Academic journal article The Australian Journal of Politics and History

I, Diarist: Examining Australian Politics from the "Inside"

Academic journal article The Australian Journal of Politics and History

I, Diarist: Examining Australian Politics from the "Inside"

Article excerpt


Political diaries can claim literary and political significance. They constitute a vibrant literary genre: popular with readers, widely purchased and frequently discussed. (1) As political texts, they offer apparently "inside" and unfiltered information about the most remote and commanding domains. And their immediacy and literary power also serves to model "ideal" forms of political behaviour, thereby sketching out paradigms of "the politician" in action, and shaping attitudes towards politics and parliament across society.

For scholars, diaries have additional value. Their diurnal nature brings insight into the vicissitudes, rhythms, and reversals of political life; their personal quality allows for unguarded assessments of others, fuller elaboration of motives, and a more complete portrait of the subject of politics. Generations of historians have used diaries as raw material for their own reconstructions. Social scientists have sometimes treated diaries as forms of "life history" (alongside memoirs and interviews) and have made great use of them, too. As Raewyn Connell explains, life histories like the diary "give rich documentation of personal experience, ideology and subjectivity [...] But life histories also, paradoxically, document social structures, social movements and institutions. That is to say, they give rich evidence about impersonal and collective processes as well as about subjectivity." (2)

Connell suggests that sources like the diary offer "a first-class method for the study of social change". (3) And the genealogy of "life history" research based on such sources is both long and very rich. (4) It is therefore surprising that Australian political diaries have rarely been the subject of serious or extended enquiry. Sometimes, scholars review these texts. (5) Occasionally, they use them as raw material for theoretical excursions and general reflections. But they do not usually grant them independent or sustained attention. Perhaps this is partly because, as Connell also notes: "Life-history, as well as being one of the richest methods in social science, is also one of the most time-consuming [...] Using it to study large-scale social changes requires a trade-off between depth and scope." (6) The relatively small number of political diaries published, combined perhaps with a preference for mathematically verifiable sources of evidence, may also have contributed to a long-term neglect.

Thankfully, there are signs of stirring. Tracy Arkly, John Nethercote and John Wanna have recently collected a series of studies of Australian biographies and memoirs that also includes some discussion of diaries. (7) Ex-politicians Bob Carr and Rodney Cavalier have reflected on the practice of diary-keeping, and on the uses of diaries and memoirs in the composition of history. (8) But this article is the first comprehensive survey of the Australian political diary. In the following pages we map the history and the primary contributions to this growing genre and examine them in some depth. Our analysis uses Max Weber's method of "the ideal type", and it includes three "ideal typical" versions of "the politician" as presented in Australian diaries: "the patrician", "the professional" and "the radical". We argue: firstly, that these diaries offer a collective portrait of the Australian politician in action; secondly, that they disclose a persistent pessimism towards parliament as a vehicle of democracy; and thirdly, that diarists thereby contribute to, as well as describe, wider patterns in the political culture.

Historical Overview of the Genre

Political diaries stretch back to Samuel Pepys's detailed record of seventeenth century London, (9) and the practice has been shared by many others over the last three hundred years. However, the act of contemporary publication remains a relatively recent phenomenon among political representatives. The pattern is most strongly evident in the case of British parliamentarians--the most inveterate of diary keepers. …

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