Blanche Stacking

25 October 2023
Blanche Stacking - Featured image

Blanche d’Alpuget’s role as Bob Hawke’s numbers person was a rare example of a PM’s biographer impacting on Australian politics, writes IPA Senior Fellow Richard Allsop.

Chris Wallace twice came close to writing a biography of an Australian prime minister. The first was when, prior to the 1993 Federal election, she produced a biography of Opposition Leader John Hewson, on the not-unreasonable assumption he was likely to become prime minister. He didn’t. Wallace’s second chance came when she began a biography of then Deputy Prime Minister Julia Gillard. Gillard became prime minister before the book was completed so surely Wallace was onto a certainty. However, she took what to many would seem the extraordinary decision to can the work and return her advance to the publisher, on the grounds she did not want on her conscience the “destabilisation of the Gillard Government just as it rights itself”. Whether one has any sympathy with Wallace’s decision will depend on whether one accepts her argument that attacks on Gillard were an “onslaught unparalleled … in Australian post-war political history”.

Political Lives: Australian prime ministers and their biographers
Chris Wallace
UNSW Press, 2023,
336pp

Wallace explains the lost Gillard biography in the preface to this work on prime ministerial biography in which she seeks to contextualise her own experience of writing about a contemporary prime minister, or would-be prime minister. Her motivation was an attempt to discover whether her predecessors had been alert to the risk she perceived late in the writing of the Gillard biography “that nuanced elements of a politician’s life story could be used crudely to damage them in real time”.

The first thing to note is that this work is not about all Australian prime ministerial biographies. First, it is limited to the 20th century so Rudd, Gillard, Abbott et al are beyond its remit. Further, it is limited to those biographies published before, or during, the active political career of the subject, which is not as limiting a factor for Billy Hughes as it is for those with shorter parliamentary careers.

However, she is understandably forced to look beyond her own self-imposed bounds because there is a dearth of contemporary biographies of prime ministers until the late 1960s. Hence, Wallace discusses several biographies that fall outside her defined scope. She describes some books published after the subject’s political career had concluded, but more particularly she focuses on works which would have been contemporary but which were not published; the closest cases to her own Gillard example.

Hawke used d’Alpuget as a numbers person.

She pays considerable attention to an 1890s manuscript in George Reid’s papers of a biography by an unknown author; a document known to, but not highlighted by, Reid’s 1980s biographer W.G. McMinn. Wallace maintains that if completed and published, this draft manuscript “might have hastened Reid’s progress to the prime ministership or helped him hold onto it for longer by providing a biographical context that gave antipathetic characterisations of him less purchase”. Pleasingly, the existence of this manuscript means Wallace devotes more attention to Reid than to Alfred Deakin, even though she displays a misplaced scepticism about how well-known Reid would have been in other parts of the Empire.

Similar to her Reid coverage, Wallace devotes a chapter to an unpublished biography of Robert Menzies. Sections of the uncompleted, unpublished manuscript by journalist and Liberal publicist Allan Dawes are in both the Menzies and Dawes papers. Wallace is keen to dispel the notion that Dawes did not finish the task due to alcoholism, proposing instead that Menzies cooled on the project after reading the first few chapters and surmises that Menzies’ improving political situation made a biography a less appealing prospect, and thus he quietly withdrew support.

Wallace can finally get onto a biography which potentially could have an immediate political impact with discussion of Alan Trengove’s biography of John Gorton. This book was published just after the 1969 election and Wallace sees Gorton as “the first Australian prime minister to use a biography pre-emptively to introduce sensitive personal matters into the public domain, before his political enemies exploited them”. For Gorton, these matters related to his illegitimacy. There are few other examples of this approach with subsequent prime ministers, but one can certainly say Bob Hawke followed the Gorton path of pre-emptive disclosure. Hawke is the subject of Wallace’s longest, strongest chapter. Four biographies of Hawke were written before or during his prime ministership, and at least one—by Blanche d’Alpuget—had a significant contemporary impact. The d’Alpuget biography included just enough of his flaws to add to his credible intelligent ocker image, but excluded items which might have seriously tarnished that image.

Wallace discusses the theory that the process of talking about his life for the d’Alpuget book was the catalyst for Hawke modifying his own behaviour sufficiently to get himself in a fit state to secure the Labor leadership and then the prime ministership. Hawke was reminded by d’Alpuget of his pledge to his mother as an eight-year-old to be sober, and the suggestion is that reflecting on this had sufficient impact on him that within months he had given up the booze.

A contemporary biographer could impact events in another way that a post-career one could not. Wallace describes how Hawke used d’Alpuget as a numbers person by getting her to lobby her friend Susan Ryan to switch allegiance from Bill Hayden to him.

While Hawke cooperated with the d’Alpuget biography, he did not with that of journalist and Labor sympathiser Robert Pullan. A regular dilemma for biographers is whether to proceed without the subject’s cooperation. Pullan was very disappointed when neither Hawke nor his family would cooperate but he proceeded anyway, making the crucial point that “it’s up to the writer to make the decision about whether the biography happens, not the subject”.

Wallace provides an interesting and balanced discussion of whether psychoanalysis has a place in political biography, and traces how the University of Melbourne’s Politics Department developed the application of psychoanalysis in the study of Australian politics. There is a useful touch of psychoanalysis in d’Alpuget’s work but there was a surfeit of it in Stan Anson’s Hawke biography, written late in his prime ministership. Wallace has some sympathy for Anson, but John Howard biographer Wayne Errington provides a useful one-word summary of Anson’s work, calling it “unreadable”.

Errington and his co-author Peter van Onselen’s biography of Howard is included in Wallace’s text despite its 2007 publication, because Howard’s prime ministerial reign straddled the turn of century. It is another biography which clearly did have a significant political impact thanks largely to the candid interviews provided by Treasurer Peter Costello claiming that Howard had reneged on a deal to hand over the leadership. Howard considers the publication a “pretty unhelpful thing”, confirming his scepticism about the value of contemporary biography for the subject.

Wallace contrasts Howard’s view with the likes of Billy Hughes and Billy McMahon both desperately seeking biographers, with the latter spending much of his post-prime ministerial career in the forlorn hope a suitably sympathetic writer would emerge.

While Wallace is critical of most prime ministerial biographers having been white males, she does highlight the fact they have straddled diverse occupational backgrounds including journalists, academics, and staffers. Interestingly, Paul Keating was of the view his journalist-biographer Edna Carew understood him better than his former staffer-biographer John Edwards.

Another staffer biographer was Graham Freudenberg. His work about his boss, A Certain Grandeur: Gough Whitlam’s Life in Politics (originally published in 1977), qualifies for consideration as it was published in 1977 while Whitlam was in his second spell as Opposition Leader. Wallace claims “readers open to A Certain Grandeur’s content would have been more, not less, likely to vote for Whitlam at the 1977 election”. Given that the size of Whitlam’s defeat in 1977 almost mirrored that of 1975, it seems unlikely the book had much positive electoral impact. And yet a few pages later, the victor of both those democratic contests is described as the “unpopular Fraser”—one of the regular reminders of Wallace’s political perspective.

The overall conclusion one can draw from Wallace’s book is that, with rare exceptions, biographies of Australian prime ministers, or potential prime ministers, have had negligible impact on contemporary politics. Given this, maybe her biography of Gillard would not have had as much impact as she feared. Of course, Wallace was perfectly entitled to not write a book but her self-censorship is not really what one would hope would be the response of journalists or authors in her situation. Still, the book she has written instead is an interesting and useful addition to the literature around Australian prime ministerial biography.

This article from the Spring 2023 edition of the IPA Review is written by IPA Senior Fellow Richard Allsop.

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