By Chris Wallace

UNSW Press 2023

ISBN: 9781742237497

RRP: $39.99 (PB)

Reviewed by Anne Henderson


What better topic for a book by a contemporary biographer than one about contemporary biographies of Australian prime ministers and the journalists, largely, who wrote them. In this, Chris Wallace, contemporary biographer of books on Germaine Greer and former Liberal Party leader John Hewson, has achieved a compelling study which uncovers the frisson that enlivens tales of prominent lives written by those who have some experience of them.

There is a clear boundary drawn around the choice of biographies and biographers for Political Lives; Wallace explains that her study is to be of only those PMs of the twentieth century who had biographies written of them while in office. Her study of the biographers would be only of those who engaged with their subject while prime minister, and she would query directly their motivations and challenges, asking if they were in any way practising “a kind of sorcery” – a phrase given to her when working on her biography of John Hewson – intended to “influence their subject’s political trajectory”.

Setting out to begin her book, Wallace tells of why she approached her study this way. She relates the circumstances of her aborted biography of former Australian prime minister Julia Gillard, Australia’s only female prime minister to date. In telling of why she not only abandoned the project at a crucial time in Gillard’s political trajectory but also returned her advance, Wallace also begs an important question that will overshadow much of what she writes of others in the field of contemporary political biography. How much are these contemporary biographers objective observers and judges and how much are they also part of the story, players who are influenced in the telling, with their prejudices and personal feelings well defined in relation to their subject?

Wallace explains her decision to pull her Gillard biography came at a moment of intense interest in the book’s publication as Gillard struggled against the political odds in a party rent with division from the Rudd years and in the face of growing opposition to the dysfunction of her minority administration after the 2010 federal election when she had led Labor to an election as its new leader following the party’s removal of Kevin Rudd from the prime ministership.

Wallace paints a picture of Australia’s first female PM as weakened by mysoginistic attitudes in the opposition to her leadership. In this atmosphere, and realising the potential for stories in the biography to be exploited by a media frenzy, Wallace writes, “It could hit her hard when she and her generally meritorious government were suffering an onslaught unparalleled, in the dual internal and external attack, in Australian postwar political history – and one certainly unmatched for sheer nastiness.” For Wallace it was a moral choice.

So, contemporary biographer Wallace saw herself as a player in a political drama and stepped back. This admission colours the perceived effects of other contemporary biographies to be examined, even at times Wallace’s own conclusions.

Wallace’s book is an absorbing read for those who have an interest in Australia’s political history. It is not so much a summation of the achievements of various former Australian prime ministers as a glimpse into the insiders’ world of parliamentary politics. The voices of the contemporary biographers and their personalities are heard. Against that backdrop, various personalities holding prime ministerial power emerge.

Unlike the heroes of the American federation – the United States – Australia’s founding father prime ministers do not appear to have attracted particular interest for the contemporary biographer. Wallace’s discussion of this gives hints of the earliest leaders but she is unable to explain why they attracted no interest. Certainly, the fact that Australian writers in the early nineteenth century looked to British publishers for support would not have helped. Such figures on the Australian landscape had little impact in Britain.

This changed with Prime Minister Billy Hughes who engaged in politics at a media level decades ahead of his time. His presence in Britain as a World War I dominion leader also extended his reputation globally. The biographies written during his leadership enhanced his reputation regardless of his erratic personality and dogged pugnacity. Wallace determines that the Fitzhardinge two-volume biography of Hughes, in being published after Hughes’ death, is outside the scope of her book. It is interesting to note in this that Wallace records how conversations Fitzhardinge had with Hughes showed the former PM avoiding straight answers. That the Fitzhardinge biography has endured as the most highly regarded work on Hughes says something about the value of allowing the perspective of time to provide a more accurate account.

Prime Minister John Gorton (1968-71) was only the third Australia prime minister to have a contemporary biography published during his tenure as PM. As Wallace demonstrates, interest in contemporary biography of Australia’s leaders increased towards the latter part of the twentieth century. A biography of John Curtin by Alan Chester published mid-way in his wartime leadership gave readers confidence the nation was in “safe hands at a time of exceptional peril”. Ben Chifley was courted by Fin Crisp but put him off, leaving Crisp to complete a biography some years after Chifley’s death.

Written by Alan Trengrove, Gorton’s contemporary biography in 1969 introduced a new tactic. The biography forced into the open much of the knockabout Gorton’s unorthodox lifestyle, his triumphs over adversity and bumpy ride to the top. The biography was clearly a tool used in a new political way. Wallace writes: “… just as Gorton presaged something of the Hawke style, so did his biographer, who in revealing Gorton’s illegitimacy anticipated the revelatory approach Hawke biographer Blanche D’Álpuget would later employ.”

It is with Gough Whitlam that the impact of contemporary biography becomes a force in Australian politics. Whitlam mesmerised many in the journalistic class around parliament house. A scholar PM, a big man of ideas and presence, a leader who had brought Labour in from the cold. He was the thinking person’s PM.

Significant works of biography soon emerged from Canberra Press Gallery scribblers Laurie Oakes and David Solomon. Their two books were added to with a biography written by Whitlam speechwriter Graham Freudenberg, with Laurie Oakes later completing two more studies taking the narrative up to Whitlam’s demise with the final one titled Crash Through or Crash: The Unmaking of a Prime Minister. Graham Freudenberg’s title A Certain Grandeur – Gough Whitlam in Politics gives the flavour of the overall impact.

The overflow of words devoted to this one prime minister whose time in office was so short had the desired effect. It created a legend which for ordinary Australian voters jarred somewhat with the experience of the policies the Whitlam Government

administered. The theme became that Whitlam was a superior mind brought down by outside forces after his dismissal by Governor General John Kerr in November 1975. The legend transcended the reality of Whitlam’s flawed government as his sympathetic biographers chipped away at the momentous events that surrounded such a unique but flawed leader.

For Wallace, this was writing at its best – and in that she has a case. Whitlam provided action, scandal, political tension and the like to sell books and entertain readers. With television documentaries and mini series to follow. The power of the Oakes, Solomon and Freudenberg pens successfully created a reality of life at the top rather than what was happening to the nation. The personality of the leader had subsumed the pain of economic woe only to have a new prime minister, Malcom Fraser, emerge as a sort of wicked interloper on the back of the dismissal. Wallace’s account of it all makes fascinating reading.

The story of what must be Australia’s most famous case of contemporary biography – that of Blanche D’Alpuget’s Robert J Hawke – does not disappoint in the telling. Wallace dissects the relationship between biographer and subject, along with D’Alpuget’s mastery of her psychological approach with the work and the overall effect it had on the Hawke ascendency, in compelling detail. Of note is that, in writing the book, D’Alpuget was influenced by the A F “Foo” Davies school of political science which emphasised the importance of psychoanalysis in the determination of character. The Davies method is now seen more as a fashion in political analysis, but D’Alpuget was advantaged by her intimate knowledge of her subject which she researched intensely. She also managed to complete her biography without adopting any of the AF Davies’ jargon leaving the touch of the novelist rather than the amateur psychologist.

Biographies of Paul Keating and John Howard complete the study. This leaves just one oddity in the work – a contemporary biography which was never completed, namely the unfinished and unpublished manuscript of a biography on Robert Menzies, attempted in the years 1951-53 by political journalist Allan Dawes. For whatever reasons, only sections of the manuscript have been preserved in the archives, leaving speculation as to why it was never finished especially when Dawes had Menzies’s full co-operation. Taking up an explanation found in the entry on Dawes in the Dictionary of National Biography, Wallace contends that there is no evidence the reason the book never saw the light of day was because of Dawes’ well known habit of heavy drinking.

In her attempt to prove that drink was not the problem, Wallace records a determined effort by Dawes, if somewhat unorganised, to get to a complete work. However, Wallace seems to be more concerned, albeit with no evidence, to pin some of the blame on Menzies and his office rather than simply consider that those who knew Dawes might have been on the money that his habitual drinking did impede his progress. It is easy enough for a skilled journalist to put together a few hundred words, even a thousand, by afternoon tea and leave the rest to the sub editors as he goes off to enjoy his evening. The work and organisation of a book is quite different and requires long hours of serious engagement over months if not years. What’s more, Dawes was trying to complete the biography of a hard and busy task master, especially re facts and expression. Having the subject stand over his shoulder in this way could not have been easy.

It is from another of the biographers in Wallace’s study that good advice for Allan Dawes might have helped. Robert Pullen, writing Bob Hawke: A Portrait on finding co-operation with the Hawke family difficult, eventually came to the conclusion, “It’s up to the writer to make the decision about whether the biography happens, not the subject.” Ultimately, for whatever reasons, Dawes could not prevail in regard to his biography. And it lapsed.

Chris Wallace’s study is an important work. It takes the reader behind the stories, legends, even myths created by the record keepers. And challenges us to take into account how much that record relies on the perspectives, and prejudices, of writers.

Anne Henderson is Deputy Director of The Sydney Institute and author of Menzies at War, which was shortlisted for the 2015 Prime Minister’s Award for Australian History.