By Rama Gaind
PS News Books
The Good, the Bad and the Unlikely: Australia’s Prime Ministers
By Mungo MacCallum (Black Inc., $29.95, softcover, 213 pages)
Writing an engaging account of all 27 Australian prime ministers, including one woman, is a tall order, but Mungo MacCallum delivers with self-assurance.
This book is not academic, but is an accessible history that will captivate with its simplicity, humour and expert knowledge.
He gives a worthy credential for presuming to write about them in less than worshipful tones, complete with careful analysis and amusing anecdotes.
MacCallum talks about a “parade of leaders which is pretty impressive–at least in bronze,” but declares that “Australians aren’t very fond of their politicians, alive or dead; we have raised no great monuments to our former leaders. We have no Lincoln Memorial, let alone a Mount Rushmore”.
Political achievement of the leaders may be remembered, the names and personalities are often forgotten, either reduced to trivia questions or bronze busts. Prime Ministers Avenue in Ballarat is the only series of monuments Australia has assembled to our former leaders.
MacCallum’s research led to some rethinking: he found the “revered but many-faced” Alfred Deakin a “far less admirable character than I had expected and I discovered a lot to like” about George Reid, “often dismissed as a buffoon. I unearthed redeeming features” in William Hughes, the “great Labor ‘rat’, but not many” in Earle Page “celebrated as the first doyen of the Country Party”.
Some will be remembered because of their personalities such as Paul Keating and Bob Hawke, some because they “had an era” in office like Robert Menzies or if remembered at all for more flippant reasons like “Frank Forde is generally remembered for just one thing: his name is the answer to the trivia question, ‘Who was Australia’s shortest-serving Prime Minister’?”
The political journalist admits that it was harder to review his contemporaries because it’s difficult to be objective about “people you think you know”.
The accounts of Kevin Rudd and Prime Minister Julia Gillard are unsettling.
Edition 399, 04 March 2014
To find out more about Rama Gaind click here.