Friday, 3 March 2017

Books for politics junkies

With our mainstream media generally undercovering our closest geographical and philosophical neighbour, you'll have to educate yourself about Australia. For your latest edification, try Troy Bramston's Paul Keating: The Big-Picture Leader, which as the author says "offers a broadly favourable but not uncritical account of of Keating's public life and legacy". It's well written, convincing, highly informed: Bramston has talked to everyone who was anyone. I didn't know, for example, that Keating was the ultimate 'numbers man', with a Lyndon Johnson ability to steer issues through factions, caucuses and Cabinets. It will get you thinking, in particular about the future of once successful combos of social liberalism and economic reform - Hawke/Keating, Lange/Douglas, New Labour in the UK (Blair was influenced by Keating) - who now find themselves uncomfortable coalitions of Chardonnay socialists and the old union-centred left, and have yet to work out a renewed, electorally viable role.

As you read, you'll find many parallels with New Zealand. Critics of our 'Rogernomics' like to think we went on a weird extremist trip of our own, but as this book shows, Australia started before us (1983), as did the UK and the US, and although we blitzed the Aussies for a while with the speed and depth of our own reform programme, and in some respects (eg fiscal policy) we're still ahead, by and large they've kept going while we've slacked off. Few would doubt that (as this book demonstrates) Australia's reforms in Keating's time formed the bedrock for the recession-free period Australia has enjoyed since, and conversely our low productivity record suggests unfinished domestic agendas.

Still on politics, the upcoming French presidential election is in the near term one of the bigger risks to currently richly-priced financial markets and in the longer term to the prospects for the eurozone and the global economy. If, like me, your knowledge of French history goes a bit hazy between the French Revolution/Bonaparte and the World War Two Resistance, then the book for you is Jonathan Fenby's The history of modern France: from the revolution to the present day. He's got some sharp insights: "Successive presidents and governments had applied a self-serving logic in refusing structural change to the economy - if times were hard and growth was low, reform was impossible; if things were going better and there was no expansion, there was no need to change anything. It was an evasion of reality, and of necessity" (p484), which explains why France has been running a Nordic social welfare system but not paying for it (the fiscal budget been in deficit for 35 years).

Does history give us any tips on how the election might go? If you're worried about Le Pen (as you should be), you won't take much comfort from Fenby's conclusion that "the various narratives of the last two centuries have shown that the country invariably opts for right over left with occasional eruptions to prove that its revolutionary legacy is not dead" (p463). Nor from "The idea of the Hexagon [France] as a model for the world is not one which many people could objectively defend in the twenty-first century, but it remains a potent reason to repel change of foreign influences. The French want to see their country as the bearer of a special mission bequeathed by their history...If the present really contradicts such a vision...this leaves them deprived of what they believe should be theirs by historic right and opens them to the temptation of extremist illusions" (p461).

History also reminds us of the suicidal factionalism of the French Left. In 2002 Marine Le Pen's dad Jean-Marie came second (with 16.8%) to Jacques Chirac (19.8%) and made the run-off second round, principally because the Left split between Lionel Jospin (16.1%) and 10 (!) others. And guess what? This year the Left has fielded two big name candidates - the official Socialist, Benoît Hamon, polling around 13%, and independent far-left Jean-Luc Mélenchon (around 11-12%). Unsplit, the left vote could see off the right's François Fillon (around 19%) and give the independent Emmanuel Macron (low to mid 20s) a real run for the second run-off slot, behind Le Pen. What is it about déjà vu the French left doesn't understand?

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