I bought this book some time ago, in 2010, when I attended a session at the Woodend Winter Arts Festival. Mary Delahunty, celebrity journalist and former minister in the Bracks’ ALP government, talked about this memoir of her public life in politics and her private grief when her husband died. I bought the book it because I admired Delahunty’s honesty, and I liked supporting the local festival bookseller – but when I got home I put the book aside and forgot all about it.
Life, however, catches up with us in the end, and when I was doing my annual tidy-up of the bookshelves this year, I rediscovered Public Life, Private Grief and it seemed like a good time to read it.
As a memoir, the book is an uneasy hybrid of politics and the personal. On the one hand, it is a scathing critique of politics as it is practised. Delahunty loved being a minister and enjoyed developing policy, but she found the argy-bargy of question time harrowing, and when berating herself for not making more time for her family, she doubts that any speech she ever gave made a difference. It was no secret that Labor’s ‘star recruit’ found the transition from the media to politics difficult, and while she doesn’t name names, she dishes out significant criticism of the factions, the back-room deals and the tedium of it all. There are plenty who would say that she was given opportunities but was out of her depth.
(I have to say that Delahunty naming the setting up of the Victorian Institute of Teaching as her proudest achievement in the Education Portfolio shows that she still doesn’t understand what public education is about. But on the other hand her work in the Planning Portfolio to protect Melbourne’s Green Wedges was pivotal.)
But what most of us didn’t know was that Delahunty’s adjustment to a new career in a minority government was taking place at the same time as her beloved husband Jock Rankin was dying of rampant cancer. It was swift and ruthless. He endured numerous operations but it killed him in less than a year, leaving Delahunty with two teenage children and the loss of her support, her soul-mate and her best friend. Within a very short time, her mother-in-law died too, and then her parents, her father not long after her mother’s sudden heart attack.
The loss of a loved one is never easy, but Public Life, Private Grief shows that being in the unforgiving public eye makes it even harder. All of us feel the disconnect between what we feel and the public face we put on, and that’s no different for nonentities or the famous. Whether we are nobodies walking down the street to post a letter or celebrities fronting the media, in our culture we tend to keep grief private. We try not to weep in public. To most people, we say we are fine when we’re not. We’d rather not talk about it with people we are not close to. That’s not denying loss, that’s behaving with a bit of dignity, IMO.
Where the difference lies is in the unrelenting pressure that’s faced by people in the public eye. Nobodies can retreat, stay home, take a bit of time off work, cut ourselves a little slack in our responsibilities. We can and do ask for help without fearing public exposure or derision that we are not coping. Friends and family – with whom we can be honest about our feelings – will generally be supportive. But in the relentless cut-and-thrust of politics any sign of weakness is there to be exploited, and not just by the Opposition. When Delahunty made mistakes because she was numb with grief and suffering with clinical depression, those jealous of the way she was catapulted into a safe seat were watching, and the Opposition denied government by three independents were watching too. And of course the tabloid ‘gotcha’ media was ruthless.
Yet there were moments of kindness from where one might least expect it, and Delahunty generously acknowledges it in this memoir :
My mouth is dry. My tongue seems to be withering as I speak and I can’t hear. I’m sealed in a mahogany and green leather vacuum pack with only the echo of my voice roiling around in it. On my feet, gripping the polished despatch box leaning into it and the ugly controlling words on the typed page before me. I’m droning on but distracted, in a near empty chamber, watched by a few circling eagles of the Opposition dry-eyed and cold.
It’s been a bad morning but they didn’t know that.
Another voice, strangely soft, tries to penetrate the carapace. I ignore it and plough on. He tries again, my planning portfolio shadow seated close across from me at the parliamentary table.
‘Psst. Are you sure this is the right one? I think it’s the wrong speech.’
A Second Reading Speech is the legislative stone into which governments set laws. It is written by the department on instructions from the minister and Cabinet. When amended and finally approved by the minister and Cabinet it cannot be changed by ad lib or flourish. It becomes part of a ritual and is hurriedly read verbatim into Hansard by the minister responsible for the Bill, usually to an empty chamber.
A ritual that I got wrong.
Foolishly I brush away the gentle query from the Opposition planning spokesman, and just as foolishly I shake off my own mounting misgivings. Why, why am I so stubborn? (p. 183)
Well, as anyone following politics in Victoria knows, it wasn’t the only mistake, and Delahunty was dumped from this portfolio and the rumours about a preselection battle grew. Round about the same time she belatedly sought professional help and eventually resigned in 2006. She published Public Life Private Grief in 2010, and Gravity: Inside the PM’s Office during Her Last Year and Final Days in 2014. In that book (about former Prime Minister Julia Gillard), she again explores resilience amid the demands of public life, and perhaps Delahunty can count among her achievements that since these issues have gained greater prominence in recent times, there have been cases of politicians stepping aside to seek help when they need it.
Author: Mary Delahunty
Title: Public Life, Private Grief
Publisher: Hardie Grant Books, 2010
Source: personal library, purchased from New Leaves Bookshop Woodend, $29.95
Fishpond: Public Life, Private Grief; (There were three second-hand copies available on the day I looked).