Valuable, but not complete
IPA REVIEW ARTICLE
John Roskam reviews The March Of Patriots: The Struggle For Modern Australia by Paul Kelly (Melbourne University Press, 2009, 720 pages)
Paul Kelly transformed himself from journalist into historian with the publication of his The End of Certainty in 1992. In it he converted a century of Australian history into five dot points: White Australia, industry protection, wage arbitration, state paternalism, and imperial benevolence. For Kelly this was the ‘Australian Settlement' that determined the course of public policy for a hundred years.
Kelly's thesis is powerful because it's true. Although discussion of it takes up only a few pages in the nearly 800 pages of The End of Certainty, the thesis defines the book and turns it into something to almost rival those masterworks of Australian politics like Keith Hancock's Australia and Frederic Eggleston's State Socialism in Victoria.
The End of Certainty covered an epoch-making period. The 1980s was the end of one era and the beginning of another. Although Australia in the 1950s and 1960s wasn't quite as closed, closeted, and conservative as critics like to make out it is nevertheless true that by the end of the 1980s the country was very different from what it had been a few decades before. During the 1980s both of Australia's political parties, embraced (to a greater or lesser extent) the ideas that have come to be termed ‘neo-liberalism' and which recognise that free markets work better than the alternative.
It was inevitable therefore that The End of Certainty was going to be a hard act to follow. And so it has proved to be. The March of Patriots: The Struggle for Modern Australia is important, necessary, and significant. But it's no The End of Certainty. For one thing The March of Patriots doesn't come with a handy five dot point summary. The End of Certainty had a beginning, middle, and an end. It began with the Australian Settlement as unchallenged political orthodoxy. The middle was the late 1970s and early 1980s as the wets and dries fought it out in the Liberal Party. And the end was the election of the Hawke/Keating government and the triumph of economic common-sense.
The March of Patriots covers Australian politics from 1991 to 2001. Although much happened during this decade, there is a sense that it is still a work in progress. In The End of Certainty it was clear who the good guys and the bad guys were. The good guys were those who wanted an open economy and an open society. The bad guys were those who didn't. Kelly's sympathies are those on the right side of the debate (in every sense of the word). The sides in The March of Patriots are more ambiguous. In The End of Certainty it was easy to agree with Kelly in his barracking for the removal of tariff protection for example. In The March of Patriots some of the causes that Kelly lobbies for are less easy to support. And sometimes Kelly himself is unsure which side he is on.
Take the republic. It soon becomes obvious what side of the debate Kelly is on. He writes that the rejection in May 1993 by the then Liberal leader John Hewson of Keating's offer that the Opposition appoint a representative to the Republican Advisory Committee was ‘the death knell for hopes that the Liberals would keep an open mind.' The implication being that the Liberals should have kept an open mind about the republic.
But for many Liberals, to ask them to keep an open mind about the republic would like asking the executive of the ACTU to keep an open mind on whether trade unions serve a useful purpose in the community. Kelly, like so many republicans, struggles with the fact that while popular opinion might be in favor of a republic, popular opinion is also in favour of a directly-elected president. Kelly endorses Keating's view on the problems of a directly elected president.
Keating was convinced that Australia's political and constitutional system could not risk a popularly elected president without the safeguard of full codification of the Reserve Powers, including the dismissal power. This view was soundly based and widely shared.
But to attempt to codify the Reserve Powers would have been ‘the political kiss of death to the republic'.
On native title and reconciliation, Kelly is broadly supportive of the High Court's Mabo and Wik decisions and the consequences of those decisions. At the same time though he recognises the usurpation of the democratic process that those decision represented. He says of Mabo-‘The High Court was responding to the failure of the politicians... The High Court, in effect, drove the executive by creating a crisis of uncertainty over land management.' Kelly is certainly right that in Mabo the High Court did indeed respond to what the judges saw as ‘the failure of the politicians'. What Kelly doesn't examine are the consequences of the High Court's actions.
Paul Keating drove the republic as an issue and he drove the legislative response to Mabo. And at times parts of the book read as though Kelly is telling the story of the 1990s as it has been told to him by Keating.
This is not to say that the story isn't interesting - it's just to acknowledge that from time to time Kelly's story is far from dispassionate. Kelly tries to resurrect Keating's prime ministership - but with limited success. As prime minister Keating had the chance to reform the one area that remained largely untouched during his time as treasurer-the labour market. And he didn't - because he couldn't. Kelly quotes Keating saying to ACTU Secretary Bill Kelty before the 1993 federal election ‘If we win I want to give unions more bargaining power. We'll legislate to entrench enterprise bargaining.' And that's what happened.
Although Kelly lauds Keating and Bill Kelty's invention of enterprise bargaining, he doesn't acknowledge that Keating and Kelty's creation was designed to ensure that a dwindling labour movement maintained its central role in the country's industrial relations system.
When Kelly quotes Mike Keating, the former head of the department of prime minister and cabinet, confirming that ‘Enterprise bargaining was the most significant reform affecting workplace relations in at least the last fifty years', it has to be recalled that Paul Keating was once Mike Keating's boss.
Reading Kelly's analysis of Keating's demolition of Fightback! one is left with two overwhelming impressions. The first is that Keating was a political maestro. The second is that his actions during the 1993 federal election were completely cynical. It is difficult not to think that part of the reason that Keating fought so hard against Hewson's GST was that Keating could not bear to risk the sight of Hewson implementing a reform which Keating himself could not get past Bob Hawke.
When he writes about Keating, Kelly usually quotes Keating's supporters. When he writes about John Howard, Kelly usually quotes Howard's critics. One of the book's best chapters is that which deals with the story of the independence of East Timor. It is a fascinating story, and Kelly tells it well. But it is a chapter heavily influenced by the opinion of people like the former defence department official Hugh White who tends to regard Howard's involvement in East Timor as a series of blunders and errors relieved by occasional instances of good luck. Similarly when Kelly comes to the ‘children overboard' affair one of his main sources is Mike Scrafton, the military adviser to the defence minister, who later became a vocal Howard opponent.
Kelly is spot on about some things though. He points that on 8 September 1999 the editorial of the Sydney Morning Herald called upon Australia to invade Indonesia. In the wake of the pro-independence vote in East Timor violence was sweeping the province, and the Indonesian government was resisting an international peace-keeping force. According to the Sydney Morning Herald:
Australia, however reluctantly and without waiting for others must lead the way-in force... Australia should end this dangerous period of uncertainty. It should declare its intention to move troops into East Timor if Indonesia doesn't restore order immediately...
As Kelly says, ‘The idea was divorced from any military or political reality.' And as Howard said, being quoted by Kelly:
I was basically being attacked by everybody for not invading the place. I said you can't do that, you've got to get a United Nationsmandate. It was elementary. It seems bizarre in the light of all the later comments that have been made about me and the United Nations.
Kelly is an astute and shrewd commentator. Even though The March of Patriots lacks the compelling narrative of The End of Certainty, it is these sorts of insights that nonetheless makes Kelly's latest worthwhile.