Judith Brett

Judith Brett is a biographer and historian, and an Emeritus Professor of Politics at La Trobe University.

The Enigmatic Mr Deakin (2018) won the 2018 National Biography Award, and was shortlisted in the NSW Premier’s Literary Awards, NSW Premier’s History Awards and Queensland Literary Awards. And her latest, From Secret Ballot to Democracy Sausage: How Australia Got Compulsory Voting (2019), may yet do the same.

She has also written three Quarterly Essays - Fair Share: Country and City in Australia (2011), Exit Right: The Unravelling of John Howard (2007) and Relaxed and Comfortable: The Liberal Party's Australia (2005).

Her previous works include Robert Menzies' Forgotten People (2007), Ordinary Peoples' Politics (with Anthony Moran in 2006) and Australian Liberals and the Moral Middle Class (2003).


ASTRID: Judith Brett is an exceptional writer of non-fiction. She is Emeritus Professor of Politics at La Trobe Uni, and she's been making Australian politics understandable for all of us for decades. Her biography, The Enigmatic Mr Deakin - Alfred Deakin was our second prime minister, by the way - won the National Biography Award and was shortlisted for the 2018 Prime Minister's Literary Awards, the New South Wales Premier's History Awards and the Queensland Literary Awards. Quite the achievement. And her latest book, From Secret Ballot to Democracy Sausage, explains why on earth Australia has compulsory voting.

Judith, welcome to The Garret.

JUDITH: Thank you for having me.

ASTRID: Let's start with the biography. How do you know if a person is worth writing a biography about?

JUDITH: Well, in the case of Deakin I thought he was because he was our second Prime Minister. He was responsible for what's often called the Deakinite Settlement or the Australian Settlement, a whole lot of the policies that were laid down in the first decade of the Commonwealth. And I knew already he was very interesting man. So, there were... there was two already existing biographies, so I read them first to get a sense of whether there was enough there to sustain my interest over the long haul, because doing a biography is a long haul. And also, you have to think, 'Are other people going to be interested in this person?' And I felt there was a lot of interest in Deakin amongst historians. Often people would say when you were reading a book they said, 'Well, we're not quite sure what Alfred Deakin's role was here? Or what was he doing during the financial crisis in the early 1890s? So I knew that there was plenty of sort of unanswered questions there for me to get my teeth into.

ASTRID: So that raises an interesting question. You said that you read two other biographies that had already been published. How do you tell if they've covered everything? I mean it's not just about your interest, it's about I guess... Are you taking a different angle on somebody's life?

JUDITH: Well it was also... Look, the first biography was published in the 1920s, so it was published for readers who already knew who Deakin was. So that had, you know, it would be like somebody publishing a biography of John Howard now there would be a whole lot of background you would need to explain. The next paragraph he was published in the 1960s. So I felt that what was needed was a biography for the contemporary reader for whom the 19th century was a very long time ago and didn't know a lot. And also, the second biography was a two volume biography and it was pretty heavy going. So, I wanted to write a biography that was an easier read, and that put Deakin the man at the centre of it, whereas this second biography had been as much a political history as it had been a biography.

ASTRID: So what makes a great biography?

JUDITH: Well I think what makes a great biography is the person coming to life on the page so that the reader is really interested in what happens to them, and can understand them, and they're ... they're shaped by different social circumstances. So it's also a way of reading history, but it's reading history through the identification with that person you're reading about.

ASTRID: So, when you set out to write a biography of our second Prime Minister,  who I believe was prime minister at three different times.

JUDITH: That's right.

ASTRID: Does it have to be a certain length? You talk about wanting to reduce the two volume one published in the 1960s. And the reason why I ask this is because I previously interviewed David Marr on The Garret, and he has quite strident opinions about what should be a biography, including what length is required to write biography. So he refers to his six Quarterly Essays as 'portraits' of famous Australians and is very... refuses to have them called biographies.

JUDITH: I thought 150,000 words was what I was aiming at. I think it depends a bit on the life and how much you've got to cover and how many narrative high points there are in the life. When I was talking with my publisher Michael Heyward at text he said to me, 'Don't worry too much about the length. Write it and we'll give the length... the length the story needs.' The book can be... And it ended up as 180,000 words, which was a little longer than I thought. So, I think it a bit depends on the life. But I don't think you would want to go more than 200,000 words, because it's... I just can't imagine. You know, you've got to keep... Before I gave the manuscript to Michael to read I went through and I cut 10,000 words off each chapter, or 10 per cent I should say, out of each chapter. And I thought that was a good discipline and one, you know I'd recommend to non-fiction right.

ASTRID: It's respectful of your reader I think. Now tell me about your research process.

JUDITH: Well, the research process for that - and I think I probably used it a bit with the Democracy Sausage book too - is I have a rough idea of like the arc of the story, and I will have done a certain amount of reading, but I then start writing, and I tend to research and write at the same time. So, I would break... with Deakin I broke it up into sort of decades or periods, and then I would write and research that at the same time. I wouldn't, as some historical writers I know, do all the research and then do all the writing. I would write as well as I could in that first draft, so that my first draft was pretty good. It might need stuff coming out, it might need a bit of reorganising, but the prose was as good as I could make it. I didn't... And so I sort of follow my nose a bit.

I think of it as like I've got a big tapestry, and that I've sketched the rough outlines of what's going to go onto that tapestry, but that when I'm actually writing up a section my focus is on embroidering the heart of the daisy, you know, getting the detail right. Because I think one of the things in historical writing that you've got to manage is you've got to get the detail right and you've got to at the same time have in your head the large story and the large picture and where that fits.

ASTRID: Do you have plans for another biography?

JUDITH: Not at the moment. I'm trying to find somebody that I find really interesting and who I think other people will find interesting. I was thinking about Ada Cambridge for a little while but I've decided against that, because basically her books aren't good enough. [Laughter] But she's quite a good writer, you know she's a popular romance writer in the late 19th century, but you know she's not a great writer, so do I want to spend four years of my life on someone who's not a great writer? Like I think she's an interesting woman.

ASTRID: So four years, is at how long it took for The Enigmatic Mr Deakin?

JUDITH: Yes. Although I take time off, and I think that's a good thing, because when you're working on that detail you can sort of get things a bit out of proportion. I mean, one of the challenges in a biography is to be able to weigh how significant some particular event or piece of writing is in the overall picture, and you can get a bit carried away if you're not careful. So it's quite good to have breaks and let the material sort of settle down a bit and see what it is that stays in your mind.

ASTRID: Now The Enigmatic Mr Deakin won many awards, high profile awards. It was published in 2017. And I should note for those listening, your latest work From Secret Ballot to Democracy Sausage was published in 2019. That's only 24 months between the two of them.

JUDITH: Less than that.

ASTRID: Less than that. So how did you go about running the second one? How do you squeeze it in?

JUDITH: Well yes. Yes that's a good question. The Enigmatic Mr Deakin came out in August 2017, and we have a holiday house down at Aireys Inlet where Michael Heyward and Penny Hueston, the publishers at Text, have a holiday house. And so we'd see them on the beach and things. And Michael said to me in probably, you know, like about December. ',Now Judy I think we need a book on why Australia's got compulsory voting. My publisher's nose is twitching. And I think that's, you know, I think you should write it.'

ASTRID: And so this was December 2017?

JUDITH: Yes. And and I said, 'Oh Michael, I've just finished.' You know, I mean because even though the manuscript had been finished probably around April you've still... you've got all the proofs and the editing and the index and, you know, and then all the excitement of the book coming out and talking about it. So I said to him, 'Look I don't think there's a book in it, but I'll do some work in January and I'll tell you then whether I think there is.' I wasn't totally convinced, but I said to him, 'Look maybe there's sort of like maybe I could crank out 30,000 words.' I thought it was more like a Quarterly Essay length question. He said, 'Well that's fine, 30,000 words is fine.'

So, I basically started working on it and it grew under my hand a bit. I mean it's now about 54,000 words, so I feel it is more of a respectable book. Then, my husband and I do volunteer for an Indigenous literacy program, so we were away for about six weeks in the middle of the year, and I had about 25,000 rough words written by then. We got back in end of June, and so then Michael's saying, 'We need to get it in the catalogue, and we need a cover, and we need a title.' And you know so by, I don't know, by about August September I mean it's already there. So then I had to finish it.

ASTRID: You did have to finish it.

JUDITH: So, you know so basically I had it finished by probably mid-November.

ASTRID: And we're sitting here at the very beginning of April.

JUDITH: Yeah. Yeah. I have to say, the Text Publishing machine got it up very quickly. I mean, partly because we didn't know when Scott Morrison was going to call the election.


JUDITH: And that was what put the time pressure onto the book.

ASTRID: So that was actually a question I had. Political books are often timed. And this is not political in the sense that it's got anything to do with individual politicians but it is discussing our democracy and our process of voting, which is clearly tied to a national election. Was Michael's original idea to hide the fact that there would be a federal election kind of by now?

JUDITH: Well, look, I think the original idea was inspired by the Brexit vote and the election of Trump, where you know, it's only a minority of the voters who actually make those decisions. But then knowing that there was an election coming up he thought well you know that gives it obviously an opportunity for publicity. So we had to... We thought, you know it was always possible that that Morrison might have called an election on Australia Day. So although the publication was for the 3 March, the book was ready if an election had been called early.

ASTRID: Now I'd like to quote one sentence from very early in the work. You state, 'Alone among English speaking democracies, Australia compels its citizens to vote.' That is unlike Europe, unlike what's happened in the United Kingdom, and certainly unlike America. Do you think this kind of Australian-based work has an international audience?

JUDITH: When I was writing it I was writing it for Australians. So there's a lot of detail about things that only Australians would be interested in. I think for an international audience it would have to probably be rewritten a bit, I'd probably have to put more comparative material in. You know, I think, look, I think Australians abroad who live abroad will find it interesting because they often find themselves defending compulsory voting.

ASTRID: And probably not missing their democracy sausages.

JUDITH: That's right.

ASTRID: Now I have another quote for you because, although it's early in the work this actually struck me as quite a large task for yourself as a historian and a writer to put out there. On page 10 you state, 'The ANZAC legend is a core Australian foundation myth, but we need more than stories of blood and heroic sacrifice, compelling as these will always be, if we are to understand our peacetime nation. The story of how we got compulsory voting is no less definitive of who we are.' It's an audacious and wonderful claim. So tell me how you set yourself the task of of writing to that?

JUDITH: Well, I mean I have to say I wrote that at the end.


JUDITH: Not the beginning. Well, look I'd basically just start doing the research. I mean I find reading parliamentary debates... I find that very useful.

ASTRID: In Hansard?

JUDITH: I say seeing as I'm doing this in the Library the fact that the Library has taken all the hard copies of the parliamentary debates off the shelf is making life very difficult for historians.

ASTRID: Now that's a fascinating question that I'd like to explore. So we are sitting here in the State Library of Victoria, and I did want to ask you how you researched this particular book. So tell me about that. You're referring to Hansard, hard copy Hansard?

JUDITH: The thing is, it's all available online now, but in order to find things online you have to actually know the date that you're looking for, because the way... So you can't go and say, 'Well okay, this happened sometime in 1924, go to the index, follow debates.' It's actually quite difficult navigating it all online. I have to use Trove as well to get it, newspapers, so I can get dates of when the debates are. So I mean there's now nowhere in the city of Melbourne, as far as I can have found out, because the universities have all taken them off the shelves as well, where you can actually... probably in the Parliamentary Library in State Parliament. So, you know, I know there's a shortage of space but it actually makes life very difficult for historians, and I don't think the people who make these decisions have never done historical research.

ASTRID: I doubt they have. That does raise an interesting question, what did they do with all of them? I mean are they just boxes somewhere or are gone?

JUDITH: Well, they're in storage... up in Ballarat, I think that the things go to. And you can, look to be fair, you can order them down, a whole year's worth or whatever, and you know that takes a few days but you can't just go in and check something or... I think you can then the National Library in Canberra still has them available.

ASTRID: And have you ever considered a research trip to Canberra?

JUDITH: Well I have if I've gone up there I've done it. For this book I had... there were dates I knew, the dates of the major debates that I needed to look at. So it wasn't too difficult to navigate.

ASTRID: Good to know. Thank you Judith. And for the Library staff to know as well. Now a question for you as both a professor and a historian and a writer. How do you turn research into engaging text?

JUDITH: Well, look I think there's two preconditions for good non-fiction writing. The first is you have to have something to say. And the second is you have to have a fully imagined readership. You have to know who you're writing for.

Now, I mean I've spent a lot of time you know inside the academy, and I don't think that... I think a lot of the conventions around academic writing are not conducive to good writing. I actually by the end found it almost impossible to write an academic article, because academic articles now firstly there tend to be framed around some often around some question in relationship to the discipline, rather than a question in relationship to reality. And I was always more interested in reality than the discipline. There has to be a lot of coverage of what all the other things that people have said about this particular topic, even if the things they have said are totally banal. So, it clogs up the material you know. So... I do think that it's a problem.

One of the decisions I had to make in writing the Deakin book - I mean there's a fair bit of secondary material on Deakin, there was a number of articles about various aspects of his career - to what extent was I going to include that or discuss that in my book? Well I decided that I was writing for a general public that the public read of the general reader you know sitting on a Sunday afternoon by the fire or reading about Deakin was not actually interested in whether what I was saying differed or not from something that some other historians said. My task was to convince them of my Deakin, you know. So, I mean I've got a certain amount of criticism for this. And I think I'll continue to because it means basically the historiography is really barely there. If I use somebodies research directly I would footnote it, but if somebody else had written about a topic I was writing about and I actually thought they got it wrong or wasn't very interesting I just ignored it.

ASTRID: So this raises an interesting question about publishing within academia. Is it still true that there is the concept of publish or perish?

JUDITH: Yes I think there is. And I think it's very hard for younger academic writers. When I was a younger academic it was probably bit easier to write for a general public. I think... You know, look it's not impossible. Like Billy Griffith's book 'Deep Time Dreaming'...

ASTRID: A wonderful work.

JUDITH: He's successfully turn the PhD in a deeply researched book into a very readable book, but that's a pretty hard thing to do. I think it's easier to do in history. I think history is still got... It's still... historical writing is still seen as having a sort of being a literary out in some way. In politics it's much harder, I think, like there was a lot of research that had been done about you know the history of various parts of our voting systems and things, but it was pretty dry, and it was in textbooks and it was in chapters. I think it's been harder for the social sciences to find a way of writing in an engaging way for a general readership.

ASTRID: So when you think about your own publications for you know the general public the highly informed public, are you writing those at the expense of writing for academia? Or are these counted towards you know your status within the profession?

JUDITH: Look they're counted. But I was lucky the first book I wrote, Robert Menzies Forgotten People, I started writing that when I didn't have a job. So I already had... I'd edited Meanjin during the 1980s for five years, so I'd sort of learnt to write about serious issues but with a more non-academic readership in mind. And Robert Menzies Forgotten People did extremely well. I won lots of prizes and things for that. So I just got a job at La Trobe when that won all those prizes, so that in a way gave me a degree of status and enabled me to basically keep writing along in that way. But if you if you haven't got a book that's already made a mark it's much harder to do that I think.

ASTRID: So. Tell me about the title From Secret Ballot to Democracy Sausage.

JUDITH: Well that was my idea. Michael and I were tossing titles around. Mike said, 'You know, I've got to get in the catalogue, we need a title'. So you know, I'm thinking 'democracy for all, for all of us'. It sounds like a civics textbook. And so I was just lying in bed in the morning, you know, turning things over, and I thought, 'Okay, I've got to think of something, I've got to think of it differently.' And so I need to narrow it, you know, it's a narrative. So I then thought From Secret Ballot to the Motor Car to Democracy Sausage, because motor cars feature at one point. So I think I sent an email to Michael, and he said, 'Get rid of the motor car and get rid of the bus'. So we got from Secret Ballot to Democracy Sausage. And I think actually like having democracy sausage in there is what's made the title zing.

ASTRID: Oh completely. I mean every Australian knows what that is. And nobody would miss it.

JUDITH: I didn't know anything about democracy sausages until I started writing this book.

ASTRID: Even my American family knows about democracy sausages!

JUDITH: You know, I ended up writing a too long a chapter I took some of the material out but, you know, and because it was able to be... you know, the argument that our election days on a Saturday have got a sort of community festive sort of air, and then the democracy sausage being the way social media has picked up on that really gave the... brought it up to a contemporary edge. But because I'm not a great social media user I had never chosen my polling booth in terms of where there was a democracy sausage.

ASTRID: And what sausage you could get. Now I'd like to go back to your working relationship with Michael Heyward. He is Managing Director of Text's Publishing. He has appeared on The Garret before talking about his role there. What is he like as an editor? And in your opinion, what makes a good editor?

JUDITH: Well what's he like as an editor? With The Deakin manuscript he basically printed it out for himself and he did it. He edited it, pencil on paper 8,000 words a day, over his summer holiday in the beginning of 2017. And he was extremely helpful. Now I'd had the manuscript read by three historian colleagues and they'd made various comments. You know, I wanted to make sure I didn't have any mistakes or overemphasis on things. But Michael read it as someone who didn't actually already know the history. And that was really useful because he'd say... particularly there's a complicated arguments around free trade and protection and which is liberal and and and of nineteenth century liberalism, and he'd say, 'Look I can't follow this. Why isn't... Why is protection liberal? Why isn't free trade...' You know, s o there were areas where he needed more explanation. So he... Michael in a way puts himself into the position of the reader. So he crosses out your verys and occasional adjectives and things like that. The other thing he did which was very helpful is - and I'm sure every historic you know biographer or writer of history struggles with this - is getting your chronology right, because you're often dealing with things that are happening simultaneously and how you sequence that. So he basically had a rule that you didn't do any foreshadowing, and so he was quite helpful in sort of untangling some of those chronological knots for me.

And so when I was writing the manuscript for Secret Ballot to Democracy Sausage and I knew Michael was going to edit that, I already knew what some of the things he would be doing. But again there was issues of chronology there. When do I tell when do I tell the story of preferential voting, which happens straight after the first World War. You know, when do I tell the story of the Labour Party split in the first World War. Some of those things he was very helpful so I suppose what I think makes a good structural editor is against a good copy editor is the capacity to put themselves into the shoes of the reader.

ASTRID: So you raise an interesting concept about no foreshadowing in a work of history essentially. That makes sense because the people who are living in a time of course had no idea what would come. But for you, as a writer thinking about your reader, how do you maintain that narrative tension? I mean if everybody kind of knows where the story ends up - because it is history even if they don't know the details - how do you keep the reader engaged?

JUDITH: I think you have to do it with your prose, because obviously people know, you know most biographies end in death. No surprises there. But there'll be psychological questions about the person that that are unfolding. I think you've got to somehow give a sense of the, keep a sense of the present when you're writing. But when I first started doing work on Deakin, because I was still employed by university I felt that I was under pressure to produce articles, because I was a professor and you meant to earn a certain number of points. So I did an article on Deakin's childhood, which was based on reading that I'd done. And I had an argument and I think the argument is about sort of 60 per cent right. But one of the... It wasn't exactly a mistake, but one of the things I had done at that stage is I'd read most of the accounts of his childhood that Deakin wrote were written actually when he's in his 50s. And his accounts of what sort of a person he was are written then. And I took them at face value. When I went back and did research on Deakin as a young man he wasn't at all like the person he was describing himself as being when he was older. So I then made a rule for myself - you know, a flexible rule I'd have to say because you don't always have a choice - but that where possible I would write the period of the age I was writing out of documents from that time rather than relying on memory. Now as I said that's not always possible, but I certainly got a wrong impression because he wrote about himself when he's older, he started to get Alzheimer's, he says you know he's always been detached he's always been aloof, he came across as quite a depressive person. When I actually went back and looked at contemporary documents of Deakin as a young man in his 20s, he's full of energy, he's he's not depressed at all. You know?

ASTRID: A different part of his life.

JUDITH: Yeah that's right.

ASTRID: Now I'd like to move on quickly to the Quarterly Essay series published by Black Inc. As we mentioned before you've published three. They are well known for being a specific topic under a very tight timeline with Chris Feik.


ASTRID: How did you get three and will there be another one?

JUDITH: Well the first one, Relaxed and Comfortable, Chris approached me. I'd published a book with Cambridge called Australian Liberals in the Moral Middle Class, which I think is actually a really good book but didn't probably get the sort of public exposure that I think it deserved. And Chris had read it and thought there was a good argument in it but that it hadn't got that public exposure and suggested to me that particularly there was quite a lot in it on John Howard, and that I write a Quarterly Essay around that. So that was terrific and Chris is terrific to work with.

With Exit Right, that was my idea. I... at the beginning of the year, which year was it, the years are whizzing past at this rate...

ASTRID: 2007.

JUDITH: 2007, that's right, and there was an election due at the end of the year. So at the beginning of the I wrote a piece for The Monthly about how the tide was turning against Howard and there had been these ways in which he couldn't win. And I said to Chris, 'Look I'm happy to write, I'd like to write a Quarterly Essay on this election year showing how it's heading for Howard's defeat. If he wins, well I've wasted my time and you can publish something else.' So it was a sort of gamble but I was pretty sure that my instincts were right. And so I wrote the Quarterly Essay during the year heading towards the defeat. And he was defeated, so Exit Right: The Unravelling of John Howard.

Then Fair Share was again my idea, and I went to Chris Feik. I was driving in the car and I was listening to a National Party person going on about how the country hadn't got their fair share of something or other. And I... was thinking about that and then thought, you know, people don't really understand where the National Party comes from. And that I thought that I could write an essay that really explained the history of the way rural people saw themselves in relationship to the cities, and why that wasn't really working anymore. You know, why they were feeling so aggrieved because... and you can see that now. You know, I taught Australian politics for 20 years to first years, and I mean that was a really good training ground I think for writing non-fiction and writing Australian political history because I've had to to keep the attention of you know a lecture theatre full of 18 year olds, I've had to be able to really hone arguments down to their to their bullet points.

ASTRID: That is a good point. Now in your career as a teacher and an academic and a successful non-fiction writer in Australia, what are the most common mistakes that you see with writers trying to get their point across?

JUDITH: Too many qualifications. You know like... I think maybe I could perhaps say you know that that's too tentative. I mean I guess it's not having fully imagined audience and wanting to impress a higher authority. I think that's that's where a lot of the tentativeness comes in. Is that in your head, There's ist either your PhD supervisor or some some historian who knows everything, whereas you have to sort of somehow say, 'Well okay I'm doing this and I've got to take responsibility for it. And I'm talking to this 18 year old and he's going to, you know, that that's what this is about'. So I think it's clearing your head of all those authorities looking over your shoulder. Now that is actually quite hard to do in the contemporary university, I think.

But once you're - I've now retired, so what I felt when I was writing the Deakin book which I'd done work on it before I retired, but once I retired I said to myself, 'Okay you've got no excuses'. You know, there's no, you can't say, 'Well OK I had to do it that way because I had to get it into that journal so I could get more points' or 'I wanted to publish with that prestigious press and they want this'. This had to be... I wanted it to be a literary achievement. I wanted it to be as well written as I could. And there was no excuses because I was no longer... It was my choice. So I think that's... I suppose it's just getting all those critics out of your head.

ASTRID: That is fantastic advice. Thank you so much for coming on The Garret.

JUDITH: Thank you.