Monday, January 16, 2012

Q&A with Mungo MacCallum

We interview Mungo MacCallum about his new book The Good, the Bad and the Unlikely: Australia's Prime Ministers, which tells the tale of the many men and one woman who’ve had a crack at running the country.

What are three of the most surprising facts or anecdotes you discovered while researching this book?

I like the story about Ben Chifley taking his own onions to a Gundagai café; he knew that otherwise, with rationing, he would be lucky to get them with his favourite steak. But I was intrigued by two others who were ahead of their times. Jim Scullin, beset on all sides as he battled his way through the Great Depression, still found time to set aside land in the Northern Territory to be reserved for Aboriginal Australians. And George Reid, frequently dismissed as a buffoon, turned out to be a lone voice against the harsh laws passed against the Chinese.

You have been a close observer of politics and politicians for many years, what first drew you to write about them and is that still what interests you now?

I frequently refer to a quotation from an American author: “Politics is the most important invention of the human race because it is the only way we can solve our disputes without killing each other.” And if it’s that important, it has to be worth writing about. When I arrived in Canberra in 1969 I realised that although I had been interested and even involved in politics for some years in Sydney, I really had no idea about how the actual process worked. So I figured that most other people didn’t either, and what’s more they weren’t interested. So if I was to get their attention, I had to make politics sexy, which I did by breaking the rules and including jokes, gossip and parody in my reports. And it seemed to ring a bell, so I have kept at it for the next forty plus years. I sometimes despair at the apathy, contempt and helplessness so many Australian seem to feel about politics and politicians, but I still think that if they knew more about the process and the people involved in it they might be less cynical and dismissive. Anyway, you’ve got to keep trying.

The Good, the Bad and the Unlikely is far from a dry chronology of people and achievements from birth through to election loss or death – the book brings all our Prime Ministers to vivid life. How did you uncover so many of the personal aspects of the lives of our politicians?

Years of constant practice – I have always been fascinated by the personalities of the powerful and intent on uncovering their idiosyncrasies. With many of the early ones it was hard; some, like Billy Hughes, wrote extensively and scurrilously about their life and times but others, like Alfred Deakin, tried for anonymity. Still, there were always a few scraps to pick up. With my contemporaries of course it was easier; a lot of the time I was actually there, and if I wasn’t I could often find a mate who was.

In the book you mention that your lifetime spans fifteen Prime Ministers – more than half – and that you have known twelve of them and been on first-name terms with eleven. What is it about Australian politics that means we have gone through so many Prime Ministers relative to the age of our political system?

Well, we are, as we sing, young and free, which means we are probably less constrained than some of our older cousins. The fact that we have elections at least every three years doesn’t help; given a chance to throw a politician out Australians will take it more often than not. I don’t know that we are all that volatile anyway, compared to places like Italy and some of the South American countries. At least the two party system gives us some stability they do not have. And in any case, a change of government in Australia seldom brings really radical change to our lives. Indeed, for much of the time we hardly even notice.

While writing The Good, the Bad and the Unlikely you found confirmation of your belief that the most significant Prime Ministers were the most courageous, the ones who burst through the roadblocks not only in society but within their own parties. Recently there has appeared to be widespread disillusionment about our politicians – do you see any courageous politicians among the current set or the up and comers?

Courage in politics is becoming rarer for two reasons. The first is that politics is now seen as a profession, a lifetime occupation, a cradle to grave business. Thus the politician, along with all the advisers, speechwriters, spin doctors, pollsters, psychiatrists, personal trainers, astrologers and other necromancers who infest the place, is terrified by the idea of losing his or her job, because there is nowhere else to go, nothing else to do. Thus the main game is not to achieve difficult reform but to avoid making mistakes and the best way not to make a mistake is not to do anything much at all. 

The second problem is the tyranny of the polls. They used to operate only during elections, which was fair enough; they actually told the politicians things they needed to know about how the voters were thinking. But nowadays, every week we are asked: “If an election were to be held this weekend, which party would receive your first preference?” Well, hang on; an election is not going to be held this weekend. The whole premise of the question is meaningless, a fraud and lie. Thus the answer will be equally unreliable. But the politicians and their staffs are mesmerised by this gobbledegook. They spend their lives waiting and worrying for the next poll, and this is not a formula for reckless bravado.

Having examined the lives and careers, strengths and foibles of all our Prime Ministers, what tips or cautions would you give to aspiring politicians?

Always remember: politics is a means, not an end. There is no point in spending your life scrambling to the top of the greasy totem pole if you forget why you wanted to get there is the first place. Most politicians start as idealists but become corrupted by the process of gaining power, the compromises, dealings, concessions and all the rest of the demands. You will have to play the game; as Gough Whitlam pointed out, only the impotent are pure. But retain your ideals nonetheless: you are in politics to make Australia a better place. To do so you will have to win the election. But that is the beginning, not the be all and end all. Politics is, at its best, an honourable profession. Earn that title.

Do you have any advice for hopeful political writers?

Once again, keep your ideals; if you become cynical about the process it’s time to quit. And remember that you are there to break down the barriers: never accept it if a politician tells you that you have no right to know something, demand an explanation, a justification; do not be fobbed off with airy-fairy talk about national security, commercial in confidence, operational matters. In a democracy the public’s right to know is the default position; the whole idea of “need to know” is a weaselling cop out dreamt up by bureaucrats seeking to avoid embarrassment. 

Never be afraid of making a judgement: if you are doing your job properly, you will be in a better position to weight the facts and come to an honest conclusion than almost anyone else in the country. Just try and do it without being insufferably pompous and self-righteous. And ignore calls for objectivity and balance: objectivity is not possible for a journalist under pressure – you have to decide what is important and what isn’t, which means making your own calls. And balance implies that there are no useful values on which you can rely. When you’re talking astrophysics, you don’t have to go to Mystic Medusa just because you have quoted Stephen Hawking. Anyone involved in the climate change debate can tell you that science is not balanced by an appeal to superstition, prejudice and self interest. As a great editor once said: Do not strive to be balanced; strive to be fair. That’s all anyone can ask of you. Oh, and good luck with the endemic hazards of political journalism: alcoholism and divorce. And I’m afraid jogging won’t help. 

The Good, the Bad and the Unlikely is available now from all good bookstores and e-retailers. Read the first chapter here.


  1. It is a good read; however like most political writers he does not admit his personal politics and hence leaves important facts out, which may well alter the impression he wihes to portray of the person under discussion

    1. I disagree with Anonymous I found the book to be very accurate, regarding the Prime Ministers of my lifetime. I actually would like to see this book made compulsory reading for all who aspire to that office. It may provide strength and insight into the pitfalls of trying to move too quickly. In all honesty I'd like to see this made compulsory reading to all John Howard and Tony Abbott supporters and yes I am a Labour supporter and yes I would dearly love to see Julia given the opportunity of governing Australia.