On Tuesday night in Canberra I went along to the book signing of Paul Howes’s book “Confessions of a Faceless Man: Inside Campaign 2010”. At the launch he made some good points about the ALP – that they need to examine doing away with the binding caucus vote; that a price on carbon will raise the prices of electricity – that’s the bloody point; and that it’s time the ALP got with the 21st century on the issue of gay marriage. He also made some typical ALP-LNP-Media points about the Greens – namely in the next few years they’ll be a lot of fun to watch as they argue over whether or not they compromise on issues. I had a quick chat to him after he spoke and he came across as he generally does on TV – smart, personable and knowledgeable of the working of politics.
I look forward to Howes writing a book that reveals these qualities, because Confessions of a Faceless Man doesn’t do it.
On Wednesday I had to fly to Sydney for work and I was able to read the book in the two hours flying up and back. It is an easy read, but that is not only because he writes easy to read prose, but because he writes prose that doesn’t require too much thought. This is as much the format’s fault as it is Howes’s. It is written as a diary and too often such a format especially when written with the knowledge that it will be published (as is the case here) leads to entries that have little in common with a real diary – no introspection, no secrets, no (to quote the blurb on the back) “unvarnished” accounts.
Howes makes no secret of the fact he is not a writer – and certainly he was not employed with this task because of his writing ability but because of who he is – he was contacted by Melbourne University Press after his appearance on Lateline on the night of the spill that took down Rudd. Nothing wrong with that – which is why I can forgive him on Day 4 describing AWU media officer Andrew Casey as a “dishevelled genius”, and then on Day 10 write, “Bob Ellis, the dishevelled genius who…” Two dishevelled geniuses in the ALP? What are the odds?
But that is being churlish. It’s not why you read inside accounts. You read inside accounts to find out what happened inside. But on this score Howes’s book is a failure: instead it’s a political version of a cricketer’s diary of an Ashes tour, though neither as earnest as Steve Waugh, nor as funny as Warwick Todd.
It is instead pretty innocuous, and worst of all, lacking insight. One journalist tweeted it was “compulsory reading for anyone interested in election 2010”, which leads me to wonder if he was paying attention during the campaign because I struggled to think of anything new that I discovered from Howes’s account. I certainly came out from reading it just as ignorant on a number of things as I was before hand.
For example, I still have no idea what was Howes’s role in the spill of Rudd or what was his role during the campaign.
The book begins on the night of the spill. Howes writes that he received a phone call from a senior member of the federal ministry telling him the challenge was on and asking could “I please make my mind the fuck up about whether we’d support it and let him know in half an hour”.
Howes then spend a good portion of the rest of the opening chapter explaining how he had next to bugger all influence over the result. Why then was it so important he (and the AWU) decide who they were going to support? The closest we get is that the plotters wanted an “outside voice” a “leader of the labour movement” to back their decision.
Howes does not explain why on earth the opinion of a labour leader, but not a member of parliament could influence an MP – and equally how his opinion made the move legitimate. He says he went on Lateline purely because “Gillard’s key supporters thought that the AWU’s backing might be the key to convincing a number of backbenchers to make the switch”. Why he could persuade them to make the switch is left unanswered. Left unanswered as well is why his going on Lateline would do this most effectively – surely a few phone calls would do the trick?
The book is full of such unanswered points – Howes describes the ALP a “a large family made up of different wings” but he gives no insight into how they work. The core reason for Howes’ lack of insight is because he is a party man. The only ALP person to get a bullocking in this book is Kevin Rudd; everyone else gets off scott free. Howes of course knows that publishing an account so soon after an election which reveals his complete “unvarnished” thoughts would be manna for the Liberal Party and the media, and there is no way in hell he is stupid enough to do that. Now there’s no problem with that, but let’s not pretend then that we’re getting anything other than a filtered version of the truth.
Take Howes’s verdict of his mate Karl Bitar. Here’s what he writes early on:
“Plenty of people have laid the blame at the feet of the campaign director Karl Bitar… This is a pretty lazy and weak analysis . The actual campaign machinery that Bitar and party officials were responsible for ran like clockwork”.
That’s a nice account which makes Bitar sound like an executive assistant rather than a director. No one ever criticised the organisation of the campaign; it was the direction.
Howes thinks (again like everyone else) that the Citizen Assembly idea is dopey – did Bitar play a role in the decision to announce this? Guess not.
Howes disagrees with “many in the federal campaign” who tell him the seat of Lindsay is in trouble. He writes “the race card plays well in Lindsay, so we’re told” Who is telling him this is it the media or the party executive? Is Bitar ever criticised for the obvious stance taken by the ALP in the campaign to appease the red neck vote in western Sydney? Nope – his role in it doesn’t even come up.
What about the “real Julia” strategy? This is laughingly put down by Howes to a “slip of the tongue” made by Gillard on Monday 2 August . It must have been a damn big slip of the tongue because it was on the front pages of the major newspapers on Monday before she even had an interview about it. What role did Bitar play in getting this story out? None? All? Part?
Howes’s applauds Bitar for the adverts put out on Day 20 “the first outlines Labor’s genuinely good record of economic management”. They were good adverts but most Labor supporters had been wondering where the bloody hell they had been for 20 days. Why did it take the campaign so long to focus on the economy? Howes doesn’t ask or let us know.
You see Howes doesn’t actually tell us what his role in the campaign was. As far as I can gather his role was to go on the Today Show and debate Michael Kroger; go on MTR and debate Michael Kroger; quickly whiz over to Sky News and appear on Contrarians with Peter van Onselen (no Michael Kroger); then for something different go on Lateline and debate Michael Kroger. To finish off the night he’d ring Bitar, find out the polls then have a few beers and go to bed before getting up to debate Michael Kroger.
At no point do we actually get told his role, nor even that of the AWU, in the whole campaign. He writes near the end that “plenty of critics are mocking me about my ‘media slut’ status as well”. Gee I wonder why. Howes doesn’t tell us why he needs to go on TV. Why is it him and not someone else? Why him and not a Minister? What is he doing for the ALP? He worries at the start that he might be hurting the ALP by going on, but Bitar tells him to go for it. But how was he helping? Was he unable to say no to the Today Show, to MTR, to Contrarians, to Lateline, to Australian Story because to do so would have hurt the ALP’s chance of winning?
All we needed is a “Bitar wants me to be the media front man of the campaign – because we need someone not running for office to argue the Government's case against the likes of Kroger and Bolt”. But nope, none of that – he’s just out there going on TV, on radio, having to go on Sky on election night because… well we don’t know why.
So much of this book tells us nothing about what really went on in the campaign – the real inside story. Take Day 7, the day of Gillard’s climate change speech. After spending a good four and a half pages writing about Mark Latham, he ends with
“After indulging in my own version of 1984’s Two Minutes’ Hate against Latham, I settle into a busy day of work, more media appearances and a few meetings related to the campaign.”
Does he care to tell us who was in those “meetings related to the campaign”, what they discussed, what happened as a result? No of course not, you would only include such things if you were writing an insiders account of the campaign.
You see while it is nice to read Howes let rip at Latham, it’s nothing new. Anyone who follows politics knows Latham is a rat. But what did the campaign do about it? Did Bitar or anyone come up with a strategy once they knew Latham would be on 6o Minutes? No idea.
And so it goes on and on. Howes complains about aspects of the campaign, but blames no one. He sees the polls and blames the leaks and Rudd. Now I agree the leaks played a big part but they only served to give the campaign a hip and shoulder – that it was knocked over was because it didn’t have a firm footing to begin with.
Take Day 7 and the climate change speech. Howes writes of the citizens’ assembly “This seems a bit wacky (or Ruddish)”. He is spot on! The problem with the citizens’ assembly was not that it wouldn’t work, or wouldn’t help (which it would not have) but that it smacked 100 precent of a Rudd idea. Linking Rudd with any issue was bad, but with climate change? Death. And yet when the polls come out the following Monday with the ALP slumping from 55 to 52, he writes: “Maybe the Rudd factor is now starting to have an affect”.
Surprisingly the person most missing from Howes’s tale is Julia Gillard. We really don’t see her other than as we all saw her – on TV. And when we see here in the flesh, we get little insight. Here’s Howes writing on Day 5:
“I see the Prime Minister in the evening. She says she feels that things are going well, but there is still along way to go”.
Geez I hope that isn’t all she said to him, otherwise she talks in person like she does when having a press conference. But we get no closer; no deeper.
Howes is at his best when he writes of Scott Morrison – the way he graduates Morrison’s title from Shadow Minister for Boat People, to Shadow Minister for Boat People and the Whipping Up of Racial Tension and on and on is wonderful. It provides the narrative with… well a narrative, rather than just another day, another interview, another debate with Kroger, another poll, another few beers with the boys. But even here we get no sense of what the ALP was trying to do to counter the asylum seeker issue.
Howes writes well about his wife and children – but again here the format does him no favours, for there is no time to build much of a sense of the loss he feels from being so often away from them (perhaps because we get no sense of why he must be away from them).
And so we are in end none the wiser, other than that Bob Ellis does think Julia Gillard is good (contrary to every bloody thing he wrote during the campaign about her on The Drum), and that Andrew Bolt and Janet Albrechtsen apparently write about policy.
Howes no doubt is not just some hanger-on in the ALP. He is an insider – deep inside. He also obviously has some strong views about the direction the party should head. When he came out back in 2009 against the Government's asylum seeker policy he deservedly got a lot of praise from many people who now criticise him. He has things to say and he often says them well. He also would have some views on what went wrong during the 2010 election.
One day, perhaps many years from now, when he doesn’t have to worry about ruining his own career, or being viewed as a rat, he’ll write about them. When he does, perhaps then we’ll get the true confessions. The complete unvarnished, brutally honest account.