Illuminating memoir of a life in politics
‘The Boy from Baradine’
By Craig Emerson
Scribe, 368pp, $35
by ROSS FITZGERALD
I wish I had known more of Craig Emerson’s backstory when I first met him. It would have explained so much.
In the early 1990s we were both living in Brisbane, and although we were not mates I did come to know him when he was the powerful and sometimes ruthless director-general of the Queensland Department of Environment and Heritage. Back then I wasn’t aware of his passionate, emotional and varied background. The story revealed in this highly personal memoir, ‘The Boy from Baradine’, explains a lot about one of our leading federal Labor politicians.
Among the revelations in this lucidly written, well-indexed book are that Emerson is prone to epilepsy, moral scruples and obsessional behaviour. The obsessional streak explains his devotion to detail, which was helpful in building a political career.
It is also useful to understand that he came from a troubled home in Baradine, a small northwestern NSW bush town. He was born there in 1954.
This unusually honest political memoir is a story of courage and triumph over considerable personal and professional difficulties. In the early 1960s Craig and his (now deceased) elder brother Lance, who were raised and schooled in the Catholic faith, endured a chaotic and traumatic family life in their small, yellow-painted fibro house.
Their mother was a chain-smoker, sometimes violent and often suicidal. She suffered from depression and drug addiction. The frequent fights between their parents, which mainly occurred at home in front of the boys, often exhausted their father, who had been a prisoner of war
Despite the difficulties at home, by sheer dint of hard labour (for meagre wages) their parents afforded Lance (who, like their mother, was prone to rages) and Craig a good education. Of the two brothers, it was Craig in particular who vindicated their sacrifice by achieving an honours and masters degree in economics at the University of Sydney and then gaining a PhD, also in economics, from the Australian National University.
Shortly afterwards, the talented young Emerson joined Bob Hawke’s staff as a senior adviser to help design and implement the then new federal Labor government’s economics, trade and environmental program — which, in the main, proved to be a great success.
Emerson got on well with Hawke. They shared recreational interests including a love of punting on the horses. They were so close that Emerson became in many ways like a son to the hugely popular Labor prime minister.
In 1990, after more than six years as a Labor staffer, Emerson moved from Canberra to Brisbane, where he worked as a high-profile apparatchik for the reformist state Labor government of Wayne Goss.
But he hankered to return to Canberra, this time as a parliamentarian. After some initial difficulties, in 1998 he was elected as the ALP member representing the Queensland seat of Rankin. He held this position until 2013.
As he explains, things didn’t always run smoothly. From time to time Emerson fell foul of federal factional powerbrokers, who had him banished to the backbench. But his perseverance and capacity for hard work and discipline enabled him to emerge from political exile and hold a number of key positions, including as trade minister.
For three years, after leaving his second wife, Cathy, in 2002, Emerson was in a relationship with Julia Gillard, while they were both federal MPs. The fact that in June 2010 Gillard became Australia’s first female prime minister makes the relationship seem more interesting than it may have been. Emerson says his marital breakdown destroyed his party leadership chances. His relationship with his three children remained intact. He writes lovingly of his kids.
A readable political memoir is always enhanced by illuminating illustrations, and there are some great photographs in this book. A standout is of an animated Emerson during question time in the House of Representatives in 2009. Kevin Rudd, Gillard and then treasurer Wayne Swan are in the background. The second is a portrait of a clear-eyed Emerson in 2011 warmly shaking hands with then US president Barack Obama.
Fittingly, this powerful memoir finishes on a poignant yet uplifting note. Although “the sad little boy lives within [him] still and always will”, every day Emerson “looks back with amazement at the rich life of a boy from Baradine who overcame adversity and, in his own way, made a difference”.
The book contains insights into the workings of federal parliament, especially from the heady days of Hawke’s reformist government to the end of Rudd’s prime ministership. ‘The Boy from Baradine’ is one of the most detailed and illuminating books about the exercise of power in Canberra that I have so far had the pleasure of reading. Emerson has produced a highly engaging, compassionate and empathetic account of his sometimes stellar, sometimes dispiriting career, and of the political world that he inhabited for so long.
Ross Fitzgerald is emeritus professor of history and politics at Griffith University.
The Weekend Australian, March 3-4, 2018, review, Books, pp 22-23.