Posted by: Lisa Hill | May 21, 2021

On Charlatans (2021), by Chris Bowen

Every time I read one of these Little Books on Big Ideas (now rebadged as the On Series, by Hachette who seem to have taken over the series from Melbourne University Press), I want to read the whole lot.  There’s currently 35 of them listed at Dymocks and so far I’ve only read:

On Charlatans could be a (much, much shorter) companion volume for The Lonely Century, by Noreena Hertz because it explores the same phenomenon of people voting against their own best interests.  If you subscribe to the view that progressive parties tend to be on the side of working people while conservative parties tend to look after The Big End of Town, then you will accept ALP MP Chris Bowen’s starting point:

It has become the central question of modern social democracy: why have working-class communities become less supportive of our cause?  Our sister parties around the world are grappling with the same question.  The social-democratic project can recover but social democrats have to face up to why populist charlatans are succeeding and what we have to do to regain the initiative in rebuilding trust between urban, suburban and regional Labor communities. (p.6)

Bowen’s diagnosis is perhaps a bit simplistic but the format of this series means this is not a book that attempts to unpack all the complex reasons for an election loss.  He argues that battlers and people being left behind in the economy were convinced by charlatans who claimed to have the answers, when actually they had a false product.  He writes that political charlatans—right-wing populists— are willing and able to tell people who are struggling that they have the solutions.  Actually, their policies make those same workers worse off. These people are not only disrupting politics, they are disrupting their own parties, as we can see in America and elsewhere.

Right-wing parties have been taken over by effective politicians who make a virtue of being ‘non-politicians’.  This is part of the contrivance.  Baseball caps, ruffled hair and a false bonhomie are deployed in various guises by millionaires and professional political operatives to present the picture that they are somehow new, different to the political class and in touch with the working class.  They have constructed a narrative that they have better solutions to improve the lot of ordinary people who have been buffeted by stagnant wages growth and growing inequality.  (p.17)

Bowen identifies four key tactics of the charlatans:

  • dishonesty is the best policy;
  • identity politics on steroids;
  • hyper-partisanship all the time; and
  • fear and loathing on climate change.

And he has has key points to make about a ‘roadmap’ to defeat them.  He says it’s essential to recognise that:

  • The charlatans are a symptom not a cause [LH: which is where Noreena Hertz’s The Lonely Century is useful].  People are legitimately angry about job insecurity, the loss of good manufacturing jobs, inequality, dying towns and hollowed suburbs. 
  • An ongoing focus on social mobility and meritocracy runs the risk to great swathes of the population thinking that they are forgotten.
  • There is power in the suburbs.  It’s where most Australians live, and it’s where a party needs to be in touch and strong if it wants to win.
  • The divisiveness of the charlatans needs to be rejected.  Unity through a national compact between all Australians is what’s needed.

Bowen expands on all these themes as the book progresses,  providing Australian and global examples of the tactics he’s identified, noting the common threads in right-wing populism.  It’s division, dividing the worlds into the good guys, the real people, the worthy versus the out of touch, the immigrants, the Chinese, the urban elites, the winners of globalisation.  If you pay attention to politics, you’ll recognise many of the examples being exploited in our own society.  Clive Palmer comes in for special attention:

The plutocrat Palmer takes the definition of a charlatan to a new level.  In 2016, a company which he effectively controlled left a trail of unpaid wages behind it, which had to be paid in part by the federal government [LH: i.e. the taxpayer] under its Fair Entitlements Guarantee scheme.

Ironically and gallingly, the equivalent of those unpaid wages and many more millions of dollars were spent on advertising, effectively in favour of the Coalition.  At first, Palmer’s ads contained an annoying jingle and inane clips of Palmer parroting the Trump lines about ‘Making Australia Great Again’ and ‘Putting Australia First.’

But as the campaign progressed, his copious advertising became more and more focussed on specific lies.  There were spurious claims about Labor selling off airports to the Chinese (a classic populist charlatan play).  Increasingly, there were false claims about Labor’s tax policies, claiming Labor would increase taxes by a trillion dollars (our entire economy is only $1.9 trillion). Presumably because he was dismissed as part of a sideshow, no mainstream media bothered to counter this blatant misinformation with the truth.

Palmer spent $55 million in the last fortnight of the campaign alone, dwarfing the amount the Labor Party (or the Liberal Party) could ever hope to muster. (p.39)

[LH: Just imagine if he had put that money into a philanthropic project like building social housing, or medical research.]

Bowen does not agree with those who lament the defeat by blaming voters. Passionate as these Labor supporters are, this is wrong.  It’s like saying the play was a success but the audience failed.  The party has to listen and learn, and do better next time.

They do indeed, for all our sakes.

Author: Chris Bowen
Title: On Charlatans (On Series, previously Little Books on Big Ideas series)
Publisher: Hachette, 2021
ISBN: 9780733645235, pbk., 130 pages
Source: Kingston Library


  1. I’ve seen this series at the bookshop. I am tempted by them but have too much to catch up on as it is.


    • I find that they only take an hour or so to read and are perfect as handbag or coat pocket books.

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Dear Lisa

    I agree that this is a great book and a very easy read, as Bowen writes with clarity and has resisted the temptation to get into Labour cant and rhetorical jungles.
    I was reminded when I read it of Umberto Eco’s famous list of 14 signs of fascism (Here is a link).

    I am not saying that the non labour side of politics is fascist, but we do well to remind ourselves of the ultimate destination that the charlatans could lead us to, remembering that the young Eco saw some of this first hand.

    A more up to date version of this list is perhaps the US Holocaust Museums’s 12 Early Warning signs of fascism that the Washington Monthly highlighted vis a vis Trump in 2017. Here is that link.

    I must end by saying that I was impressed by how well Chris Bowen writes. He clearly is a man of great ability, far too good, I’m afraid, to ever become PM in our “lucky country”.
    I must search out some of the other “On” books. Have you reviewed them?

    Best wishes


    • Wow, those are two very good articles indeed, especially the first one which applies more generally than the second which applies more to That Man in America. (I was going to write ‘now mercifully gone’ but I’m not so sure he really is, when 74 million Americans voted for him).
      I review everything I read, so the ones I’ve listed above are the only ones I’ve read so far (and the links take you to my reviews) but I always pounce on them when I see them in the library.
      (I’ve bought some of them but I do think at $16.99 they’re a bit overpriced. The Monash University equivalent, the ‘In the National interest Series, is even more expensive at $19.99. Perhaps that’s got something to do with university press publishing cost structures.)
      Unfortunately they’re hard to stumble on at the library because they’re all on different subjects so they’re shelved in proper Dewey fashion all over the place, and they’re little so they’re hard to spot.


      • Hi Lisa
        Sorry for my stupidity I forgot that the links on your listing at the top led to your other reviews in this series. I must say that the David Malouf and Sally McManus sound very worth reading. I looked at the MUP site but could not find a full listing of the titles in the series. Any hints?

        Also, you might be pleased/interested/disgusted/ to know that I found my copy of the Chris Bowen On Charlatans in an Op Shop in Camberwell about a week ago for the princely sum of $3. It looks unread, except for me! You can be lucky some times.
        I do agree with you that both the Unimelb and Monash series seem overpriced. As a former board member of the Monash Press, I do know that the production costs for most of the small print run books that the university published were very high, and that the advertising budget (often 30-50% of total costs for big commercial publishers) was usually very modest, but I will make enquiries!



        • I was frustrated by being unable to find a complete list too, so I set up a ‘series’ at Goodreads (where I am a ‘librarian’). I found 37 titles and they are listed here:
          I shouldn’t complain about the cost… the books are well made on good paper, and the authors deserve to be paid properly. It’s just that I want them all and the set so far would put me back over $600!


  3. Of course I agree with Bowen though I am generally to Labor’s left on matters economic. My own experience of right wing workers is that they are racist – which the ‘charlatan’ right have clearly latched on to, and that they are by most measures financially well off and upwardly mobile which leaves them opposed to many left economic policies.


    • I hear you… though I think there are charlatans among the left as well. The Greens who sabotaged Rudd’s original climate change scheme when they knew their alternative would never get through the senate come to mind. I would never have voted for them if I’d known they were going to do that. And (just like Pauline Hanson) they routinely offer policies which they know won’t be implemented even if they do manage to achieve balance of power.


  4. Intriguing. I definitely think all the UK politicians are charlatans…. :(


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