People, Pundits and Prime Ministers: What Biographies Reveal about Australia's Political Culture

Article excerpt

At the time of the 2004 Federal Election, John Howard had been the subject of one biography. He faced an opponent, Mark Latham, who was the subject of several.

In 2007, the contest will be more equal. John Howard has managed to score a second while, compared with Latham, Kevin Rudd has only attraaed a comparatively modest two biographers.

It has become something of a cliché to note a greater propensity for books to be written about Labor, rather than Liberal, political figures. This situation has been ascribed variously either to the political biases of authors and publishers, or to the fact that the book-buying public is not interested in books about Liberal politicians.

In fact, when one considers that John Hewson and Peter Costello both became the subjects of two biographies comparatively early in their parliamentary careers (while Kim Beazley and Simon Crean scored just one between the two of them), there is perhaps more to becoming a biographical subject than party affiliation.

One factor that publishers and authors obviously like is the idea of being the first with the full story on people who have recendy assumed a role as a potential Prime Minister (they obviously did not see Crean in this light). This phenomenon is a comparatively new one in the Australian political scene.

The first Prime Minister to have been the subject of biography, before assuming the post, was Bob Hawke, about whom two books had been written (in 1979 and 1982) before his election win in March 1983. Before that, there had been only one example of a biography being published even early in a Prime Ministership-about John Gorton in 1969.

While some may scoff at the concept of the 'rising star' biography, one of Rudd's two recent biographers, Nicholas Stuart, asserts that 'we need to know about Rudd now'. While that is unarguably true, it does not necessarily follow that a biography is required for us to have an understanding of a politician. Most people had a fair idea of what John Howard was on about in 1996, without the need for a biography.

When a biography of Howard did appear the following year, John Howard: Prime Minister by David Barnett and Pru Goward, it was panned by the critics and quickly disappeared from bookshop shelves. While some of the criticism was perhaps more aimed at subject than author, there were unsatisfactory aspects to the book. The opening chapter took the reader from the arrival of John Howard's great-great grandfather in Australia in 1855 through to Howard's election to Federal Parliament at the age of 34 in 1974, all in just 19 pages.

The new Howard biography, co-authored by Wayne Errington and Peter van Onselen, expands this period of his life to 50 pages. This is better, but one is still left feeling that there must be more that could have been mined. In contrast, Rudd's life before he entered parliament, which admittedly took him beyond the age of 40, takes over 100 pages in each of his two biographies.

Although they share some similarities, the two Rudd biographies also have significant differences. Rudd co-operated fully with the Robert Macklin book, whereas he 'told a number of people not to speak with' Nicholas Stuart. It is perhaps no surprise, given this situation, that Macklin's work is the one more prone to hagiography, while Stuart's retains a higher degree of scepticism. To cite but one example where they differ, Macklin says of Rudd's 1998 election in Griffith that Rudd 'out-polled the national trend', while Stuart states that out of the 27 electorates in Queensland, all but three had produced bigger swings to Labor'.

Macklin believes that Rudd offers 'an electoral asset of the most extraordinary potential'. He claims that any doubts he previously had about Rudd have gone, declares him 'the man for our time' and asserts that 'his election to the Prime Ministership of our country is vital'. This style of work is unfortunately not unprecedented in Australian political biography. …