20 February 2023

Vice Chancellor, it’s so generous of you to host us at your home here on Ngunnawal and Ngambri country at the University of Canberra.

Book launch of 'Political Lives: Australian prime ministers and their biographers' by Chris Wallace, University of Canberra

Political lives and leadership

Vice Chancellor, it’s so generous of you to host us at your home here on Ngunnawal and Ngambri country at the University of Canberra.

I pay my respects to elders, culture and customs.

And Chris it’s really kind of you to invite me to help out on such a special night, launching your latest terrific book.

Good evening and thanks, one and all. Amazing group.

I started today in Brisbane, gave a speech to the finance sector and joined an economists roundtable in Sydney on the way here, and really pleased I could join you en route to Perth tonight, ready for cabinet in Port Hedland tomorrow.

I mention this little travelogue to WA deliberately and for three reasons.

First, because it’s customary to speak at book launches about how we know and how long we’ve known the author.

I first met Chris, and Michael [Costello] too for that matter, when I worked for that great West Australian Kim Beazley, in his second stint as leader.

Come to think of it –

Peter FitzSimons, with his book on Kim, and Chris with her book on John Hewson, showed that writing pre‑prime ministerial books about future PMs can be a gamble –

Happily, Karen Middleton’s punt came off a bit better!

So did Edna Carew’s, and Laurie Oakes’, and perhaps a handful of others.

But the second reason I raise it is because I have a theory about colleagues from WA –

I reckon they are often among the most reflective of us, often among the best‑read.

Because those long flights give them the captive chance to read more, perhaps more than the rest of us.

I remember when I worked for Kim, early on, perched in a seat next to him and asking whether the long flights were the hardest part of leading from the West and I’ll always remember he said something like:

“Oh yes mate, I hate being unreachable on the mobile and having nothing to do but spend hours drinking coffee and reading books about the Civil War…”

Very Kim!

As Troy Bramston, one of our most perceptive and prolific biographers of leaders reminds us annually in his column –

Not all readers are leaders, but many leaders are readers.

In the case of Deakin, Chifley and others – Gorton influenced by Lincoln, Gough’s shelves in Cabramatta heaving with them, all readers of biography, learning from those who came before.

Kim too is a reader, and a legend, and the least surprising thing is he is friends with Chris, and with Michael.

And the third reason I start talking about long flights is because that’s where I read this wonderful book we launch tonight.

Ministers on flights typically take two sets of things to read:

Cabinet or briefing folders to read if there’s nobody next to them, or somebody they know and trust.

And something more recreational, more interesting if less confidential, if there’s a side‑eyed Liberal or a complete stranger plonked down next door.

That’s how I got through Chris’ book – or more accurately a printed‑out PDF of the manuscript.

I really love this book. It’s a cracker.

I loved grappling with Chris’ idea of the ‘absent fathers of Australian politics’; imagining Barton reflecting on ‘that life story business’; the gear shift between BG and AG (Before Gough and After Gough).

I loved Reid getting himself listed above Kipling in a list of the fifty greatest Brits; Fisher starting his own newspaper to avenge an early defeat; and the entirely unsurprising yet still fascinating stories of Billy Hughes’ even more obvious self‑promotion.

The Hughes bit might be the best of it all, actually, certainly the most entertaining – too much gold to itemise and do justice to here.

Menzies too, bagging the enterprise then cooperating.

I don’t want to spoil all the best bits so let me just say the politicians don’t come out of this book in perfect nick!

It shows again that we have thick skins for even the best of our opponents’ attacks –

But much less like a rhino, and much more like the unskimmed top of an ageing hot chocolate, when it comes to the words of our chroniclers and critics.

I most enjoyed the stories I was least aware of, the leaders I’d read least about, so much brilliant and illuminating light.

As much about the negotiation and navigation of a biography as the narration of it.

And of course what makes it manageable as a topic is that Chris focuses on the in‑career biographies and biographers.

This means of the couple of hundred books about prime ministers counted by our parliamentary library – the ones written post prime ministerships are left out for later.

And this leaves a focus on Chris’ interest in biographies as a type of political intervention – her major concern.

And in the process tapping the same kind of interest that Caro and Kearns‑Goodwin have, in their books and lectures about what it’s actually like to embark on a big piece of biography.

Recognising that it is not and cannot be entirely a book about one person, but at least two – the writer as well.

Freudy and Gough; Oakes and Gough across multiple volumes (again just brilliant, on Laurie); Bob and Blanche – most obviously and most closely – but right across the board.

And revelations too –

I consider John Edwards a friend, his books on Curtin, Chifley and Keating a big part of my top ten, and yet I didn’t even know he wrote about Malcolm Fraser.

But if biography is about the leader, and it’s about the author – it’s obviously also about the reader.

These books covered by Chris, and the stories behind them, make the exotic accessible – in real time and down the generations.

It’s like poking around Chifley’s house in Bathurst – like many of us here probably have – seeing the suitcases under the wardrobes, the writing desk and the kitchen and the little bath out the back where he’d sometimes receive a briefing.

And making the exotic more accessible brings me to some concluding thoughts on Keating – on Chris’ ‘polaroids’ of Paul.

I’ve always found it so fascinating to hear or read him say that when he read as a young fella about Churchill – he decided if that was the game Churchill was in, it was the game he wanted to be in.

I felt exactly – exactly – the same reading the late great Michael Gordon’s book about Paul.

I’m so pleased Chris writes of it; gives it its due.

There’s a reasonable chance I wouldn’t be here without it.

When I was about 17 or 18 I read it front to back twice – stayed up half the night – just couldn’t get enough of it.

Pages and pages of possibility.

When I mentioned this at the inaugural political book of the year awards last year, I was so touched to hear afterwards from Micky’s family.

I admit as I was reading Chris’ book, I was looking forward to hearing the back story of this one – and I wasn’t disappointed.

Especially understanding how important it was that it started with the Placido Domingo speech – if not the best Australian political speech then perhaps at least the best off the cuff.

And delighted towards the end to read Paul’s reflections too, about the effect of things written about future or current leaders creating ‘a bit of a rustle in the leaves’.

They can create more than that, of course.

Often quite a stir. The back stories, just as much.

They leave an impression. And this book will too.

These stories and Chris’ book shows leadership can be ugly –

But, like beauty and the beholder, it’s all in the eye of the biographer.

Well done Chris, congratulations –

And thanks again for the chance to declare this fascinating piece of work, officially and enthusiastically launched.