There is a test in Canberra which applies to the quality of political commentary. It is called the ‘Blue Poles’ test. People may recall the uproar which greeted the Whitlam government’s support for the Australian National Gallery’s purchase of this extraordinary work by Jackson Pollock 40 years ago.
According to the tabloids and schlock jocks of 1973, the purchase was an absolute waste of public money. It was even suggested that the painting was the work of drunks walking over a canvas rather than the consequence of Pollock’s carefully nuanced creativity. There was persuasive appeal in the thought of drunks being creative for some of the Press Gallery and a few MPs of the time.
Now, of course, some four decades later, ‘Blue Poles’ is regarded as the centrepiece of the gallery’s collection; it is acknowledged as a masterpiece and is regarded as priceless.
So what of the enduring value of the rabid commentary of 1973? Much proved absolutely worthless then and is of no consequence now.
This cannot be said of Laurie Oakes’s distillation of Australian national politics 2010-2013, published as Remarkable Times. There is new material which adds to Oakes’s conclusions but much of the book has been published previously as columns in News Limited papers. It is fascinating running back over the period. The times have indeed been remarkable (hopefully never to be repeated) and the nation’s foremost political correspondent has been proved mostly accurate and routinely insightful.
The pivotal feature in Australian political life over the period was the dysfunctional nature of the federal Labor party, occasioned by leadership instability and varying degrees of treachery, crystallising in two successful coups to replace prime ministers Rudd and Gillard. Oakes understands this and more significantly, the vulnerability of the Gillard Labor government as early as February 2011: ‘Julia Gillard has staked the future of her government on winning the political battle over carbon tax… Trust matters in politics. It matters particularly when you are trying to sell something as complex and contentious as a carbon pricing plan.’
It was the Prime Ministerial promise not to introduce a carbon tax that crippled the minority Labor government. True, it can be argued that the promise was made in good faith. A majority Labor government, almost certainly, would not have introduced the measure. But the internal treachery which derailed Labor’s 2010 re-election campaign produced a minority government, where Gillard was obliged to patch together a coalition on every significant measure, involving Greens and a raft of independents. And she was opposed by a ferociously destructive opposition, led by Tony Abbott. Oakes recognises how Abbott performed brutally in opposition, but matured during the 2013 election campaign.
He writes in November 2011: ‘His style is pure attack dog, as feral as you’d get. Everything irrespective of merit has to be opposed and torn to pieces.’
And later, after the 2013 election: ‘But he changed, he matured, he got serious and he became prime minister. He is serious now about keeping the job.’
In such assessments, he is absolutely on the mark but Oakes does get some things wrong. He dismisses John Howard’s remark at a dinner at 10 Downing Street with British Prime Minister, David Cameron, in mid-2013, that a desperate ALP would revert to Rudd: ‘Gillard will prevail, in other words — and Kevin Rudd will once again be sent packing.’
Oakes was not alone in this judgement but in politics, as in life, it is unwise to use the word ‘never’.
Oakes celebrates 50 years of active journalism next year. He is a Walkley Award Winner and an Andrew Olle Lecturer. Over the decades, he has become a fixture, if not an institution in Canberra, looming like the National Library and as regular with his commentary as Question Time in the House. His contribution to Australian political life has been enormous, from uncovering Vince Gair’s appointment as Ambassador to Ireland in 1974 to reporting one of Treasurer John Howard’s budgets before it had even been delivered.
The key to Oakes’s success is his discretion. He never gives up a source. This means that there will be speculation for a very long time about just who in Federal Labor’s inner circle passed him information about Julia Gillard’s views in the Rudd Kitchen Cabinet, reported at the opening of the 2010 Election Campaign, which caused Labor such grief.
Fundamental to Oakes’s reporting is a belief that politics does matter and the journalist has an important and honourable role to play. On more than one occasion he has withstood great pressures, whether it be Prime Minister Paul Keating expressing his displeasure at some of Oakes’s reporting or resisting Kerry Packer pushing him to pursue the Keating piggery.
On these and other occasions, the veteran Channel 9 political editor did not blink. Perhaps it’s the Lithgow heritage in the lad.
This book makes a primary contribution to understanding Australian politics during the life of the Gillard and Rudd Governments and Tony Abbott’s election. Kevin Rudd’s shambolic election campaign this year was something akin to the Running of the Bulls at Pamplona. Kevin was obliged to show a glittering pair of heels to the lumbering, shaggy beasts who were pursuing him. While the Rudd campaign saved the best part of 25 seats in the House of Representatives for the ALP, the Labor campaign was a far cry from those which once focused on policy prescription and political advocacy. Tony Abbott, on the other hand, was not only focused but extraordinarily disciplined. His eyes never left the prize.
Remarkable Times passes the ‘Blue Poles’ test. Or perhaps it should be the ‘Blue Polls’ variant. This commentary endures in value.
Stephen Loosley is a former ALP national president and senator.
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