Some we know because their personalities were memorable – such as Keating or Hawke. Some, because of famous or tragic stories – such as Harold Holt’s mysterious end (and the rather poor taste, though admittedly amusing, fact that he has a memorial pool named after him in Melbourne). Some we know because they led not for a term, but for an era – Menzies. Others’ names are remembered, if remembered at all, for more frivolous reasons – as MacCallum writes of our fifteenth Prime Minister: ‘Frank Forde is generally remembered for just one thing: his name is the answer to the trivia question, “Who was Australia’s shortest-serving Prime Minister?”’

This, as with so many historical figures, is the end they often meet in the popular imagination. ‘Australians aren’t very fond of their politicians,’ MacCallum writes, ‘alive or dead; we have raised no great monuments to our former leaders. We have no Lincoln Memorial, let alone a Mount Rushmore.’ Though their political achievements may be remembered, becoming an essential part of the society that followed them, the names and personalities of the leaders themselves are often forgotten, reduced to trivia questions, or bronze busts (the Prime Ministers Avenue in Ballarat, MacCallum notes, is the only series of monuments Australia has assembled to our former leaders). And yet, MacCallum writes of Frank Forde, ‘[he] might have spent most of his career as a bridesmaid, but his life cannot be encapsulated in a single answer on a trivia night.’

This, essentially, is what MacCallum’s book is about. It is a history of Australia ordered not by political party or historical event, but by the lives of those who came to lead the nation. Through short and highly entertaining chapters, MacCallum outlines the personalities of the men (and one woman) who rose to power, whether by luck or design. A sometimes overlapping, sweeping history – entire reforms and achievements are dealt with in single paragraphs – this is not an academic history book, it is an accessible history as told by a jovial and entertaining storyteller.

MacCallum is almost always sympathetic in his accounts, finding something relatable in all of our political protagonists. There are, of course, the leading lights: Barton, Menzies, Curtin, Chifley, Whitlam, and then the contemporaries who we have lived through and know well. But more interesting are the lesser-known or shorter-lived leaders, such as Bruce, ­Ford, Reid, and Scullin. It was fascinating to see how these men came to lead, such as Stanley Bruce – among the ‘unlikely’ of MacCallum’s title: ‘the most accidental,’ MacCallum writes, of all our prime ministers, and indeed the most reluctant, seeing Australia as little more than a second rate colony. Or James Scullin, one of the more unlucky Prime Ministers, coming to power during the Wall Street Crash and unable to institute much beyond attempting to ‘withhold the tsunami’ of financial collapse from Australia.

What was interesting to see in a condensed history such as this was how common minority government has actually been in Australia  – figured in our current political era as some sort of aberration, it has been a relatively frequent occurrence in our history. And of how minor the political problems seem today compared to at the founding of Federation,

In 110 years, the role of the Prime Minister has become vastly more complex; technology, globalisation and the demands of a better educated, more ambitious and less forgiving electorate have combined to make the position one requiring a range of skills unimaginable to Edmund Barton and his fellow federationists. More complex, certainly – but more challenging? The pioneers who welded the brawling colonies of the nineteenth century into the extraordinary structure that is Australia had much to be proud of – and we have much to thank them, and all their successors, for.

What makes this work successful and engaging, for what could easily have been a rather dry topic, is MacCallum’s humorous and irreverent style. As he writes of Alfred Deakin:

When Deakin went into politics a couple of years later, he claimed to be receiving instruction from the ghosts of Sophocles, John Knox, Lord Macaulay, Edmund Burke, John Stuart Mill and (rather out of place in such exalted company) a former Victorian chief secretary named Richard Heales

Or, recounting a story  of Billy Hughes’s time in office:

At a tribute dinner for the great survivor, it was noted that he had, in his time, been a member of every political party in Australian history bar the Country Party – why the exception?…’I had to draw the line somewhere.’

I will say that the past tense MacCallum employs for Gillard’s Prime Ministership is jarring if not disrespectful (however prescient it may turn out to be), and it would perhaps have been better to see more overall analysis and concluding remarks by MacCallum – the introduction is just three pages long, and the work ends with a two-paragraph conclusion tacked onto the end of the Gillard chapter. But these are minor criticisms of what is, overall, a highly engaging work. As Australian politics become increasingly presidential, this is a fascinating and, above all, entertaining take on our history.

— Mungo MacCallum’s The Good, the Bad & the Unlikely is out now via Black Inc. RRP $29.95

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