How to Write a Political Novel

This is an edited version of a talk given at the Wheeler Centre on September 3 as part of the Melbourne Writers Festival. Nicholas Hasluck’s novel Dismissal was published by HarperCollins in July, and reviewed by Patrick Morgan in the September Quadrant. 

If art be regarded as the skill applied to the imitation of tangible objects or events, as in a painting or a play, then a session at the Wheeler Centre devoted to the art of criticism will inevitably touch upon the relationship between reality and illusion. In describing me as a former Chair of the Literature Board and of the Commonwealth Writers Prize, the program creates the illusion that I may have much to say about the finer points of literary criticism, but the reality is that I was invited because I have just published a novel called Dismissal about the downfall of the Whitlam government. So in speaking about the art of criticism I have in mind to talk principally about the standing of political novels in Australia, drawing upon my own recent experience.

Let me begin with a piece published in the Australian in 2002 by the influential literary critic Luke Slattery, who went on to become editor of the Australian Literary Review. Slattery starts by recalling an intriguing conversation that he had with a mysterious American on the eve of the Whitlam dismissal and goes on to lament the absence of any novel about the so-called “Fraser coup”. He poses the question: Where is the vein of political fiction that might enrich our literature? Sadly, Slattery complains, Australian fiction writers fail spectacularly to engage with the political issues, ideals and events that defined the twentieth century. He says the Australian novel is more comfortable either with domesticity or rusticity or, of late, colonial ventriloquism and historical fiction that might resonate with this.

There is some truth in these acerbic observations, but not the whole truth. They overlook the fact that literary editors and critics including Mr Slattery himself have a patchy record in reviewing political fiction. Dismissal, a novel of precisely the kind Mr Slattery once clamoured for, was sent to his journal for review but to no avail. Likewise for the Australian Book Review, even though it is funded to reflect the literary scene. On the other hand, in publications principally concerned with current affairs such as the Spectator and Quadrant reviews appeared promptly.

So what is it about the political novel in Australia that sets up a degree of resistance to the genre in literary circles? Where does such a novel fit within the process of appraisal?

Novelists are often advised to write about what they know. After all, nothing can be of compelling interest to the reader that wasn’t first of personal importance to the writer, for we tend to care about what we know and what we might lose if we neglect the fruits of our own experience. The storyteller’s task is to make us see and feel vividly what the characters in the tale go through.

Unfortunately, in Australian literary circles, where orthodoxies of one kind or another are ever-present, this credo can sometimes be calibrated to suggest that novelists who want to do well should write only about what they know and in a way that conforms to the current mindset. The consequence is that in a country where very few creative writers have run for office, or are involved in day-to-day politics, political novels of serious intent are rare. They are oddities. A political novel written by some insightful scribe—an experienced journalist perhaps, or a former parliamentarian—which shows that the author is at ease in the corridors of power and knows what he’s talking about, but which fails to endorse the current mindset, may well be greeted by the literary gatekeepers with a deep suspicion, especially if the storyteller seems to be promoting a cause he believes in. Gatekeeping, as George Orwell sought to show in his famous novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, where he skilfully linked his fictional characters to the facts and realpolitik around him, is a serious business. By those who wish to control the present and the future, unorthodox opinions may eventually be characterised as “thought crimes”.

There is a further complication of the kind mentioned by the well-known American novelist Gore Vidal in his essay “The Agreed-Upon Facts”. If the plot in question proceeds against a background of actual political events, inviting scrutiny of real people such as President Warren Harding or the Roosevelts, the work is then open to attack upon several extra fronts. In addition to subjecting the novelist’s handiwork to the usual rounds of literary grapeshot—poor style, thin plot and so forth—a truculent critic may challenge not only the facts behind the story but the supposed bias of the author in selecting certain facts over others; or, putting it another way, in preferring facts that obstruct the critic’s own political opinions, the keeper’s gate to the moral high ground. 

I was conscious of these potential pitfalls when I started work on Dismissal. The novel revisits the constitutional crisis preceding the dismissal of the Prime Minister, Gough Whitlam, by the Governor-General of the Commonwealth of Australia, Sir John Kerr, on November 11, 1975, and ends with the deposed leader of the Labor Party standing on the front steps of the national parliament in Canberra, microphone in hand, urging his supporters to “maintain your rage”.

That day of reckoning marked the end of one controversy—the blocking of supply bills by Liberal Party senators—but created another: whether the Governor-General was entitled to or should have acted as he did in deposing a government with a majority in the House of Representatives, and contrary to the wishes of the Prime Minister.

Both of these controversies aroused fierce passions at the time, and both have a continuing political relevance. Even if the Senate’s power to block supply is conceded, political parties, or individual politicians holding the balance of power in that chamber, will think carefully before exercising the power on some future occasion. The scope of the governor-general’s reserve powers remain undefined but an incumbent’s approach to a political stalemate will undoubtedly be affected by the controversy surrounding Remembrance Day 1975.

Since that time, lawyers, journalists and historians have written about these issues at length. Various memoirs provide some guidance to what the principal figures were thinking at the time, but there will be many readers, particularly of a younger generation, who now want to know what it felt like to be there on the day; what it feels like to be dismissed. And they will be looking to have these and other tidbits served up to them in an easily digestible form. In a novel perhaps!

Novelists are always interested in what people have felt in the course of a drama. They look for a pattern, a way of making sense of upheavals and traumatic happenings, be they domestic or public events. Hence, a novel about the day of reckoning should not be regarded as outlandish or impermissible, especially in a case that brings strong emotions into play with portrayals of thwarted ambitions, double dealing, indecision and chicanery in the manner of a Shakespearean tragedy.

In such a case the critical question for the novelist is how best to tell the story. Should one adopt the modus operandi of Robert Penn Warren, whose fine postwar novel All the King’s Men was patently a recreation of the assassination of Huey Long, the so-called “Louisiana Kingfish”, but cast as a work of fiction with the characters disguised by fictional names? Or will it be better to employ Gore Vidal’s method of attributing words and deeds to real figures within a framework of the main and undisputed facts of the relevant historical period: what he calls “the agreed-upon facts”?

The 1975 crisis was of such an extraordinary nature that it pushed me towards the second course, for a veil of fiction would have simply added an air of implausibility to the action. Better by far to place the real figures in the background, but acting consistently with what they admitted to having said and done, leaving most of the stage to a cast of fictional characters moving about in the foreground. So in the end I constructed my novel Dismissal as a blend of fact and fiction, as a way of exploring gaps in the record, some of the silences at the heart of the affair, the feeling on the day, various mysteries.

Were the titans at the centre of the stage—Whitlam, Fraser, Barwick, Kerr—affected by past ties or by personal flaws or vagaries of character? What motivated Sir John Kerr to move against the Labor leader who had appointed him to high office? Could steps have been taken to resolve the impasse concerning supply by some means other than a sacking, and thereby save the governing regime, including its imposing principal and all his courtiers? And as to the fictional characters, the brightly-costumed players gossiping and conniving in a corner by the footlights, close enough to the audience to be listened to attentively—their bawdy asides, their dark suspicions—was anything said or done by them, or by real people like them, an influence upon the outcome?

Questions of this kind led inexorably to a critical period of thirty minutes or so in King’s Hall at lunchtime on the day of reckoning—when things could have gone either way for the opposing parties—and to other intriguing issues. Did the elements of the drama and the characters of the principal players allow for a different denouement before the curtain fell? Was there a moment of ambiguity in King’s Hall, fraught with tension, when an alternative history of the affair came close to appearing, the shadow of its offstage presence projected on the parquetry as if in some ominous streetscape conjured up by Giorgio de Chirico? It was in order to dwell upon the possibilities of such a moment that it became necessary for me to flesh out the fictional characters in early chapters of the novel and to establish their supposed links to the real figures, and to the crisis that brought them all to Canberra. 

So let me now return to the notion that a writer should write about what he knows. I have been a lawyer and a writer for over forty years, and I have also served on various committees that have taken me to the “corridors of power” in Canberra from time to time. Moreover, as the son of a federal cabinet minister who went on to serve as governor-general during the last phase of a long-running Liberal government and the first term of the incoming Whitlam government—Sir Paul Hasluck—I have not only taken an interest in parliamentary proceedings since my teenage years but also, in later life, I have had the opportunity to become familiar with many of the locations featured in the novel: Admiralty House in Sydney, the old Parliament House in Canberra and Government House at Yarralumla. I can’t pretend to have the same depth of knowledge about the workings of parliamentary life as an experienced journalist or a practising politician, but I can claim to have had some association at least with the places and most of the real figures mentioned in the story.

My claim to be interested in and to know a little of the matters worked into the fabric of my novel brings me now to one of the other areas of potential critique: can it be said that Dismissal was written in order to advance the author’s political beliefs and, if so, is the work to be reviewed accordingly?

In my own case, coming from the background I have described, I was left in a strange state of ambivalence on the day of the dismissal as I listened to the radio while driving home from a court hearing in Yalgoo, a small town north of Perth. My father had been in office as governor-general when the Whitlam government was formed. He had worked closely with the new prime minister and had developed a high regard for him personally, and for the way in which Gough Whitlam respected the conventions associated with his position. I had myself seen enough of Whitlam at Government House and elsewhere to understand the special nature of their relationship.

If as I have suggested novelists always look for a pattern in events that fascinate or trouble them, insights that may help them to understand aspects of their own personalities or experience, here was a case in point: a need to discover a shape within the mass of contradictory feelings. When this is combined with advice to write about what one knows, a novel is likely to follow, although it might, as in this case, take years or even decades to complete.

There was little danger of my seeking to advance a strongly partisan political view about the dismissal, a rabid denunciation of Whitlam’s imagined enemies on the day of reckoning, or, on the other hand, a fierce condemnation of the outgoing government and Whitlam himself, because these weren’t the matters that were troubling me. The hunger behind the writing of this book was to resolve the sense of ambivalence I experienced initially and harboured for many years: the need to find a pattern linked to issues of trust and betrayal.

Novelists are usually well aware, of course, that in the end the impulse behind a book has to be subordinated to various pragmatic considerations—the need to create a plausible story, a gripping plot, a cast of interesting characters. In looking at the matters of interest to me it was immediately obvious that, quite apart from any political inclinations of my own, the story in question would have to be told from the point of view of the losing side. The dictates of drama suggest that the pull of a story, the awe we feel while in the grip of a compelling tale, are felt most strongly when a figure we have seen at close quarters, once high and mighty, but now in peril, is overthrown. There must be a change of fortune from good to bad; reversal followed by recognition; catharsis. It is for that reason, essentially, that in Dismissal the crucial events are unfolded by Roy Temple QC, a fictional character who was once on the far Left of Australian politics, but in the period leading up to Remembrance Day has purportedly worked his way into the inner circle of the Whitlam government—a courtier with his own ambitions, one who has much to lose.

For the sake of narrative complexity—another interesting puzzle to intrigue the reader—a degree of ambiguity is created as to where Roy Temple has finally come to rest in the political spectrum. This additional layer was necessary, I concluded, not only to establish that the action in the foreground of the drama is fiction, but to avert the natural tendency of knowledgeable readers (especially those sustained principally by a diet of non-fiction) to assume that as the actual events will be covered in an expected order, that there might be grounds for complaining about a lack of tension, the predictability of it all.

This lesson was brought home to me recently in watching a television series about the Kennedys. The creative team used their imaginations freely in creating domestic scenes—private moments involving Jack or Bobby, or even Marilyn, that seemed to be generally consistent with the “agreed-upon-facts” but with murmurings and intimate asides which could only have been invented—and yet the overarching narrative clearly required coverage of the well-known big events: the Bay of Pigs fiasco, the Cuban missile crisis, the assassination in Dallas, the shooting of the other brother. It was all well done, but somehow the story lacked surprise, or the sense of discovering something new, an extra twist dramatising a rebirth of the oft-told tale.

For these reasons, I laboured to ensure in the writing of Dismissal that the sub-plot concerning Roy Temple’s relationship with his friends on the far Left was gradually unfolded in counterpoint to the main political events. It had to resonate with the central theme of trust and betrayal. The sub-plot was shaped also to allow for the possibility that the presence of Roy Temple and his friends, as advisers, might involve the beleaguered government in a fresh controversy, if allegations concerning their past ties were revived. And that, of course, brings me back to another area of difficulty for the political novelist working within a framework of actuality—the process of selecting the historical facts and matters to be used. 

Even historians are usually prepared to acknowledge that what is selected can change the emphasis of the story in significant ways. They might also be prepared to accept that many of the sources and contemporary records they draw upon, especially in the case of politicians, are inevitably infused with elements of fiction. With this thought in mind, apparently, while speaking of his novel about President Warren Harding, Gore Vidal observed: “In effect, the press invents us all. And the later biographer or historian can only select, from the mass of crude fictions and part-truths, those facts that his contemporaries are willing to agree upon.” In the present case the process of selection was influenced by my determination not to misrepresent or stray beyond the agreed-upon facts, but recognising a need, in order to advance the plot, to draw the reader’s attention to gaps in the record, opportunities for speculation. Accordingly, my novel plays upon and opens up three main areas of ambiguity.

First, the findings of the Petrov Commission in the mid-1950s allowed room for speculation that in the Cold War era government bodies in the United States, Great Britain and Australia had been penetrated by Soviet agents and sympathisers at the highest level, although the extent of the penetration was not fully known even as late as November 1975. Indeed, it was only a few years after the Whitlam dismissal, as emerged during the Spycatcher trial in Sydney, that a senior figure in MI5, Sir Roger Hollis, who came to Australia in Evatt’s time to help set up the Australian Security Intelligence Organisation, ASIO, was himself under investigation as a possible Soviet spy.

Were there people like Philby and Hollis in Australia, with an interest in atomic secrets related to the bomb tests on the Monte Bello islands and at Maralinga—codenamed “Enormaz” in the Petrov papers—who were also under suspicion? If so, were such people named in the notorious Document J, which was described by counsel assisting the Petrov Commission as “a farrago of facts, falsity and filth”. The commission suppressed the document but it became clear later that it would have been released by Whitlam in 1975 but for the dismissal.

It was against this background in the novel that Roy Temple and his friends, some of whom (supposedly) gave evidence before the Petrov Commission about their alleged links to the Communist Party apparatchik Walter Seddon Clayton (codenamed “Claude”), can be taken to have feared throughout the constitutional crisis that scurrilous, perhaps defamatory, imputations might suddenly come to light that would be highly damaging, and affect whatever solutions to the crisis were being proposed. The logic of the fictional narrative inevitably required that a related issue be explored: were any steps taken to ensure that Document J wasn’t published?

There are a number of other interesting areas of ambiguity which, in the make-believe world of the storyteller, invite a degree of poetic licence, a tweaking of reality. These can be discovered in the body of the novel but, for present purposes, while dwelling upon the methods underlying the creation of a political novel, two further examples will suffice.

The events preceding the fall of the Whitlam government included a fateful meeting of the Executive Council in the dining room of the Prime Minister’s residence in Canberra—The Lodge—on Friday December 13, 1974, exactly one year to the day before the Labor Party was defeated in the double-dissolution election following the dismissal. It can be taken as an undisputed or agreed-upon fact that late in the evening of that day, after a lengthy period of contentious debate involving Treasury officials and governmental legal advisers, an executive council minute was signed by four ministers: Gough Whitlam, Lionel Murphy, Jim Cairns and the energetic Minister for Minerals and Energy Rex Connor—known as “the Strangler”. It authorised Connor “to borrow for temporary purposes $US4000 million” in order to provide “immediate protection for Australia in regard to supply of minerals and energy and to deal with current and immediately foreseeable unemployment in Australia”.

Rex Connor’s authority—a green light encouraging him to persist in an ill-fated quest to garner Middle Eastern petro-dollars via the mysterious Pakistani money trader Tirath Khemlani—was revoked before any overseas funds were actually obtained. But the revocation wasn’t enough to neutralise the political controversy arising out of these events, generally known as the “loans scandal”—an imbroglio that encouraged the Liberals under Fraser to block supply and precipitate the dismissal.

There is a degree of ambiguity in all of this as to how exactly Lionel Murphy arrived at his “courageous” opinion (as Sir Humphrey Appleby might have described it) that such a loan could be characterised as being “for temporary purposes”. Could it be that one of Murphy’s sources of advice was a trusted confidant outside the official circle, a barrister from Sydney perhaps, not previously known to the press gallery or to members of the Attorney-General’s staff, but with an experience of international dealings dating back to the formation of the United Nations at the San Francisco Conference, an adviser such as Roy Temple QC? If so, what factors lay behind the advice that was given? Was Temple the source of any other contentious advice in the period leading up to the dismissal or in King’s Hall at lunchtime on the day itself?

This brings me finally to another area of ambiguity. It appears to be common ground among observers of the scene that in his study at Government House, at about 1 p.m. on the day of reckoning, Sir John Kerr handed Prime Minister Whitlam a letter effecting the dismissal. Malcolm Fraser, who was elsewhere on the premises at that time, was sworn in as a “caretaker” prime minister shortly afterwards, subject to his undertaking that upon the passing of the supply bills he would advise a double dissolution of both houses of parliament and continue to serve as a caretaker until the outcome of the subsequent election was known. It was not known how exactly he would push the supply bills through an evenly-divided Senate.

In the current era of mobile phones, e-mail, texting and obsessive twitterings—instant communication—news of the dismissal in the circumstances I have just described would have reached every corner of Parliament House in a matter of minutes. But as we are inclined to say of history: the past is another country. All the contemporary accounts suggest that when the Labor leader in the Senate, Ken Wriedt, and those close to him entered the Senate chamber after lunch to renew their attempt to have the supply bills passed, they were unaware that the constitutional crisis that had been running onwards for the past month or so, worsening day by day as money to fund the workings of government ran out, had suddenly been turned upside down. Whitlam was out; Fraser was in; and now it suited the Liberals to have the supply bills passed.

This has always been a puzzling feature of the day, the thirty minutes or so before the Senate resumed, and as to how it came about that Wriedt and his colleagues voted with the Liberals to pass the supply bills, providing Malcolm Fraser with what he wanted.

The novel explores this area of ambiguity by tracking the movements of Roy Temple and his friends and by providing an account of what they said and did in pursuit of what was said to be a plan to save the Whitlam government. Or was it a plan to save themselves? This is not the place to reveal the outcome of whatever plans were afoot, for that emerges in the novel. 

Let me sum up. I began by mentioning George Orwell’s novel Nineteen Eighty-Four, and in doing so I suggested that imagined characters can reveal truths about the world we live in, that fiction can illuminate the facts. Orwell’s speculations about the mood around him, and about the future, were undoubtedly closer to fiction than to fact, but his dystopian vision has now become part of our reality. According to the British writer Allan Massie: 

The good historical novelist recognises that human nature is much the same in every generation. He seeks to re-create the way of life and habits of thought and feeling in a past period of history convincingly while at the same time realising, and letting the reader see, that people who lived then were not the abstractions they may be presented as by historians, but made of flesh and blood like us … A novel set back in time may, if it is good, say as much about what it is to be alive as one set in the next street or another country today. 

A compelling narrative of any kind brings into play and is enriched by the reader’s imagination. Readers who seek to be more fully informed about the Whitlam dismissal or wish to be assured of greater accuracy will inevitably move beyond the work of fiction and go to the memoirs of the protagonists, and then to the various histories of the affair, or even to legal texts. I invite them to do so.

Historians, knowledgeable readers and those with an axe to grind, no doubt, including the literary gatekeepers who see only a limited role for political novels in their domain, may well be inclined to question the legitimacy of a novel concerning real events, fearing that unsuspecting readers, deprived of footnotes and other aids that might assist them to distinguish between fact and fiction, will be led astray.

I would respond in this way: in the case of an author who has some claim to be writing about what he knows, the word “novel” on the cover of the book is both a warning sign to be careful and an invitation; that is, an encouragement to step through the looking-glass in order to look at the world in a new light. To paraphrase W.B. Yeats: in dreams begin responsibilities. The make-believe world behind the looking-glass may prove to be of use in determining what we have to forget, what we must remember, and what can only be supplied by our imaginations in order to comprehend what an important moment in Australian political history felt like. At the very least, if my plea is found wanting, a novel such as Dismissal may serve to underline the importance of mobile phones. 

Leave a Reply