Books I’ve been reading

The Secret City

The Secret City is a collaboration between Steve Lewis and Chris Uhlmann, a thriller set in the midst of Canberra. It tells the story of the under-handed dealings as China and the US struggle over Australia, and the ups and downs of players in the Australian political arena.

On one level, the story feels incredibly … threadbare, I suppose. The writing is sparse to the point of being lazy – there’s no effort to evoke a scene, or create a sense of what a character is experiencing, beyond outright telling the reader. This isn’t writing that will stay with you. Instead, it relies on a shorthand – if you’ve visited Canberra you may recognise some of the places that are referenced.

More to the point, if you follow Australian politics, some of the characters may be familiar. This, in part, is where the novel feels deeply disappointing. Rather than an attempt to create new characters, or to give life to the ones they’ve renamed, they’re happy to simply rebadge a few major figures, with different names, genders, and occasionally a different political allegiance, but they’re immediately identifiable, none the less. There’s a power-hungry foreign policy wonk who becomes prime minister, only to be back-stabbed by a deputy with strong union ties, who’s loyally served by a chief of staff with a Greek heritage, who’s come from Treasury. There’s a defence minister who wants to cut spending, and struggles with a controversy over a link to a foreign national.

The saving grace for the series is the mystery plot, which propels the story forward. It tells of the struggles of Australian political actors as they try to chart a course (between? towards? away from?) the US and China, and the choices they make. At times that feels hilariously implausible, and at others terrifyingly real.

This isn’t a piece that will stay with you, but it’s not bad an airplane page-turner.

The Golden Rule

The Golden Rule: The Investment Theory of Party Competition (1995), by Thomas Ferguson, is one of those disappointing things – a poorly written book on an interesting topic. Simply put, Ferguson’s thesis is roughly that political systems are driven by donors rather than voters, and that major political shifts happen not because a tipping point in demographic change, but because economic changes create new coalitions of ‘investors’ (political donors).

Ferguson takes a few steps towards rigorous analysis – he includes some ideas about why it is that voters may be less influential than donors, including different levels of resourcing and coordination. But frustratingly, a few half-baked, tentative ideas are all we get. Ferguson never lays out a comprehensive, well thought through thesis or theory, with a rigorous analysis that makes clear predictions. Instead, we’re left with a few hand-wavey generalizations. That means that at several points, Ferguson seems to contradict himself – first arguing that the media and voter perceptions don’t matter, then going on to use them in his information stories as he talks about particular elections.

Worse yet, the book itself is simply a rebadged set of papers – there’s no clear sense of coherence, and some of the introductory sections in each repeat each other. It’s insulting to buy what you think is a crafted book, and realise the author’s simply thrown things together. As I read back through my notes, I become ever more incensed; there are several points where he writes things like ‘In a longer analysis it would be desirable …’, or says that it’s not possible to examine an issue in the space he has. That may fly in a journal article, but it’s insulting to write what is nominally a book on your ideas, and then tell the reader you couldn’t be bothered thinking them through fully.

One useful concrete suggestion that emerges from his ideas, is that lowering the cost of participation in democracy is a very worthwhile endeavour.

Ferguson’s work doesn’t seem to have spawned any critical academic response, or engagement. While his central idea is an interesting one, I suppose that’s unsurprising for a piece of writing as half baked as this. Not worth it unless you’re doing your PhD in this area.


… I was convinced that modern students of politics resemble adherents of Ptolemy in a Copernican world-and that the now fashionable “rational choice” approaches to analyzing electoral systems produced not rigor but mortis. 

The real market for political parties is defined by major investors, who generally have good and clear reasons for investing to control the state. 

Newspapers, Politics and English Society: 1695-1855 by Hannah Barker

It’s been a while since I read this one, so my memory is a little fuzzy. It’s a general text, and to some extent the material it works through can feel a little obvious, at a political / theoretical level. But it is fascinating to read about the different issues in the newspaper industry, in a very different context. One thing that I do remember standing out is the extent of partisan polarisation between publications. While I think it’s easy to decry the partisan polarisation of contemporary media, I think that often relies on some abstract, hypothetical scenario where there were papers that were seen by all as neutral arbiters. But in fact, going back quite a long time, newspapers have approached issues from and been aligned with particular viewpoints.

As I look back through my notes, I’m reminded how fascinating parts of this were. If you find politics and history interesting, you may well enjoy this one.


Neither the inability to read nor the high cost of newspapers necessarily prevented the bulk of the population from discovering their contents. Reading aloud – either in private homes or at public meetings – was a common activity, and the shared purchase and hire of newspapers, coupled with their presence in coffee-houses, pubs and shops, as well as in increasing numbers of subscription reading rooms (both genteel and lowly) and circulating libraries, made them accessible to many. 

As has been noted, the lapsing of the Printing Act of 1695 freed the press from considerable legal restraints. According to Schowerer, this was not the result of deliberate planning on the part of the government, but reflected instead its preoccupation with other matters. Downie, on the other hand, maintains that the licensing system ended because of its fundamental inefficiency. 

Parliament’s attempts to protect its privileges [at one point, Parliamentary debates could not be published] in this matter ultimately failed, and produced a legal battle in which recalcitrant printers emerged as popular heroes. 

Between the lapsing of the Printing Act in 1695 and the removal of stamp duty in 1855, English newspapers were transformed from the reading matter of a handful of the political and social elite to the main source of information on current debates and contemporary affairs for the majority of the population … the character of most newspapers in the mid-nineteenth century was self-confident, opinionated, probing and critical in ways which would also have appeared alien to earlier newspaper readers … Most importantly, newspapers helped to articulate, focus and formulate the growing force of public opinion … 





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