Saturday, 2 May 2009

To the Bitter End: Book Review

To The Bitter End, the latest book from the Sydney Morning Herald's Political Editor, Peter Hartcher chronicles the last term of the Howard Government charting both its downfall, and the ascension of Kevin Rudd. Hartcher’s employer covered the book launch on Friday and gave a pretty short and accurate description of the main thrust of the book.

Hartcher's book, To The Bitter End, cites climate change as a key reason for the Coalition's defeat.

Hartcher cites Mr Howard's loyalty to the then US president George Bush as the reason Australia stood alone with the United States and refused to ratify the Kyoto accord.

However, Mr Costello said the Coalition negotiated a "very good outcome" in the 1997 Kyoto Protocol and "I thought the logical thing was to ratify it".

He was surprised that Mr Howard refused to do so.

In the book, Mr Beazley contends that he, too, would have led Labor to victory in 2007, albeit by fewer seats. Mr Costello said this was a fair assessment and he implied the defeat was Mr Howard's fault for not stepping down.

In short there’s nothing terribly new to offer here. Much like Christine Jackman’s vastly overrated work Inside Kevin 07 published late last year, Hartcher unfortunately covers the same well worn territory, Rudd as the prodigal son in a triumph of strategy over experience, whilst pointing out that Howard had been in the game too long and was badly out of touch with the electorate. Any astute political observer would know this before reading the book.

The only fresh revelations remain unproven. Hartcher contends that Howard wanted to step down throughout the APEC conference in Sydney during the first week of September 2007, by engineering a situation where his Cabinet colleagues would force him to resign through a vote of no confidence, rather than stepping down through his own volition. Trouble is that this hypothesis remains unproven despite interviews with all the major players. They confirm that events already on the public record transpired, but beyond that the reader is largely left to surmise whether Hartcher’s theory is proven correct, rather than relying upon irrefutable evidence.

More attention needed to be paid to the behind the scenes machinations of both parliamentary parties. Although brief attention was paid to how the Rudd-Gillard alliance was formed, far more depth was required, beyond the standard boiler plate fare of political journalists. How in fact did two diametrically opposing political philosophies fashion a united political message? And what of Peter Costello? Whilst Hartcher was at pains to point out that he did not have the numbers to thwart Howard in the party room, there are no explanations as to why. Was Costello held in contempt by his colleagues? Did he really lack the courage to challenge? Why wasn’t he canvassed properly when some Cabinet colleagues asked Howard to resign during 2006?

These unanswered questions sum up the book itself. Much like Costello’s leadership ambitions, this book is full of missed opportunities. Despite its interesting subject matter To the Bitter End avoids the hard questions, and instead offers the standard narrative arc of political pugilism, which you can find in every newspaper in the country, often at times written by better political journalists.

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