A remarkable book about a remarkable politician

A remarkable journalist has written a remarkable book about a remarkable politician. Tim Colebatch’s Dick Hamer The liberal Liberal is elegantly written and is probably the best (and certainly at least equal to) book about politics and a political leader since Don Watson’s Recollections of a Bleeding Heart.

There is a neat symmetry to the book with the first page quoting from Dick Hamer’s first budget as Premier (he was also Treasurer) and its emphasis on ‘the quality of life’ of Victorians and the later chapter on his resignation speech echoing the same theme. Colebatch also highlights Hamer’s final political action – a Christmas letter to The Age – written a few months before he died urging the Howard Government to reverse its ‘shameful and inhuman’ policy on asylum seekers. If you would like to see an exemplary speech by a decent, intelligent politician you can see the You Tube of his resignation speech at the Malcolm Farnsworth website www.australianpolitics.com and page 432 of the Colebatch book reproduces the final political asylum seeker message.

The blog was working for the ALP Opposition for the last five years of Hamer’s career as Premier and, at the time, we were trying as hard as possible to make things as chaotic as possible. This was helped by a series of scandals, particularly land deals; the poor performance of about a third of the Liberal Cabinet all of whom a more ruthless Premier might have sacked; and, the constant undermining of the Premier by dissident Liberals. Perhaps more importantly the Opposition, made more effective by an influx of new MPs in 1979, had a touch of the feral about them after seeing what the Tories were capable of in 1975, suffering from the overwhelming desire to end the years in the wilderness and benefitting from the inimitably hard-edged approach of people such as Opposition researcher become MLC David White.

Colebatch’s book reminded the blog of things he had forgotten; threw new light on events remembered; and, put other issues in context. One of the book’s strengths stems from Colebatch’s journalistic strengths – especially his insightful views on economics and electoral trends. He gives perspective to Hamer’s political problems by situating them within the economic problems which flowed from the deep Fraser-Howard cutbacks in Commonwealth grants to Victoria and other States. He also gives concise and accurate analyses of voting trends, by election and election results reminding us of how much Victorians have lost from their newspaper reading with his retirement from The Age and how banal much current journalistic comment on polls and voting is.

There is so much rich material in the book that it is hard to pick a few highlights. The chapter on Sir Henry Bolte is a significant re-appraisal of his legacy which sees beyond much of what shaped the blog’s and many others’ attitudes to the man – especially through the discussion of the massive investment in education and state development and the willingness to take on debt to build infrastructure. More considered than Peter Blazey’s Bolte biography and the works by Tom Prior and Barry Muir, it probably provides a better one chapter summary of his career than the others combined – even if Blazey’s description of a Bolte press conference is one of the gems of political history. Colebatch describes Hamer’s Tobruk and other war experiences and then links a wartime trip he took, flown by a female pilot, with his attitude to Equal Opportunity legislation and his role in helping Deborah Wardley to become the first female Ansett pilot against the opposition of Reg Ansett – a new experience for Sir Reginald after his dealings with Bolte.

Among the major issues on which the book allows us to form new conclusions Colebatch makes it clear that the leadership Hamer won in 1972 was not Bolte’s to confer but was itself a product of both a shift in the Liberal Party and the widespread recognition of Hamer’s abilities. He discusses the Smith affair and the damaging interview Smith gave to Jim Clarke of The Warrnambool Standard and the differences in interpretation made possible by listening to the tape recording itself rather than working from the transcript which Phillip Chubb had to use when he broke the story. Not that Smith is absolved from this, or his later actions, and Colebatch includes in an appendix an extract from a letter the former Geelong Grammar head, Sir James Darling, sent to Hamer on his retirement which describes the relative merits of Hamer and Smith rather well. Finally, he discusses the rumours that surrounded Hamer and Tourism Head, Sue Calwell, including Calwell’s first public denial of the muck being peddled by the Toorak Times and more than half the people in Victorian politics, the media and business. In doing so he points out that Hamer was far-sighted in identifying the emerging significance of tourism to the economy and putting in place policies, funding and organisations to capture the benefits.

Needless to say all the great legacies – the Arts Centre, the underground, the metropolitan parks, better planning, heritage protection, abolishing capital punishment and decriminalising homosexuality – are also included. The blog’s first sustained political activity was in the student anti-hanging campaign when Bolte was determined to hang Ronald Ryan, and the first political meeting it attended was a by-election campaign speech by Bolte in the Glenroy Progress Hall where the blog and two other Glenroy High School students went along to ask questions about education, so the Hamer changes marked a new era for the blog and the blog’s generation.

One ‘if only it might have been’ issue which Colebatch highlights – the John Haddad proposal for a casino (without poker machines) and convention centre in the form of a visionary pyramid shape which pre-dated the one at the Louvre – reminds us of how much more could have been achieved but for the opposition of the conservatives who were becoming more powerful in the Liberal Party.

Finally Colebatch undertakes an assessment of Hamer which is summarised as ‘not perfect, but admirable’. He was, as Colebatch says, “the first Victorian Premier to belong to the modern world”. He was successful because of: voters embracing his policies and values; his character, his intelligence, courtesy and kindness; his integrity; his determination and energy. In the book Colebatch concludes “he assessed the long-term interests of the state and its people, and steered in that direction, rather than trying to manufacture issues or direct debates for short-term political gain”. Ah, so unlike the political life of our own dear PM, to adapt a 19th century observation. Indeed, Hamer’s qualities were such that over the years the blog sometimes looked back on the contemporary attacks on Hamer and thought about the Arthur Mailey story about how he had Victor Trumper stumped third ball in a Sydney grade match. Mailey called the story “the boy who killed the dove”.

This is a great, beautifully produced book. Everyone interested in politics, what’s happened to the Liberal Party, the nature of political leadership, what’s shaped Melbourne and how decent, idealistic people of great integrity can flourish in politics should read it.