Friday 20 Jul 2018 | 22:54 | SYDNEY
Friday 20 Jul 2018 | 22:54 | SYDNEY

My books of the year


Graeme Dobell

5 January 2010 12:29

Ed. note: This is the second of two end-of-year posts we didn't get to in December.

George Megalogenis wrote in October last year that then Opposition front-bencher Tony Abbott 'wants to erase the perception that his side is an ideas-free zone. This may take time. Conservatives today joke that they are divided between two factions: the book-writing Right and the book-burning Right.' If Megalogenis got the Liberal Party faction divide right, the new Opposition leader promoted himself by writing a book, but got elected by the book-burning wing.

After his elevation, I went back to consider Tony Abbott's 'Battlelines'. But it doesn't quite make the books-of-the-year cut. The selections that did make the cut have a distinct bias to journalists and Abbott qualifies as an ex-hack. But his strength is political combat, not churning out good copy.

My preference for journos isn't just craft courtesy. In Australian politics, the hacks are writing some of the best heavy history. In the first half of the 20th century, Australian journalists wrote the official war histories, while academics wrote the political histories. In the second half of the century, the roles reversed. The journalists asserted themselves in the political arena while the officers helped the academics to occupy the military ground (although journos of the quality of Les Carlyon, Paul Ham and Peter FitzSimons mean this is still hard-fought ground).

With that as justification, let me offer you a stack books from the journo side (plus an electronic journal) and one book from the military. Put the imbalance down to the freemasonry of hacks:

1. Graham Freudenberg's 'Churchill and Australia' is a winner on many levels. The journo union rightly gave this the 2009 Walkley for a Non-Fiction Book. As I said in an earlier rave about Freudenberg, his life experience as a journalist and political insider gives him the rare ability to inject the proper level of politics into an account of geo-politics.

2. Paul Kelly is the doyen. To see why, pick up 'The March of Patriots: The Struggle for Modern Australia.' In Patriots, Kelly has interviewed everybody who was a player, to give us the first half of a two-volume account of Keating and Howard as the defining figures of the past two decades. With this and earlier books such as End of Certainty, Kelly moves from the daily reporting of Australian politics to shaping the way it is debated and even remembered.

3. Rather than the sweep across the decades, Peter Hartcher captures a turning point in Oz politics with 'To the Bitter End: The dramatic story behind the fall of John Howard and the rise of Kevin Rudd.' As always with Hartcher the writing is elegant and the thinking clear. In an account sympathetic to Costello, Hartcher encapsulates in one sentence Costello's fundamental misjudgement in dealing with his leader: 'This was not a morality play – it was a power play.'

Plus, Hartcher has a wonderful eye for the wicked anecdote that tells the wider story. Loved the yarn about Howard and his top aides meeting the research gurus before the 2007 election to get a reading on the pulse of the voters. The news was not good: '...the Howard Government was seen as out of touch, too old and too tired. When participants turned to see how the Prime Minister was taking this news, they discovered that Howard had dozed off.'

4.A different politics and a vastly different voice is offered by Tony Maniaty in 'Shooting Balibo – Blood and Memory in East Timor'.  Maniaty covered East Timor as a young ABC journalist in 1975. Three decades later, he goes back with the crew shooting the movie Balibo. The book skips back and forth across the years – the terror of war meets the madness of movie making. The technology of journalism has been utterly transformed since 1975, but the same dilemmas haunt hacks in the field.

As the journalist who fled Balibo, Maniaty offers a unique meditation on the five journalists murdered during the Indonesian invasion. In the hands of a lesser writer, this could have been mawkish. From Maniaty, it is masterful.

5.One choice on the list is offered not for fine writing, but because it is the most wonderful tool for anybody who has to think or write about Australia: the journalist Ross Gittins and Professor Rodney Tiffen have created 'How Australia Compares', showing how Oz lines up against 17 other developed democracies – socially, economically, politically — from taxation to traffic accidents, homicide rates to health expenditure, and international trade to internet usage.

Having got the figures, they then write about them clearly and logically. See there thoughts on how Australia performs in military spending and foreign aid. And consider their essay on what the figures say about how John Howard changed Australia.

6. On the military side, the winner is David Kilcullen's 'The Accidental Guerrilla – fighting small wars in the midst of a big one'. Kilcullen's book – and his public personality – encapsulate the conundrum of the modern military man. The Army plays the ultimate team game. So Army prefers that its superstars be generals. If the media stars are also those who wear the stars, that makes things cleaner all round. Kilcullen certainly stands out as a sparkler in his generation of young Army officers. To really let his mind shine, though, he had to leave the Army. Go figure, as they say in the US.

Kilcullen is the media age version of a soldier. Clearly, he has a fine intellect. Just as importantly, he can turn his thoughts about complicated issues into excellent sound bites. Consider this interview with Kerry O'Brien as both performance and analysis.

Kilcullen's line that 'the media are the battlespace' is both quotable and a succinct summary of an important dimension of the fight against terrorism. Or as Kilcullen puts the idea in the concluding chapter of his book: 'The information side of Al Qaeda's operation is primary: the physical is merely the tool to achieve a propaganda result.' This is a tough concept for the military mind to accept: the achievement of the bang-bang is not as important as the picture of the bang-bang.

Accidental Guerrilla is several books trying to cram into the one space – personal journey, notes from various battlefield and plenty of theory mixed in. It doesn't fit into any of the normal military book genres, but that is part of its charm.

7.Finally, not a conventional book, but a literary journal for the electronic age – the website of that wonderful Australian writer and thinker, Clive James. All sorts of goodies are here. I especially like his series of radio talks for the BBC. Since Alistair Cooke went to the great studio in the sky, we have been short of broadcasters who can transform journalism into philosophy. Clive James knows the tricks as well as the truths.