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December 9, 2015

Reading List: The bigger picture

In the search for meaning and understanding amid the machinations of Australian politics, Connor argues something a little more in-depth than the news cycle but a little shy of an epic is needed – and he finds it in the Quarterly Essay.

  • Words: Connor Tomas O’Brien

Australian politics lends itself well to micro-narratives, but not so well to epics.

The story of Gillard-knifing-Rudd
-knifing-Gillard provided just the right amount of fodder for Sarah Ferguson’s ABC three-parter The Killing Season, but try expanding the timeframe and things begin to get slippery. How might one go about spinning a compelling story of the three decades from Whitlam to Rudd? The number of apparently inexplicable shifts and swings over the long term seems difficult to resolve in a way that makes for good watching or reading.

Paul Kelly is one of the few Australian writers to make these kinds of epics his focus. In The End of Certainty and The March of Patriots, Kelly managed to tackle from the ’80s up to 2007. The only problem with Kelly’s works – and epics in general – is that they are sprawling, arriving in 700 page bursts, which means they tend to shape regular #auspol chatter much less than the smaller pieces he regularly writes for The Australian. This, of course, is the challenge: how do you go deep in a way that’s accessible and engaging enough to have any practical impact?

There might be a middle ground. For almost a decade and half, Schwartz Publishing’s Quarterly Essay series has worked under the supposition that Australian political culture is best narrativised in 25,000 word chunks, which seems to offer just enough space for writers to meticulously unpeel every layer of the current political onion without alienating non-policy wonks. Taken in sum, the fifty-nine Quarterly Essays published since 2001 offer perhaps the deepest analysis of the meandering political path we’ve traversed from the turn of the current century.

David Marr’s Faction Man: Bill Shorten’s Path to Power, the latest installment in the series, is representative of the advantages of tackling Australian political personalities in novella-length chunks. It’s difficult to imagine a full-length work ever being written about Opposition Leader Bill Shorten, who lacks the kind of compelling backstory of a figure like Keating or Howard. At the same time, Shorten is virtually incomprehensible at close view: it requires 20,000 words to simply explain how, as a factional leader within the Labor Party, the man has managed to vault himself from an unknown trainee union organiser to the Leader of the Opposition in only two decades. The news cycle, even as it zooms in on Dyson Heydon’s Royal Commission into Trade Union Governance and Corruption, misses the nuance of the precise relationship between unions, factions, and the ALP more generally.

The beauty of Quarterly Essays is how well particular issues pair, even those separated by many years. Faction Man reads very well alongside Annabel Crabb’s 2009 Stop at Nothing: The life and adventures of Malcolm Turnbull – an essay published when Turnbull, too, was Opposition Leader. There are many traits shared by Turnbull and Shorten – a deep sense of unbridled ambition, coupled with roughly centrist pragmatism and a lack of specific policy obsessions or ideological underpinnings. It is in their backgrounds that they most differ, and by examining those differences on a granular level, it becomes easier to pre-empt how both leaders might respond to any given situation.

By moving through Quarterly Essays, a sense of a grander narrative begins to emerge, in a kind of patchwork fashion. Judith Brett’s Exit Right: The unravelling of John Howard – published in 2007 – helps to explain why Turnbull is very unlikely to rule as Howard (and later, Abbott) did, with concocted threats always looming.

As rapid political shifts appear to lurch the country left and right and forwards and backwards, it becomes necessary to grapple with them on a scale that is larger than the current election cycle. The Quarterly Essay series is now voluminous enough to provide a flexible and modular approach to developing political understanding: as the reader moves through micro-narratives, it’s the broader patterns between the essays that is now worthy of the most attention.

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