What is a good political biography — and what gets published?

According to Ben Pimlott (1990: 214) ‘many people with a deep interest in politics, including quite a few practitioners, look to biography for knowledge and insight. But what is on offer so frequently disappoints’. Perhaps the best example of a biography that assists us in the understanding of a political system is Robert Caro’s magisterial The Years of Lyndon Johnson (Caro 1982; 1989; 2002). Three volumes down, and Johnson has still to campaign for the White House in 1960. Caro’s brilliant work is not a mere biography, but more a series of superb accounts of political institutions influenced by, or having an influence on, LBJ. The first 105 pages of the most recent volume, Master of the Senate, is an account of the Senate seniority and committee system; how the Southern Senators stitched up the committee system and ran the Senate as their personal fiefdom. It could have been a volume on its own. As Caro notes on his webpage: ‘to show power truly you not only have to show how it is used but also the effect on those whom it is used. You have to show the effect of power on the powerless.’

On the basis of an informal survey to establish our favourite Australian ‘political biographies’, Tracey Arklay pointed out that of the top five biographies (Watson 2002; La Nauze 1965; Day 1999; Brett 1992; Weller 1989), all were about a prime minister, although only two that have been selected are biographies in the traditional sense of the word. However, all of them tell us about how we are governed, explain the thinking of past leaders, and contribute to political science by illustrating how personalities affect our political structures and policy. Whatever the reason for the selection of these books — one thing is certain — all have contributed to a greater understanding of how politics works. That is probably reason enough.

There is very little point in writing a biography that no one will read. They need to be published — and to be published they need to sell. As Pimlott has noted, among book-buyers, ‘celebrity is the draw, quality is secondary. It is, perhaps, this market pressure that is most responsible for making the generality of political biographies valets to the famous’ (Pimlott 1990: 223). It is a great pity that a work of such value as Geoffrey Bolton’s Edmund Barton: The one man for the job (2000) would not have been published by Allen & Unwin without the financial support of the National Council for the Centenary of Federation. Would John La Nauze’s (1965) two-volume Alfred Deakin: A biography, far better as political history than it is as a biography, readily find a publisher today?

Perhaps not surprisingly, the majority of Australian political biographies and memoirs are of Labor figures. Is this because, as Pat Weller speculated, the Liberals appear to have no heroes other than Menzies? At the state level, Sir Henry Bolte, Sir Charles Court and Sir Thomas Playford might rate as heroes (Prior 1990; Blazey 1972; Crocker 1983; Cockburn 1991; Court 1995). Or is it, as Ian Hancock suggested, unlike Labor, the Liberals are not interested in the past? Is it because many Liberal politicians, when they leave parliament go into business to make money and do not have the time or inclination to pen their memoirs? This imbalance may well say something about the different approaches to life across the party divide, or something about Labor’s capacity for myth-making and calamity. It is to be hoped that the gaps in our studies of Liberal and Country Party leaders at both federal and state level will soon be overcome.

What are the publishers looking for? Clearly, it is a book that will make a profit. Unfortunately, the market in Australia for a biography is small. There is not the opportunity for newspaper serialisations that in, for example, the United Kingdom, would bring in large sums for both the publisher and author. Here a political biography may get a page in the Canberra Times. But if the subject is a sporting hero, he or she may get several pages in the Sydney Morning Herald or more in the Daily Telegraph. Regrettably, the role of celebrities, gossip and hype are more likely to find a wider market than an in-depth, analytical biography of a political figure that eschews the subject’s private life.

In April 2005 The Australian published a list of ‘political autobiography sales’ that makes interesting reading:

Bob Hawke

The Hawke Memoirs (hardback)

75,000

Graham Richardson

Whatever It Takes

45,000

Bill Hayden

Bill Hayden: An autobiography

42,383

Cheryl Kernot

Speaking for Myself Again

4,000

Neal Blewett

A Cabinet Diary

3,000

Kerry Chikarovski

Chika

295

Fortunately, despite the best efforts of the federal government in recent years, there is still funding for academics to conduct long term, in-depth research. The recent books by, for example, Judith Brett, David Day, Ian Hancock, Geoffrey Bolton and Pat Weller, to pick but a few, clearly benefited from the authors having institutional support, if only indirectly. We should also not forget the contribution that has been made to Australian scholarship by the thousands of entries in the Australian Dictionary of Biography , the editorial staff of which are housed in The Australian National University’s Research School of Social Sciences. Many books and articles about Australian politics and government, and biographies, owe their origin to an entry in the ADB. A few owe their origin to a masters or doctoral thesis, usually extensively reworked before publication. There is also the valuable The Biographical Dictionary of the Australian Senate (Millar 2000; 2004).

John Iremonger, who died in 2002, published the works of many of our best political biographers. One of the last books Iremonger commissioned was Chris Masters’ forthcoming biography of the radio personality Alan Jones. So far as I am aware, Mr Jones has never been elected to public office. Yet he very clearly meets the Australian Concise Oxford Dictionary definition of being a politician, ‘a person engaged in or concerned with politics, especially as a practitioner’. It is possible that Alan Jones has more influence on New South Wales politics than anyone other than the Premier. If he raises an issue on his morning radio program critical of the government, efforts will be made to have that issue settled before lunchtime. Once Chris Masters’ book has run the gauntlet of the defamation lawyers and is published, it will tell us as much about politics and government in New South Wales as the raft of books by and about New South Wales politicians that have been published in recent years (for example, Steketee and Cockburn 1986; Cumming 1991; Collins 2000; Dodkin 2003; West and Morris 2003).

Unfortunately, in Australia few diaries by politicians have been published and certainly nothing comparable to the Crossman (1975-77), Castle (1980) and Clark (1993) diaries. Only three by recent federal politicians come to mind, those by Howson (1984), Cameron (1990) and Blewett (1999). Blewett’s is by far the most analytical and useful, especially for its musings on the way cabinet was run and how effective the procedures might be (Weller 2005). There is also the promise of Mark Latham’s diaries, which are being published by Melbourne University Publishing in September 2005 (Latham 2005; Lagan 2005). At the state level, we know Bob Carr is keeping a diary, extracts of which are finding their way into books (Dodkin 2003).[2] But, as Neal Blewett has cautioned, care needs to be taken with diaries as much as with autobiographies and authorised biographies. Blewett edited his diaries for reasons of space. Presumably no diarist deliberately washes all his or her dirty linen in public. Those extracts from unpublished diaries that are made available to others are no doubt carefully selected by their author. Blewett also made the point that politicians’ diaries are usually relentlessly political, dense, unselected and turgid. Diaries are rarely kept by the most senior ministers, probably because they do not have the time to do so (Carr appeared an exception to this rule).

Similarly, we need to exercise caution when drawing upon accounts by politicians who have a reputation to protect — and/or advance. The former Liberal politician, Peter Coleman, was recently reported as saying that political memoirs ‘are usually full of lies and spin and quickly fill the remainder shelves’. Neal Blewett reminded us that Bob Hawke’s massive memoir tells us little about the fall of Susan Ryan as a minister, Indonesia or the sinking of the dollar after its deregulation in December 1983. The account of how he became leader is benign. As Pat Weller noted, autobiographies are about highlights in the author’s life, not routine. For John Button, personal accounts can be both informative and a pleasure to read. He tried in As It Happened (1998), very successfully, to show what it was like to be in politics, and to make the book readable. He hung his narrative around events that were of interest to him, not all of which were political.

The memoirs of prime ministers Whitlam (1985) and Hawke (1994) are clearly intended, at least in part, to influence the way in which their governments will be regarded in the future. Peter Walsh’s Confessions of a Failed Finance Minister (1995) is both a defence of the economic and social policies Walsh espoused and a bitter attack on those policies and individuals he opposed. The recently published In Command of History (2004) by David Reynolds shows how the prime motivations for Churchill writing his The Second World War were to secure his reputation and to shape our understanding of the conflict and our image of Churchill the prime minister. Another was to make money. Churchill had no hesitation in distorting the truth and censoring the records to achieve his aim. But he achieved his purposes.