After getting the announcement from Paul Howes of the imminent publication of his “miserable little pamphlet“, I thought I’d get my hands on a copy and review it. Unlike the Canberra Press Gallery, who produced reviews of the book mere hours after it was released – presumably skimming through to the index to find the “dirt” – I spent a leisurely three days reading it while traveling to and from work on the train.
Confessions of a Faceless Man weighs in at around 240 pages – large type – standard paper-back size. Melbourne University Press – the publisher – has done a fantastic job with the front cover, producing perhaps the only good photo in existence of Paul Howes.
From the outset, CoaFM is a day-by-day diary of the election campaign. It is out and out partisan, and the opening chapter sets the tone for the book – a self-serving justification of Howes’ very public and prominent role as a commentator on politics and the Labor Party. This is not necessarily a bad thing – one would hardly expect it to be overly self-critical – and most autobiographies and diaries are self-serving to some extent.
Throughout the diary, Howes constantly muses on the criticism he receives for being a “media tart” – so it is unsurprising that he tries to justify his large media profile.
Overall, CoaFM is an interesting insight into the world of professional, “high level” politics, focused almost entirely on the media side. The diary is really a list of Howes various media engagements throughout the five week campaign – partly organised by ALP head office in Sydney, and partly organised by the AWU. I found it a good peek into the 24/7 media spin cycle, where most of the commentators live in a self-created bubble. The feeling pervades Howes’ commentary that the Canberra Press Gallery is really just a massive echo chamber, where outsiders (like Howes and his conservative counterparts) are turned into media “insiders” – journalists rely on personal relationships and connections to feed their echo-chamber.
Howes also makes a spirited defence of Labor throughout the book – and while he is a member of the hated NSW Right faction, he demonstrates on a number of issues – like refugee rights – that he is more progressive than most of his comrades. Now safely after the election, Howes also feels comfortable making criticisms of the various weak-willed decisions of Labor during the campaign. Pandering on refugees, the climate change citizens assembly, the lack of confidence in Labor’s record on the economy, schools, etc. Most of his criticisms are spot on.
For politicos and Kremlinite faction-watchers, Howes also introduces the future factional heavyweights of the Right. The up and commers in the Right are named and given brief – flattering – character portraits. I’m sure many of the names in his book will become more prominent over the next decade.
Finally, Howes really has a go at Rudd. While the entire book seems to be a vehicle to justify his public attacks on Rudd during the spill, Howes systematically tears Rudd down on a political and personal level. He describes Rudd’s contempt for the labour movement, and his personal flaws that ultimately – as the media narrative goes – led to his ostracisation from caucus. Howes postulates that Rudd was the source of the leaks – although he has no evidence for this. Again, most of this stuff is on the record, and is unsurprising – but for Rudd haters out there, Howes is mostly on the money. Unsurprisingly, Howes also targets Mark Latham as well. There is a unstated comparison about the damage that Rudd and Latham inflict on the party that supported them for so long out of spite and score-settling.
While Howes criticises some of the political decisions of the Labor campaign, he makes a spirited defence of Labor’s machine. With ALP Head Office located in the same building as the AWU National Office, this defence is to be expected. Many of the people who Howes cites as friends are the backroom dealers and apparatchicks who are targeted for abuse with the label “faceless man” (although there are some faceless women mentioned too). Howes reckons that the National Secretariat and the campaign directed by Karl Bitar was one of the best ever – it was smooth and professional. I’m not sure many of the local campaigns would share that view – especially in Victoria. Nevertheless, it’s hard to see who Howes is actually saying is responsible for the bad campaign decisions – ultimately Rudd can’t be to blame for everything.
A common refrain for the ending of each day’s diary is “went out for a drink with X”, followed by the opening of the next day’s chapter with “feeling hungover from last night”. Coupled with Howes’ occasional tweet about feeling worse for wear after a big night and it does not paint a pretty picture. With such a sanitised book, it is odd to include the incidents of heavy drinking – perhaps Howes thinks its good for him image, but in my view he would do better to not publicise his hangovers.
The book is also fairly light on. As a diary, it is an account of each day of the campaign. There’s not a lot of detail or depth. There are no real insights into Labor, the campaign machine, or what the Party or Government stands for. Howes of course has his own positions on various policies, but this book is not a great intellectual contribution to Labor’s corpus of books. It is entertaining, in its way, but it is not thought provoking. There is no questioning of why Labor is in such dire straights in NSW, or why we’re in such trouble in QLD – apart from blaming Rudd. There’s no consideration of Latham’s justified criticisms of the corrosive and toxic nature of machine politics – although as a machine man himself, Howes is hardly likely to be overly critical. In fact, it is the machine men who come out looking best in Howes account – Karl Bitar, Mark Arbib and the other hacks and careerists in the National Secretariat.
I described Confessions of a Faceless Man to a colleague as “a good airport read”. It is easy to read and mostly entertaining. Howes does a good job of hammering the Liberals and conservative media for their bias, their bad policies and their gross hypocrisy. This alone makes the book worth reading – it’s always a bit of fun to read a good polemic (especially if you agree with it).
Ultimately however, this book is no confession. It would have been better titled “Diary of a Faceless Man”. There is no insight into Howes himself – beyond his story-building narrative of having left school early, joining an ultra-left group only to “come to his senses” and embrace the NSW Right, and standing up for “working people”.
To use an election phrase – we never actually see the “Real Paul Howes” in this book. Like all of his media appearances, the book boils down to recitation of key messages. The key message from Bitar et al is that the election campaign went of smoothly except for the leaks, which derailed everything. This is the line that Howes trots out as well.
For political junkies and election tragics, I recommend reading it. It is cheap, short and easy on the eyes. There are no laugh out loud moments, but Howes targeted venom against Scott Morrison, Abbott and co is worth the admission price.