At the very start of 2021, while still in New Zealand, I took a moment to read Geoffrey Robertson’s autobiography ‘Rather His Own Man’.
Robertson’s politics are very different to mine.
But he is one of Australia’s most well-known legal figures, living a cosmopolitan life applying practical liberal legal doctrines on a global scale.
“Commonwealth courts that have one thing in common,” he writes, “they are bound by constitutions that direct them to respect the rule of law.”
This observation isn’t simply academic for Robertson, who has made a career out of taking down war criminals, packaging complex legal arguments for public accessibility and even standing up for the rights of controversial figures like Julian Assange.
In 2021, I also took time to properly absorb the story of Indigenous boxing hero Lionel Rose – a true Australian hero that, sadly, only some Australians are only remotely knowledgeable on today.
After winning a world boxing title in Japan 1968, an astounding 250,000 people lined the streets of Melbourne to see Rose return, get a glimpse of the champ and wish him well – something that, even today, remains hard to fathom for just one individual.
Rose’s story drives hope and optimism from the supposedly gloomy depths of 1960s race relations.
“I think I can do more for the Aborigines,” Rose said in his 1969 biography, “by setting an example with clean living and being a good citizen.”
‘Black Spartacus’ by the Oxford academic Sudhir Hazareesingh is an incredible story about another submerged figure, albeit from another time, geography and with much hotter temperament.
Francois-Dominique Toussaint Louverture (1743-1803) was a Haitian general – now known as the Father of Haiti – and a leader of the Haitian revolution.
A former slave, he became a fierce and brutal republican, even attracting the ire of Thomas Jefferson, commenting in 1799 that Toussaint and his comrades were ‘cannibals of the terrible Republic’.
Reading about Toussaint offers a good lesson on overbearing royalism, yet much more so the dangers of excessive confrontation over compromise – a hallmark of the French Revolution.
Toussaint’s story brings the French revolution to the colonies that interested readers will appreciate.
Closer to home, Andrew Stone’s ‘Restoring Hope’ is likely the best Australian book on policy ever written.
The politically feasible solutions Stone outlines across energy, housing, childcare and federation reform were not only battle-tested in office but have principled foundations that make Stone’s proposals timeless and not just practical.
Anyone serious about solving problems should keep ‘Restoring Hope’ on their shelves.
Andrew Liveris – the former Chair of Dow Chemical and Northern Territory schoolboy-made-good – gave countless references this year to his 2011 book ‘Make It In America: The Case for Re-Inventing the Economy’.
Liveris recently returned to Australia to head up Australia’s manufacturing taskforce, after serving for not only Dow but for the Obama and Trump administrations.
Liveris’ book flips the script on manufacturing, noting that ‘manufacturing isn’t dying, it’s evolving’, while touching on the importance of chemical layering and nanometers – where one ten-thousandth a width of a human hair can completely ruin an integrated circuit.
Indeed, the margins are fine.
And Liveris points to something where governments will need to ‘trim up’ and itself get better margins – the need for a consistent policy framework so industries can make long-term investment decisions.
James Q Wilson’s 1991 ‘On Character’ – a book made available for free by the American Enterprise Institute – was a lovely read on the importance of character and public policy.
‘Families and children are the result not of utility but of sentiment’ observes Wilson – one of the greatest American public policy thinkers in the last 50 years.
Wilson echoed the other good minds of history in this book, channelling Adam Smith, who ‘hoped for the best from government but expected the worst’ – something that all of us have appreciated over the last two years.
Finally, I got hold of Jason Riley’s ‘Maverick’ – a biography on the legendary economist Thomas Sowell.
Sowell is untouchable in his wisdom, distilling down economics into easily understood principles for hundreds of thousands of people over the past five decades.
What wasn’t ‘stand out’ this year, in terms of books?
Jordan Peterson’s ‘Beyond Order’ flew over my head slightly, as did the Australian think-tanker Rory Medcalf’s ‘Contest for the Indo-Pacific’. Medcalf’s obsession with maps was something I didn’t quite appreciate and, sadly, I came way not quite convinced of.
The brilliant Australian security expert Andrew Kilcullen’s ‘The Dragons and the Snakes: How the rest learned to fight the West’ was another book I also attempted.
But this typically entertaining expert couldn’t draw me in to keep turning the page like in his previous books.
In 2021, of course, I also released a book myself – a biography on Australia’s first Indigenous parliamentarian Neville Bonner (available at all good book stores!).
Here’s to 2022.
Happy new year.
And happy new reading.
Image source: The Tyee/New York Public Library