The Good, The Bad & the Unlikely
By Mungo MacCallum
Black Inc, $29.95, pp 231,
There was a time when Mungo MacCallum wrote interesting and entertaining books. That time, if The Good, The Bad & the Unlikely is anything to go by, has passed. This is not a particularly bad book, just one that is entirely superfluous.
The problem is not necessarily the subject matter: most of the 27 people who have held the position have been pretty interesting (although a couple, like chair-warmer Frank Forde and dour Joseph Cook, could have bored at Olympic level). But precisely because they are interesting, quite a lot is already known about them. Maybe somewhere in the archives there are new things to find out about the country’s leaders, but if there are MacCallum has made little attempt to find them.
Certainly, tracing the careers of Prime Ministers prior to 1945 demonstrates the volatility of Australian politics before the crystallisation of the modern two-bloc system, with several Prime Ministers having several goes at the job (so maybe there is hope for Kevin Rudd yet). But anyone with even a passing knowledge of Australian political history will already know this.
Without anything new to say, MacCallum serves up the usual clichés from his usual left-wing perspective. So Bruce was a patrician who lost his seat, Curtin was a Great Man with inner demons, Chifley was a loveable bear, nothing much happened in the Menzies era, Gorton was a larrikin in the wrong party, etc, etc. Been there, heard it all before.
This is especially the case when MacCallum discusses his only true love, Whitlam. MacCallum’s views on the man and his time in government are preserved in Golden Age amber, and he pulls his usual trick of hinting at dark forces working offstage to undo the great and good. Maybe MacCallum is assuming that this book will be read only by people too young to remember that time for themselves.
In one respect, however, MacCallum has changed his tune a little. He now appreciates that Malcolm Fraser, long a hate figure for the Left, was more complex than he appeared, and in hindsight his record looks surprisingly liberal. But this ground has already been covered by other commentators, and MacCallum brings nothing new to the discussion. Indeed, much of his revision seems designed as a stalking horse for his veiled — and not so veiled — attacks on John Howard and his period of leadership.
This is where MacCallum’s partisanship gets the better of his sense of history. He applauds Bob Hawke for his connection with the Australian people, although he takes a lesser view of the national electorate for turfing out Paul Keating (who he describes as ‘electrifying’). But he simply cannot fathom the reasons for Howard’s electoral success, instead putting it down to a series of accidents and tricks. The idea that Howard related to the national psyche in a deep and fundamental way, and that his connection was just as real and meaningful as that of any Labor leader, is beyond MacCallum’s understanding, just as it appears to be beyond the grasp of most of the Left.
MacCallum seems mainly puzzled by Rudd, who was clearly not in the ‘true’ Labor mould. He does the dutiful thing and reiterates Rudd’s achievements, although that list seems to grow shorter every time you hear it. He seems equally out of his depth in relation to Gillard, who ticks his preferred boxes of personal background but seems unable to point to much beyond staying in office. A work in progress, yes, but progress to where?
MacCallum cannot resist the opportunity to snipe at Abbott. If talented and persistent Julia can’t make a successful go of it, MacCallum says, then surely erratic Tony won’t be able to. This sort of comment is pretty much a requirement for this sort of book, and will go down well with the ever-decreasing tribe of the faithful, but really it is a bit silly. Nevertheless, it raises the question as to how the job of Prime Minister can be done these days. Maybe the role is now too complex, and too much is asked of the incumbent. Some serious rethinking might be required, but MacCallum touches the subject only in passing, as if the idea is too big for him.
This must be a fairly sad time for people like MacCallum. The ALP he knew and loved is circling the drain, and most of the damage is entirely self-inflicted. The model of political history he favours is that of ALP governments doing wonderful things, interrupted by conservative governments who manipulate their way into office to continue their wicked ways. An alternative view, of course, is of Labor governments making horrible messes, especially of the economy, which conservative governments then have to clean up.
One way or another, the MacCallum view of the world seems to be disintegrating. This book is, in its own way, a part of that, and indicative of the broader failure of the Left: not much to say, and no new way of saying it.
Derek Parker is a regular reviewer for The Spectator Australia.