Originally published in The Australian

Ron Boswell (with Joanne Newberry), Not Pretty, but Pretty Effective, Connor Court Publishing, 2023, ISBN: 9781922815859, 319pp

Many former MPs write memoirs but few are as readable or as instructive as these reflections from former National Party Senator Ron Boswell, who retired in 2014 after 32 years in harness. For 17 years, he was the Nationals’ Senate leader but chose never to have the cabinet job that his leadership role would have entitled him to: first, because he didn’t want to stand in the way of younger, more obviously talented people; and second, because he didn’t want to lose the ability to speak up on issues, free of the dictates of cabinet solidarity.

Humility plus passion for what’s right, “as God gives us to see the right”, are not the qualities usually associated with MPs, but they’re essential for anyone in public life who wants to be both effective and respected.  Along with the legendary Senator Brian Harradine, another who became Father of the Senate, Boswell was one of those rare MPs whose influence derived less from office than from force of character and dint of argument.

Back in the late 1980s and 90s, Boswell took the lead in alerting people to the dangers of right-wing extremism, from the League of Rights and others, at a time when decent people were at risk of being taken-in by conspiracists and race-baiters. Towards the end of his career, he was hyper-conscious of green extremism, and the dangers it posed to Australia’s prosperity. Long before almost anyone else, he foresaw the Renewable Energy Target’s threat to the affordability and reliability of our power supply. The pity is that his 2014 warnings to the Coalition party room fell largely on deaf ears. And along the way, on the first occasion that Malcolm Turnbull wanted the Coalition to support what was a quasi-green energy policy, in the name of saving the planet and staying in tune with the zeitgeist, he was one of those who encouraged me to run for the leadership of the Liberal Party.

Typically, Boswell has not published this book simply to tell his own story, though he does that with much insight and some humour. Like everything in his public life, this book is meant to make a difference: he wants to encourage more people to run for parliament, especially people with the experience in small business that’s so badly needed if our parliament and our governments are to get the social as well as the economic balance right;  plus, he wants to see the parliamentary pension restored, so that there are more numerous capable people, prepared to run the risks of public life, because there’s the assurance that they’re unlikely to be left financially bereft should they fail.

He’s right to decry the increasingly narrow background from which our MPs are drawn. For at least a generation, most Labor MPs have come from an apparatchik class, as long-term union or party officials prior to entering parliament. And these days, Liberal MPs too, typically enter parliament after being parliamentary staff and then lobbyists. As Boswell says, “they enter the portals of democracy knowing only how to branch stack and run populist campaigns…today, focus groups lead us into the tyranny of small ideas”.

Not only is Boswell right about the desirability of broadening the range of MPs’ pre-parliamentary experience; he’s also right that the parliamentary pension, formerly available for all those who’d faced an election three or more times, would be an incentive for more people of talent and ability to consider a tilt at public life. The problem is that giving relatively young people a tax-payer funded pension on leaving parliament, such as former Senator Bill O’Chee, who qualified for a pension at 34, struggles to pass the pub test. Not for nothing was it John Howard himself who abolished the old parliamentary pension scheme after an envy-tinged campaign against it, led by Mark Latham and the Daily Telegraph.

“Politics is a noble profession” says Boswell. “Being democratically elected by your fellow citizens to represent them is the greatest privilege. But the noble professionals are no longer applying for the job and that has to change. If you win a seat you take on a lifelong sentence because you can never regain your position on the career ladder….Like it or not, we have to financially buffer politicians on departure…It’s one of these messy facts that society must face up to if it wants to get better performance from its parliaments and government…(Otherwise) good people just won’t be part of it. Preselections are left to the factional warriors who can’t deliver quality candidates”.

To work, any new pension scheme would probably have to be confined to former ministers, and be pitched as a way to ensure that ministers weren’t making decisions with one eye on their post-parliamentary job prospects. It’s a change, or a restoration really, that would be worth doing. But given everything else on a government’s agenda, it’s the kind of change that could only be considered were a Dutton government, say, in its fourth term, having already: solved the energy problem, fixed the federation, boosted the armed forces, reformed welfare, and revitalised the economy. Only then, once voters’s trust in government had substantially been restored, and probably only with bi-partisan support, would a change of this nature be a realistic political prospect.

However improbable his dream of restoring the parliamentary pension might currently be, Boswell has none-the-less produced a superb instruction manual for anyone wanting to make a mark on our public life. There are distinct stages, says Boswell, “that new parliamentarians go through. The first is when you initially arrive…you’re playing in the Australian Firsts. Then after that comes doubt. What am I doing here?…All I am is division fodder?…(But) you have to be involved if you want to have a say in Australia’s progress. You soon learn the rules, how to break them and how to make them”.

Successful politics is about knowing the things that annoy people and acting to ensure they don’t get worse. Boswell was no mere gun-for-hire but was indefatigable in protecting the interests of people threatened by free-market purism. “Economists talk about ‘perfect’ markets where many buyers and many sellers set a just price” he says. “But when markets become ‘imperfect’ with two or three buyers at one end and thousands of sellers at the other, it doesn’t take Einstein to figure out that the price will suit the large corporate buyer”.

To take just a few examples of successful crusading, from a book replete with them: he helped to block extended retail trading hours and weekend opening because this wouldn’t much increase sales but would force mum and dad businesses to lose their family time. He smoothed the path to fishing de-regulation by persuading then-Premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen to gift to the industry all the state government-owned marinas.  Mostly working behind the scenes, turning up unannounced at ministerial doors, he had a lot of wins; some, like seeing off One Nation first time round, beating the Turnbull republic, and keeping Woolies out of pharmacy, with a bit of help.

Have a strong set of principles; be a good listener; be largely indifferent to recognition or reward; and work assiduously for the people you’re committed to: such were the trademarks of Boswell’s success. To me, there was just one Boswell success-too-far: his stirring up the Coalition party room against the “fair dinkum” paid parental leave scheme, that I’d taken to two elections, that would have made it easier for middle-income families to have more children. And he would help the cause of restoring at least a modified version of the old parliamentary pension, if he acknowledged that Howard’s abandonment of it was an out-of-character error from an otherwise fine government.

Still, there have been few to match him as an honourable adornment to our public life. Here’s Boswell on growing up the right way: “I don’t recall anyone frightening me by telling me that salt and sugar would kill you or…that the sea was sure to rise up and flood your lounge room because of a melting polar cap. You weren’t scared of being run over by a car, basically because there were very few in existence…If you were administered corporal punishment by a nun at school it was more likely to lead to a clip on the ear from your father when you got home as opposed to being the foundation of a law suit or a trip to counselling. Fast food was not going to kill me as a child because it didn’t exist. I am not making light of these things…merely pointing out that my generation didn’t live in fear of almost anything”. Among much else, this book is a reminder of how tougher times could produce better men.