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Byron Shire
February 28, 2021

Twenty-seven prime ministers and counting

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Our political columnist has been threatening a survey of Australian leaders for some time, and fortunately last year Black Inc commissioned him to write essays on each of the prime ministers who have variously graced or disgraced the Commonwealth since federation.

No-one is better qualified to write these accounts than Mungo, who has actually met twelve of the 27 PMs in person, and no-one else could write about them with as much humour and insight. This is of course not an academic history; there are no footnotes (not even an index), just direct, readable sketches of the 26 men and one woman who managed to claw their way up the pole, to last at the top for an average of four years each.

It is a book that will not be allowed in schools because it is too interesting, but it would be a useful primer for immigrants to learn an outline of the history of their new country, at least from the beginning of the twentieth century onwards.

All these politicians had to deal, one way or another, with the power of the media to distort or cripple their careers: arrogant press barons are not a recent phenomenon. But earlier PMs tended to have more spine than our current crop. John Curtin, when approached with the familiar blend of threats and promises by an earlier incarnation of the malevolent Rupert, said bluntly, ‘I want you to understand that I obey nobody else but the people of Australia. You have nothing in the world that I want.’

The problem with writing about politicians of course, a problem Mungo puts his finger on early in the book, is that we don’t actually like them. But letting that dislike cool into indifference, as seems to have happened across the country in the last few years, brings us even more unlikable leaders and lets them get away with more of the stuff we don’t like them for.

On the other hand if you examine closely the people who have wielded political power, at least you will get to know the enemy. Curiously, what Mungo admits he discovered in the course of researching this book is that several heroes did not live up to their reputations and some villains were a lot less villainous than he thought.

To find out which is which I recommend that you read The Good, the Bad and the Unlikely.

Image: The Good, the Bad and the Unlikely by Mungo MacCallum, published by Black Inc.

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