Incorrigible Optimist by Gareth Evans – review

Lived experience in the search for a better world

Ramesh Thakur

Government and governance | Australia

3 October 2017

At a time when the world’s political landscape seems starved of good policy-making, Gareth Evans’ political memoirs are a reflection on the pursuit of good leadership in Australia and the world, Ramesh Thakur writes.

Gareth Evans’ life has been devoted to the search (as an intellectual) and attainment (as a politician and policy advocate) of a more humane and peaceful world. This is why he entered politics. As he says of Peter Wilenski, his has been a life that mattered, to Australia and the world. The latter is discussed in a separate essay; here I limit myself to the former.

The chapters are arranged in chronological order of experiences. The central organising principle is how public policy-making works – or not. At a time of an especially desolate environment for good public policy-making, this is a much-needed exercise in reflective introspection of lived experiences, not the least because of the underlying optimism.

The importance of personal experiences comes through on some of the few issues on which Evans and I hold different views despite identical instincts. He has borne witness to the lack of essential safeguards, while I have seen the harm done by the excesses of policies rooted in the desire to do social good. Public policy giving effect to the instinct for decency can sometimes override judgment based on international experience.

Evans enters the ministry as Attorney-General with a reforming idealist zeal and exits the portfolio a wiser politician, courtesy of “the rigorous insensitivity training… in Australian party and parliamentary politics” that lasted over 21 years (1978–99). His background preparation included a law degree, a student activist who stood vigil the night of the last man to be hanged in Australia, stints as a consultant to the Whitlam government and on the Australian Law Reform Commission (which led to a lifelong friendship with Michael Kirby), and practising at the bar to gain real-life experience.

Lessons include the loss of reforming zeal when a party switches from opposition to government, the importance of prioritising policy goals, the need to balance principles with the art of the possible if absolutist purity is not to become the enemy of progress, the risks of letting witticisms get the better of discretion in dealing with journalists and, most importantly, the great potential “in the attorney-general’s portfolio for unlocking currents of social change”. Marrying legal training to an interest in public policy meant a life “a bit more emotionally satisfying than sorting out drainage easements”.

‘Race’ discusses the need to right the injustices inflicted on Australia’s Indigenous communities and the struggle to end apartheid in South Africa. Evans was profoundly influenced in his approach to race relations by the suicide of a brilliant Aboriginal legal officer who had become a family friend: the only time in public life Evans was reduced to tears. The key take-away is how in dealing with individuals in the particular, the fundamental decency of ordinary Australians – including Evans senior – rooted in their instinctive egalitarianism overrides their prejudices in the abstract.

As Minister for Resources and Energy, Evans had to deal with the highly charged issue of Indigenous land rights, and later it fell to him to shepherd the Native Title Act through a senate in which Labor lacked the numbers. He managed it with the support of all seven Democrats and two of the remaining three Senators, displaying extraordinary control for someone with “a temperament… not of the cloth from which Zen masters are cut”. He describes it as the proudest achievement of his parliamentary career. Evans offers us his succinct draft of a new Preamble to the Constitution. As a disbelieving admirer noted, he produced ‘an 83-word history of Australia’ when some of his qualifying phrases can be longer.

‘Enterprise’ covers Evans as Minister for Resources and Energy, Transport and Communications, and Shadow Treasurer. The most interesting discussions cover the need to internationalise Australia’s economy to reverse the deteriorating standard of living; pursue efficiency gains through deregulation and corporatisation of public bodies; look for balanced outcomes when competing interests collide, for example, mining, environmental protection and Indigenous land rights; and enlist enlightened union and business leaders as partners in economic strategy.

‘Education’ begins with an account of a bright boy from a modest background, neither of whose parents went to university, via Melbourne and Oxford universities, to conclude with the reflections of the Chancellor of The Australian National University.

In the 1960s only about 5 per cent of school leavers went on to university; now about 35 per cent do so. Unsurprisingly, Evans is “a passionate advocate of decent funding for the State-school system”. The exceptional importance of teachers is highlighted and a plea is entered against compromising academic standards. He describes the respective roles of the Chancellor and University Council on the one side, and Vice-Chancellor and university executive, on the other, in ensuring good university governance. He restates the importance of teaching students how to think rather than what to think; the need to keep universities as safe spaces for the clash of ideas based on free speech, decrying movements to ‘trigger warnings’ and the like – the 1960s student activists were devoted to causing offence, not demanding protection from it; meeting the needs of the socially and economically disadvantaged; and ensuring the financial sustainability of the university system.

‘Politics’ is a collection of concluding reflections on a life devoted to the pursuit of public policy at home and in the world. Why do and should people engage in and with politics? What makes for good leadership and optimal policy-politics relations? Evans’ ingredients of success for a politician are ability, resilience and opportunity-cum-luck. A work ethic, stamina, integrity, strategic sense and self-belief are also necessary.

The Hawke-Keating governments, operating internally on the basis of argument, not authority, successfully ‘triangulated’ a dry economic policy, a warm and moist social policy, and a liberal internationalist foreign policy. National competition policy drove growth, trade liberalisation drove competitiveness, and enterprise bargaining drove productivity. In return, policies on education, health and superannuation reforms provided the compensating ‘social wage’. The result was an Australia that is “outward-looking, highly productive, highly competitive, continually growing, but still more equitable and socially protected than most” advanced economies. The government took care to argue its case on all major decisions, explaining the why, what and how. In a telling sentence, Evans writes: “If the focus groups told us we had a problem, that was the beginning of the public argument, not the end of it”.

Evans claims that the much-lauded ‘third way’ of the UK Labour Party was explicitly modelled on the Hawke-Keating government balance between economic and social policy. In his speech to the annual party conference on 27 September in Brighton, British Labour leader Jeremy Corbyn declared the neoliberal economic model dead. In a deliberate break from Tony Blair’s economic policies, he committed Labour to more state intervention in housing and utilities. It remains to be seen if a similar repudiation will eventuate in Australia.

Finally, this being Gareth, readers will learn the art of the elegant put-down, as in: Alex Castles was “a mine of information on legal history, some of it even relevant”. Additionally, some personal dislikes have neither been forgotten nor mellowed.

In conclusion, this is an exceptionally compelling political memoir that connects the private to the profession, the national to the global, and public policy to foreign policy. Parts are self-critical introspection, parts reflections on a life overflowing with experiences from a student backpacker in his early 20s to a university chancellor in his 70s, and parts are anecdotes on Australian and global public personalities. Everyone interested in Australian and international politics will find material that is informative, instructive and occasionally even nostalgic and entertaining.

Incorrigible Optimist: A Political Memoir is out now published by Melbourne University Press: https://www.mup.com.au/books/9780522866445-incorrigible-optimist

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