The well-read politician

In 2002, when editor of The Northern Rivers Echo in Lismore, I wrote this reading list as a bit of fun advice for politicians on what to read to get ahead. Looking back, it reminds me that I once read far more widely in my mid-30s than I do now (There are too many food-related books piled up beside my bed). These books remain good reading, though you could probably add The Latham Diaries, if only as a warning akin to the parable of the frog and the scorpion.

Abandon all hope, ye who enter Canberra... Dante's Inferno reserved a special place in hell for politicians

Since a law degree seems to be the primer course for aspiring politicians nowadays, I’d like to offer a slightly broader view of the world for people who will spend the rest of their elected lives cosseted by advisers, minders, apparatchiks, focus groups, eager consultants and media ops.

You are what you read, so read widely


The Divine Comedy by Dante, especially book 1, Inferno

As you descend to the lower circles of hell, guided by the poet Latham and Beatrice Mirabella, note what happens to politicians who behave badly in this life.


Catch 22 by Joseph Heller

If I need to explain why, don’t bother starting this program. But remember what happened to John Major Major Major in the UK.


Tao te Ching by Lao Tzu

In more recent years, the Chinese perspective on government has been a little fraught, but this Taoist classic, written by an older contemporary of Confucius, is a moral treatise on personal conduct and government. Consider the following lines:

When government is muddle

The people are simple;

When the government is alert

The people are cunning.

It is on disaster that good fortune perches;


It is beneath good fortune that disaster crouches.


The Unconscious Civilisation by John Ralston Saul

Prolix deficiency? Can’t see the very good policy for the rhetoric? Wondering what your leader means by offering his fulsome support?

Let John cut through the bullshit and lead you to a nirvana where a little backbench knowledge can be a dangerous thing.


Reworking Success by Robert Theobald

How’s the view from the top of the greasy pole? Let Bob suggest an alternative to the current economic maxim that ‘nothing exceeds like excess’.


Productive Diversity by Bill Cope and Mary Kalantzis

While Nick Bolkus and Phil Ruddock offer a jacket blurb for this landmark book on the economic benefits from multiculturalism, communication and negotiation in the workplace, the real trick is acting on its ideas – and what they call ‘strategic optimism’.


Collected poems by Judith Wright

Collected poems by AD Hope

Sub-human redneck poems by Les Murray

A little soul food. It’d be nice to think that when Les finally wanders off to catch up with his God, the Australian Parliament would take the time to eulogise his contribution to national culture in the way it carries on about blokes who are good at sport.

Canberra blew it when we lost Wright and Hope, both Bradmans of an idea wrapped in beautiful and typically Australian language. They didn’t even notice their passing. ¬†There’s more to life than a reform agenda.


Down Under by Bill Bryson.

Learn effective techniques to help remember the name of the prime minister. A good outside observers perspective on our politically-inspired obsession with cricket.


The Chosen by David Ireland

Don’t understand why the polls suggest an ungrateful electorate is ready to toss you out? Ireland offers 52 gloriously rendered ordinary Aussies – their politics, sexuality, humour, social and spiritual aspirations. A useful guide if you’ve never actually spoken to the voters.


Scents and sensuality by Dr Max Lake

Why pay consultants a small fortune to fill your wine cellar? Let Max remind you there’s more to wining and dining than keeping the party donations flowing.


John Laws’ Book of Irreverent Logic by John Laws

Australia’s leading irony man at the height of his post-modern Zen. Many people take it seriously, including our national leaders. If you can figure out why, when those around you are losing their seats, then you’ll be a man my son.


Off the Rails by Margo Kingston

Running out of photo opportunities and media interest? Let the media’s leading pamphleteer offer her insights on how to spice up your political life and get the zany back in your zeitgeist. Confuse your opponents and even yourself.


Leviathan by John Birmingham

And this is the city the nation’s leader chose to call home. Perhaps we can’t help the way we carry on after all.


Wandjuk Marika: Life Story by Wandjuk Marika, Jennifer Isaacs

The extraordinary and rich tale of a great Australian artist and thinker. There’s more to indigenous culture than painted jumbos and Sothebys.


Vox by Nicholson Baker

Politics and sex go together like yes and no. And since you’ll often be away from your electorate and loved ones, this novel, popular with Shane Warne, is a handy guide to keeping your name out of the Sunday papers.


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