Writing about leaders
Political Lives: Australian Prime Ministers and their Biographers by Chris Wallace
UNSW Press,2023, ISBN 9781742237497, pp 314, pb $39.99.
eviewed by ROSS FITZGERALD
Historian, Chris Wallace, who currently holds a professorship at the Faculty of Business, Government and Law at the University of Canberra, rightly argues that writing biographies of prime ministers is a unique form of political intervention.
Formerly a longstanding member of the Canberra Press Gallery, Wallace who was writing a biography of then prime minister Julia Gillard, did something unusual. In 2011 she cancelled her contract with Allen & Unwin, and actually repaid her advance! This was because she feared her warts and all portrayal would be used, not just by the conservative federal Opposition led by Tony Abbott but also by the allies of the dictatorial Labor prime minister she replaced, Kevin Rudd.And by the capricious, and unforgiving Rudd himself.
To uncover the often-contradictory dynamics and motivations of their relationships, inPolitical LivesMs Wallacewrites about a wide variety of 20th century prime Australian ministers and their biographers, including Robert Menzies, Bob Hawke, John Howard and Paul Keating. Although sometimes written from a ‘progressive’ perspective, this study is a fascinating exploration of the role of politicalimage-making and breaking, especially in the national parliament.
The most revealing parts of the book deal with the biographies and biographers of ALP prime minister Gough Whitlam and the autocratic Liberal who replaced him in November 1975, Malcolm Fraser. As manySpecciereaders know, they later became friends and allies.
During his turbulent parliamentary career, Whitlam was the focus of two substantial biographies. The first was by influential Canberra-based journalist, Laurie Oakes. The second was by Whitlam’s speechwriter, Graham Freudenberg.
Wallace explains that Whitlam’s attitude to political biography “emerges in his foreword to Irwin Young’s 1971 biography of EG ‘Ted’ Theodore, the treasurer in (Jim) Scullin’s Depression-era government.” As I argue in my 1994 biography,“Red Ted”,published by the University of Queensland Press,Theodore was arguably the most talented ALP politician never to be prime minister.
Theodore’s career and reputation was ruined by the “Mungana scandal” in which he was accused, when Labor premier of secretly profiting from the sale of mining leases in north Queensland.Whitlam wrote, “The dishonour of Mungana lay not with Theodore, but with those…who used Mungana to destroy a great Australian political career and a great Australia.”But, as I document in my biography, toward the end of his life, when asked “Was it true about Mungana, Ted?”, Theodore deflected the question and replied, “There is no more beautiful sight than Sydney harbour on an autumn afternoon.”
Despite a life-long interest in political lives, according to Wallace “Whitlam wasn’t completely convinced of the virtues of biography in relation to himself.” He refused to cooperate with James Walter. who in 1976 began research on a psychobiography. This was when Whitlam was in his second stint as Opposition leader. In 1980 Walter wrote in his book The Leader that, after “ a well-known journalist and novelist, who had been doing an esoteric series on Labor notables for a national weekly approached him, Whitlam is reported to have responded: ‘A man would have to be a nymphomaniac for publicity to talk to you!’”
In contrast, Whitlam had,in the main, been pleased by Laurie Oakes’s 1973 biography Whitlam PM,which depicted him, Wallace writes, as “a rather brilliant and somewhat difficult person of immense potential impact on the nation.” Liberal MHR, Edward St John headed his February 1974 review of the book forThe Canberra Times “Portrait of a great PM’. Unsurprisingly, Whitlam was extremely chuffed by Freudenberg’s eulogistic biographyA Certain Grandeur, which was first published in 1977.
Although Malcolm Fraser came to power in controversial circumstances in November 1975, he easily won that election, and remained prime minister until March 1983.
A short, unprepossessing account of Fraser appeared in 1977. Life wasn’t meant to be easy by John Edwards began as a series of articles for The National Times.This journalistic profile was followed three years later by Russell Schneider’sWar Without Blood: Malcolm Fraser in Power.
Written by a former Liberal Party staffer, this excellent book focussed on Fraser’s ‘habit of command’ from 1975 to 1980.War Without Blood offers a powerful assessment, not just about Fraser’s style of governing, but of how he ascended to party leadership. As Wallace explains, Schneider dates the effective beginning of Fraser’s political career from the death of Harold Holt, who first made Fraser a minister. Indeed, Schneider wrote that Fraser had “hounded Holt in his last days.”
On the face of it, a former loyal apparatchik being so critical of a serving Liberal prime minister seems surprising. However, at the time, as Wallace explains, “the party was heavily factionalised, and jockeying was already underway to succeed Fraser as Liberal leader.” Senator Reg Withers, who had been sacked as a minister by Fraser and for whom Schneider had worked, wanted the MP for Menzies’ old seat, Andrew Peacock, to replace the increasingly unpopular Fraser. In 1981 Schneider published a sympathetic biography of Peacock, The Colt From Kooyong. But as it eventuated, in March 1983, Bob Hawke not only defeated Fraser but later stopped Peacock from ever winning our highest office.
In a detailed biographyMalcolm Fraser PM, published in 1989, Patrick Weller summarised Fraser’s public image as “the picture of a dominant and determined leader with his mind made up and intolerant of other views, with a history of leaving those who dared to disagree defeated and trampled in his path.”
But this was until Fraser became a carping critic of the Liberals, gaining somewhat of a following, especially among Leftists and Laborites.
Usefully indexed, it’s a pity that Political Livesdoes not contain a single photograph or illustration of any Australian prime minister.
Ross Fitzgerald is Emeritus Professor of History and Politics at Griffith University. His most recent publications are the co-authored satire,The Lowest Depths, set in Vladimir Putrid’s Russia and amemoir, Fifty Years Sober, both published by Hybrid in Melbourne.
The Spectator Australia, 1 April 2023, p xii.
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