If you want to know how polarised a society’s politics have become, check out who is winning its prizes. And why.

On Monday night, the judges for the 2011 NSW Premier’s Literary Awards awarded the top prize for non-fiction to Malcolm Fraser: The Political Memoirs by Malcolm Fraser and Margaret Simons. It also won Book of the Year, netting the authors a total of $50,000 in winnings.

The judges commented, “The book is outstanding for the way in which the issue of moral leadership is powerfully worked into the narrative fabric.” And, “… the book offers a forceful though implicit critique of current polity. It reinvigorates an almost forgotten strand of liberalism in Australian political culture …”

Is that why the book won?

Malcolm Fraser is one the Left’s great “bags”, a mighty lion of the Right who had slain the Left’s greatest hero – Gough Whitlam – but who has since decided he prefers a different diet. Now he eats up so-called free-market espousing, border-protectionist, conservative Liberals for breakfast. After Fraser’s memoir was published, it was revealed that he had resigned from the party the previous December, three months before, because he felt it had gone too far to the right – too reactionary, too conservative. He was and remains a vociferous critic of the policies of former PM John Howard, a man so loathed by the Left, it’s a wonder leftist party faithful aren’t compelled to write his name on a piece of paper and stick it in their freezers.

Fraser is a human rights activist who, in his time as Prime Minister, permitted around 60,000 Indo-Chinese refugees to settle here, and who was scathing about the Howard government’s border protection policies. (Although, only 2000 boat-people got through on Fraser’s watch.)

So – is this why the book won?

Australia, after all, is faction-ridden these days. Remember back in grade three when there’d be a class fight, everyone would take sides, and then it didn’t matter what someone did if they were on your side, they were yours. The line was: my brother, right or wrong. And if someone was shoving it up the other side, well, he or she automatically was a champ for your side.

I’d have to go back to November, 1975 and its aftermath, to find a time when this country was more polarised between Left and Right. This is translating into a series of mini civil-wars over climate change, unions, privatisation, government regulation, welfare, the Northern Territory intervention, refugees …

And nearly always now, it’s a case of “I’m right; you’re a lunatic.” Little room for acknowledging any opponent’s well-argued point or position.

So again – given the left-leaning sympathies of Australia’s  publishing scene, evidenced by what is published, what wins awards, what gains grants – is that why Fraser’s memoir won?

The two awards surprised me only because I was aware, when the book came out in early 2010 that there had been criticism of its take on certain key events and several, including The Sydney Institute’s Gerard Henderson, had listed errors of fact. (In one of the most astonishing, Fraser and Simons liken him to Bob Hawke and have them both winning four federal elections – Fraser won three.)

In The Age, Michael Sexton reviewed the memoir and declared in his opening paragraph that Margaret Simons “has looked at [Fraser’s] political life through the softest of rose-coloured glasses”. He raises incredulous eyebrows that Fraser, in spite of having been minister for the army, and then defence, and therefore, at the “absolute” forefront of Australia’s involvement in the Vietnam war, can now say the war was a “mistake” but excuse himself by saying those were “innocent days”. He also questions the book’s argument on Fraser’s economic reform record.

David Smith, former official secretary to Governor-General Sir John Kerr (and four other G-Gs) wrote to The Australian to say that Fraser’s account in the memoir of what the Governor-General had said to him in a phone-call on the crucial morning of November 11, 1975, was “not true”.

In The Monthly, reviewer Tim Soutphommasane noted that, “The picture of Fraser that emerges, then, is really a portrait by Simons. It is an unavoidably sympathetic treatment.” He goes on to question the depiction of Fraser’s resignation from the Gorton government. In the book, according to Fraser and Simons, “The confrontation with Gorton had shown how far Fraser was prepared to go to defend principle.” But according to Soutphommasane this action by Fraser against Gorton – in particular, the resignation speech in which Fraser attacked Gorton as unfit to hold office – was, “… one of the coldest public exercises in fratricide in Australian political history”.

So, have I got this right? A major political memoir can come out, can include serious errors according to creditable commentators – the above is just a bare indication – and the authors can also be accused of what is basically rewriting history in the subject’s own favour – and it can still walk off with top honours in a literary award that is funded by taxpayers.


If this book were to be included on reading lists for secondary and university students, would lecturers feel obliged to make sure their students read other accounts of the events and characters to make up for the book’s errors and interpretations?

If so, why has it won such a prize for non-fiction?

The trouble is, it’s now more likely, as a result of the prize-giving, that students – perhaps teachers, lecturers – will feel it must be a sound account.

In The Australian’s news-story about the award, Fraser was quoted as saying, “It is not a book of self-justification”.

In his 1984 book, The Hawke Ascendancy, journalist and author Paul Kelly, then, a member of the Canberra press gallery with a forensic knowledge of the recent events, wrote, “In 1975 Fraser had justified his strike against Whitlam by appeal to moral principle. Yet Fraser’s career was littered with the shells of men whom he had destroyed… This underlines probably the most remarkable aspect of Fraser’s character: his total absorption and belief in the morality of his own position.”

All very well, I guess, to be absorbed in your own morality if you want to write a book and your co-author and publisher are happy to let you write your version of events and view of the world whatever the reality may be … but surely the first guiding principle for any judge of a non-fiction book must be, before all other considerations, how squarely does this book sit with the demands of the genre, “non-fiction”?


But back to polarisation. What a lethal, suffocating affliction it can be for a society and how foolish and short-sighted it can make us. As it sets in, people are praised, rewarded, hired, promoted – or denigrated, penalised, fired or ignored – on the basis of whether they are “agin or aginst”.

Last year,  I wrote two essays on the chilly art of totschweigtaktik – the Austro-German word that means “death by silence”. It’s how ideas, stories, interpretations that are contrary to a particular side’s take can get killed off; they’re simply deprived of the oxygen of comment and engagement. The more powerful a faction, the more effective the totsch-ing.

In the piece for Quadrant – I also wrote, “I realised soon enough that the more entrenched a writer or academic is in a network—and it applies to journalists too, just as it applies in many fields, from the arts to politics—the more likely it is that he or she will not be totsched. Instead, at crucial times, they will be lifted aloft, like a victorious general being hoisted onto comradely shoulders.”

The real casualty of polarization is independent judgement.

In such times, when people do try to examine both sides and refuse to become partisan, they’re criticised. When ABC journalist Leigh Sales’ book, Detainee 002: The case of David Hicks came out in 2007, The Age’s reviewer complained, in an otherwise positive review, the book’s argument was weakened by an obsession with balance. Another reviewer, also positive, still lamented that Sales was “annoyingly fair”.


In today’s Herald, columnist Elizabeth Farrelly cites an email from Paul Keating she received after she wrote a piece last week about the confusing hoo-hah over Barangaroo. She had identified failings in the various arguments for and against. In response, Keating fulminated, “You must have more splinters in your bum than anyone in journalism.” No, writes Farrelly, she was “critiquing both sides” and no, she stresses, “it doesn’t put me on the fence.”

In Keating’s email to Farrelly, he also wrote: “Do you have any courage to stand for anything?’

I’d say the bravest people around are those who don’t willy-nilly ally themselves with any groups. It’s lonely out there.


Comedian Chris Lilley mused in The Sydney Morning Herald’s  Guide recently that he had realised that he portrays men as “really dumb and women as really crazy. What’s happened that I’m seeing the world like that?”

American comedian Tina Fey gets it. In the conclusion to her new book Bossypants, the creator of the Emmy-award winning TV series, 30 Rock, explores the crazy woman concept. (The book is a memoir-cum-delivery vehicle for some hefty smacks around some well-deserving heads.)

In five years time, she predicts she will be unemployable and labeled crazy herself. She writes, “I’ve known older men in comedy who can barely feed and clean themselves, and they still work. The women, though, they’re all ‘crazy’.”

So where does it come from, this idea that women are as mad as coots? Fey confides to her readers, “I have a suspicion that the definition of ‘crazy’ in show business is a woman who keeps talking even after no-one wants to f*** her anymore.”

She has her own remedy planned; that is she will last in comedy and so will eventually be able to make sure she can hire women of all ages.

On the other hand, she begins her book by noting that ever since she became an executive producer of 30 Rock – and responsible for the jobs of 200 staff – people have asked her questions like, “Is it hard for you, being the boss?” and “Is it comfortable for you to be the person in charge?”

“You know,” she writes, “in that same way they say, ‘Gosh, Mr Trump, is it awkward for you to be the boss of all these people?’ ”

Clever men will buy this book; women who know they’re not crazy (or maybe just crazy enough to stay sane in this crazed world) should buy it.


There is one scene in this clip that may offend people who don’t want to know what might happen inside a male prison, but the rest is just so delightful … if polarising.