Carrick: Principles, Politics and Policy Graeme Starr

Connor Court Press, pp.400, $49.95, ISBN: 9781931421655

Books about politicians in Australia or by them are relatively rare. Few of our former political leaders choose to write about their experiences, and there are even fewer biographies. There are exceptions, such as Graham Richardson’s Whatever It Takes and former Hawke minister Peter Walsh’s Confessions of a Failed Finance Minister. There were also the long-winded diaries of junior Liberal minister Peter Howson. And we cannot forget Mark Latham’s vituperative personal account of life in the Labor party as leader. More recently, there have been memoirs by former federal Liberal Treasurer Peter Costello and, impressively, former prime minister John Howard.

Perhaps it is the nature of our small market that there are not more. All are welcomed. They give us insights that academics, journalists and the public cannot appreciate. While biographies on prime ministers, especially Labor ones, as Professor Jenny Hocking’s recent Whitlam volume highlighted, are more plentiful, there is a lack of literature on non-Labor leaders and senior officials.

So, a new biography of senior Liberal party apparatchik, Senator and federal minister Sir John (Jack) Carrick is not only welcome but also, given his pivotal role in the Liberal party and government, overdue. Jack Carrick was general secretary of the Liberal party in New South Wales from 1948 until 1970, when he then entered federal politics as a Senator. In the Fraser government he was minster of education, architect of Fraser’s ‘new federalism’ policy and later served as minister for national development and leader of the government in the Senate. He ‘retired’ in 1987, but went on to conduct a major review of New South Wales education that has had a major impact, and his name was lent to the Carrick Institute for Learning and Teaching in Higher Education, established in 2007.

Carrick knew and worked with the greats of Australian politics, like Menzies, and the not so greats, like Premier Askin. As general secretary of the NSW Liberal party almost from its foundation, he established a new modern political organisation that the non-Labor side of politics had never enjoyed. He ran multiple state and federal election campaigns and was involved in referenda (he advised Menzies that the 1951 referendum on banning the Communist party was not a good idea — it failed). And he is seen as mentor to many leading Liberals, including Howard, who has written a fulsome foreword to this book.

This volume, importantly subtitled Principles, Politics and Policy is not a personal biography of Jack Carrick, though it more than adequately fills in the details so that the reader appreciates the personality behind the man. For instance, the first part of the book details Carrick’s experiences as a prisoner of war, to highlight how they affected his outlook and later political views. As Carrick is recorded as saying: ‘It is not people who create the savagery, but the systems of government … Human nature depends upon the political and social environment in which it finds itself.’

What Carrick practised in all his political posts was the need for clear enunciation of principles so that there is both consistency and appropriateness in responses to the exigencies of politics. Carrick’s principles should be studied by present political leaders, especially from his side of politics, at state and federal levels. There should be clear separation between the organisational and parliamentary wings of the party, especially in relation to fundraising. A healthy political party with real branches is needed to feed democracy. Ideas and open discussion count. Election campaigns based on advertising and slogans are no substitute for taking real issues to the people and explaining them openly. And of course, division and factionalism are death.

Carrick’s role in the 1975 Constitutional crisis, his views as federal minster for education about the roles of the Commonwealth and the states in education, the difficulties of the Liberal party in opposition from 1983-1996, his mentoring of John Howard, and his later involvement in education issues are all covered. There is much to learn from Carrick and this book.

Author Dr Graeme Starr, himself a former general secretary of the NSW Liberal party and a ministerial minder, is clearly sympathetic to Carrick. But there is much about Carrick to admire. Moreover, Starr’s analysis is based on detailed research from a wide range of sources, and the clarity of his writing style is a refreshing alternative to some of the awful academic prose we now encounter.

Carrick has not been ordinary either in life or politics. In understanding the decency of the man, you learn some principles about the proper conduct of politics and the development of policy. Given the vitriol of Australian political discourse, the focus group-driven policy process, the hostility to open informed debate, the resort to simplistic advertising ‘bites’ that now parades as policy comments and the often poor reporting and focus by the media, every-one could learn from reading this book. The meanness of current politics is perhaps best symbolised by the decision in 2008 by then federal education minister Julia Gillard to remove the word ‘Carrick’ from the name of the aforementioned institute.

What is also pleasing about this book is that its publisher, Connor Court, is an all-Australian commercial venture. Carrick was printed here, not offshore. It is a beautifully produced and reasonably priced hardback. Connor Court takes no subventions from universities, as has become the practice by several so-called big-name publishers. Unlike the recent Hocking biography of Whitlam that was researched and produced with a nearly $180,000 Australian Research Council grant, Carrick: Principles, Politics and Policy was written by a scholar who did the work without a grant or research team, but was motivated by a genuine desire to write a quality publication about a person we all should have the privilege of knowing.

Scott Prasser is a political analyst.