4
Dec
2018

Scott Morrison’s book list: what should the prime minister read this summer?

by John Daley and Carmela Chivers


Published by The Guardian, Tuesday 4 December

It has been an extraordinary year in politics – and no doubt most politicians are well and truly ready for a summer holiday. To help our leaders make the most of their time off, Grattan Institute has curated a list of this year’s must-reads – a curiosity-piquing platter of novels, thinkpieces, memoirs and manifestos.

These books have three things in common: they’re thoroughly readable, they have something worth saying and they’ll stick with you. We think they deserve a place on the bookshelf in Kirribilli House, as well in as your own office or beach bag.

Factfulness, by Hans Rosling

Hachette

2018 has been a year of political volatility in Australia and across the globe. Amid the chaos, it’s important to pause and take stock of the world as it really is.

Hans Rosling starts Factfulness with a pop quiz. The questions are straightforward, but a surprisingly high number of people get them very wrong. Even people who are used to doing well on such tests get an F: Nobel laureates, attendees of the World Economic Forum, prominent academics and policy wonks all fare poorly.

Rosling’s quiz isn’t on advanced calculus or obscure grammar rules. It’s about the state of the world. He asks about what affects people every day: poverty, wealth, population growth, education, health, the environment and more. Few people pass because most people think the world is much worse than it really is.

This lack of understanding is a problem, Rosling says, because we can’t make the world a better place without knowing where – and how – progress has already been made. An overdramatised worldview is likely to make people gloomier about the future than is warranted. People who care about improving the lives of others may focus too much on the wrong things, or give up, hopeless and disengaged. In fact, we live much better than our grandparents. Billions of people have risen out of poverty. And good policy has time and time made a difference.

Factfulness is a joy to read. Rosling is a master at combining data and storytelling. He exposes the tricks of the mind which lead all of us to underestimate the power of human progress. In so doing, he pinpoints where we can – and should – do better.

Yet despite the progress of the past century, we are right to worry about our politics. Grattan’s second recommendation explains why.

The People vs Democracy, by Yascha Mounk

Harvard University Press

Like many, Yascha Mounk believed that the victory of liberal democracy was inevitable. But over the past decade, authoritarian populist candidates rose to power in Poland, Hungary, Turkey and India. Surveys show a large and growing proportion of millennials are ambivalent about democracy. Even the world’s most powerful liberal democracy – the United States – elected a president who demeans democratic norms, such as respecting the courts and the free press. Mounk laments how easily liberal democracies can unravel.

How did we come to this? According to Mounk, increasing power of unelected technocrats shifted the balance towards “rights without democracy”. People’s votes don’t influence public policy so much. And interest groups have become more powerful, so that fewer decisions are made that benefit the public.

Mounk argues that this created the opportunity for populist leaders to seize power by promising to be the true voice of the people. And these leaders are often tempted to undermine liberal institutions, presaging a slide into authoritarianism.

The solutions are neither obvious nor easy. Mounk suggests some: stressing our shared values as a nation; ensuring the benefits of economic growth are well spread; reinforcing the benefits of our democratic institutions; and rebuilding trust in politicians through transparency and tighter controls on money in politics. This is not “politics as usual”, but the stakes couldn’t be higher.

Donald Trump was elected thanks to strong support in regional towns, and Brexit appealed to the country more than the city. Likewise, distrust in government is much higher in regional Australia. Our next book seeks to understand why.

Rusted Off, by Gabrielle Chan

Penguin Random House

Growing up in Sydney, Guardian Australia journalist Gabrielle Chan thought of rural Australia as “Another Country … a land in a fairy tale, existing only in books and movies.” Then in 1996, she married a farmer, and moved to a sheep and wheat farm in the southern New South Wales town of Harden. The unusual combination of life in the bubble of the Canberra press gallery and the open spaces of “the bush” have given Chan a perspective on why rural voters are fed up with politics, deserting major parties even faster than city residents.

The deepest difference she uncovers between city and country folk is connection to place: identity, family background and history, all linked to a town or a region. So, people from the country get upset when city-based power centres impose one-size-fits-all policy solutions. They resent the gravitational pull of academia that draws kids away from the towns where they grew up. They take it personally when diseconomies of scale shut down local services. And they hate being stereotyped by city dwellers as stuck in the past, not smart enough to get out.

Chan draws on personal stories – including her own – to illustrate how the gulf between Main Street and Canberra is widening, sapping voter faith. The way to win back country voters, she suggests, is not decentralisation policies, throwing money at boondoggles, doubling down on social conservatism or blaming it all on migrants or city slickers.

Instead, Chan thinks that we need more authenticity, a real acknowledgement of the cultural divide, and willingness to do the hard work to rebuild community cohesion between city and country Australia.

Fostering understanding and empathy between fellow Australians is hard enough; can we extend our compassion to outsiders too? Grattan’s fourth recommendation shows what happens when we fail.

No Friend but the Mountains, by Behrouz Boochani

Pan Macmillan

An Iranian refugee who has been held on Manus Island in Papua New Guinea for five years, Behrouz Boochani is a journalist, poet, film-maker and a painfully gifted writer.

No Friend but the Mountains has its genesis in WhatsApp and text messages sent in furtive fragments to Boochani’s translator, Omid Tofighian. Yet it is deeply literary, a book rich in Kurdish culture and tradition. He describes the life of the sick, hungry prisoners “trapped in a tunnel of tension”, their daily life dictated by meaningless rules and regulations. Even card games are forbidden. They must queue for food, for showers, for sanitation, for medication, sanity crushed in the searing heat. Tofighian aptly describes Boochani’s writing style as “horror surrealism”.

No Friend but the Mountains is undoubtedly horrific. Boochani’s journey begins on a leaking boat from Indonesia and culminates with the violent death of Iranian asylum seeker Reza Barati. Boochani’s claustrophobic narrative of the Manus Island compound is interspersed with poetic prose, but there is no respite from the hell he describes. The conditions are oppressive. The foul smells overwhelming – the stench of fetid human waste, of sweat and bodies, of rancid breath, a stench “so vile that one feels ashamed to be part of the human species”.

Shame indeed. In his foreword, author Richard Flanagan declares that reading No Friend but the Mountains will be difficult for any Australian. He is right. Behrouz Boochani’s first-hand account of Australia’s asylum-seeker detention regime is gruelling – but essential – reading. It is an extraordinary, brutal piece, a gift of courage from a nightmare of repression and cruelty.

By shining a light on the suffering of the people on Manus Island and Nauru, Boochani – alongside whistleblower doctors and other refugee advocates – is changing the politics of immigration. The impact could be far-reaching. Social movements like #MeToo show that what is and isn’t acceptable can change very quickly.

Women & Power, by Mary Beard

Allen and Unwin

Women remain underrepresented at the highest ranks of society. Whether in government, academia or business, gendered power imbalances are regrettably common and stubbornly persistent.

In this brief yet potent manifesto, acclaimed classicist Mary Beard traces the origins of misogyny to its ancient roots. Drawing on her expert knowledge of Greco-Roman history, Beard deftly juxtaposes classical and contemporary examples of strong women’s struggles within patriarchal systems of power. From Medusa to Hillary Clinton, Athena to Margaret Thatcher, or Philomena to Elizabeth Warren, the striking parallels between past and present raise important questions about the treatment of women in the public sphere.

How are women’s voices heard, and why is this different to the reception granted to the speech of men? What are the perceptions and expectations of women who exercise power? And why don’t our definitions of power accommodate any expression of femininity?

Women & Power is a call to arms. With a combination of wry wit and sharp urgency, Beard implores her readers to challenge the idea that power is fundamentally masculine. She rejects the expectation that women should contort themselves to fit an ideal that, for millennia, has excluded them from the upper echelons of society.

Flames, by Robbie Arnott

Text Publishing

Grattan’s final recommendation provides the PM with a moment for reflection, for gratitude. Because Australia is a beautiful country, and beauty can be found in every corner, in every life, in every moment resplendent and mundane.

When Levi’s mother returns from the dead, he resolves to build his sister Charlotte a coffin. Charlotte doesn’t take this well. She decides to leave – and embarks on a journey through the wild Tasmanian landscape. On her way, she meets a private investigator who seems to run on gin, a river god, a farmer on a Stanley Kubrick-style decent into madness and, perhaps, somebody she can love and trust.

This is Australian writer Robbie Arnott’s first novel, and it is delightful. He jumps playfully between different writing styles in every chapter, telling the story of Charlotte and her brother from the perspective of a different character each time. It’s a lot of fun for his readers (and, one imagines, for the author too).

One humorous chapter follows written correspondence between Levi and a renowned – if a bit gruff – coffin-maker. Another chapter echoes the style of film noir. Another, the magical realism of Gabriel García Márquez. Another, a gossipy autobiography of a small-town matriarch.

The hum of the Tasmanian bush is the one constant, providing a familiar backdrop to the surreal events that unfold. It has been a tough year. We all need a little escape. And Arnott provides one in this enchanting story that also captures something very real about Tasmanian life.