28/05/2008 - 22:00

A selective view of history

28/05/2008 - 22:00


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Political autobiographies, memoirs and authorised biographies are invariably highly selective products and can therefore be quite misleading, by deliberate omission if nothing else.

Such drawbacks promptly came to mind when reading a recent report that former prime minister John Howard had been approached to write his memoirs, reputedly for a $1 million fee, which to State Scene seemed a little on the high side.

Clearly the publishers see sales reaching around 250,000 copies (about one in 80 Australians), a huge figure for Australia's modest book market.

The major drawback with political autobiographies and authorised biographies is that they're so heavily sanitised.

Moreover, trivial issues are so often highlighted while significant, indeed, crucial ones, are ignored.

Perhaps the best recent example of such blatant sanitising is Living History, Hillary Rodham Clinton's 2003 autobiography, which began selling for $US28 and is now down to $US18.48 at Amazon.

Living History hardly carries a reference to the Monica Lewinsky affair and says less of notorious husband Bill's serial infidelities, which so many leftist American feminists choose to ignore.

What would their response have been if a Republican president had behaved thus?

Indeed, when infidelity surfaced as a presidential centrepiece, the then first lady claimed he'd been targeted by what she called "a vast right-wing conspiracy".

Is Mr Howard likely to be any more candid and enlightening about his years than Senator Clinton? Will we be confronted by warts and all or only by what he'll want to emphasise?

Two acid tests that come to mind for a Howard autobiography, if it surfaces, will firstly be how he treats that now infamous promise he's alleged to have made to stand aside for deputy, Peter Costello, during a possible second prime ministerial term.

The other is, of course, the far more serious Iraqi-AWB Scandal.

Like all his senior in-the-known cabinet members - from foreign minister Alexander Downer to trade minister Mark Vaile - Mr Howard denied knowing Australia was burning the candle at both ends, gearing up to be America's fighting ally while clandestinely working to cut-off possible American wheat sales to Baghdad.

Let's never forget that several senior ministerial offices were shown to have received pertinent telexes indicating concerns about AWB-Iraqi dealings, which suggest deliberate myopia, at best, at the top.

If either or both affairs aren't fully scrutinised in a Howard account of his 11 years at the top, those buying his autobiography will be wasting their hard-earned money.

And while on Baghdad, there's another long-forgotten - meaning rarely written about - Iraqi scandal involving an Australian prime minister which, whenever raised by State Scene in chats with Labor pals results in embarrassed disbelief descending over their faces.

One reason for this is that there's so little written on it by 1970s Labor insiders, thereby further confirming autobiographies, authorised biographies and memoirs have quite limited use for those wanting to know what really happened.

I'm referring, of course, to three of Labor's mid-1970s top brass who secretly looked to Baghdad for a $US500,000 gift to help Labor bankroll its 1975 election campaign, that was sparked by governor-general Sir John Kerr's sacking of Gough Whitlam.

Mr Whitlam, Labor's then national secretary David Combe, and hard-line leftist Bill Hartley met on November 16 1975 and decided to contact Iraq for that money.

"The three Labor insiders initiated a secret negotiation that might have left Australia's political system vulnerable to corruption by a foreign government," senior columnist at The Age, Tony Parkinson, wrote on November 15 2005.

"This was the first and last time an Australian political party had sought to solicit funds from an outside power.

"And not just any foreign power. This was an invitation to a regime they knew to be despicable and despotic.

"Curiously, as politicians and the media reminisce each year about the tumultuous events of 1975, the Iraq debacle tends to be consigned to the footnotes.

"Yet for all Whitlam's stature as a much-loved former Labor leader, it is wrong that this colossal failure of judgement should be overlooked, especially given what we know now.

"In the decades that followed, Saddam Hussein's regime would turn into an art form the use of its oil revenues to buy influence and trade in favours in the shadows of global politics.

"We need only look at how it so thoroughly corrupted the UN oil-for-food program, either bribing or extorting a huge roll call of international players, including senior officials from Russia, France, China and South Africa, luminaries from the UN itself, along with major global corporates.

"The AWB has been accused of paying almost $300 million in 'transport charges' to the regime.

"Clearly, Saddam came to believe there was almost nobody who could not be persuaded to play by the rules of the game they set, if the incentives were sufficient; that nobody was above the temptation of filthy lucre."


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