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Thursday, 21st August 2014


Not Happy, John: Defending Our Democracy

By Margo Kingston, Camberwell: Penguin, 2004, 446 pages, paperback, $24.95. Reviewed by Eve Vincent in the September 2004 issue.

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Did you hear the one about the barbeque invite list? Margo Kingston tells it that, in October 2003, Prime Minister John Howard hosted a private function at the Lodge at the public's expense. The guest of honour? George Bush, President of the United States. The stated purpose of the gathering? So that Bush -- in the midst of a rushed and highly ritualised visit to Australia -- would have a chance to meet and chew prawns with 'a cross-section of the Australian community who had each made a contribution to Australia in different ways'. The rub? Howard personally selected the invitees: a cross-section, as Kingston summarises, of 'Big Party, Big Business, Big Media and Big Sport', many of them Big Donors to the Liberal party. Even more alarming than the make-up of this particular elite is the fact that the invite list was initially suppressed by the Prime Minister's office; the attempt to ban the Australian press from attending the event (with an eventual paltry concession); and the call from Sydney Morning Herald editors NOT to run political correspondent Mark Riley's story on the way in which 'money buys access' in John Howard's Australia.

An exclusive invitation list for a private barbie: it hardly seems like an issue worth raising ire. But Kingston's opening anecdote is an example used to great effect. She goes on to develop a disturbing picture of the state of Australian democracy arguing that 'there are no limits on what Howard will do to wield and retain power', and details the rule bending, secrecy and authoritarianism that has characterised his third term. Many of Kingston's allegations are not new; that Howard misled the Australian public on the war with Iraq is hardly a revelation. John Howard's lies have spurned an entire industry; we now have a website solely devoted to their catalogue. Yet Kingston provides a very open and personal account of the effects of high-level duplicity on the citizenry. She writes of joining a massive diverse crowd of 'fellow Australians' in Sydney's peace march and her 'heartbreak' at Howard's branding of protestors as 'the mob'. She writes of despair as the democratic values she holds as dear, and believes to be synonymous with 'Australia values', are consistently undermined, even spurned; and as Howard, who promised to govern 'for all of us', allows the 'in-crowd' -- media moguls and neo-liberal think tanks -- to set a frighteningly narrow political agenda.

It's the issue of cross-media ownership that secures Kingston's resolve to re-engage, and fight. While the image of the fearless and embattled Fairfax warrior reads like a wishful delusion, these are amongst the most compelling sections of a too long, and at times very loose book. Kingston offers an insight into the machinations of parliamentary process, and spends time on a vital and under-discussed issue: a proposal that would intensify even more power with a few proprietors in what is already the most concentrated mediascape in the Western world. What's most striking about these passages however, is the insight they provide into a passionate person and committed citizen.

Not Happy, John! will invariably be criticised for its highly personal tone, the intensity of its rage and the constant slippage between reportage and opinion. The language is certainly overblown and sustained vehemence makes for a repetitive read. But it is impossible not to be shocked by the book's content: the expulsion of Greens senators Bob Brown and Kerry Nettle to prevent them from attending Chinese leader Hu Jintao's parliamentary address and the banning of the Greens guests from the public chamber is a standout anti-democratic moment. Other sections are notable for their all too rare guts: a frank admission that political intimidation from influential Zionist figures and lobby groups circumscribes serious Australian discussion of the Israel-Palestine issue, and an opening up of that debate. Even more gutsy is Kingston's dogged insistence that we need to listen to people we don't agree with, search for common ground, pool ideas, participate in discussions, generate dialogue: become active, engaged citizens. The personal aspect to this work then is also its strength; it's what propels the narrative and keeps her working. I'm glad we have journalists like Margo Kingston, and I'm very glad we have citizens like her. Not Happy, John! has verve, valour, and an urgent message. For all of us.


  • Eve Vincent. 'Review: Not Happy, John: Defending Our Democracy by Margo Kingston' [online]. Network Review of Books (Perth, Australian Public Intellectual Network), September 2004. Availability: <please cite the web address here> ISSN 1833-0932. [accessed 21 August 2014].

Back Cover Blurb

  • Not happy, John, with the way:
    • you snuck us into the Iraq war without ever really telling us why
    • you trample on our democratic right to know
    • you'd like to give the Media Moguls control of ALL our news
    • a Big Donation lets Big Business share a barbecue with you and George W
    • you let President Bush ambush OUR Parliament - and then let President Hu roll us all over again, the next day
    • you use 'globalisation' to avoid accountability
    • you treat us as passive consumers - not as CITIZENS and people of goodwill
    Margo Kingston, one of Australia's most fearless political journalists, things it's crunch time for Australia. Not Happy, John! is a gutsy, anecdotal book with a deadly serious purpose: to lay bare the insidious ways in which John Howard's government has profoundly undermined our freedoms and our rights.

    She doesn't care whether you vote Liberal or Labor, Greens or One Nation. She isn't interested in the old, outworn left-right rhetoric. What she's passionate about is the urgent need for us to reassert the core civic values of a humane, egalitarian, liberal democracy. Her clear-eyed dissection of the Howard government - simply the most electrifying and enlightening forensic foray you're ever likely to read - shows precisely HOW WE CAN ACT TOGETHER NOW TO TAKE BACK OUR AUSTRALIA.

    'She rages, she hammers, she explains - but most importantly she CARES' - Phillip Adams

Visitors' Responses

  • Review Of Not Happy, John!
    What a great Review. Indeed we do need more citizens like Margo Kingston. Interesting the picture of the state of Australian democracy, as well as the important point of becoming active engaged citizens.
    Jane Vincent (20/04/0921)

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