25 October 2023

Address to the National Press Club, Canberra


Political Book of the Year Awards

Thanks Duncan, thanks everyone who has come along tonight and thanks to the Press Club for hosting us once again.

On this Ngunnawal and Ngambri land I acknowledge elders, customs and traditions, and I acknowledge the pain many First Nations people are feeling in the aftermath of the referendum. I want to talk about that a bit more, shortly.

This is the second annual Political Book of the Year award we are presenting tonight and I’m really grateful to have been asked to do the honours once again.

We’ve got an Award now in its second year –

A Government in its second year –

Two Budgets under the belt –

A second very kind and entertaining introduction from Duncan –

A second welcome opportunity to say how much we appreciate him and Diana getting us together again –

Another chance to say how much we absolutely love the Hill of Content –

The best book shop in Australia outside of Queensland.

That shameless Queensland parochialism was to make sure Geoff was listening when I acknowledge him and Shayne –

As well as Sean and the York Park team and thank them for being the driving force behind this Award both times.

I’m here as a friend of theirs.

Here as Treasurer, representing the Albanese Government.

Here as a lover of books and reading.

And as an admirer of the amazing judges panel who has decided this award again this year.

Laura Tingle, who is so dedicated to helping Australians understand their economy and their politics, can’t be here because she is on air right now, she’ll join us a bit later – thanks Laura.

John Warhurst, one of Australia’s finest political scientists, a must-read columnist, my old PhD supervisor, absolute nicest guy in the world, here with Joan – thanks to you both.

Barrie Cassidy, who has seen the best and worst of Australian politics from both sides, and who made it so much more accessible to so many more people as a consequence.

This is precisely the fifth time I’ve hung out with Barrie –

The other four occasions were between 915 and 935 on a Sunday morning –

This is far more relaxed! Thanks Barrie and thanks Heather for joining us.

And in his absence I thank Laurie Oakes too.

There are more than a few history buffs in the room tonight who will recognise these words:

“At this second appearing … there is less occasion for an extended address than there was at the first.”

Now that was Abraham Lincoln swearing the presidential oath a second time, not presenting the book of the year –

But tonight, like then, there’s even less cause for a long speech on this second occasion than there was at the first.

Certainly not the 30 minutes of remarks followed by 40 of adversarial questioning we are accustomed to here at the Press Club.

When we gathered here almost a year ago for the first awards, we talked a bit about the role of political writing in our history, and in the labour movement –

We talked about Freudy’s beautiful description of “collective memory in action”.

That was November.

By February, we were launching Chris Wallace’s terrific book.

Re‑reading the speech from that night it looks like we spoke mostly about Kim Beazley, one of Australia’s most committed readers –

But we also reflected on the relationship between reader, writer, and subject.

Tonight is also a celebration of great writing.

But it feels a bit more sombre than the last couple of times a group of friends like this has gathered.

Part of that of course is the recognition that people are under pressure, in some cases very serious pressure, we saw that again in today’s inflation numbers and addressing this challenge is our highest priority.

But also, because, on top of this, we’ve had the Voice knocked-back –

There’s a new and escalating conflict in the Middle East, risking innocent lives and putting pressure on communities here at home –

And we just lost one of the finest Australians, a wonderful Queenslander, Bill Hayden.

A number of you were friends with Bill, some of you covered Bill, it’s probably fair to assume all of us admired Bill.

He was an ambitious reader, among all his other traits and legacies.

These three things –

Voice, Middle East, Bill Hayden –

These are all very different sadnesses.

Each of them in different parts terrible and troubling.

Stories of churn and change –

Division and disappointment.

Each of them a moment in a longer story.

65,000 years of continuous culture left out of a constitution not much more than a hundred years old.

A time of terror for the innocents of two peoples trying to find a way to live together in one place.

And then, this weekend just gone, we lost Bill.

A man whose legacy was much more than a political transition between Whitlam and Hawke, it was a policy transformation too –

Marrying up economic responsibility and economic reform and social progress, without which Medicare and help for single mums and so many of the other reform opportunities of the golden era that followed may have gone begging.

We've lost a lot. We really have.

And that’s just one month, of one year.

Before long we will be reading longer accounts of what we are living today.

Not just because we seek solace or consolation or even escape –

But because we seek perspective.

To make sense of the moments that shape our country and its people and our way of life, to see where things fit.

Even in the most troubling times, there is something about the context and contours of books which give us hope.

Good books tell the story of crises and challenges but they also speak to a belief they can be overcome.

Books aren’t just pinning the past to a page.

They’re more like Tennyson’s arch of experience – through which we look forward, not back.

Books aren’t just about what happened – but why.

And what happens next.

They challenge us to see the parallels in our own lives and our own times.

To learn, but also to draw inspiration.

From subjects, but also from the authors themselves.

From Nick McKenzie’s courage.

From Russell Marks’ conscience.

From James Curran’s clarity.

From Niki Savva’s ability to join up the key, often unnoticed, moments that changed the country’s course and character.

I don’t know how those descriptions of my campaign debate‑prep impersonations of Scott Morrison made the final draft –

But I do have Niki to thank for the people who come up to me in airports and ask me to “do my Morrison”!

Books are a reminder that even in a room with people as influential as this, we are temporary custodians of a much bigger and a much longer story –

That the need to know and understand this longer and bigger story will never be satisfied or sated by a pithy tweet or a google search or a YouTube clip –

It requires the deftness, the care, the detail of something longer and deeper to grasp the wonder and the scale of the story of which we are all a part.

Now, this is not just the second award, it’s also the second time a book about Indigenous Australia has been shortlisted.

And when Dean Ashenden’s Telling Tennant’s Story won last year, it prompted some conversation, perhaps even some controversy, about what is a political book and what isn’t.

Let’s not overcomplicate this: political writing is writing about power.

Consider the four absolutely brilliant books on tonight’s shortlist.

James Curran’s Australia's China Odyssey: From Euphoria to Fear is about the projection of power.

Russell Marks’ Black Lives, White Law is about the absence of power, about powerlessness.

Nick McKenzie’s Crossing the Line is about the protection and preservation of power.

Niki Savva’s Bulldozed is about the winning and losing and perhaps the wasting of power.

Political writing of this calibre speaks to us because it is about the way we interact with and understand one another and how we get things done.

The best speech delivered off the cuff in this room was about power and purpose.

When Paul Keating stood up here at the end of 1990, surrounded by journalists, he was mourning the loss of Chris Higgins, and he spoke of our generational responsibilities to lead.

Marrying‑up power and purpose, in the service of something important.

John and Geoff here know the story of the first time I met Paul, when interviewing him for my thesis –

He gave me some free advice that went something like “why don’t you stop thinking about power and start exercising it?”

But the two of course are related, and closely so.

It’s why last year’s shortlisted author Troy Bramston quotes Truman in his books column each summer that –

‘Not all readers are leaders, but all leaders are readers’.

The past year has been full of outstanding books, which have offered up so much.

Four to choose from tonight, pulled from a longer list of amazing work.

I don’t know how the judges separated them –

But I do know how great the winner’s book was.

That’s why I’m pleased to announce this year’s Political Book of the Year is –

Bulldozed, by Niki Savva.