What He Should Be Reading: Grattan’s 2018 PM Reading List

by John Daley and Owain Emslie

Published by Meanjin Quarterly, Wednesday 5 December

The summer break is one of the few times of the year that we switch off our screens for long enough to lower the height of that pile of shame beside the bedside table. There is still a magic to books, which provide enough space for a nuanced view of a topic, without reducing it to mere talking points. But reading a book takes time, and Prime Ministers have even less time than others. To make best use of a rare opportunity, Grattan Institute recommends each year a summer reading list for the Prime Minister.

Summer reading shouldn’t just be about the day job: as much as any of us, a Prime Minister deserves some time out to enjoy reading something that challenges, enlivens and entertains. So we are ruthless in ensuring that nothing goes on the list unless it is a cracking good read. ‘Worthy but dull’ might be okay for cabinet papers, but it should be brutally culled from a summer reading list.

While the books on the list deserve a place on the bookshelf in Kirribilli House, we think they’ll serve just as well in any Australian’s beach-bag. And with a range of novels, think pieces, memoirs and manifestos, there’s something for every mood.

Our first recommendation is Factfulness by Hans Rosling, which shows how wrong most people are about the world: they are unjustifiably gloomy. On any number of measures—untimely deaths, hunger, pollution, access to electricity, literacy, and even guitars per capita—progress over the years has been extraordinary. Getting the data, and acting on it, has proven to be a remarkably effective strategy, even if it doesn’t always make news. And Rosling couples the big picture with self-deprecating stories from the front line of developing-world medicine, such as how to avoid eating white larvae from a palm-nut tree when your Danish companion is already tucking in.

Ten years ago continuing prosperity and the victory of liberal democracy might have seemed inevitable. But the decline of seemingly established democracies in Hungary, Poland, and Turkey has shaken complacent assumptions. Yascha Mounk identifies the patterns in The People vs Democracy. If people believe that they have little influence over public policy, populists will find a way to power. Successful populists often undermine liberal institutions by blaming them for the persistence of complex problems. All too easily the result is an illiberal autocracy. Supporting our institutions—despite their imperfections—matters.

One reason for the appeal of populists is that they talk about belonging, a theme explored further in Rusted Off by Gabrielle Chan. She has an unusual perspective, having lived both in the bubble of the Canberra press gallery and on a farm in rural NSW. So she is unlike many journalists who write about regional issues, ‘frightened of spiders but not of stereotypes’. She identifies the increasing gaps between ‘city’ and ‘country’ Australia. Place, class, migration, and education are all part of the story. As a result, many rural voters feel they are a ‘neglected class’, and are deserting major parties even faster than city residents. We need to acknowledge the cultural divides, and think more carefully about how to rebuild community cohesion between city and country Australia.

We also need to do more so that women have power. But as Mary Beard shows in Women & Power ‘when it comes to silencing women, Western culture has had thousands of years of practice’. She exposes the Greco-Roman archetypes that still influence our sub-conscious. Occasionally women were allowed to talk about sectional interests or victimhood. But from the very first book of the Odyssey, Telemachus tells his mother that she shouldn’t interfere even in choosing what song to listen to, and that ‘speech will be the business of men’. As Beard points out, ‘looking harder at these origins helps us to look harder at ourselves’.

We also haven’t looked hard enough at what is happening to offshore asylum seekers. Behrouz Boochani, a Kurdish asylum seeker, writes first-hand from Manus Island—where he remains. He composed No Friend but the Mountains on WhatsApp messages, sent to Australia. On Manus, inmates live jammed together in sweltering heat, ‘sweating, heads bursting as though in a furnace’. A ‘kyriarchal’ system exerts power over every aspect of life. Australian-born overseers control the ‘Papus’—the local PNG guards—who control the asylum seekers. The inmates are even forbidden from playing card games. Amid the claustrophobic detail, Boochani intersperses his haunting lyrical poetry. It’s harrowing, but you will never forget reading this book.

After a tough year for many people, any Prime Minister would appreciate just a little beauty and joy. Flames by Robbie Arnott is a high-spirited romp of the human imagination. One wild yarn follows another, each more surreal than the last, but somehow entirely plausible. And it’s full of the resplendent and mundane beauty of every corner of the Tasmanian landscape. For a few hours at least it provides us—and its characters—with an escape from the everyday. Who could ask for more from a summer read, Prime Minister?