Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 30, 2018

On Borrowed Time (2018), by Robert Manne

On Borrowed Time is a great new collection of Robert Manne’s essays, harvested partly from his Quarterly Essays and The Monthly (which are Schwarz Publishing media), but also from The Conversation, The Good Weekend, The Guardian, The Weekend Australian and The Monthly’s Blog.  Because I read some of these publications regularly I have already read some of these essays (and reviewed QE #43 Bad News, Murdoch’s Australian and the Shaping of the Nation an excerpt from which is the first in The Murdoch Empire section), so what I’ve done here is to group the essays by their source so that you can see whether the book is good value for you (as it is for me).

The table of contents groups the essays under the headings and I’ve tagged them with their initials:

  • Climate Change (CC)
  • The Murdoch Empire (TME)
  • Australian Politics (AP)
  • Australia and Asylum Seekers (A&AS)
  • Australian History (AH)
  • The United States (TUS)
  • The Islamic State (TIS) and
  • The University (TU)

The sources of the essays are:

  • The Monthly:
    • ‘Dark Victory’ 2012 (CC);
    • ‘Naomi Klein, This Changes Everything’ 2015;
    • ‘Rupert Murdoch’s Politics’ 2013 (TME);
    • ‘Malcolm Turnbull, the Promise’ 2012 (AP);
    • ‘Malcolm Turnbull, a Brief Lament’ 2017 (AP);
    • ‘Tragedy of Errors’ 2013 (A&AS);
    • ‘Burchett and the KGB’ 2013 (AH);
    • ‘While Rivers Run Red’ 2016 (AH);
    • ‘Julian Assange: Alex Gibney’ 2013 (TUS);
    • ‘The Snowden Files’ 2014 (TUS);
    • ‘Julian Assange: Laura Poitras 2017 (TUS);
    • ‘The Mind of the Islamic State 2016 (TIS);
  • The Guardian:
    • ‘Explaining our Failure’ 2013 (CC);
    • Jonathan Franzen, This Changes Nothing 2015 (CC);
    • ‘On Refugees, Both the Left and Right are Wrong’ 2014 (A&AS);
    • ‘The Sorry History of Australia’s Apology’ 2013 (AH);
  • The Monthly Blog:
    • Laudato Si, a Political Reading’ 2015 (CC);
    • ‘Andrew Bolt, “Name Ten” ‘ 2011 (TME);
    • ‘The Second Rudd Government?’ 2012 (AP);
    • ‘Labour’s Long Goodbye’ 2012 (AP);
    • ‘There is a Solution to Australia’s Asylum-Seeker Problem’2016 (A&AS);
  • Quarterly Essay (or its correspondence):
    • ‘Bad News’, 2011 (TME); ‘Noel Pearson and Indigenous Constitutional Recognition’ 2014 (AH)
  • The Good Weekend:
    • ‘Malcolm Fraser, an Unlikely Radical’ 2014 (AP);
  • The Conversation:
    • ‘How We Came to Be So Cruel’ 2017 (A&AS);
    • ‘The University Experience – Then and Now’ 2012 (TU)
  • Weekend Australian:
    •  ‘Donald Trump’s Victory’ 2016 (TUS);
    • ‘The Muscovian Candidate?’ 2017 (TUS)

So as you can see, unless you subscribe to this range of publications, the book is good value, and still very relevant even though some of the essays are more than five years old.

What I like about Manne’s essays is that he doesn’t just describe current affairs, he analyses them with piercing clarity.  He also looks at issues from surprising points of view.  I admit that my heart sank when I saw that the first five essays were about climate change: I have read so much about this and it’s profoundly depressing because we seem to be stuck in a rut that we can’t escape.  But the essays turned out not to reproduce the same arguments but to analyse how the nonsense of denialism was achieved, how writers like Franzen are compromised, and – who knew? – that the Pope offers hope because he gets it, he really does:

My own sense, after spending the day reading this remarkable document, was of great relief… This marks the first time that a person of great authority in our global culture has fully recognised the scale and depth of our crisis, and the consequent rethinking of what it means to be fully human’. (Bill McKibben, reviewing the papal encyclical Laudato Si, in the NY Review of Books, quoted by Manne on p. 67)

Although I’d already read Bad News I read the excerpt and was reminded of the reasons why Patricia Karvelas has made listening to ABC Radio National’s Drive program such a negative experience.  Commenting on the furore over a tweet by Larissa Behrendt, Manne writes:

Karvelas was, however, a master of The Australian’s familiar false-inference, disguised-assumption, report-as-accusation house style. (p.105)

(I am mildly hopeful that the increasingly tabloid style at the ABC will be redressed by today’s announcement about the reshaping of the newsroom to include more senior editors.  It depends who they are, of course.  If they grew up thinking that A Current Affair and 60 Minutes et al were quality journalism, things will be no better than now.)

The essays from The Monthly Blog were the most interesting, because I hadn’t seen any of them before.  There’s sound common sense in the analysis of the Rudd-Gillard debacle, and ‘Malcolm Turnbull: The Promise’ is fascinating, albeit depressing since Turnbull as Prime Minister has comprehensively failed to persuade his own party to adopt policy framed by the beliefs that Manne reveals.  ‘Malcolm Turnbull: A Brief Lament’ gives just one example (the backflips on climate change) but what was interesting was Manne’s theory about why these backflips happen:

Malcolm Turnbull is a barrister by training and inclination.  For him, causes are quasi-clients that he voluntarily and serially embraces – with the kind of sincerity that barristers must routinely muster in a court of law – in order to advance his career.  At a certain moment, however, Turnbull appears to realise that this or that cause poses a danger to his progress.  At this moment, the cause is quietly dropped, with as much dignity and disguise as possible.  It is dropped because in the end there is only one cause that ultimately counts for him – the cause of Malcolm Turnbull.  Perhaps almost all successful politicians have this quality to some degree.  But with Turnbull, it appears to be definitive.  (p.198-9)

‘How We Came to be So Cruel’ offers five reasons why Australia has such a harsh refugee policy:

  • Immigration Absolutism (striving for a situation where not one boat arrives)
  • Party politics: Howard’s Curse (the end of bipartisan refugee policy);
  • Bureaucratic inertia: automaticity (when the relation of means to ends has been forgotten);
  • Groupthink (officials believing that not one brick in the asylum-seeker-deterrent system can be removed)
  • The Banality of Evil (a blindness to the cruelty being inflicted).

It’s more than disconcerting to see Hannah Arendt’s ‘Banality of Evil’ being invoked… and it seems from the essay about the 1965-6 Indonesian massacres of half-a-million suspected communists, that moral blindness occurred back then too.  I didn’t know that while nobody denied the killings, only the Labor Party objected, and were pilloried as pro-Communist as a result.  America stayed silent too, except for Robert Kennedy who said:

“We have spoken out against inhuman slaughters perpetrated by the Nazis and the Communists […] but will we speak out also against the inhuman slaughter in Indonesia?” (P.253)

I have not forgotten that Eliza Vitra Handayani’s novel From Now On Everything Will Be Different was banned from the Ubud Writers Festival in 2016 because it referred to those massacres…

There’s more, lots more, but you get the drift.  This is a beaut collection for anyone interested in current affairs.

One more thing: The title of the book refers to the state of Robert Manne’s health.  He has had his larynx removed due to throat cancer.  Since he is one of our most fearless public intellectuals I’m sure that many will be joining me in hoping that he is still with us for many years to come.

Author: Robert Manne
Title: On Borrowed Time
Publisher: Black Inc Books, (Schwarz Publishing), 2018
ISBN: 9781760640187
Review copy courtesy of Black Inc Books

Available from Fishpond: On Borrowed Time



  1. That’s an excellent analysis of the book, though I’m not sure you’ve persuaded me to read it – simply because of the amount of time it would take. I don’t know what to think about Karvelas, I know that, like her MD, she’s from News Ltd, but she seems relatively neutral. I start listening to her quite often, but I can’t stand interviews with politicians (of any stripe) and so I soon switch off.


    • I didn’t read it all in one go. I read most of my non-fiction books over breakfast, so with this one, it was one essay a day and occasionally a second one over lunch.
      I don’t know what to make of any of them any more. Today the much touted Laura Tingle on 7.30 did a piece about an ‘unprecedented’ intervention in the coming elections by the Business Council of Australia. And I thought, have I missed something? Didn’t the Mining Council run an advertising campaign? Didn’t I see Gina Rinehart whipping up the troops? Does the name Murdoch ring a bell?
      There’s plenty of precedent for business interests running campaigns to suit their agenda… Every night that I’m silly enough to watch news or current affairs on the ABC it’s as if I’m in a parallel universe, noting their highly selective reportage on almost anything you could name. I’m not talking about bias or lack of balance, I’m talking about the fact that they don’t seem to have lived through the same history as I have!


      • I agree entirely. It’s years since I thought, especially young, journalists – and of course Tingle has been in Canberra since 1912 – knew more background than I did. And yet the ABC also does marvellous work – on the Murray Darling water buybacks for instance, which I caught part of today, in which National Party ministers, especially Barnaby, have been effectively paying farmers billions to use more water.


        • We *need* them to do marvellous work. I think they should leave the 24/7 news cycle to the commercials because it’s all tabloid rubbish anyway and put their time and effort into genuine investigative journalism.


  2. Manne is surely one of Freadman’s ‘compassionate humanists’ — and our conscience. I admire his analytical calm in the face of the moron climate-change deniers. They make me froth at the mouth. How sad about his illness. We wish him well.


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  4. […] On Borrowed Time, by Robert Manne […]


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