‘Our Side of the Story’: Tales of the Labor Government, 2007–13 

Joshua Black

Australian politicians have produced dozens of political memoirs over the past three decades. The absolute peak of that literary flood occurred between 2014 and 2018 with the publication of memoirs from senior members of the Rudd–Gillard Labor Government.

Why do these books exist? Beyond personal score-settling, what are the forces that prompt the authors and their collaborators to wield the pen? I examined the production of eight books: Bob Carr’s Diary (2014); Greg Combet’s The Fights of My Life (2014); Wayne Swan’s The Good Fight (2014); Julia Gillard’s My Story (2014); Peter Garrett’s Big Blue Sky (2015); Craig Emerson’s The Boy From Baradine (2018); and Kevin Rudd’s two-volume political autobiography, Not For the Faint-hearted (2017) and The PM Years (2018). I studied these volumes in their political and media context and conducted research interviews with a number of the authors and publishers.

Collectively, these books were a reaction against the hostile and embittered environment in which the Australian Labor Party (ALP) governed during 2007–2013. The ministers seized the opportunities afforded by a publishing industry that welcomed their stories and illuminated the challenges that they faced in the political landscape of the early twenty-first century. Immediately following the Global Financial Crisis and the political controversies that came with it, the ALP was branded by its opponents as the purveyor of ‘a great big new tax on everything’ in the form of a price on carbon. The government’s difficulties with asylum seeker policy were criticised as ‘the greatest policy failure in a generation.’ The government’s own leadership ‘drama’ helped to alienate the public. Rupert Murdoch’s News Corporation papers baldly told voters to ‘KICK THIS MOB OUT’ at the 2013 election. Against that backdrop, a cohort of very young and well-educated ALP ministers found themselves out of office and ready to confront their negative reputations in print.

Defeat gave the politicians and the publishers the freedom to produce memoirs. Combet explained that ‘when you’re in politics, [autobiography is] generally taken as a declaration of intent that you want the top job’, hence the tendency to wait until defeat. Many publishers considered the political memoir ‘likely to pay its own way’. Conservative prime minister John Howard set a record-breaking precedent with his autobiography Lazarus Rising (2010). Having left office, former Cabinet ministers knew that media providers were keen to publish their stories. 

In the wake of 2013, a key motivation was to reframe the mainstream media’s coverage of Labor’s years in power. Rudd described Murdoch as ‘a far-right ideologue who has written and re-written Australian, British and American politics’. He accused both the Murdoch press and the ABC of turning the asylum seeker issue into ‘a mainstream political problem’ for the Coalition to exploit. Garrett described the Canberra Press Gallery journalists as ‘hacks’. Swan pointed to the Utegate Affair of 2009, in which the Coalition accused him and Rudd of corruption, as evidence of a concerted campaign against the government. ‘What I was seeking to do as part of a government whose motives and policies were continuously misrepresented in most of the popular press,’ he explained to me, ‘was to give my record and account of what happened and why.’ Gillard highlighted the masculine world of the media, pointing out that political news is ‘overwhelmingly brought to you by men’. For her, the political memoir was an opportunity to challenge the gender bias of the mainstream media. 

Following Labor’s defeat, a coterie of commentators and journalists consistently described the Howard years as ‘good years for Australia’, a ‘golden age’, and its leader a ‘by-word for stability’. Labor ministers recognised that a public onset of Howard nostalgia would further imperil their own public standing. In response, they used their memoirs to reframe the popular narratives about the Howard Government. Combet argued in his memoir that Australians should ‘never forget what the Howard Liberal Government did’ in the Waterfront Dispute 1998, and celebrated Labor’s Fair Work Act 2009 for saving Australia from Howard’s WorkChoices laws. Rudd challenged Howard’s integrity on foreign policy matters, especially the Iraq War 2003: ‘It’s high time he was challenged’. Combet explained that Labor ministers ‘want to prosecute our case, and put our side of the story. John Howard’s good at putting his, we want to put ours forward too’. 

In their efforts to change public opinion, Labor’s storytellers used their ‘insider’ status to perform as educators, teachers and informers. In My Story, Gillard set out to defend her government’s administrative record by explaining the details of the Cabinet process. The Abbott Opposition labelled hers as a ‘bad government’ of ‘broken promises’, and accused her of lying to the public about carbon pricing. Rebutting these accusations, Gillard sought to clear her name by explaining the economic differences between a cap-and-trade scheme and a carbon tax: ‘a carbon tax is not a market-based mechanism. The government, not the market, fixes the amount paid per tonne’. Further, she explained that her carbon price was the product of a Multi-Party Committee on Climate Change, and that Cabinet committees are ‘the preserve of governments’. The educative impulse in My Story was intended to deepen the public’s understanding of the Cabinet system, and to restore the author’s personal credibility on questions of carbon pricing.

Bob Carr used his foreign minister diaries to help explain how foreign policymaking works, but also hoped to secure a personal legacy. He explained: ‘I…thought there’s a legitimate interest in the idea that people should know how government works. You’ve got an educative role.’ This went hand in hand with leaving a legacy for people to read about: ‘I wanted to give an account of my initiatives […] so they wouldn’t be lost.’

Craig Emerson wanted to use his book to ‘pull back the curtains’ and show that ‘behind all these titles and positions and images are just ordinary people.’ He revealed a lot about his own challenging upbringing, ‘to say to young people, “look at that! This guy came from that background”… that was the whole point of the empowerment or the encouragement of kids from disadvantaged areas’. Emerson used these emotive revelations to craft an image of the archetypal Labor politician, ascending from ordinary or underprivileged circumstances to represent the interests of the disadvantaged.

The ministers also hoped to show that the leadership distractions of 2010–13 were not their fault. Many blamed Rudd for his own initial demise. Swan and Garrett both described his ‘micromanagement’; Gillard and Combet wrote about slow or avoided decision-making; almost all of them were critical of Rudd’s ‘shambolic’ Cabinet processes. Further, most of them blamed Rudd for destabilising the government after 2010. At a writer’s event in Melbourne, Garrett said that ‘for me, the real killer is [Rudd’s] stalking of Julia Gillard … he was prepared effectively to undermine the government which he’d once led’. 

Rudd, of course, rejected these narratives and advanced an alternate story. By his account, Gillard ‘worked actively and secretly with the faceless men during the first six months of 2010 to achieve her ambitions’. Gillard’s own prime ministership was a ‘roiling chaos’ for which he was unfairly held responsible. In all cases, Rudd, Gillard or the ‘faceless men’ were responsible for this aspect of the ALP’s collapse in government.

In writing up their stories, these politicians tried to protect existing friendships. Combet said of Gillard: ‘I would not want to be at odds with her over the recollection of a particular event’. Gillard told me that both Swan and Combet shared their manuscripts, and that she ‘was asked for [her] general views’. Swan confirmed that he had ‘some brief engagement’ with Combet, and ‘certainly would have discussed some of the stuff’ with Gillard. Though some authors were more open about their collaborative processes than others, it is overwhelmingly clear that these particular authors wrote their books in a manner that was intended not only to protect ALP interests, but also to protect personal friendship networks as well; networks from which Rudd was conspicuously absent.

The turbulent politics of the Rudd–Gillard years culminated in a literary explosion. These politicians felt unfairly maligned by the media and misrepresented by their political opponents. They worried that they would occupy an unhappy place in Australian political history unless they took action to write that history themselves. In doing so, these politicians performed a series of counter-framing manoeuvres, portraying the media as misleading, inadequate and biased, and emphasising the negative policy legacies of the preceding administration. Further, they used their status as political insiders in order to inform their readers about Cabinet government, and in doing so to redefine political issues such as the carbon tax, and indeed to reframe themselves as ordinary people called upon by the electorate to do extraordinary things. Of course, Labor’s leadership dramas also helped propel these books into existence, and the friendships between these authors helped to condition the stories they told.

Joshua Black is a doctoral candidate in the National Centre for Biography at the Australian National University. This piece is drawn from Joshua’s article in Labour History, No. 1, 2021.

Radical Currents, Labour Histories, No. 1 Autumn 2022, 15-17.