The Best Australian Political Writing 2008: Tony Jones (Ed)

2007 was a passionate and partisan year in Australian politics and not just because of the federal election. A number of other controversial issues – the climate change debate, Aboriginal policy, the cases of David Hicks, Mamdouh Habib and Mohamed Haneef, and the culture wars, to name only the most newsworthy – also reached critical mass.

Thus, the choice of Tony Jones to compile a selection of the best journalism from the time was what Sir Humphrey Appleby might have called a courageous one. Jones, as presenter of the ABC’s Lateline, was hardly a disinterested observer; as an aggressive and opinionated interviewer, he could almost be viewed as a participant.

It is therefore not surprising that his selection includes very few of the right wing warriors who largely dominated the newspaper commentariat. Tom Switzer and Paul Sheahan get guernseys, but Piers Akerman, Andrew Bolt, Michael Duffy, Greg Sheridan, Paddy McGuinness, Janet Albrechtsen, Dennis Shanahan, Gerard Henderson, Christopher Pearson and the rest of the Howard-huggers miss the cut. Jones could argue that they produced nothing worth saving, and by and large I would agree with him; but their omissions mean that the inclusions from what might be called Jones’s own side of politics need to be of a pretty high standard.

The pieces by Phillip Adams and Matt Price are both FAQ, but not outstanding; perhaps Jones felt he had to include them for their names alone. David Marr’s two entries are both very good, but giving him a double chance is perhaps indulgent. Paul Kelly and Noel Pearson get the same favoured treatment; Kelly’s first piece, an apologia for Immigration Minister Kevin Andrews, is frankly bizarre, and Pearson’s second, ‘The Search for the Radical Centre’, more an essay than journalism.

That said, there is a lot of very good stuff and what will strike the general reader is how committed most of it is. Readers may say that they just want the facts, and complain about a lack of what they see as objectivity and balance. But in Australia, as elsewhere, the best journalism has long since crossed the line between reporting and commentary, and generally speaking is the better for it.

The other point of interest is that although all the pieces in the collection appeared in newspapers or magazines, almost half the authors are not full-time journalists. Some, like Robert Manne, Marcia Langton and David Burchell, are academics; others, like Louis Nowra, Tom Keneally and Richard Flanagan, are writers in other fields. Then there are the political insiders like Clive Hamilton and Paul Keating. It is slightly disconcerting to find the business invaded by so many outsiders but it cannot be denied that they can do a pretty good job, and their presence can only enhance the status of the ordinary hacks.

For this we can thank Jones, and he owes us one: his own bullying election night interview with failed Labor candidate Nicole Cornes undoubtedly provided one of the year’s low points. This MUP collection helps make up for it.

Mungo MacCallum’s latest book is Poll Dancing: The Story of the 2007 Election.