The March of the Patriots (2009) by Paul Kelly is a fantastic book that will probably wind up either being one of the most important books describing Australian politics in the 1990s and the early part of the 21st Century or the most important. Kelly writes masterfully well and has the advantage of knowing the protagonists well. As editor of the Australian for much of the period and editor at large as well Kelly was in the ideal position to see what developed. What’s even more remarkable is his even handedness is treating both sides. He certainly has his views, but they are not common views. Most Australians are partisan toward one of the major parties. Kelly isn’t.
Kelly divides the book both chronologically and by theme. This is a good idea overall but does split related events if their themes are chosen to be separate. In particular the rise of One Nation is not shown to be related to the tough gun laws that Howard introduced after the Port Arthur massacre when there is a link. Also Howard’s treatment of illegal boat arrivals is separated from the rise of One Nation.
The books starts off by looking at the early life of Keating and Howard. The two grew up under fairly similar circumstances in Sydney’s West. Both of their parents were business people. Howard’s father died when Howard was 16 which clearly affected him. He also had a hearing impairment that caused problems for him. Nonetheless he was able to study law at Sydney University and became a solicitor for a short time before becoming a politician. Keating left school at 15 and then quickly became involved in Unions and then politics. Kelly describes the theme that the book puts together, that Keating and Howard are continuum of similar real politics but differing temperaments.
After introducing his protagonists Kelly looks at Paul Keating in Part 1: The Keating Miracle, and his ascension to Prime Minister after toppling Bob Hawke and his victory in the 1993 election. Kelly also brushes on the theme of the 24 hour news cycle. He describes Keating as hating it and not handling it well. Kelly looks at Hewson and his naive strategy that so remarkably enable Keating to win. Keating’s victory was impressive, his political cunning would serve him well but he was given an opponent who was weak. Costello’s disdain for Hewson, also evident in Costello’s book. Is also presented.
After giving fairly quick treatment to Keating’s win Kelly turns to look at Keating’s ideas in the second part, The big Picture. Kelly writes about the remarkable push by Keating that had started in the 1980s of adding more people into superannuation. His final push in 1991 that pushed superannuation into law was very impressive. It was on the eve of a recession that Keating must have had some idea was coming. The deal was done just before Keating became PM but the details had to be worked out by Keating and his then treasurer John Dawkins . Kelly does appear to respect Keating considerably but presents him as being a disorganized PM who wanted to be an ideas man, perhaps in a way to compensate for his lack of formal learning. Keating was certainly a very successful treasurer, as PM he appears less so. The severity of the early 1990s recession hit him hard. He essentially owned the problem. Kelly paints him as someone who instead wanted to be a big picture person, perhaps because he was not overly proud of his economics at the time. Whether Keating should have switched to this big picture view is questionable. But he did and also successfully courted the Left Wing intelligentsia (LWI) of Australia. The LWI was impressed by Keating’s desire to become a Republic, change the flag and engage in reconciliation with Australia’s Aborigines. Middle Australia was less impressed. One legacy of Keating’s big picture did yield results, his engagement with Asia was successful and has had long lasting effects. Despite Keating starting by lecturing Brent Snowcroft, one of the architects of the US victory in the Cold War and in the first Gulf War in a manner that was really quite amusing he did get US support for APEC and he strengthened Australian relations with Indonesia. Kelly also notes that Keating introduced mandatory detention, a policy that would be continued but explode under Howard.
In Part III The Showdown Kelly describes the contest between Howard and Keating where Howard managed to split the LWI, which was the Labour leadership, from much of the Labour base that became the Howard battlers. Howard’s rise as the Final Option due to Hewson’s dismal failure and Downer’s amusing one is given fairly short shrift.
In Part IV, The Howard System, Howards setup as PM is described. Howard is described as setting up a system where he was key and one in which he would continue the politicisation of the senior ranks of the public service. Howard also had an asset in a strong treasurer in Peter Costello. The two were not friends but had a very successful working relationship. Together they would balance the budget under fire from the public service and the unions. This was not, as Labour would later attempt to paint it as, balancing the budget in good times. Howard and Costello would also make the Reserve Bank legally independent. It was quite a step that would cause the Liberal Party pain in the short term but gain in the long term. Kelly also writes about how Howard would engage in a cultural conflict with the LWI that Keating had deliberately launched with his big picture ideas. Kelly describe’s Howard’s relations with indigenous Australia as being an opportunity wasted. Kelly has spoken to Noel Pearson who would be important in this part of Liberal politics and Pearson provides numerous interesting quotes throughout the book.
In Part V The Crisis of Legitimacy Kelly writes about the problems that would hit the Howard government early on, the waterfront crisis, the Native Title Crisis and in particular the rise of One Nation and Pauline Hanson. Howard’s tough victory in the 1998 election where he had all these setbacks but still courageously and openly proposed a new tax and won is described. With that Howard laid to rest the Ghost of Billy McMahon.
In Part VI, John Howard discovers the world Kelly writes about the Howard government, Downer and it’s relations with the world. After initially not engaging with Asia Howard and Downer’s change to further engagement is given examination.
In Part VII Howard Unleashed larger chunks of Howard’s government and the particularly successful phase that ultimately made it such a long lasting government is examined. Kelly describes Howard and Downer’s handling of East Timor as improvised but successful and establishing real foreign policy credentials for them. The introduction of the GST and the avoidance of the 2001 recession is given a surprisingly short treatment. Kelly says that Howard was skillful but that Costello was too hard line and would have failed to have passed it. Kelly hints that Howard looked at this as showing the Costello would not have made a good leader. Tampa and the Children overboard affair is described with an interval where the events of 9/11 and the Howard/Bush relationship are examined. Kelly describes the former as being unintentionally mishandled, in contrast to the myth that the ALP and others have subsequently attempted to construct of the whole issue as being a dog whistle. Kelly’s narrative is solid and makes far more sense than allowing the Left’s hatred of Howard to run wild and paint him as some evil Machiavellian genius. Kelly also points out that much of the setup was inherited from Keating. Kelly does not paint Howard and in particular Reith as being blameless, indeed he appears certain that before the 2001 election both were aware of the inadvertent construct they had painted but neither, in the run up to an election being prepared to fully overturn what had appeared.
The book ends with the 2001 election with Howard ready to step into the salad days of his time as PM when budget surpluses and the China boom would kick in.
The book is very impressive. For anyone who is seriously interested in Australian politics it’s a must read. The faults that the book has, in particular the separation of themes with chronology disturbed are justified in that they give a good view of topics. The more natural choice of strict chronological order would have broken the overview of the issues that the book instead does so well. Kelly gives more time to Howard’s 5 years than Keating’s and this is justified. The Hawke government did more than the Keating government did. Keating’s role in that was critical. By the time he became PM the ALP was always on the defensive. Keating also lost the momentum to finish the program of reforms that he had so brilliantly started. It would be left to Howard to finish the painting by bringing in the GST, balancing the budget and formally separating the Reserve Bank. The book is long, it could be called The Long March of the Patriots. But this is clearly necessary. It would also have been good to have summaries of the economic and demographic status of Australia for the period. But these are minor quibbles. The book stands as a huge achievement.
4.5 / 5.