he like to see the party go?

That said, this is a fun book, which I devoured on a plane flight home. There are enticing sections of high politics in the global capitals along with relaxed Australian larrikinism, punctuated by drinks and laughs at the beach or the PM’s house.

The vibrancy of this book is a celebration of the sheer bloody hard work of countless invisible staffers who carried this government along on their shoulders. Of course like the tragic Greek plays which Cooney has surely read, suffering alone is not enough for redemption. At least not in this world. Few however will read this book and not acknowledge that, at least they tried.