Bob Carr is fond of boasting that his Diary of A Foreign Minister provides a candid insight into the inner workings of modern governments, but he would say that. Like most memoirs, Carr’s diaries are a transparent attempt to revise the received wisdom about his time in politics and make some small improvements while doing so. Relative to other memoir authors, Carr is fairly successful in this endeavour largely thanks to the humorous tone in which he writes. The self parody that runs through the book shields Carr from any real criticism and endears him to his audience. It achieves its purpose and then some.
Peter Costello’s memoirs were also quite goods in this sense. They eschewed the hyperbole of Latham or Carr which no doubt their sales but also inspired ridicule. Instead Costello fashioned himself as a sagely figure, dispensing useful lessons for the next generation of Liberals. Costello cleverly ensured memoirs were flattering to Costello’s liberal rivals John Howard and Tony Abbott (though not without caveats) but were highly critical of Wayne Swan and Kevin Rudd which kept the party faithful onside. He also released them at a time when there was some ambiguity about his own political future which would have driven book sales up significantly. He massaged a few truths but he kept it believable, all things considered those who read it were probably left with a slightly better impression of Costello than that which they’d had before they read it.
Maxine Mckew’s were less prudent. She was critical of her colleagues to the point where it became undignified. Had she left parliament on her own terms perhaps she would have had enough stature to get away with it but having lost her seat at the 2010 election she appeared petulant and unwilling to accept responsibility for that which she was at least partially responsible.
Lindsay Tanner had a well deserved reputation as a politician of substance. He was much more inclined to discuss policy in detail than pivot to focus group tested clichés like ‘cut to the bone.’ In retirement he continued to defy the trend by writing a meaty analysis of the how the political class were dumbing down Australian political discourse. The book attracted a bit of attention but Tanner’s refusal to resort to gossip failed to attract the attention of the more sensationalist memoirs. It also found little love among the political intelligentsia which is a logical sequence to follow the publication of a book which questioned the intellectual rigour of those who could constitute the books target audience.
Tanner returned a year later with a more sensationalist work in which he criticized Julia Gillard, defended Kevin Rudd and divulged some confidences. Alas by this time interest in Lindsay Tanner had declined and the book only really served to lessen his stature and gravitas, although Rudd and his supporters were probably grateful for Tanner’s intervention.
John Howard’s memoirs Lazarus rising were too long and misjudged his readership. His candid admission that he declined to retire in 2007 because he thought it would look like cowardice was almost universally scorned. Howard probably thought it would consolidate his reputation for strength and fortitude but instead it was interpreted as an act of selfishness by a man more concerned with his personal legacy than the future of his party. Its sales performance was humble and few people would have read it twice.
Malcolm Fraser won himself a new fan base by criticizing his own party, it alienated his former supporters but perhaps they were going to dessert him anyway. His attempts at revisionism inspired scepticism and disbelief however. The Latham diaries also attacked his own party but were just as scathing towards the Liberals. Many people read them but few people thought better of the man after reading them.
Paul Keating has hitherto refused to write a memoir-there’s something to be said for his decision. His choice carries a certain dignity about it, he could earnestly claim to risen above the foibles of his contemporaries. To be sure, Keating plays the revisionism game with the best of them but he does it with an interviewer, that is he opens himself up to challenge and dissent. A memoir is a unilateral discourse, an interview-even a soft interview is a contest of ideas. Kevin Rudd of course hasn’t written a memoir either, but time is on Rudd’s side. Keating it seems has truly eschewed the path altogether and it is to his credit that he has done so.