The Australian way of life peaks in December. Test Cricket returns to our stadiums and TV screens. Christmas parties fill up our beaches and bowls clubs. And Summer Reading lists are published for every conceivable demographic subset of the Australian population.
So what should Australian progressives be picking up from the bookshop before their Summer holiday? Here are a few recommendations for enjoyable reads to accompany the Boxing Day Test.
“Fire and Ashes: Success and Failure in Politics”, Michael Ignatieff
The book that every political aficionado will be reading over Christmas. Michael Ignatieff tells the story of his admirable, if strikingly naïve, endeavour to transform himself from a US based, Ivy League professor of political science into a Canadian political leader. Elegantly written and passionate about the democratic process, Fire and Ashes is startling both for its honesty and its idealistic innocence.
Fire and Ashes is honest in the way that only the tale of a genuinely failed endeavour can be: Ignatieff not only failed to become Prime Minister, but lost his own seat in the process. This gives him the freedom to grapple with questions that you rarely see politicians wrestle with. It’s bracing to see Ignatieff ask “how it becomes possible for an otherwise sensible person to turn his life upside down for the sake of a dream, or to put it less charitably, why a person like me succumbed, so helplessly, to hubris.”
Unfortunately, this searing personal insight does not seem to extend to the broader political process; Ignatieff remains inexplicably surprised at the ferocity with which Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper attacked his standing as a Canadian political leader after having spent decades living abroad. It’s not the usual bitterness of a political biography that clouds Ignatieff’s perspective on these matters, but his almost charming innocence. It’s not often that you read a politician recounting, without regret, having recited an obscure Hungarian poem to an audience of supporters after a big political win. Stories like this in Fire and Ashes demonstrate clearly why Ignatieff is such an interesting human being, but also why he was such a poor politician. There’s plenty of grist for progressives to work on here.
“Night Games: Sex, Power and Sport”, Anna Krien
Night Games uses the story of an alleged rape of a young woman by an Australian rules footballer in the aftermath of the 2010 AFL Grand Final rematch to explore issues of power, sex and violence in Australia.
Night Games is not a didactic or polemic book. Krien continually steers the narrative towards ambiguity, foregrounding her own non-judgemental uncertainty about the events. This can leave the reader uncomfortable at times as issues that are ultimately black and white end up looking opaque. However, Krien’s shades of grey ultimately paint a convincing continuum of how problematic attitudes towards women lead to even more problematic behaviours. As Krien spells out: ‘Treating women like shit shades into a culture of abuse, which in turn can shade into rape’.
In this way, Krien is able to show the big picture of how gender inequality is at the root of men’s violence against women without sounding like she’s delivering a sermon. Night Games is an important book about gender and power in Australia in the context of growing mainstream political awareness of the significance of men’s violence against women. It deserves to be widely read.
“The Second Machine Age” Erick Brynjolfsson and Andrew McAfee
Brynjolfsson and McAfee, two professors from MIT, argue that rapidly accelerating technological innovation is set to radically challenge people, organisations and institutions over the coming decade. They argue that a combination of exponential growth of processing speeds and data storage, advances in Artificial Intelligence/Machine Learning and ubiquitous connectivity mean that computers are increasingly beginning to perform tasks that experts were confidently predicting would be impossible just a decade ago such as pattern recognition, interacting with the physical environment and engaging in complex physical tasks.
If they are right, this has serious implications for progressives. Brynjolfsson and McAfee argue that this innovation will be great for consumers who will enjoy a wider variety of goods and services at much lower prices, great for the owners of capital who will be able to enjoy the fruits of increasing returns to scale, but highly uncertain for workers. The New Machine Age largely rejects the spectre of what Keynes’ called ‘technological unemployment’, where technology driven creative destruction outpaces the ability of the economy to create new jobs to replace those destroyed and the ability of workers to retrain. But Brynjolfsson and McAfee do forecast a radically restructured employment market. The employment market in The Second Machine Age will be hollowed out by an accelerated form of ‘skill biased technology change’, where a small number of high skill individuals will reap enormous gains. It will also see many middle-income jobs, including many services and professional jobs, usurped by technology and the bulk of workers forced into low-wage, insecure roles.
As a result, The New Machine Age argues that our education system will need to be radically reformed to ensure that workers have the skills necessary to enhance their output by working with increasingly complex machines, rather than competing against them. They argue that we’ll also need to get more serious about pushing back against inequality, by introducing more robust progressive interventions, like negative income taxes. They’re concepts that progressives need to start thinking about when considering the trends shaping Australia’s future.
“Beyond the Boom”, John Edwards
John Edwards channels an 18th century pamphleteer to mount a short but data heavy polemic challenging conventional wisdom about the past, present and future of the mining boom in Australia.
In Beyond the Boom, Edwards marshals a range of evidence to argue that the mining boom explains less about economic prosperity in Australia over the past decade than popular opinion holds and as such, we are well placed to manage the transition out of the investment phase of the mining boom. Edwards goes on to make an uncommonly optimistic case that we can adjust to the end of the investment phase of the mining boom through investment in our human capital designed to increases in our export capacity to Asia, particularly through services exports (ie education, finance and health). Along the way he offers useful insights into the state of the budget, tax policy, productivity and industrial relations.
Beyond the Boom prompted a vigorous debate when first published, but if nothing else, it offers an intellectually engaging countervailing view to the prevailing orthodoxy of economic policymaking that dominates our political debate.
“The Narrow Road to the Deep North“, Richard Flanagan
The most recommended book of the year gets another recommendation. Richard Flanagan’s portrayal of life on the Burma railway for Australian prisoners of war ought to become an enduring part of the Australian literary canon. Despite the horrors that Flanagan brings to life, there’s much to learn about human nature and the Australian psyche from this chapter in Australian history. As Paul Keating said as Prime Minister at the Sandakan Memorial Service, ‘It is better to know’.
While Flanagan’s earlier books have shown that he is one of our great prose writers, with The Narrow Road to the Deep North, he struck on a topic with the depth and resonance to create something truly great. As Linda Grant has said, ‘Only great literature grows in the imagination’, and The Narrow Road to the Deep North is the kind of book with characters and scenes that take on new significance the more you grapple with them. While it is certainly the best book on the Australian experience of war since David Malouf’s “The Great World”, this is not just a book about war. The Narrow Road to the Deep North is a book about humanity, our failings and our complex capacity for love.
Along with James Brown’s ‘Anzac’s Long Shadow’, this is also a book that should cause us to give more thought to the experiences of returned servicemen in our community. It’s a moving read in a space that needs more examination and understanding from Australian progressives.
“Laurinda”, Alice Pung
A plug for a new book from one of my favourite writers who happens to hail from Melbourne’s West, just outside my electorate. Laurinda is Alice Pung’s first outing in fiction after two very impressive family memoirs. In it, she tells the story of Lucy Lam, a working class Chinese-Australian scholarship student dropped into an exclusive private girls’ school.
Put aside any prejudices you might have about the young adult genre or coming of age stories and you’ll find an enjoyable read with plenty to say about privilege, class and multiculturalism in Australia. Pung is an expert in not only examining and sharply critiquing the experiences that come with life in a private girls’ school, but then in assessing the attitudes and values that create the environment in which this privilege thrives. In my view, Pung is one of Australia’s most important young literary voices. We’d understand modern Australia better if we gave more of our attention to writers from diverse, multicultural backgrounds than we do at present.