09 November 2022

The Ngunnawal and Ngambri people were telling stories and living under law on this country in time immemorial, and I want to pay my respects to their elders past and present, thank them for caring for this beautiful place we are all so lucky to walk on and work on – and extend my respects to any Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people here tonight.

And thanks Duncan [Johnston, Chairman Political Book of the Year Awards], that’s a very kind introduction.

Address to the National Press Club, Canberra

Political Book of the Year Awards

The Ngunnawal and Ngambri people were telling stories and living under law on this country in time immemorial, and I want to pay my respects to their elders past and present, thank them for caring for this beautiful place we are all so lucky to walk on and work on – and extend my respects to any Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people here tonight.

And thanks Duncan [Johnston, Chairman Political Book of the Year Awards], that’s a very kind introduction.

When I was thinking about what I’d say tonight, Michael Cooney told me a story about talking to George Megalogenis after Turnbull launched Australia’s Second Chance back in 2015.

He said to Mega, “gee mate the PM had a fair run around the park there.” And George replied, “oh you know what politicians are like, they always try too hard at book events…”

Well, that’s right, they do, and yes, I will try not to!

To the National Press Club, the committee, to Maurice, thank you again. Usually I thank you on a live telecast, which does limit how much fun I can have, but I won’t abuse the privilege of a closed room tonight, it’s good to be with you again.

To our sponsors.

Collins Booksellers and Hill of Content – thank you.

And York Park – Sean and Geoff.

Sean, I reckon there’s twice in a lifetime you really get a winning lotto ticket, when you marry the right person, and when you get to work with Geoff Walsh, and not many people are as lucky as you and me mate.

Geoff. Geoff was one of the people who really gave me a start. He gives me a lot of advice, has done for a very long time. He’s usually right and I usually appreciate it. But what I always notice about your advice is I never hear it on television or read it in the paper later. I never forget that Geoff. And to have Shayne here tonight makes it more special.

To our judges, John, Laura, Laurie, what a panel! Hard to imagine a better one. If this prize keeps you engaged, it’ll keep Australia engaged.

John, even if you hadn’t dragged me over the line in my PhD, I’d still say honestly the nicest bloke you’d ever meet.

Laurie, your column in the Bulletin was one of the first pieces of political reading I ever read, and I was still reading it right to the end. Tremendous to have you out tonight, here in your element. What an honour.

Laura. To those who wonder out loud whether there’d been any improvements in the Australian media landscape in our lifetime can take comfort from the fact that Laura does more television now.

I’m going to read her piece on Europe in Australian Foreign Affairs, on the way to Indonesia this weekend for the G20 – can’t wait.

And of course we have four wonderful shortlisted authors tonight – more about them shortly.

But readers all. Welcome.

Early last century Tom Roberts came to paint a portrait of WG Spence, the founder of my union the AWU, and Roberts later recalled:

It is a head with more height above the eyes than the average: a labour man and therefore a reader.

Amazing. Vance Palmer’s little book National Portraits preserved that story for us. Palmer reflected:

A labour man and therefore a reader! It was a trait that marked Spence out from the other prominent people Roberts was painting at the time—not from Spence’s associates.

As a boy Spence had heard Peter Lalor speak at Battery Hill before Eureka. The union he founded always had libraries and a magazine.

He was still in Parliament in Melbourne in 1917, when young Jim Scullin heard him debate conscription.

Old Jim Scullin was still in Parliament in Canberra when young Kim Beazley Sr heard him speak in 1945 – they were legislating the PAYE tax system! – and sixty years later, I was so moved by my old boss Kim Jr's valedictory in 2007, while his Dad was still living.

He was a great Labor leader, Kim, and the two Kims were two great Labor readers – an example to us all.

Collective memory in action, Freudy called us.

So Roberts had a point about Labor readers.

And welcome too to the other political and professional traditions represented tonight – not only liberal and conservative – there might be a radical or two, don’t feel you have to self-identify! – but also professional and civil, and of course to the great mainstream of political writing, our friends in journalism, in your own club no less, thanks for being here, and for having us here.

What is it about political books that brings us together? That brought us readers out tonight?

For one thing, they’re part of all our lives. I think of my visits to Logan Library as a kid. In our house, bookshops were for Christmas, libraries were for weekends – and not being from a political family, the first political thoughts I ever had were prompted by political books.

Even now I can almost feel the fake leather chair cooled by the air-con, almost smell the dusty pages.

And I can see the covers too, End of Certainty, The Hawke Memoirs – and then the one that really reeled me in was Micky Gordon's Keating bio, I read it front to back and then again for a second time straight. And I wish he was here so I could say that to him, because I never told him that before he was taken from us.

Political books have a special role in all our origin stories.

And then there’s another special thing about political books. People say things for a book they'd never say for a weekend piece!

I think the former PM has probably reflected on that this winter.

He's not alone. If anyone finds a copy of Christine Jackman's book on the 2007 election, can you grab the chapter that quotes me, tear it out, cover it in bacon fat and feed it to some dogs?

It won't do their digestion more harm than it did me the first time I read it. God almighty. I'm feeling unwell just thinking about it now.

And then of course political books have writers, not just readers.

Troy, Sean, Allan and Dean. It’s great to see you three again who I know so well for so long, and Dean, lovely to meet you tonight.

Millions of words have been written about Bob. But, as he always manages to, Troy finds something else for us. Something more, and something new.

I’ll never understand Scott Morrison. But Sean, I think, goes further than anyone in trying – and in doing so, helps us understand ourselves a bit better too.

Allan’s treatise on our place in the world is characteristic of him – honest, unflinching, but ultimately optimistic.

And Dean. Going back to Tennant Creek, powerfully reviving Stanner’s ‘great Australian silence’ and reminding us of how it still echoes today. And profoundly showing us that our full Australian story is, if not untold, then not yet well told.

Tonight really is about the writers – and just as much as readers crave the rewards of the long form, I do believe the writers also crave the long form’s challenges.

Because the test at sixty or seventy or a hundred thousand words is very, very different from our daily written work.

A good book is never just a collection of speeches or an extra-long feature piece - it's a true study of an issue or idea, full of complications and confirmation, and with the pleasure of illustration, story-telling, portraiture.

In these four remarkable books you’ve shown us that.

Narratives that don’t just help us recognise patterns but also help us question our assumptions about the patterns we think we see.

Accounts that don’t just teach us lessons of history but remind us that throughout history, leaders are constantly misled by crude “lessons of history”.

Character portraits that show us people we thought we knew well from close observation but appear to us quite new.

And stories about aspects of our national life that our direct experience hasn’t shown us, but where the impact of our decisions is so often so deeply felt.

That’s what we’re hungry for in political writing: reflection on action. Writing that connects to our work, but then deepens our work – and stretches us. Political writers crave that – political readers crave that.

I know that’s a pretty high bar. I’m not sure I hurdled over it when I submitted the manuscript of Glory Daze to MUP back in 2013!

You know, Kath Murphy told someone I know that she read Glory Daze again this year and it was, quote, “better than she remembered”! I know she was trying to be nice!

At the time I wanted that book to be an account of what happened from 2007 to 2013, but I think inevitably it’s more how I thought and felt in 2013. And I found writing it all down is almost as valuable as the experience of the events themselves.

The authors here, not just you four shortlisted nominees, but the judges and a number of us, you will recognise that feeling I am sure.

When we write about events and ideas at book length we process them in quite new ways.

I guess to throw back to a favourite piece of poetry of mine: if we’re a part of all we meet in the years we write about, I think it’s writing it that actually gives all that experience form, that makes experience an arch that we can still look through, even years after we lived it.

And be clear – not an arch we look back through – Tennyson thought experience was an arch through which we look forward, to the untravelled world gleaming just beyond – for us, looking to the Australia of the 2030s, the nation we're building now.

What a time. It’s a privilege to share it.

In the end I believe political books matter because politics matters … that’s why this prize matters.

And that’s why I’m so thrilled to be asked to announce our winner tonight.

So friends.

Please put your hands together for the winner of the Political Book of the Year 2022:

Dean Ashenden – Telling Tennant’s Story: the strange career of the great Australian silence.