Tales from the Political Trenches
By Maxine McKew
Random House, $29.99, pp 256
ISBN 9780522862218

The spectre of disgruntled ex-colleagues dropping a bomb or two via dramatic tell-all memoirs haunts most long-serving politicians. Naturally, the bloodier the events, the greater the risk, as the body count increases. Generally, though, the sore losers in question at least wait until the victim is cold before getting stuck in to the guy with a knife, out of courtesy (or perhaps lingering fear).

Recently, though, a lot of ex-politicians have been reluctant to wait before dropping a bucket on their former mates, particularly the cranky ex-MPs from the Labor side. It seems that every few months a new book pops up to further derail Julia Gillard’s premiership — not to mention thwarting her efforts to make people forget how she got the top spot in the first place.

The latest broadside from an embittered Rudd supporter is Maxine McKew’s Tales from the Political Trenches. The buildup was hard to ignore: finally, the inside story from a key player in the Rudd government on exactly what happened on Australia’s own Night of the Long Knives. The fact that this was probably the first time the words ‘Maxine McKew’ and ‘key player in the Rudd government’ had been used in the same sentence did not deter anyone. The weeks before the book’s release saw juicy extracts in the weekend papers, with the promise of much more to come.

The problem with selling your memoir on the basis that it’s filled with scandalous revelations about important movers and shakers is that people who buy it aren’t doing so because they want to read about you. The best books in the genre recognise this and cut to the chase as quickly as possible. McKew, unfortunately, tries to have it both ways.

The first third of the book is standard autobiography. We learn about McKew’s early childhood and schooling, which is about as interesting as it sounds. Next, the book goes into McKew’s media career, and how she broke into a then male-dominated industry and rose to its highest level. This is a fascinating story that would normally make for a decent memoir. However, awkwardly conscious of its audience’s thirst for blood, Tales skips over much of the detail and provides an unsatisfying broad-brush account of McKew’s media career.

Eventually McKew wins Bennelong and enters the Rudd government. This is the point where you expect the book to — finally — step it up and deliver the anticipated insight into the corridors of power (or ‘scurrilous gossip’, depending on how honest you are with yourself). Instead it detours into an incredibly detailed discussion of the policy work, funding and general successes of McKew in her role as Parliamentary Secretary for Early Childhood Education and Childcare. The achievements are undeniably significant, but come on! As McKew observes, it was hard enough to get people to pay attention the first time round. It’s also worth noting that the section of the book on McKew’s work is about the same length as the part documenting every other policy achievement of the Rudd government.

The most frustrating part of the book — at least, for someone who bought it largely because of the ‘exposes Gillard’s lies’ sell — is that the central feature of the book, the discussion of What Really Happened on 23 June 2010, accords pretty much exactly with what was reported at the time and since. Not to mention the fact that the relevant chapter was already extracted in the Good Weekend. On the night of nights, McKew was exactly where you’d assume all the action was: a dinner at the Korean Embassy. It’s clear that by the time she got back, it was all over red rover.

McKew’s loyalty to Kevin Rudd is unquestionable. However, it’s hard to pinpoint exactly why — beyond the fact, of course, that it was the Rudd swing that propelled her into parliament. It is clear that a key motivator is her personal dislike for Julia Gillard, which doesn’t help mask the scent of sour grapes that naturally lingers around books like these. McKew’s argument that the decision to knife Rudd was misjudged and motivated more by personal ambition than any particular concern for the good of the nation is compelling. However, it’s nothing that hasn’t been said before.

It doesn’t help that McKew’s political analysis is a bit weird. She decries the mindless factionalism and obsessive adherence to the ‘wisdom’ of hard men from the NSW Right that has come to characterise the Labor party, as well as the alternately thuggish and childish aggression that dominates behaviour in Question Time. Well, who doesn’t? The problem is it is impossible to reconcile these views with McKew’s devotion to former PM Paul Keating. The iconic bovver-boy politician is mentioned more times in Tales than is Julia Gillard, usually in conjunction with McKew calling for a kinder, gentler approach to politics. Maybe he has mellowed in his old age?

It’s true that reading a memoir solely for details on a tawdry bit of political drama is not the most worthy or fair way to approach it. However, Tales is expressly billed as an explosive tell-all about the transition from Rudd to Gillard. When the titbits used as bait for readers end up not being particularly juicy, the rest of the book needs to be far better than Tales to avoid leaving its readers feeling disappointed.

Ultimately, the book fails as a memoir because it is too driven by the desire to give political commentary on a particular issue to afford considered treatment of the majority of McKew’s life and career. Conversely, it’s the over-reliance on memoir that leaves the book lacking as political commentary. In the end, Tales from the Political Trenches contributes little to our understanding of one of the most shocking leadership changes in recent history, and is a missed opportunity to tell the story of Maxine McKew’s undeniably significant career.

Lucy Saunders is a recent graduate of the University of Sydney Law School.