Book Review: Australian Story

Australian Story – Kevin Rudd and the Lucky Country

Mungo MacCallum

(Quarterly Essay/Black Inc – $16.95)

In political journalism, like politics at large, timing is everything. So does it matter that this 67-pager was penned before Tony Abbott emerged as the challenger to Prime Minister Rudd, the “God-bothering shiny-bum whose idea of a crisis is a joke that fell flat on commercial television. [“Hello. My name is Kevin, I’m from Queensland and I’m here to help”]?

Not a bit, for although Abbott rates just a single mention – and Malcolm Turnbull none – the author’s close focus is on the “repetitive, boring, God-bothering nerd” who laid John Howard to waste in the 2007 election and seems likely to be with us for some time yet.

A refugee from the Canberra press gallery, North Coast resident Mungo MacCallum still has a keener eye and sharper pen that many of his compatriots, the most right-wing of whom are the target of some barbed comments: “They concede, reluctantly, that Rudd is a brilliant political operator, but then jump to the conclusion that he is all spin and no substance. This judgement is based almost entirely on a single fact: Rudd, before the 2007 election, declared himself to be an ‘economic conservative’. But in dealing with the global financial meltdown he has proved to be a born-again Keynesian, willing to embrace both deficit and debt as the price of economic stimulus.”

Rudd, as he notes, is “less sports-obsessed than a Hawke or a Howard, but much more comfortable in the area than a Whitlam or a Keating.” He has not turned his back on the holy grails of our wartime history.

“I suspect one of the main reasons Australians revere sport and battle so highly is that both embody the idea of the team… No wonder politicians pay homage to it and seek to appropriate it for their own ends,” MacCallum writes.

The PM’s Christianity may be “a little too up front for many Australians”, and “his attempts at oratory all too frequently descend into management jargon and polly waffle”, but he is seen to have “integrity” and perhaps “embodies more of the Australian tradition than the commentators are prepared to acknowledge”.

He sets the scene thus: “It is worth taking a look not only at how our present prime minister fits into the proud history of his Labor predecessors, but at how he relates to the range of forces, influences and myths that have formed the Australian ethos… Just where are we and how did we get here?”

So begins a fascinating walk through Australian political history before and since Federation, the names and milestone events rolling off his tongue – Robert Menzies, the Great Depression, cricketer Bert Oldfield, Eureka, William Charles Wentworth (McCallum is a descendant of the “seriously establishment” Wentworth clan, as am I), Whitlam, Governor Bligh, Catholicism v Anglicanism, firebrand preacher J.D. Lang, bushfire and flood, Aboriginal rights, Anzacs, Henry Lawson and ‘Banjo’ Paterson, both quoted at length.

“The bush remains special, but in electoral terms it is becoming less crucial… Lawson saw the end coming with the arrival of the railway:

The mighty bush, with iron rails,

Is tethered to the world…”

Out of this and much more – let’s not forget WorkChoices – came Kevin Michael Rudd, who, despite being “in many ways an unlikely politician”, saw off Howard and the Coalition, now in disarray, and continues to ride high in the opinion stakes.

This thoughtful essay focuses not on Rudd’s personal traits – the long work hours, the fruity language, the wealthy wife – but the big picture, notably the global financial crisis of 08/09, Kevin 07’s greatest challenge to date.

“The polls attest to the widespread feeling among voters that Rudd has handled the crisis pretty well; like Winston Churchill, he has shown himself to be the wartime leader the occasion demanded. The question now is whether, unlike Churchill, he will be able to manage the difficult transition back to peace and normality.”

Globally, the solidifying of the G20 group, with Australia as a member, was a significant step in this direction –“a triumph for Rudd, and for effectiveness, good sense and fairness”– while others are works in progress.

MacCallum concludes that although “the narrative is yet to take on a plot line that will pull the public in as eager readers… there is something very Australian about him, and the voters recognise it…

“Just as all the economic and ideological certainties were crumbling, he took them back to the bedrock of their legends, their values and their dreams – to a country which has never really existed and probably never will, but which is the Australia to which they want to belong…

“Kevin from Queensland really is there to help them. It sounds corny, even kitsch. But by golly, it wins elections.”

Quarterly Review Issue 36 includes an essay on Neo-liberalism by Robert Manne, and letters (including one from Tony Abbott on Noel Pearson) about past contributions.

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