Just a little bit of history repeating. But only a little bit.
In recent times I’ve found myself using the unfortunately effete clichÃ© ‘it leads to more questions than answers’. In my defence, this wanker’s parlance has been used mostly in respect to the Howard Years. The final instalment, and indeed the series as a whole, lead to just that.
For starters, why did the producers try to cram nigh on a dozen years of Howardtopia into four episodes?
The only comparable piece in the canon of modern Australian political coverage, the superb Labor in Power series orginally broadcast before the time of most politicos under the age of 30 (this includes the Prime Minister’s incoming Chief of Staff) but still occasionally re-run on the History Channel in bored MP’s offices, essentially covered an eight year period of government over five episodes. The end of the introduction to the first instalment of that most addictive of series, entitled ‘taking power’, has the former ABC Melbourne weekend newsreader and Stateline host Kathy Boland- crucially far less annoying than Fran Kelly, the main reason why I’ve gone off ABC radio- reading the following line about Hawke’s involuntary redundancy:
‘No longer was Bob Hawke seen as the messiah, as he had been when the people swept him to power adoringly nine years before.’ Enter stage left, Shirley Bassey.
So there’s a parallel between the two series already. Not disputing that. Both are about Prime Ministers. They can’t rulâ€¦.govern through consensus, as long as their party will have them/forever.
But there are far more dissimilarities. With regards to both series as television pieces, Labor in Power was the quintessential ‘barbecue stopper’ in political circles. Everyone was at it- talking about it, that is. And not simply because of the recriminations between serving cabinet colleagues and obviously, between RJLH and PJK.
Labor in Power was a truly excellent series beloved by Labor and Liberal alike. It didn’t pull any punches. It was rarely boring, and without an air of restraint. Contrast this with the Howard Years, far less focused on Government as a whole, and feeling less broad-based, perhaps a little selective and sanitised.
While it was seen as compulsory viewing in Canberra and in Electorate Office land (I’d like to give a special mention to MPs on both sides who have moved their EOs to above-ground levels of office buildings or to the fringes of their electorate, far away from train stations and other services, since the last election), in non-sitting weeks it was certainly less watched in Government circles than you’d expect of a series with Tory-on-Tory violence, with some MPs instead choosing to inflict it upon their staff, with a cursory Tuesday morning inquiry of ‘how was it?’.
It only felt compulsory in the way that watching a train wreck or a car crash is; something about the series felt contrived or wrong or out of place, but you couldn’t avert your eyes, because it was variously a primary source of prolonged success to Liberals, or a catalogue of bastardry followed by dragon slaying, Stanley Melbourne Bruce style. To the Labor mate that is trying to perpetuate that phrase, I’m sorry, but that saying is about as lame as Big Trouble in Little China.
The final episode capped off my disappointment in the series. Labor right mates were annoyed at how much of a free run the series gave Howard et al a free run when it came to stating their on views, with one rather appropriately quipping that the interviews seemed about as hard-hitting as getting flogged with warm lettuce. Liberal mates were variously annoyed at the oft-tangential focus – such as the highly regarded Mal Brough’s emotional outburst on Monday night’s show – distracting from a decade of generally crushing victories over Labor. I’m going to try to be fair to both sides here. Needless to say, friends don’t let friends have Labor Left or Liberal Wet friends. There’s got to be a facebook group in that.
For those on the ALP side, it’s called the Howard years for a reason. It’s not going to be impartial. It is for the most part Howard telling his story. Not unlike Rudd, Howard was both the Captain and Chairman of Selectors, a metaphor that would no doubt please the rather well superannuated gent, one of the few not on Senator Ronnoceros’s populist hit-list. Speaking of Ronno, mate, democracy costs money. Just because we see you in economy so often doesn’t mean you don’t cost taxpayers buckets of money. You’ll earn your right to the moral high ground when you make the choice that your boarding pass will no longer be emblazoned with the magical ‘ VIP, CL- One World Emerald’. That goes for you too, Saint Daryl of Melham.
Okay, now that that’s out of the way, back to Howard. He was the undisputed, numero uno as former Costello flak Nikki Savva observed. The previous Labor Government, by contrast, had long been a two-man band, with escalating creative differences.
A wider variety of views were canvassed, and these views usually mattered, rather than simply producing views that supported one player or the other. For Costello, ordinarily Nikki Savva and Tony Smith, save for the former’s observation that Costello lacks a killer instinct. For Howard, a cast of thousands represented his view headlined by his long-time COS, Arthur Sinodinis.
Key players in the Hawke-Keating Government were more often interviewed for their roles and the nature of the issues they faced, rather than their relationships with the leader, which was, bar a couple of exceptions, very much the focus of the Howard Years. The final episode of the Howard Years saw the rare appearances and mentions of long-term key Liberal players in the Howard era such as Her Excellency Amanda Vanstone and Tony Abbott.
Absent from the APEC cabinet round-up was not just the truth – Howard was astonishingly selfish when he called Cabinet’s bluff about his departure much to the audible chagrin of many Lib backbenchers and scared shitless staffers at the time – but also any mention of The Hon. Malcolm Turnbull and his disgracefully self-serving role in that disclosure and other affairs designed for the short-term goal of saving his own bacon in Wentworth.
Luckily for him, the Wentworth campaign of ALP candidate George Newhouse was exceptionally inept, with more incidents than an unmedicated epileptic in a fine china shop. Without wanting to distract from the ineptitude of such a campaign for even a second, the key point here rather than retelling Sydneysider stories by proxy is that Turnbull’s astonishing and repeated perfidy was barely canvassed. When you put this and the Kyoto ratification leak together with his undermining of Nelson, you see the emergence of a practitioner of white-anting second only to the Great Rudd, scourge of Laurie Brereton.
To cut a long story slightly shorter: this was an episode, like the series as a whole, that was cramped, lacking a complete picture, and without the views of many key players.
Whether this was by design- with restrictions placed on what the producers could ask/what the current and ex-pollies would answer- or by the broad refusal of many key players to participate, the effect was the same, a series much the poorer for a lack of balance and thoroughness.
It felt as though there was scant speaking truth to power though Labor in Power saw power speaking truth to itself, eating your own young being a traditional Labor hors d’Å“uvre, the equivalent of the foie gras to Melbourne Liberals, or the height of culinary achievement, steak in the Argentinian style, to gauche Sydney Libs.
The final episode, trying to cram several years of leadership dithering, intrigue, and election losing into fifty five minutes, was a master class
in trying to square a chronological circle. The time from the election of Rudd and Gillard as the new ALP leadership team to the defeat of the Libs – with a perhaps surprising failure to examine Costello’s spineless refusal to take the Liberal leadership when it was finally given to him- was itself so eventful that even a full episode probably wouldn’t have done it justice. Like the whole series, it was interesting, and hard to avert your eyes form, but it felt like it wasn’t done yet, time to stick it back in the oven.