Political partisans: a conservative line of succession (culminating in Tony Abbott) and the Burkes of Perth

Two new books have hit the shelves. One is thicker than the other but both take the long view. They look at nominally different sides of politics, though readers of both books might suspect considerable overlap of views between the Labor and conservative representatives described. Only on the Labor side is there a notable criminal record, however.

First, there is Damien Freeman’s Abbott’s Right: The Conservative Tradition from Menzies to Abbott, which Judith Brett, grande dame of studies of non-Labor, reviews in The Conversation. She gives the book rather short shrift, concluding that, despite its long view and allusions to past giants, ‘[t]he book is an attempt to cloak Abbott in a political philosophy. The shrinking band of Abbott’s admirers will no doubt admire the cloak. The rest of us will still see a naked political animal.’ The naked political animal contributes an Afterword.

Then, out of the West comes 564 pages of Brian Burke’s A Tumultuous Life. For those who have forgotten, Burke was a youngish state member and premier of Western Australia, who circled around various shady types (‘WA Inc.’) and later spent time in gaol (twice – though the second conviction was quashed) for various forms of corruption. The book is much weightier than the 204 pages of Freeman’s book (particularly in the leatherbound edition, though all editions are self-published by Mr Burke) although one can righteously doubt that it needed to be that big.

Paul Rodan’s review in Inside Story gives a summary of the book and concludes: ‘While the book is unlikely to generate wide interest outside Western Australia, Brian Burke was a significant figure whose fall from a great height ensures that he will retain a prominent position in the pantheon of Australian premiers’. Fair call on both counts.

Judith Brett is among Honest History’s distinguished supporters. (She recently published a well received book on Alfred Deakin.) Brian Burke is not, although the author of this note once asked questions by letter of Brian’s father, Tom, a former federal MP (died 1973), and received useful answers regarding Labor in the 1940s and after. Tom Burke was at one point a favourite of Chifley, but lost his seat in 1955 and was expelled from the party in 1957 for being critical of the then leader, HV Evatt. (In 1954, he had stood against Evatt for the leadership.) Rodan in his review hints that one of Brian’s motivations in the book might have been to do down the memory of the Labor Left figures (notably FE ‘Joe’ Chamberlain) who expelled Tom six decades earlier. It is not just on the non-Labor side that old hatreds linger.

David Stephens

21 September 2017


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