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Book review: Gareth Evans' 'Incorrigible Optimist: A Political Memoir'

A humorous, insightful reflection on a busy and deeply engaged life.

The political memoir, especially in Australia, can make for heavy reading: self-aggrandisement, ego-boosting, dubious justification and the settling of old scores and slights, real or imagined. But not so with the ebullient Gareth Evans, one of Australia's outstanding public figures of the modern age, whose latest book, his 12th, crackles with wit, self-deprecating humour and illuminating insights into both politics and the complexities of public policy. He has few, if any, regrets; his judgments, while acute, are generous. The title, Incorrigible Optimist, is most apposite.

Since entering the Senate in the late 1970s and serving with distinction in the Hawke and Keating governments, Evans went on to grace the international stage as head of the Brussels-based international Crisis Group before becoming the Australian National University's chancellor in 2010.

Evans has always been a good talker and an amusing raconteur; such qualities abound in this elegant, almost conversational memoir of a busy, rich, engaged and very examined life.

In the early 1990s, The Canberra Times sent me to talk to the then foreign minister to write a profile. He agreed to a 20-minute interview, but the allotted time came and went and, despite his staff's efforts to get him to stick to his schedule, he was happy to go on talking, embellishing a story here, adding a reflection there. He was expansive and exuberant.

On the way out after what seemed the best part of an hour, or perhaps even longer, a very senior official, who had been kept waiting, looked up at me, saying: "Oh, it was only you he was meeting. No doubt you engaged him on his favourite subject: Gareth Evans." It was, I thought, a needlessly waspish comment.

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Anyway, as one might expect in a memoir, there is a lot of Evans here – and it is a far from unattractive or intrusive presence; rather, it is an absorbing and thoughtful meditation on events, issues and processes that Evans has been part of for four decades.

An early supporter of Bob Hawke, Evans looks back on Labor's most successful leader with undisguised admiration. Hawke, as leader, had four exceptional strengths, he writes: the ability to craft a grand narrative; a facility to connect with people; a readiness to operate collegiately; and – in contrast to the earlier larrikin persona – the maintenance of both personal and institutional discipline.

Hawke appointed Evans to the foreign ministry after Bill Hayden, the man Hawke deposed as Labor leader, vacated the post to become governor-general. But Evans writes he was not Hawke's first choice for the plum job. That was Kim Beazley, but Beazley's preference was to stay at defence. Evans had different views on some of those most closely held by Hawke, notably the United States alliance and the Middle East.

Evans notes wryly how Hawke later described him as "the best and most widely respected foreign minister in Australia's history", but not before taking out insurance by appointing an old friend, Richard Woolcott, as head of his department.

"It did not take me long to discover that his very explicit prime-ministerial brief was to curb my more adventurous instincts. This mission evidently gave my new secretary the impression that he should see himself as the lead policymaker in the enterprise, and feel free to make public statements accordingly." But after a testy start, the two crafted a sound working relationship.

Evans was one of the Hawke loyalists – along with Beazley, Robert Ray, Michael Duffy, Gerry Hand and Nick Bolkus — who crowded into Hawke's office on December 11, 1991, and urge him to resign in the face of a challenge from Paul Keating. Evans' very colloquial advice to Hawke is part of political folklore: "Pull out, digger, the dogs are pissing on your swag."

Evans likens the current state of the Senate with the bar scene from Star Wars.

Of Keating, who succeeded Hawke, Evans writes of his two greatest strengths as a political leader: a clear sense of strategic direction that underpinned everything he did and, above all, an unrivalled capacity to communicate at every relevant level.

Evans was one of the outstanding performers in the two Labor governments that stretched from 1983 to 1996, which he writes had "come to be very broadly accepted, even by non-Labor people, as the Australian gold standard". This is no empty boast; it's doubtful any government since has matched these administrations for sheer quality in both intellectual firepower and policy boldness.

"The Hawke-Keating period was successful not because it lacked the kind of internal tensions – between old bulls and younger bulls, and multiple strong personalities with competing egos and ambitions – that have roiled so many other governments, not least our Rudd and Gillard Labor successors," he writes. "It was because those tensions were successfully managed, with a high level of mutual respect between cabinet ministers, and commitment to the common cause, always operating as a brake on self-indulgent personality politics."

Evans attributes the sustained reformist momentum of the Hawke-Keating governments to four key factors: a clear philosophy, sense of policy direction and narrative; an effective and systematic governing process; a readiness to operate collectively on the basis of argument rather than authority; and a willingness to listen and consult.

The Australian Public Service is credited with playing a major part in both governments. Evans writes how the government both respected and welcomed the APS's advice, not just in policy implementation but also in conceptualisation and design, noting there were at least as many public servants seconded to ministerial offices as political and personal staff. He is unstinting in his praise for the work of the public service, singling out "assiduous mentoring" from senior people such as Peter Wilenski, Alan Woods and Graham Evans in his various ministerial roles.

He writes about one of his hardest tasks: shepherding the complex Native Title Bill through the Senate in late 1993, courtesy of his role as leader of the government but in a chamber where the government lacked a majority. It was one of the most complex pieces of legislation to come before the chamber, and occupyed a then record 52 hours of debate.

Because of his legal background, Evans writes how he was expected to know something about the finer points of property law – "an entirely misplaced assumption". The only thing that enabled him to manage the process and hold the substantive debate together – both inside and outside parliament – was that he had "two unbelievably good advisers sitting beside me throughout: Robert Orr from the Attorney-General's Department and Mike Dillon from Aboriginal Affairs".

They were supported in turn by a cross-departmental team led by Sandy Hollway, who had been working on the issue for several months. "Throughout the course of my ministerial career, I was privileged to work with many spectacularly capable public servants, who rarely get the acknowledgement they deserve, and these were among the cream of the cream."

While he admitted to missing, for a time, the cut and thrust of politics after 21 years, he looks on the political scene now with little enthusiasm, likening the current state of the Senate with the bar scene from Star Wars. He worries about government by slogan and an apparent policy vacuum, noting that Australia's political malaise, like that of other Western democracies, suffers from multiple anxieties: economic, security and cultural.

In a thoughtful coda, he urges new thinking on a range of issues and embracing a politics that reaches out to and resonates with the disaffected. He is, in keeping with the memoir's title, incorrigibly optimistic, citing in his final sentence the exhortation of US union activist Joe Hill, just before his execution in 1915: "Don't waste time mourning, organise!"

Dr Norman Abjorensen is a visiting fellow at the Australian National University's Crawford school of public policy. norman.abjorensen@anu.edu.au

Incorrigible Optimist: A Political Memoir, by Gareth Evans, is published by Melbourne University Press (October 2017).