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Australian Political Lives

Australian Political Lives: Chronicling political careers and administrative histories OPEN ACCESS

Tracey Arklay
John Nethercote
John Wanna
Copyright Date: 2006
Published by: ANU Press
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  • Book Info
    Australian Political Lives
    Book Description:

    This monograph brings together some of the best practitioners of the art and craft of political biography in Australia. They are simultaneously some of our best scholars who, at least in part, have turned their attention to writing Australian political lives. They are not merely chroniclers of our times but multidisciplinary analysts constructing layers of explanation and theoretical insight. They include academic, professional and amateur biographers; scholars from a range of disciplines (politics, history, sociology, public administration, gender studies); and politicians who for a time strutted the political stage. The assembled papers explore the strengths and weaknesses of the biographical approach; the enjoyment it can deliver; the problems and frustrations of writing biographies; and the various ways the 'project' can be approached by those constructing these lives. They probe the art and craft of the political biographer.

    eISBN: 978-1-920942-74-8
    Subjects: History
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Table of Contents

Export Selected Citations
  1. Preface (pp. xi-xiv)
    Tracey Arklay, John Nethercote and John Wanna
  2. Geoffrey Bolton

    Real intellectuals do not do political biography. Biography as a genre is suspect because it lends itself to a discourse of old fashioned narrative, beginning with the life and parentage of the subject and heading predictably towards death and posthumous reputation. Political biography is doubly suspect because it carries with it a whiff of the ‘great man in history’ heresy. This suggests that if Halifax and not Churchill had become prime minister of Britain in 1940, or if Al Gore had won the presidential elections in the United States in 2000, the world somehow would not have been absolutely identical...

  3. Tracey Arklay

    In Australia we rely on journalists to give the ‘first draft’ of history, chronicling people and events. Often immediate, spontaneous, exciting, seeking impact, what is reported is frequently the sexiest and occasionally the most sordid aspects of accounts and personalities. Such newspaper articles, for example, usually have a narrative structure; there is less analysis of ‘why and how’. The research undertaken for media accounts is rarely ‘triangulated’.¹ More reflective comment on why an event occurred or why a person acted in a particular way may well be lost in the ensuing debate. For journalists, a week is a long time...

  4. Judith Brett

    In this contribution I shall address three issues: first, what questions do biographers ask of their subjects; second, why the history of non-Labor has been written largely through the prism of political biography; and, third, why have non-Labor people not been as assiduous in writing memoirs and autobiographies.

    To date, I have written two essentially long political essays on Sir Robert Menzies and an essay on Sir Paul Hasluck. I am currently thinking about whether to do a biography of John Howard.

    I essentially came to political biography from political science, rather than the other way around. And, I would...

  5. James Walter

    Initially, I would like to discuss three points. The first is the problem of dealing with a live subject and the question I pose here is ‘who owns the life?’ This is a question that also applies to dead subjects but it is of particular importance with living subjects. We should be aware of the fact that there are different stakeholders in any life or life story — at least three significant types of stakeholders. The second point I want to address briefly is the training of political biographers, and the third is to mount an argument for ‘short lives’ — less...

  6. Nicholas Brown

    The public life-private life division preoccupies Australian political biography — perhaps not peculiarly so, but certainly in distinctive terms. A consideration of the future of political biography might usefully begin by exploring this division, and asking not so much ‘which side of the argument is right?’ but seeking to identify what is invested in the issue, and how it reflects the uses to which we seek to put political biography. Such a consideration might tap directly into challenging the ways we construct ideas, policies, problems and solutions by imagining alternative approaches, particularly with reference to themes such leadership, representation and power....

  7. R. A. W. Rhodes

    This essay poses three questions. Why is biography isolated from epistemological debates in political science? Are biographers confined to the archive and the tools of the historian? How do we explain our story? Biographers confront many issues specific to their particular art form (see for example Pimlott 1994, 169-61 and the chapters by Arklay and Bolton in this volume). But they can also confront core issues of theory, method and language central to the enterprise of political science. Yet, whether we look at biography through the spectacles of either mainstream or post-modern political science, both dismiss biography.

    As an approach...

  8. David Day

    There are many different approaches to biography and political biography. If I had the skills and training of Judith Brett I may well have tried her psychological approach. But I did not and I was left to fall back on a largely narrative approach. This address is mainly about the writing of John Curtin: A life (Day 1999).

    I came upon John Curtin very early as a student in Melbourne University when I was doing an essay on the reaction in the Victorian Labor movement to the outbreak of the First World War. I was very struck by Curtin’s opposition...

  9. Patrick Weller

    I am a political scientist. I seek to ask those political science questions at the core of any appreciation of how the political system works; especially the complexities and the different angles or perspectives. My first training, however, was in history. The combination of the two disciplines means that I have always been primarily interested in the way institutions work, the way power is exercised, the interactions between individuals and the institutions with which they work – institutions they often help shape and which in turn shapes them. I try to understand the capacity of people in a given timeframe and...

  10. Ian Hancock

    When I was an undergraduate, some years ago, I read a comment on biography by Sir Lewis Namier, the magisterial historian of eighteenth century British politics. Namier thought that someone embarking on a biography was no better qualified for the task than a woman who applied for the position of minding children and said in support of her application that she herself had once been a child. No doubt with the advancement of so many academic disciplines and the multi-skilling of so many academics, Namier’s dismissal of biography is now out of date for most biographers. But not so in...

  11. Tim Rowse

    The Indigenous public servant is a relatively recent phenomenon — a product of the maturing of the programs of assimilation and the inception of the programs of self-determination. That the Indigenous administrative memoir is recent follows from this, but it is also relevant to point out that the genre Indigenous autobiography is itself not yet fifty years old. In this essay, I will tell you about three Indigenous autobiographies in which the authors (all male) have produced an account of themselves partly by reflecting on their times as a public servant. In each case, the theme ‘impersonality’ is prominent, but each...

  12. Rae Wear

    Writing political biography almost always involves a degree of self-exploration: there is a little bit of autobiography lurking beneath the surface of every biography. To begin with, there is the choice of subject. Some biographers are drawn to personalities they admire while others tackle those they have little regard for but consider important or perhaps want to understand. Choosing a subject must involve reflection on the biographer’s part about the reasons for their choice and also about the nature of the feelings they bring to the task. This reflection is essential if a biography is to be other than hagiography...

  13. Lenore Coltheart

    Most political biographies of women are about female heads of state, heads of government, and parliamentary representatives, but most women who have exercised power on political structures and processes have done so as non-government actors. An expanded definition of political biography brings in these unofficial figures who ‘impacted on policy, politics or government’. We probably should consider, too, the reverse vectors, as the influence of the geopolitical is too frequently understated in writing lives, as if these could ever be immune from either national politics or international relations. So political biography has much to teach across the whole field of...

  14. Peter Edwards

    Shortly after Frank Crowley, then lecturing in history at the University of Western Australia, started his biography of John Forrest, he confronted his second-year students with a question: ‘It is said that every historian should tackle a biography at some stage in his life. What do you think?’ As I recall, the second-year students sat there with their mouths opening and closing silently like dyspeptic goldfish. One of them, however, for some reason remembered that remark. Thirty years later I recalled it when I was trying to work out what my next project should be, having just worked on the...

  15. John Nethercote

    This essay has two objectives: the first is to provide a tour d’horizon of biographies and autobiographies of administrators. Its second purpose is to comment on the utility of biography as a method of studying administration and its contribution to government.

    In comparison with political leaders and the more public figures in government and politics, Australian administrators are not well-served by biographies, even in the brief form found in the Australian Dictionary of Biography. There is a great reluctance to engage with these officials as ‘subjects’ for biography and reluctance among officials to consider writing autobiographical memoirs. This is true...

  16. Neal Blewett

    Some years ago, in my essay ‘No Secret Selves?’, I attempted to develop a typology for the personal writings of politicians. I have since tried to refine that typology, though I still remain unhappy with the nomenclature. I would now suggest a fivefold typology as follows: (1) personalised policy essay; (2) political autobiography; (3) political memoir; (4) politician’s autobiography; and (5) political diary. As references in this workshop suggest that some of you have read that essay, I will spend little time on those categories that have remained unchanged and will concentrate on the refinements and more particularly on the...

  17. John Button

    My own contribution to the ‘John Button ego poll genre’, as I call it, has always been unplanned and relates to circumstance. In my last two or three years in Parliament, after I had made it clear I had had enough of politics and wanted to leave, I had approaches, indeed pleadings, from seven publishers about writing my memoirs or autobiography. I did not want to do that. I wanted to finish what I was doing in Parliament and then think about all that at a later stage. I never contemplated writing an autobiographical book at all. What I did...

  18. Philip A. Selth

    When I was invited to write this conclusion, I was asked not to give potted summaries of the earlier contributions. Rather, my task was to consider some of the major themes and issues that stand out from the collection of contributions presented for this monograph. I will do this by framing key questions for political biographers.

    The Australian and New Zealand School of Government workshop on political biographies proceeded on the basis that ‘political biography’ was a genre in its own right. This was reinforced by the fact that most of those attending the workshop were political scientists — or, at...