Australian Books

Pollie peddling

13 August 2015

1:00 PM

13 August 2015

1:00 PM

When Christopher Pyne’s A Letter to My Children was launched, a bunch of radical students mounted a violent demonstration. The actual cause was rather vague (it always is) and, after reading this book, shouting and throwing things seems remarkably inappropriate. For this is a very gentle, calm book, even loving in its way.

It is not a guns-blazing political manifesto or a swingeing attempt to settle old scores. Pyne is willing to discuss his views and his political career but the book’s core is his relationship with his father, which emerges as the motivation to dedicate himself to a job that is, in many ways, pretty awful.

Pyne’s father, Remington Pyne, was an ophthalmologist who branched out into craniofacial surgery. He clearly wasn’t in it for the money: his wife, Christopher’s mother, often complained that he treated too many people for free. His response was that some people had no money to pay, so he would charge well-off people a bit more. Along the way, he established an organisation to help children with dyslexia and contributed to a range of other good causes. He was generally successful, although one of his projects, a sheep farm, did not do well because he treated the animals as pets.

The large family seemed to be happy, not affluent but comfortable enough to put money into the children’s education. For Christopher, this meant a Jesuit-based education, and he readily mixed the message of serving others with his father’s ideas of doing whatever you can to make the world a better place.

The central tragedy of the book is that Remington died at the age of 59, when Christopher was 20. As a result, Christopher’s four children never knew their grandfather; the book is his way to both let them know him and explain why Christopher felt impelled towards a family-unfriendly path.

And certainly the life of a politician is far from pleasant. Whatever you do, a large number of people are going to complain about it. If you rise through the ranks and reach a position of power, the reward is that even more people will complain and attack you more viciously. No, that is not the whole picture: Pyne accepts the realities of politics, especially in a reformist government, but he emphasises that all the trouble is more than balanced by the opportunity to do useful, important things.

From his early involvement in Liberal politics while studying law, Pyne marked himself as a man in a hurry. After a bruising preselection contest he won the nomination for the safe seat of Sturt in South Australia, and later entered Parliament at the tender age of 25. He had been associated with a range of political figures and counts Amanda Vanstone as a mentor, but he was never one of those creatures who only know politics. He valued his time in the private sector and has always gone out of his way to read widely and gather a broad range of experiences.

He was disappointed not to win a slot in the Howard ministry after the 1996 election but found plenty of things to do. He eventually won a series of promotions, and then used the dark days of opposition to clarify his ideas and sharpen his debating skills. He acknowledges that some policies, especially in health and education, can take a long time to show their benefits. He also notes that getting any legislation through a fractured Senate can be extremely difficult. His answer is to keep talking, continue negotiating, make concessions as long as they do not undercut the essential thrust.

Mainly because of his push for university deregulation, Pyne is sometimes attacked as an ideological conservative. This is merely wrong; on many issues he is on the liberal side of his party, and he believes that effective government is a crucial mechanism for improving society. But he is no closet socialist either, and he makes a clear distinction between socialism and liberalism. Interestingly, he counts the establishment of headspace, a mental health initiative for young people, as a major achievement.

Perhaps this is why many of the people who have got to know him seem to like him. Indeed, Annabel Crabb provides a warm-hearted foreword to the book. Pyne notes that he gets on well with ALP headkicker Anthony Albanese, although they agree on very little.

Anyone wanting a detailed discussion of policy issues will not find it here. That is not the point of the book. But what it gives is more than good enough, and its chord of humanity sounding in the raucous political environment should be appreciated.

Pyne is not the only one trying to get away from the daily histrionics. Chris Bowen’s The Money Men: Australia’s 12 Most Notable Treasurers is a look at the second-toughest job in Australian politics. He interviews all the ones still alive and profiles several others, including Earle Page, Ted Theodore, and Ben Chifley.

Bowen cannot fully escape his current role, and unexpectedly he describes Keating in glowing terms and casts Costello as merely ‘solid’. He is defensive about Swan, as if he is scratching for something nice to say. At least he admits that Cairns was notable mainly for getting everything wrong.

He draws on all this to establish what a treasurer needs to be successful. A good relationship with their prime minister is essential (although they do not have to like each other), and they have to listen to Treasury but know when to ignore it. Significantly, intuitive judgment and political experience is more important than technical qualifications.

The Money Men is far from a great book but is interesting and provides an important perspective. Hopefully, Bowen will remember it if he gets to hold the job again. In the meantime, perhaps he can send a copy to Hockey.

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