BOOK REVIEW: News Weekly
THE MARCH OF PATRIOTS: The Struggle for Modern Australia, by Paul Kelly
, October 17, 2009
Australia's tumultuous decade
THE MARCH OF PATRIOTS:
The Struggle for Modern Australia
by Paul Kelly
(Melbourne University Press)
Hardcover: 712 pages
Rec. price: AUD$59.95
Reviewed by Peter Westmore
As Editor-at-Large of The Australian, Paul Kelly has been both a participant in and a commentator on Australian politics for over 30 years, most of which he spent in the Parliamentary Press Gallery.
He has also been a significant influence behind the modernisation of the Labor Party, from being a party which effectively represented the "new class" bureaucrats of the public service and the unions, to one which at least aspires to be the natural party of government in Australia, with a reform agenda based on Australia's engagement with Asia and integration with the global economy, under the mantra of "an open economy" and "free trade".
The March of Patriots is ambitiously described as "the story of the struggle for modern Australia", and focuses on the prime ministerships of Paul Keating and John Howard.
It covers the decade from 1991 when Keating succeeded Bob Hawke, to 2001 when John Howard won a convincing victory against Kim Beazley, in the wake of the Tampa affair and the 9/11 attack on the United States.
It is based on detailed conversations and interviews with many of the movers and shakers in Australia's political establishment, including extensive discussions with both Mr Keating and Mr Howard.
But this is also the book's weakness: everything is seen through the perspectives of the small number of people preoccupied with the need for Australia to make its way in the world politically and economically, the importance of the "culture wars" (which include the Australian flag, constitutional reform, indigenous policy, immigration and Australian history), and reform of Australia's economy to achieve these ends.
Paul Kelly's own perspective is that Australia's political future rests with the countries of Asia, of becoming a republic, and its comparative advantage as a supplier of minerals, oil and gas to the world.
As a result of this view, Keating is seen as the champion of this new Australia, but was brought to defeat by his preoccupation with issues which did not connect with mainstream Australia. By implication, the views of mainstream Australia are seen as being backward-looking, hidebound and out of touch.
Paul Kelly's broad-brush analysis of events reflects his own preoccupations, rather than reality. To take an example. Chapter 5, "The death of neo-liberalism", Paul Kelly begins with the statement, "The 1993 election extinguished more than John Hewson's dreams - it terminated the neo-liberal political experiment. This was the conclusion of both Paul Keating and John Howard and they operated on this assumption. 'Big bang' liberalism was finished as an ideology and a strategy for the Liberal Party."
It is impossible to reconcile this statement with John Howard's repeated endorsement of free market economic policies, his introduction of the GST (the issue which defeated Hewson in 1993), his policies towards Australian manufacturing industry and agriculture, his labour market reforms, the privatisation of utilities such as Telstra, and preoccupation with running government surpluses while ignoring the growth of the private sector's net foreign debt.
Other similar examples could be quoted, if space permitted.
Other instances of Kelly's flawed vision could be cited in relation to the inevitability of the republic - still a distant mirage - his preoccupation with free trade and lack of concern about its consequences including an unsustainable foreign debt, and a view that Australia is part of Asia - a view not shared by most people in either Australia or Asia.
Nevertheless, the great interest of this book arises from the perspectives given by senior politicians and bureaucrats on the range of issues which Australia faced over this period, from John Hewson's Fightback! manifesto in 1993, the Howard victory in 1996, the emergence of Pauline Hanson, the GST, the 1998 waterfront dispute, East Timor, Tampa and other issues.
The March of Patriots deals in great detail with the issues which confronted Australia over a tumultuous decade of change, and, in spite of the qualifications above, is a valued source of information for all those seeking to understand the changes which took place in Australia during the 1990s.