9 October 2023

Political Lives: Australian prime ministers and their biographers

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Political Lives looks at Australia prime ministers and their biographers. Photo: Supplied.

By Chris Wallace, UNSW Press, $39.99

More than a decade ago political historian Chris Wallace made an uncommon gesture: she cancelled a publishing contract and repaid the advance on a biography she was writing of the then prime minister Julia Gillard.

“No biography of a human being could fail to include unattractive or critical elements. Human beings are flawed. They are fallible. Good biographers strive to present their subjects in the round, the good and bad portrayed fairly, in context, with necessary nuance.”

Writing biographies has challenges and, at times, controversy. Penning a biography is “a kind of sorcery”. As Wallace points out she had no other “moral choice”.

“Writers rarely spike a book and return a publishing advance … I did not intend the Gillard biography to help or hurt Gillard’s political fortunes. When I conceived it, I did not foresee its potential exploitation by ‘bad actors’ in the supercharged political environment which developed – something well beyond the normal thrust and parry of national politics. That is why I did not proceed with the book.”

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In the fevered atmosphere of attacks on Gillard by the Tony Abbott-led opposition, however, and by allies of the prime minister she replaced, Kevin Rudd, Wallace risked elements of it being seized on and unfairly used against Gillard in the escalating firestorm of criticism.

Professor Wallace from the Faculty of Business Government and Law, University of Canberra, investigates in depth the biography of serving politicians and how they affect their career trajectories for good and ill. The subjects, the authors their motivations and biography’s use as a form of political intervention by allies and enemies are examined. All this is delved into against the backdrop of the Gillard experience.

Covered are each of Australia’s 20th century prime ministers, and the biographers of their active political careers. The dynamics of the politician-biographer relationship is explored for living 20th century prime ministers through exhaustive interviews with both the subjects and authors.

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In Political Lives Dr Wallace writes a perceptive, energetic and an exceptionally researched account of our prime ministers and biography’s potent force in the political contest.

Delivered is an intimate history of biographers’ imaging-making and image-breaking in Australian national politics, from the vantage point of the prime ministers and the biographers themselves.

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