Down Memory Lane

On Charlatans
By Chris Bowen
Hachette, $17, 130 pages, ISBN 9780733645235

The ‘On … ’ series of books, of which On Charlatans is a part, is meant to be the opportunity to show the author as a serious thinker, a chance to put forward original ideas and survey the political environment. The publisher, Hachette, should receive credit for its willingness to do this but with Chris Bowen they struck a dud. This might be a bit surprising, because Bowen, who entered Parliament in 2004 and has held a number of interesting portfolios and positions, is often touted as a possible future ALP leader. Well, when you look at Labor’s recent leadership efforts maybe it should not be surprising.

There is a very dated feel to the whole undertaking. Bowen comes from an old Labor family – his father was a mechanic who liked a drink – and Chris does not seem to have ever really left home. Or, perhaps more correctly, his views seem to have crystalised around 1980 and have not changed since then. He still thinks of Labor as the party of the battlers and the Liberals as the party of the toffs. At least, that is how it should be, in Bowen-world. He acknowledges that Labor is in structural trouble, and he notes that the 2019 election saw a significant chunk of its traditional base defect to the Liberals. He points out that Labor-ish parties are in trouble all around the world: in the UK, in Canada, in Israel, in Greece, and so on. It was lucky that Donald Trump rescued the Democrats in the US, eh?

The reason he offers for this is an old one: Labor’s enemies cheat. Specifically, the leaders of conservative parties around the world are charlatans, selling a poisonous, volatile concoction of populism, division and fakery. This is a very flexible definition, and it expands as the book goes on, to include everyone that Bowen doesn’t like. It’s a long list, with Scott Morrison at the top. Bowen is unwilling to give ScoMo an inch, and he almost runs out of nasty things to say about him. Almost. Bowen nearly splutters in indignation at the idea that Morrison might have anything useful to offer mainstream Australia. Authenticity? Empathy? But … but that’s our thing!

It is when Bowen starts to discuss social divisiveness that the book gets a bit silly. Reverting to an earlier era, he projects Labor as the party of Bringing Australia Together and the Liberals as the Great Dividing Range. Really? Even the Hawke model of corporatism had plenty of room for venom and spite. But surely the prize for divisive leaders must go to Paul Keating, who made no bones about it. Rudd and Gillard also had nice little earners in us-against-them hyperbole, and Bowen was at the Cabinet table at the time. (Rudd is still trying to whip up populist fervour with his anti-Murdoch crusade, although Gillard had the grace to depart the stage when the curtain came down.)

Certainly, our-side/other-side rhetoric is one of the tools of any politician, and there is always enough to go around. But that is the point: Bowen’s picture of Australian politics simply does not match the reality. It never did.

If the book sounds foolish here then it gets positively weird when Bowen looks at US politics. His disdain of Trump is a given, and he blames right-wing commentators on cable television and social media for spreading hatred with overwrought language. Amazingly, Bowen says there is no equivalent infrastructure on the left. This is astonishing. Has he never heard of Rachel Maddow? Don Lemon? Joe Scarborough? MSNBC? CNN, surely? Apparently not. It makes one wonder whether Bowen actually knows anything about the modern world. It’s back to 1980, again. And again.

When it comes to rescuing Labor from its doldrums, there is not much on offer from Bowen. A vague reference to genuine nationalism and a commitment to “excellence in democracy”, whatever that is. Oh, and the old chestnut of the republic. Perhaps Bowen was not in the country when there was a referendum on the issue (fyi, Chris, it failed dismally). This is the smart, fair-minded guy, is it? What, then, might the others be like? It looks like Labor might be in more trouble than even Bowen might be ready to admit. Memory Lane turns out to be a dead end.

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