Posted by: Lisa Hill | June 14, 2018

The Boy from Baradine (2018), by Craig Emerson

I don’t mind a political bio every now and again, and Craig Emerson’s reflections on his journey from obscurity to the national stage make for interesting reading.  A very positive review in The Australian (paywalled) was the catalyst for my purchase, but the book probably would have lingered longer on the shelf if not for Emerson’s appearance on the program at the Woodend Winter Arts Festival.  I finished reading this engaging memoir just in time for Emerson’s session with Sally Warhaft and Don Watson, but the book was barely mentioned in a wide-ranging discussion on the theme of ‘Australia Adrift’.  I took six pages of notes but I’ll confine myself to sharing just one example…

In response to Sally Warhaft’s opening salvo:

Australia is close to greatness, so close to falling apart.  Sketch the state of the nation…

Craig Emerson talked about how aspects of Australia are great, but the stats show that we’re not the happiest.  A social indicator that concerns him greatly is the number of homeless people he sees on the streets and how this seems to be normalised now. Every time we walk past a homeless person, he says, a little part of society dies, and he thinks that we are potentially heading in a sad, callous direction.  He described himself as a neo-liberalist, who believes in using national prosperity to reach out to vulnerable people, but he thinks that now people just want money for its own sake and that there are many very rich people who simply do not care.  Acceptance of Trump and his values and behaviour is becoming normalised, but he believes that we as a people should push back to values that we had twenty years ago.

The memoir shows that Emerson himself knows what it means to be vulnerable. In the 1960s when he and his brother Lance were boys, his family in the small town of Baradine in north-western NSW was in a state of chaos.  It wasn’t just his mother who suffered from deep depression, but also his father, worn out from their constant warfare, and the boys were traumatised by her irrational rages, her violence against them and her attempts at suicide.

Despite a meagre salary as a hardware department manager at Permewans, Emerson’s father Ernest was determined that the boys would get a good education.  He himself had had a terrible childhood.  His father (Craig’s grandfather) was a cruel man, a policeman at Cabramatta and violent towards his shy and introverted son, sending Ernie away to agricultural college because that was the cheapest option.  After a stint as a timber cutter, Ernest enlisted in WW2, and had a tough war fighting the Italians at Bardia and Tobruk.  This was followed by capture on Crete and years as an Italian and then German POW.   After his release, he then made a hasty marriage to Margery Griffiths in Wales, and then returned to Australia to find that not one member of his family was there to meet him.

Pondering why his father failed to intervene to protect his boys, Craig makes a generous judgement:

By now robbed of all self-confidence, this beautiful writer, a shy and intelligent man, was defeated and exhausted by the constant fights with Mum, coupled with his own sense of under-achievement. (p.9)

Craig Emerson rose above all this through the power of education.  He worked hard, got a PhD in economics, and became an adviser in the Hawke-Keating years.  This led to his eventual preselection as an MP and surviving the factions and the infighting to becoming a minister in the Rudd-Gillard years.  There is, I have to say, a certain amount of point-scoring in his recount of what went on behind the scenes in those years, and yes, there’s some legacy-building too, but the insights into the cost of political life make it worthwhile to persevere.

He takes the blame, fair and square for the failure of his marriage, acknowledging that his preoccupation with political ambition was unfair to his wife and children.  (#EpicFail I must have been the only person in Australia not to know about his relationship with Julia Gillard!) But he also explains the niceties of announcing policy decisions, showing just how tricky it is to manage the peeved feelings of MPs on your own side if their input has been rejected.  If you think that office politics are petty, then party politics when in government are even more complicated, and the enemies that can be made for life are more likely to be from your own side not from your opponents.

There are funny anecdotes too.  There was an adviser called Peter Barron with an irreverent sense of humour:

This was the same Peter Barron who, on an earlier trip to China, had sat at the front of a bus that the Chinese hosts had commandeered to take Bob’s staff to visit the Great Wall of China. Geoff Walsh was at the back of the bus. The guide boasted to the travelling party that the Great Wall of China was the only man-made object visible from the moon.  Barron shouted down the bus to Geoff, ‘Hey, Walshie, does Hawkie’s ego count as a man-made object?’

This same adviser played a practical joke on a senior departmental officer by telling the security officials (who take their work very seriously for visiting prime ministers) that a man masquerading as the secretary of the prime minister’s department would try to enter the restricted area.  Barron described this poseur, and told the security contingent the name that this ‘poseur’ would give.  In due course the hapless senior departmental officer turned up and was detained as a fake until Barron arrived and had him cleared to pass.  (Yes, grown-ups do things like this apparently!)

This is a very readable memoir, interesting because it comes from one of the less well-known politicians of recent times, and because it demonstrates that there are actually good people who go into politics because they want to make Australia a better place.

Author: Craig Emerson
Title: The Boy from Baradine
Publisher: Scribe, 2018
ISBN: 9781925322590
Source: personal library, purchased from Readings.




  1. Reblogged this on The Logical Place and commented:
    I like Craig Emerson, but when it comes to conflicts between party political advisors and professional civil servants, I tend to side with the latter.


  2. You weren’t the only person who didn’t know, Lisa. And I worked in that rumour mill. It sounds like a good read.


    • The interesting thing is that despite this relationships he says he voted against Gillard’s challenge, because he had always been loyal to the leader and didn’t agree with changing leaders in government.
      Well, it turned out to be a disaster for the Labor Party and the nation (because we got Tony Abbott who would never have won otherwise), so it’s a pity more people didn’t listen to Emerson’s PoV.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. I am right with you at #EpicFail. No idea.
    A man generous about his father’s failings, who takes blame for the failure of a marriage; a man who understood the importance of a good education and one who appears to have retained a sense of humour. Not bad. Especially, for a politician! Thanks for the review.


    • Yes, it just shows you, the rubbish we see on TV is not fair to anyone, not to them and not to us…

      Liked by 1 person

  4. He sounds like someone I would love. The greed of the world leaders and big corporations is unrelenting and quite depresssing. A good review of an interesting person.


    • I liked what I saw of him at Woodend. Sincere, intelligent and with a good grasp of the big picture.
      Don Watson was a disappointment. I’m not sure whether the vague ponderings are part of the act, but compared to his incisive writing, it wasn’t very interesting.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. Will read it. He always came accross as a very intelligent reasonable human being. And what he says about the normalisation of homelessness is spot on. Every day I see it in Fremantle and it’s increasing. Charity is not the fix. As for Julia Gillard it was a disgrace the manner she was treated by the media and her colleages. Frank Sinatra had a point about the Aussie media and it’s deteriorated even more since that time. Also it’s not just the greed of corporations but too many others the so called pillars of respectability who are obsessed by money.


    • Well, yes, but the trashing of Rudd’s reputation by colleagues and the media wasn’t very edifying either. (Not to mention self-defeating since it’s a great weapon for the opposition.)
      I haven’t read his autobiography yet (it’s very long!) but I’ll be interested to see how it compares with this one. Though I should read Don Watson’s Recollections of a Bleeding Heart about Paul Keating first, that’s been on the TBR forever!


  6. He had a relationship with Julia Gillard? I’m always the last to know these things! Great review, thank you Lisa.


    • Yes. Three years. (There’s a funny anecdote about how he accidentally drank a glass of water that had her contact lenses in it). But that was before she was in The Lodge…

      Liked by 1 person

  7. It was a lovely & moving review Lisa. I watched Craig Emerson a few years ago in an Annabel Crabbe interview – I think it was called In The House. He was very appealing and genuine. I think he is a loss to our parliament, but then we have lost so many people of integrity – good to remember though, as you say, that there are many people who go into politics for the right reasons.


    • *sigh* I’m a bit depressed tonight to see the Libs voting to privatise the ABC…


      • They won’t do it, of course. They will continue to do what they are doing – starve it of funds, choke it slowly, attack it constantly and wait for it to die. A genuinely free press is anathema to this group of politicians. They have a breathtaking inability to see the ultimate consequences of their rhetoric.


        • I don’t know about that…
          The thing is, Turnbull is governing with a majority of one. If he’s returned with a bigger majority, (can’t see it happening, but who foresaw the Tampa??) then some of those new MPs are among those who endorsed the motion at the conference. Turnbull can promise not to privatise it till he’s black and blue but (a) no one believes him anymore, not even his own party, and his promises hold no authority at all.


          • I know you’re right. Looks like we will all have to go to the barricades again!! I thought I was too old for getting arrested at protests!! Oh well. As you say, ‘sigh’!


            • I’ve spent my whole life not getting involved in party politics, but I think I might have to hand out some how-to-vote cards at the next election!


  8. […] The Boy from Baradine, by Craig Emerson […]


  9. […] Penny Wong (see my review here) and a very disappointing one of former SA Premier Don Dunstan.  Craig Emerson’s autobiography was another exception.  But when it comes to politicians writing books about their political […]


  10. […] The Boy from Baradine, by Craig Emerson […]


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