Book review: Speechless

Book review: Speechless

Posted by

Speechless is a book for politics junkies written in the easy-to-read style of a skilled journalist, James Button, once the Europe Correspondent for The Age and Sydney Morning Herald.

Button is of ALP blue-blood stock. His father was Senator John Button, Industry Minister in the Hawke and Keating governments from 1983-96 and a driving force in the partial shift away from protectionism to neo-liberal economic reforms in the car industry.

Reviewed by Stephen Jolly

The book is really several essays in one – Button’s experience as a speech-writer for then Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd; a stint in the same job for the highest echelons of the Federal public service; a short history of the modern ALP including his own brief experience as a party member during the 2010 Victorian State election; and a beautiful, heart-wrenching story of his brother and father – a story recently plucked out of this book for a Good Weekend article.

Unusually for modern political works, Button writes subtlety and with great respect for almost everyone he comes across. His family name and personal talent becomes a passport that opens doors at every level of the ALP, public service, and the Australian political caste in general.

Yet, while an insider, Button is also an outsider of sorts. He seems dispassionate, almost aloof from the party and people he deals with and this allows the reader to feel they are at one with him as he glides through the inner sanctums of political and state power in Australia.

His insight into the Federal public service is quite unique and worth buying the book for alone. Unlike the Greens and ALP, socialists do not see the state (public service, court system, police, prisons, and armed forces etc) as politically neutral. The state is a repressive apparatus used by one class to repressive another. In the case of capitalism it is used by the bourgeoisie to keep the working class in check.

However it is also true that the public service at every level of government in this nation includes some sharp minds and immense collective wisdom. His respectful analysis of the public sector is full of great insights.

Politically, Button is best described as a moderate social democrat. He is also searingly honest. His insightful overview of the degeneration of the ALP from “the cream of the working class to the dredges of the middle class” (in the words of a past ALP heavy) is as clear and depressing as a reader will find anywhere.

He joined the ALP in the run-up to the 2010 Victorian State election, campaigning to re-elect the member for Richmond, Richard Wynne. I stood for the Socialist Party in that seat which was a close contest between the Greens and Labor but eventually saw Wynne re-elected.

Button has a gentle dig at us, writing that a Socialist Party campaigner at a polling booth was trying to convince him that Lenin “was a good bloke”. The implication is that Button and the ALP stand for democracy and peace, while the Socialist Party and historic figures like Lenin stand for dictatorship and conflict.

This minor anecdote goes to the heart of the how politically bi-polar social democrats like Button have to be. The ALP that James is a member of actively supported both the invasions of Iraq and are loyal supporters of brutal US foreign policy and its support for dictatorships such as the one in Saudi Arabia.

Wikileaks put the death toll from the US (and Australian-supported) invasion of Iraq at 109,032, including 66,081 civilian deaths – a figure that makes the Civil War in Russia seem like a picnic in the park.

Nevertheless James Button’s Speechless is the book of a razor-sharp mind. He has an infectious intellectual curiosity. Even Kevin Rudd is treated by him with a velvet glove.
Almost any political perspective, if argued honestly, is worth a read or a listen. As Karl Marx once said “nothing human is alien to me”. Australian socialists will gain much from reading Speechless. Strongly recommended.

Speechless – A year in my father’s business
By James Button
Melbourne University Press, 2012
RRP $32.99