In fact, the book’s title is somewhat misleading: the campaign itself does not get started until the book is more than half over.
In fact, the book’s title is somewhat misleading: the campaign itself does not get started until the book is more than half over. Cassidy’s real focus is on the political assassination of Kevin Rudd, and to a much lesser extent the removal of Malcolm Turnbull. He points out that both Rudd and Turnbull — the ‘thieves’ of the title — had come from outside the mainstream of their respective parties, and were essentially looking for vehicles for their own ambitions. In this sense, the ascensions of Julia Gillard and Tony Abbott were a return to traditional models rather than radical departures.
The key problem is that there is not much new to say about all this. True, there is some additional gossip about Rudd’s stranger excesses, including his quick temper and foul mouth, especially about the leaders of other countries (this from the man who now represents Australia to the world). But there is nothing that is particularly surprising. And, to tell the truth, Rudd’s fall from the heights of opinion-poll popularity is yesterday’s news, as is Turnbull’s (although he might yet have a second act in him). The OzCar episode, the ETS debacle, Rudd’s dependence on his wunderkind staff and his meandering pre-execution speech: we’ve heard it all before, ad nauseam.
Significantly, the most memorable comments about these events are not from Cassidy himself but from other people. Most have been trotted out before, and will have the ring of familiarity to anyone with even a casual interest in Australian politics.
Cassidy obviously has more knowledge of and better contacts on the Labor side; his coverage of the Coalition often seems rather perfunctory. The only new information he offers about Turnbull’s party room defeat and Abbott’s rise to the leadership is the revelation from former MP Fran Bailey, who was absent for the ballot due to illness, that she would have voted for Abbott, which would have given him a slightly better margin of victory. It is an interesting snippet but does not really change anything.
On the other side of the ledger, Cassidy manages to mis-spell the name of former Liberal Senator Chris Puplick, which might indicate how much he knows or cares about the conservative side of politics.
As for the election itself, Cassidy again does not have a great deal to offer. He adds a few stories about his own time on the election frontline, some of them going back 20 years. But they feel more like padding than historical perspective, less like hard-headed analysis and more like nostalgia for a time when allegiances were clearer. Aside from this, he gives week-by-week coverage of the campaign’s polls, debates and errors — the usual things, really — which is workmanlike but no more. It all seems a long way from the promised insights of an insider.
The post-election negotiations with the clutch of independents follows a similar pattern: a reiteration of the newspaper articles, mainly with La Gillardine at the centre, and with Labor’s eventual emergence as a minority government taking on the air of inevitability.
Cassidy admits to surprise that the result was so close, given that in late 2009 the only question seemed to be about the magnitude of the expected Ruddslide. He believes that Labor’s near-death experience was due to the leaks that plagued its campaign, with help from the conga line of former leaders spewing bile on each other. He notes that even though Rudd was rolled out during the campaign in a show of unity, most of the seats in which he campaigned were won by the Coalition — although typically this point has already been made by others, as Cassidy acknowledges.
But this view seems distorted at best. It is as if Cassidy finds it inherently difficult to give Abbott and his party credit for anything beyond the occasional tactical fillip. The idea that the voters who switched to the Coalition might have actually preferred it does not seem to have occurred to him. Elections are about whether Labor wins or loses, he seems to be saying, and even its self-inflicted wounds are fascinating. All the other players on the political landscape are of secondary importance, background characters along the ALP’s path through history.
This is a message that Labor itself likes to promote, which is fair enough as a strategy. Whether it should be embraced so fulsomely by political journalists, even those with a Labor-linked background, is another matter entirely.
But in the end, The Party Thieves is not a particularly bad book. Cassidy is, one feels, as fair in his telling of the story as he is capable of being, and is not without competence as a writer. Perhaps the problem is that there is simply not much of a place for books like this in these days of saturation media coverage, hyper-spin and instant blogging. Or perhaps the events of 2010 will, in hindsight, have less historical resonance than Cassidy believes. No, not a bad book — but probably not worth $34.99, either.
Derek Parker is the author of The Courtesans: the Press Gallery in the Hawke Era.