Should politicians use ghost writers?

I spent most of my weekends in January and February this year writing my chapter for Peter van Onselen’s edited collection Liberals and Power: The Road Ahead. As has recently been reported, not all the other contributors spent quite so much time writing their chapters.

We know this because recycled material has shown that neither Brendan Nelson nor Julie Bishop wrote the chapters that appeared under their names. The Bishop chapter partly plagiarises New Zealand Business Roundtable Executive Director Roger Kerr, and with her chief of staff Murray Hansen taking responsibility for the whole mess we know that he was the author of her contribution (or co-author, with Kerr). Tom Switzer has outed himself as the author of Brendan Nelson’s chapter by repeating some of it in the Australian edition of The Spectator.

Last month I defended Bishop in her previous plagiarism controversy, on the grounds that senior politicians aren’t using their time effectively if they write all their own material. But Louise Adler, the publisher of Liberals and Power, is is taking a much tougher stance in The Age this morning:

It has been disappointing to discover that some politicians are happy to have others do their thinking for them…. Plagiarism and ghost writing are gestures of contempt for the reading public, all of whom are required to vote. …

Politicians suffering from print-envy but too self-important to tie themselves to the desk for the necessary time display intellectual bankruptcy and contempt for their constituents.

This I think is going too far in applying rules about originality and intellectual content that make sense for professional authors, but are much less relevant for professional politicians. One reason that it is fine for politicians to delegate writing is that the only reason they are being asked to say anything is because of the office they hold, and what they say (or others say for them) is inevitably shaped by the requirements of that office.

We can probably safely assume that Brendan Nelson the GP would not be asked to write, or see any need to write, an account of historical Liberal successes and culture wars victories, though that is plausible enough as something coming from the (then) Liberal leader. And we can probably safely assume that Julie Bishop the lawyer would not be asked to write, or see any need to write, an account of Liberal views on industrial relations, though that is plausible enough coming from the (then) shadow minister for industrial relations.

In meeting the requirements of the office, I think there is room for substantial input from the staff of the person who holds the office, who may have extensive knowledge of the institution and what is required of the person holding the office. Indeed, experienced staff will often know more than their boss.

But this does not mean that the relationship between the ghost writer and the public author is unproblematic. Ultimately it is the officeholder who will be held accountable for what he or she says, and so needs to set broad directions for the ghost writer and approve the text. The ghost writer in turn needs to say things that he or she believers the public author would be comfortable with and not to leave unexploded landmines, such as plagiarism or, more routinely, inconsistencies with previous things the public author has said or future things that they might want to say. The hardest thing of all for a ghost writer, in my experience, is to try to capture the voice of the public author, their characteristic way of expressing themselves.

In Liberals and Power, the Switzer/Nelson chapter is a better piece of writing than the Hansen/Bishop chapter, but problematic in the general relationship between ghost writer and public author.

A common criticism of Nelson was that he was ideologically all over the place, with his speeches long on anecdotes and personal experience, and short on thought-through policy or philosophy. A book like this was a chance to to try to get some more coherent thoughts down on paper, but there needs to be some continuity with the style and content of the past. But Nelson doesn’t appear at all in his own chapter, not even in his previous ministerial capacities. Apart from a passing reference to ‘rampant teacher unions’, Nelson’s former education and defence portfolios aren’t mentioned. Though at a broad level the chapter’s themes are Opposition Leader themes, it sounds too much like Tom, and not enough like Nelson. I expect Tom did what he could in the absence of clear guidance and involvement from his employer at the time.

Rather than insisting that politicians always write their own material, we should be particularly impressed when they can do it themselves, and do it well. The standout essay in the book is George Brandis’s ‘John Howard and the Australian Liberal Tradition’. It’s a well-researched and intellectually sharp locating of Howard in 20th century liberal-conservative politics. I’m confident that this, at least, is the work of the person under whose name it appears. I’ve seen work of similarly high quality by Brandis before, it has his forensic barrister’s style, it’s consistent with his previously-expressed philosophical beliefs, and I doubt there is any current Liberal staffer capable of writing it. This chapter is a must for future reading guides on Liberal thinking, and Brandis deserves congratulation for it.

11 thoughts on “Should politicians use ghost writers?

  1. Rather like Andrew I thought that the previous episode of “plagiarism” out of Julie Bishop’s office was quite trivial and scarcely worthy of comment. Like Louise Adler, I think that this time around the situation is quite different and it reveals the anti-intellectualism (who cares about the battle of ideas?) of the Coalition in clear relief.
    Another example, I am not aware of any Liberal who has lampooned Kevin Rudd for the travesty of Hayek’s ideas that he offered in his “criticism” of the Hayekian road to brutopia and “extreme capitalism”.


  2. Anyone who is naive enough to ask Julie Bishop, of all people, to contribute to a book on political ideas is asking for trouble.

    The last idea she had was on her choice of coiffure, and that was a long time ago. And it was probably her hairdresser’s idea anyway.

    Bronwyn Bishop would have been a better choice. Seriously.


  3. You mean she not as gifted and Swan, Spiros? LOL

    Now that’s an intellectual giant the party could be proud of.

    Swan has almost singlehandedly thrown us into a financial crisis when we didn’t have one. He actually has been unique in the western world for taking action to make the situation worse.


  4. JC, this thread is about plagiarism by Liberal Party politicians and you want to talk about the unintended consequences of financial guarantees for banks.

    A bit off topic, don’t you think?

    Although I might add that shadow Treasurer Julie Bishop agreed with Swan’s policy when it was announced. Maybe, lacking ideas of her own, she was just copying him.


  5. Peter van Onselen makes a rather telling point in The Weekend Oz (Inquirer p27 – not online unfortuately). He notes that Nelson and Bishop got someone else to write their essays and Turnbull provided a copy of this Budget response on how bad the ALP is. His conclusion – the three most senior parliamentary Liberal in the year since they lost government did not take the task of writing about the party’s future seriously. This, he noted, reveals a lack of philosophical depth in these senior Liberals and how can the pulic get excited about a politician who doesn’t have anything to say about the future of their own Party.
    I couldn’t agree more!


  6. Actually this reflects more on van Onselen than the Liberals themselves. Did he really expect senior people not to have their stuff ghost-written? Why is he making a fuss about this when it undermines his own project? Did he really commission his wife (or, at least, some other female relative) to write a chapter in his own book?


  7. Plagiarism and ghost writing are gestures of contempt for the reading public, all of whom are required to vote….

    So make voting voluntary and half the criticism is dismissed 😛


  8. Sinclair’s attempt to shift the focus to van Onselen is just absurd. The issue is simply Julie Bishop’s plagiarism – which has been extended to reflect an intellectual ‘desert’ in the top echelon of Liberal politicians. Abbott and Brandis may provide exceptions to this generality.

    This plagiarism charge is certainly more serious than the earlier one but it is the implications that should be of greater concern to Liberal supporters vis the failure to seriously address the apparent philosophical shortcomings highlighted by the last election. Pragmatic politics still needs to be grounded in principles. What we see here is a squandered opportunity by Turnbull and Bishop to commence articulating a serious and coherent perspective on a future Liberal government.

    A separate issue – van Onselan does come across as a bit of a “lightweight” to me but in this issue he is simply editing.


  9. Plagiarism is not a hanging offence in politics, only academia. Mind you some pollies have been hanged, but that is largely due to their own stupidity.

    After the effort in the Weekend Australian I reckon there won’t be anymore ‘inside’ liberal books from van Onselen.

    Posner wrote on this some back but I can’t recall what his argument was – Andrew did a review as I recall, might have been in the Catallaxy days.


  10. Van Onselen annoys the hell out of most former liberal staffers. He has made his name in part on being a “former Liberal adviser”. He was an electorate officer for god’s sake.

    That he was surprised that politicians had staff members write stuff for them shows just how clueless he is about how political offices actually work.


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