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Learning how to be better fathers

By Peter West - posted Monday, 10 December 2012


James Button's new book deals with many things, all knitted carefully together. It shows us his well-known father John, a large figure in the Victorian Labor Party. It tells how James was hired as a speechwriter for Kevin Rudd when he was Prime Minister. It shows James at work in the public service, and talks about what the public service does. It discusses the Labor Party and its future. He has a lot to say about how Australia is changing, including detailed comment on the media. In this short review I can't do justice to all these. I'll deal mainly with James' work as speechwriter for Rudd and then focus on some of the issues related to fatherhood.

James was brought in to write speeches for Prime Minister Kevin Rudd. It's clear that this was done in an attempt to rein in Rudd and give his speeches a more acceptable format. Fairly soon, James realises what he's up against. Rudd is a self-indulgent speaker and a control freak. He wants to micro- manage everything done in the Prime Minister's office. He gives a nice personal speech to a group of dairy farmers or construction workers. Then he opens up his written speech and drones on for another forty minutes. He wants to be the cleverest person in the room, but ends up embarrassing himself and boring his audience silly. He flails around trying to do dozens of things and in the end achieves little. Apart from saving Australia from economic collapse by spending a lot of money.

Rudd reads something James wrote, flies into a fury and never uses him again. It casts useful light on a rather vexed question: was Rudd dysfunctional as a leader, and was it necessary to replace him? The short answer to both questions seems to be yes, in James' experience. The detail on Rudd's idiosyncrasies is useful. James recalls the use of fake mateyness- "fair suck of the sauce bottle" was repeated many times in a day. But ignored by a Prime Minister hurtling towards catastrophe, James achieves little. Rudd's minders had hoped that James might have helped sort out some of the many problems connected with Rudd's fairly anarchic behaviour, erratic speech-giving and so on. Rudd crashes. Meanwhile, James passes out of the centre of government and does work for some time in the public service before returning to his wife and children in Melbourne.

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And so we come to the issue of how busy fathers raise their children, especially their sons.

Men introduce boys to the world of masculinity. Sometimes, this is done through sport. In James' case, it was through politics. James' dad John was always busy in Canberra, or in meetings, or phone discussions. Like many of us, James longed to know his father better. The father-hunger is talked about powerfully and there's a touch of sadness to it. We hear of some family intimacies and one family tragedy.

In the event, James vows to be a better father than his own father was. In this, he's probably like a lot of middle-class men I see at the beach or in the street cuddling their sons, teaching them to swim or carrying them in a pouch on their chest.

Unlike so many tedious journalists and so-called celebrities who pollute TV and radio, James doesn't draw attention to himself. He's quietly observant. He writes well about how Australia is changing and his eye for detail is sharp. There are many quotable sections on aspects of Australian society. And on the Labor Party and the Public Service:

Unlike academics and journalists, public servants are on the inside looking out. They think in terms of institutions and programs and how they act on people. They have a whole body of knowledge about how to enact a reform (a word they prefer to 'change', which sounds more threatening).

Indeed, James.

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Any reviewer should look for faults. I found very few. There's not much about women and I don't know how a female reader would respond. There are a few dull patches (well, dull for me) about the public service. Again, I don't accept James' tentative suggestion that Australia is a racist country. Readers may have read our eyewitness account (by Ryan Barclay and myself) of the so-called Cronulla riots. And see for example my article on racism.

We shouldn't be surprised when people register differences among the races of the world.

Understandably, James is thoroughly immersed in Labor politics. But his view of the Building the Education Revolution Program is very optimistic. In New South Wales I have seen many school halls built at enormous cost in State schools because the Government wanted "something iconic". Large signs were erected outside many State schools proclaiming the work. But the halls were very often badly built, unsuitable for school use or too small for a whole-school assembly.

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This is a review of Speechless: a Year in my Father's Business by James Button. Melbourne University Press, 2012.



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About the Author

Dr Peter West is a well-known expert on men and boys. He is the author of Fathers, Sons and Lovers: Men Talk about Their Lives from the 1930s to Today (Finch,1996). He works part-time in the Faculty of Education, University of Technology, Sydney.

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