The rhythms of my new life are becoming clear. Waking early for exercise, not a morning call. Immersing myself in literature not cuttings. Being always available to write or comment, however short the notice. There are constants — a laptop and a fully charged smartphone. And new necessities. The make-up artist for Ten’s Meet The Press recommended Mac Studio Fix, and a small can of hairspray so I can always be ready for filming. I always used to say – ‘have opinions, will travel’. Now it’s ‘have opinions, have hairspray and make-up, will travel’. In Campaign HQ in 2007 on election night I remember Luke Foley, now the star of NSW Labor’s state representation, saying to me: ‘It’s full employment for Labor staffers.’ The current political situation is full employment for commentators.
I’ve trended on Twitter, twice, and for something I wanted people to talk about. My Sunday Telegraph piece about the Julia Gillard I knew and loved was the second most read article online in the paper. And @johnmcternan trended in Sydney and then across Australia. It’s one of the pleasures, and privileges, of returning to journalism — my other profession — that I am able to make a public case for people and causes again. Social media can, of course, be a rough old place, and the trolls came out in force. I learned long ago to never, ever get into an argument with these people. You can’t argue with bottom feeders, but you can block them. This is Twitter’s most delicious function. Is someone annoying you? Press block and you never see their comments again.
The first writing I did after the spill was therapeutic. I wrote an essay-length review of all the recent books written on what the Labor party should do next. This has just been published by the Monthly. In quick succession I read books by Jim Chalmers, Kim Carr, Chris Bowen, Andrew Leigh and, for balance, Nick Cater. When the hubbub of voices died down, there was a remarkable consensus across the books. Putting aside party reform which is the ALP’s very own Schleswig-Holstein Question, everyone fundamentally agrees on four things. First, Gough Whitlam created modern Labor, and modern Australia. Increasingly staying on at school and expanding higher education fuelled a new class of white-collar professionals who have broadly been loyal to Labor. Second, Paul Keating’s legacy needs to be reclaimed to prove Labor can run the economy. Third, there’s nothing to learn from Bob Hawke. It seems he was too successful for his own good. Winning elections and opening and growing the economy leaves no space for the heroic failure that the labour parties love to celebrate. Fourth, we need to talk about Mark. For, yes, the giant who haunts the modern ALP is Mark Latham, whose Quarterly Essay ‘Not Dead Yet’ poses questions that the new generation of thinkers find hard to tackle. Most powerfully, what do we do to change the behaviour of the feckless few who no longer learn how to live from the socialisation of strong communities or large organised workplaces.
Reading is one of the great pleasures of a life of relative leisure. As Sam Dastyari said to me when we caught up for a beer: ‘What’s the saying? I don’t believe in the afterlife, but I buy books as if it exists.’ Working for Julia Gillard left few spare moments, and I spent a lot of that time buying books. One memorable trip to the Adelaide Oxfam yielded 62 must buys — more than I could read in the coming year. I always comforted myself with Walter Benjamin’s retort to a friend who asked if he had read all his books: ‘No. But do you use your Sevres china every day.’ Now, I am devouring my backlog, with half a dozen books on the go all the time. From Jim Thompson, the dime store Dostoevsky, and Philip K. Dick, the high priest of pulp sci-fi paranoia, through to the high and low politics of Robert Caro’s LBJ memoirs and American socialist Michael Harrington’s moving memoirs of the radical movement in the 1950s and ’60s.
When the turbulent history of the last five years in Australia is written, no one will be more scrupulous in judgment than Paul Kelly. I don’t know how he does it, juggling the demands of weekly journalism and commentary while assembling the material for a first draft of history. We met at the Bridge Room in Sydney for an enjoyable lunch reflecting on what had just happened and on the choices and options facing the Rudd government, and the dilemma facing the Liberals. Tony Abbott and his team seemed prepared to fight old Kevin in a kind of 2010 Redux campaign. The handbrake turn to the right on asylum seeking, the apology for pink batts, the fast-forwarding of a floating carbon price all have carved out a new battleground that seems to baffle Abbott. Appearing on Meet The Press with Michael Kroger I saw that new uncertainty first hand. ‘I’d rather be us than them,’ Michael pronounced. His reason: Abbott has only announced three policies. ‘You ain’t seen nothin’ yet’ — the last refuge of desperate spin.
The cliché goes that in politics your opponents are on the other side, your enemies are on your own. Like most clichés it has become well-worn because it is accurate. There is friendship across party lines, and professionalism too. If you cannot cool-headedly assess your opponents – their strengths and weaknesses – then you will never get their measure, and never be able to defeat them. As I left the trenches, I received some kind and thoughtful messages from the other side, for which I will always be grateful. Indeed, after lunch with Paul Kelly, I ended up sitting beside Andrew Robb on a flight, and had a good chat with him. Which is nice.
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John McTernan was senior adviser to prime ministers Julia Gillard and Tony Blair.
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