Michael, thank you – for the invitation to be here tonight, for this thoughtful yet funny book and for being one of the great contemporary characters of Australian Labor politics.
I am not thanking you though for publicly outing me as the kind of person, who gives her staff animal names. Many of you would have read this about me in the extract of Michael’s book that was published in Fairfax newspapers.
To those inclined to judge me harshly on this point, I want to assure you it all started innocently enough when a young staff member in my electorate earned herself the nickname Monkey by climbing on the roof of my office with remarkable agility in order to remove rubbish thrown up there by a drunken Saturday night crowd.
Monkey took it upon herself to become the keeper of office animal names and whenever a new staff member joined us she would ponder deeply before awarding them their new name. In this task, she did show a freaky ability to get it right and as a result some of the nick names – emu, ant eater, snow leopard, turtle, panda, komodo – tended to stick.
Michael, was part of this menagerie but, you will be unsurprised to learn, defied easy characterisation. To make him appear, a shout of simply ‘Cooney’ would do.
So my reason for being here tonight isn’t to out Cooney’s animal nickname.
Rather Michael, I am here for one reason and one reason alone. I am here because – we are us.
Now that could be a reference to one of the worst received lines in modern politics, written by Michael and delivered by me at the 2011 National Conference of the Australian Labor Party. If your interested in that line in that speech then Michael helpfully takes a full eleven pages of the book to explain it.
But I actually mean that I am here because ‘we are us’, because of the friendship between us, the memories we share and our common aspirations for the our beloved nation’s future.
Michael’s book is about all of these things written from Michael’s unique perspective and in his unique style.
I recently had dinner with a great friend and former staff member of mine – animal name Madagascan Aye Aye – who knew I had read an advance copy of The Gillard Project and asked me to describe it.
I said it was completely Cooney, a recording of the facts of events, laid next to emotionally charged passages and littered with literary allusions.
The Aye Aye smiled and said, ‘it’s sounds just like the speeches he used to draft, except we used to take all the literary allusions out.’
And so it is. Michael unplugged, giving us the best of his heart and brain, while always displaying his love of the written word.
Who else but Michael would manage to weave John Milton, John Donne and Gunter Grass into a book about a Labor Government?
And who better than Michael to give the nation a real insight to the much denigrated and completely misunderstood but actually noble profession of being a political staffer?
In a book in which the narrative is driven but not dominated by the chronological order of events, Michael has inserted three reflective interludes.
The first is devoted to the the harried life and camaraderie of political staff, to reflections on their role.
‘I’m so proud of the men and women I have known and worked with on labor staff during the past two decades – and none more so than the staff of the Gillard government the staff of the Gillard Prime Minister’s Office. I want you to know about them. Various and bright and humble and Labor – and tired, always so tired, and badly used and brave; they deserve better than they get in the papers.’
I endorse that sentiment absolutely. Yet, even so, I am conscious of an irony inherent in me launching this book. Actually, the very fact that one of my former staff has written such a work chafes against my very traditional view of role of political staff. In my perfect they would be the unseen brains and muscle who support a political leader to be the best they can be. Their very anonymity would protect them from media scrutiny, from the barbs and the quips. Rather the elected person would be the only one publicly exposed and judgement.
Yet, contemporary political history, shows we have long moved past my perfect world. From the moment Don Watson put pen to paper to write Recollections of A Bleeding Heart our world was going to be different. I certainly concede that our understanding of our political history is richer because of contributions like his and and the way staff members have informed the many books and television series that have told us the history of the Hawke, Keating, Howard, Rudd Governments and the government I led.
Yet, I yearn for that perfect world sufficiently to view with concern any slipping into a more Americanised system of staff becoming political personalities while a government is in office This should be resisted at all costs and that will be very hard to do. The rapidity and relentlessness of today’s minute by minute media cycle means that every source of potential content will be mined. The contemporary culture of less and less remaining truly private also tends to drive more information and criticism of staff members in to the public domain.
But resist it we should and curiously Michael’s book may well help this process of not yielding because his book explains the traditional role of a political staffer at its best. The highs and lows, moments of glory and times of frustration, which come from being in a position of service and invisibility.
So if you want to understand political staffing and government read this book.
But this book is not some dry manual, not a how-to.
If you want to know what it is like to feel that the very beating of your own heart is hostage to political fortune then read this book.
It will give you an insight in to one man’s passion and belief and through him a sense of the emotional meaning of what it is to be Labor.
Michael second interlude is devoted to the Labor Party and broader labour movement.
In it, he quotes historian Bede Nairn, as follows:
‘Labor people weighed the confused promise of an alien earthly paradise against its high price, including the constriction of the human spirit, and decided to continue their efforts for the betterment in the society to which they belonged’.
A reference to Bede Nairn, celebrated labour historian and editor of the Australian Dictionary of Biography always draws approval from me.
I have long loved the story, apocryphal though it may be, that his parents wanted to christen him ‘Lloyd George’ after the only Welsh person to serve as Prime Minister of the United Kingdom. Lloyd George and his reforms were clearly not to the priest’s tastes and he reportedly refused to do it.
In Michael’s words Bede’s quote captures ‘the practical, populist, democratic sentiment of the founding generation of Labor in Australia’.
This is an important observation about our movement and political party. We are at our best when we are not slaves to doctrine but true to values; when we are in search of the best of ideas and in service to the aspirations of the vast mass of the Australian community who rightly look to government for support and as skilful navigators of the future.
The third and final interlude in the book is devoted to analysing me. Michael speaks of my sense of personal reserve. Without commenting on the accuracy or not of Michael’s analysis of my character, my feeling is the less said about this subject the better.
So instead of concluding with a treatise on myself, I offer you an extract from Michael’s beautifully written introduction to his book. He perceptively writes:
‘If Labor had not already been ‘collective memory in action’ before the great Labor historian and speechwriter Graham Freudenberg coined the phrase, the power of those words would certainly have made us so since. In the same way, Labor people only universally became ‘true believers’ after the playwright and Labor speechwriter Bob Ellis brought the phrase from the mass to a mass audience, with the 1980s ABC miniseries of the same name, and in turn to Paul Keating’s election night speech of 1993. These are the phrases that have done much to identify and define Labor’s role as a ‘grand old party’ in Australian politics. We are more than that though; we are a ‘party of initiative’. And we operate in a system made up mostly of ‘parties of resistance’. Things begin in Labor, they begin with and through Labor, in a system with so many incentives to stop things happening; we’re not just a cause, we cause things. And that’s hard. That’s why, more than the other parties, Labor needs its golden legends and it needs its soldiers’ songs; our night chants, ‘impatient for the coming fight/and as we wait the morning’s light; because the struggle of a party of initiative is a different and difficult thing’.
Michael, through your work in government and in this book, you too have given us words to express our essence, to guide us in the fight and console us when its hard.
So it is with great pleasure and pride, I launch The Gillard Project by Michael Cooney.