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.