peteg's blog

Russell Marks: Black Lives, White Law: Locked Up and Locked Out in Australia. (2022)

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Kindle. A follow up to and expansion of his earlier Crime and Punishment. The topic is vital but the book is lengthy, concussive and insufficiently focussed; it took me an age to get past chapter one and a lot of commitment to crawl through the second half. His use of footnotes annoyed me: I'm used to inline citations and I learnt a long long time ago that if it's worth saying it goes in the main text, and if it's not you let it go. The kids today might consider that a part of killing their darlings.

I'm not a lawyer. What made Nicholas Cowderey's Getting Justice Wrong valuable to me was that he laid out the legal system to us non-specialists, and that he took an issue-based approach, pointing at particular antinomies of the system and using specific illustrative examples. Here (NT defence lawyer) Marks engages in extensive (excessive) cataloguing of court cases. I found this futile as readers of this book are likely to know that generally things are bad, the general shape of the badness, and the general stasis and backsliding. (See, for instance, Ben Abbatangelo at another Black Inc. venue; it's the era of choose-your-own-apocalypse from a vast and increasing menu.) Sometimes he pulls in a sociological, historical, economic or political angle (beyond his workaday legal frame) but not as successfully as Dean Ashenden. Take, for instance, this from Chapter 14 A New Beginning:

[Circa 1933, s]outh of the Murray, William Cooper — now in his seventies — was doing his own agitating. He began a letter-writing campaign, which soon led to the creation of the Australian Aborigines' League. Among its demands, the League wanted Canberra to take over the administration of Aboriginal affairs from the states (which was eventually achieved by referendum in 1967).

I was left wondering why Cooper thought the Feds would provide a better deal than the states, recalling that it was the Depression, the White Australia Policy was in force and the first and second World Wars close by. And just what did the 1967 referendum achieve anyway? I wanted the perspective that Marks brings to his (excellent) essays.

Ashenden observed the limits of the law as a mechanism for (social) justice, and in particular that issues of sovereignty are quite simply beyond the scope of every court in Australia, and moreover that petitioning the body that could adjudicate such issues — apparently the U.K.'s Privy Council — is not possible. (As a non-lawyer I felt Ashenden spelt that out clearly.) Marks seems to think that Western law has more universalism that it does, more scope for providing justice, even as he pummels us with endless counterexamples and decries the inveterate unwillingness of Australian Settler law to accommodate Indigenous law (or some practices). For instance (again from Chapter 14):

[I]n May 2020, a cave in the Juukan Gorge in the Pilbara was permanently destroyed by mining giant Rio Tinto, despite multiple representations to the company by Puutu Kunti Kurrama and Pinikura heritage managers about its significance: archaeological evidence showed that the cave had been continuously occupied for 46,000 years, making it the oldest known inland site in Australia. Rio Tinto’s actions were entirely lawful under the state’s Aboriginal Heritage Act, which had created an approvals process which favoured the destruction of sacred and significant sites. In the wake of the Juukan Gorge destruction – reported around the world – the Western Australian parliament replaced the Act entirely, though with a new piece of legislation which was opposed by Traditional Owners on the basis that it did not address the central flaws in the existing law.

Here the law is completely irrelevant; a priori decisive were capitalism (the financialisation of just about everything) and a centralised politics, which in his business manifests as privatised prisons and (as he observes) NAAJA (see Chapter 13 The Defenders), and afterwards it was blowback from public (specifically large shareholder) opinion that destroyed corporate reputations and placed the event into the category of never-again-not-until-the-next-time. Marks observes several times that every formal inquiry more-or-less reiterates what was determined and proposed by the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody (1987 to 1991), which demonstrates that the critical thing that's missing is not epistemic ... so what is it? As Noel Pearson often observes, it's not just partisan politics: Holt, Whitlam, Fraser, Hawke, Keating, Rudd and at times Abbott all made attempts to bend history towards justice. Moreover Marks did sometimes observe that many issues he canvasses are also prevalent amongst non-Aboriginal people, opening the door a crack to a broader Amartya Sen-esque cross-sectional analysis/activism.

Finally, I've always been mystified how the systems of law could ever be reconciled. Take, for instance, the cultural impedance mismatch in this murder trial from 1976 described in Chapter 5 Bending:

According to Joseph's defence lawyer, Judy had repeatedly taunted and insulted Joseph by mentioning tribal secrets she shouldn't have known about. The open discussion of such secrets in court provided grounds, Wells concluded, to make an order banishing all women from the court, including from the jury. Joseph formally pled 'not guilty' to murder through an interpreter. (Unfortunately, that interpreter was uninitiated, and it emerged that Joseph, who was initiated, was unable to speak to him.)

Doesn't this suggest that almost all (actionable, evidentiary, ...) tribal law is beyond the ken of almost all Settlers? (Ashenden noted that Bill Stanner was initiated and provided with tribal secrets in the hope of influencing the state, but he wasn't a lawyer.) And of course tribal law may not be so big on blaming individuals.

Widely reviewed. Chris Cunneen came in for a caning in the book (I think, see Chapter 9 Debate) but is generous in his review. I did not find any that engaged with Marks's take on carceral feminism (see his Chapter 10 Women: How protection isn't working much better this time around for First Nations women) which is entirely depressing.

District 9 (2009)

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Sharlto Copley's IMDB page suggests it's been a while since he's been in anything worth watching and so it was a third time around with this Copley / Neill Blomkamp classic. Four Oscar noms: picture, writing, editing, and surely it would have won for visual effects if it wasn't the year of Avatar.

Roger Ebert: three stars: space opera and not science fiction. A critic's pick by A. O. Scott at the time.

The Hospital (1971)

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The last of Paddy Chayefsky's Oscared scripts for me to watch. This one looks like he thought he could improve on Altman's MASH. It's also a bit of a dry run for Network though the farce is blacker here. George C. Scott leads as a world-weary middle-aged doctor who runs a Manhattan hospital. On the day we visit there are quite a few staff deaths, presented straight, until Diana Rigg (unrecognisable from Last Night in Soho) arrives and they have the night of his life. He vacillates over joining her in Mexico with her missionary father (a notional patient). At times I found it very amusing.

Roger Ebert: three stars. Vincent Canby.

Marty (1955)

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A Paddy Chayefsky jag from Network: the first of his Oscared writing efforts, apparently adapted from a TV show. Pitched as a sweet post-war it's-never-too-late love story in NYC, it got Oscared as best picture in 1956. Ernest Borgnine (Oscared, solid) is a thirty-four year old Italian butcher in the Bronx who meets school chemistry teacher Betsy Blair (unfathomably Oscar nominated) at a black-and-white dance hall and soon ditches his buddies. They solve each other's problems but in a way that seems to preclude future romance. I enjoyed the efforts of the old Italian ladies (mother Esther Minciotti and aunt Augusta Ciolli) the most as they layered on the pretence and unguardedness of family life. It's slight, dated, and now very non-P.C.

Bosley Crowther dug it at the time.

Stalag 17 (1953)

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A William Holden (Oscared) jag from Network. IMDB tells me this was a sympathy Oscar for him missing out for Sunset Boulevard, which Billy Wilder also co-wrote and directed. The opening voice over claims there haven't been (m)any POW movies before this one, but didn't the genre just explode. The Sergeant Schulz here (Sig Ruman) is a bit soft hearted and apparently soft headed, the other German soldiers often incompetent or too trusting, making it look like the template for Hogans Heroes. Otto Preminger plays the Commandant. It's mostly comedy/farce with a serious (tendentious) undercurrent: that it might be reprehensible but is certainly no sin to be a privateer/capitalist in wartime conditions; that a "stoolie" surely couldn't be a fellow American. I struggled to get into it.

Bosley Crowther dug it at the time. An adaptation of a stage play. IMDB suggests that Holden was as unimpressed as I was.

The Whale (2022)

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As I always say, I'm not a big fan of Aronofsky. Here he tries to do for (Oscar nom) Brendan Fraser what he did for Mickey Rourke in The Wrestler, so expect a small boom in Fraser pics followed by a long-tailed bust. In my defence Samantha Morton does star in a small role.

This is essentially a one-set theatre piece where an exaggeratedly obese and self-terminating online-English-lecturer/shut-in Fraser holds court for a rotating cast of family and friends. He's as good as the media have been saying, but the many and varied problems with the script and characters (so many busted exits, so much waffle, so much unearnt catharsis, the voyeurism) leaves an empty husk. (This is mystifying as the story is clearly quite important to writer Samuel D. Hunter.) Aronofsky always struck me as a reactionary (cf Requiem for a Dream and this penchant for reviving actors' careers), and here I could only discern the redemptive power of secular charity (saving the apocalyptic cult missionary via the power of social media), that gay love destroys the nuclear family, and the body shaming. It's as unrelenting a grind as most of Aronofsky's pictures are.

Morton does what she can in a thin role, as the flinty abandoned wife/mother; her brief scene is not going to get her an Oscar, unlike Beatrice Straight in Network. I found (Oscar nom) Hong Chau histrionically robotic; that worked better for her in The Menu. Daughter Sadie Sink has a few more years of hard-nosed bitch in her by the looks of things. Believer Ty Simpkins has all the open-faced charm and believability of a minor Marvel character.

Dana Stevens. A. O. Scott: ah yes, the clearly articulated moral of the story is "that people are incapable of not caring about one another." How could I forget. Jason Di Rosso interviewed Aronofsky recently. Roxane Gay on the politics (the fatphobia, the pointlessness, the flawed script). Later: Fraser got the Oscar.

Running on Empty (1988)

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More Sidney Lumet completism. Christine Lahti and Judd Hirsch play parents on the lam from the days when blowing up napalm factories for reasons of conscience (we wanted to bring an end to the Việt Nam war!) wasn't considered entirely beyond the pale. The main thread of the story focuses on River Phoenix, the older of their two boys, while the younger Jonas Abry seems more accident than spare. To an extent their lives felt familiar to me — moving on at short notice in that van, that pickup truck! — and perhaps because it's a classic 1980s sweet nuclear American family movie, a right of passage for many young blokes at the time (e.g. Johnny Depp in What's Eating Gilbert Grape? etc.).

The plot as it were has Phoenix, at a difficult age, inevitably coming unstuck due to the unbearable weight of his massive (musical) talent, and, of course, a girl-woman who, being normatively-normal, just has to get into his pants. Politics is avoided as much as possible soas to avoid triggering those who are unsympathetic to direct action. (There's a subplot involving an ex boyfriend, a bank heist and summary justice to further placate that crowd and those pining for Dog Day Afternoon.) The main theme is generically universal: that kids escaping the nest is painful for all involved.

Hirsch got an Oscar nom for this portrayal of an old-school activist here, and more recently for playing an echo of it in The Fabelmans. He's sometimes quite funny, often effective, and just occasionally clunky. River Phoenix is opaque, a bit wooden, which is played up to be intentional but I had my doubts. Lahti just relaxes into it all.

Roger Ebert: four stars, one of the best films of the year. Janet Maslin wasn't as persuaded; she did not find Hirsch's character credible.

Q&A (1990)

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More Sidney Lumet completism. He co-wrote and directed this as a capstone to his NYC one-good-cop trilogy (alongside Prince of the City and Serpico). The "Q&A" of the title is apparently an interview by a prosecutor paired with dectectives — perhaps putting Australians in mind of the interview — but notably the subject can be the arresting officer.

Early on we're informed of who the bad and good guys are, and that no greys will be tolerated. The plot is often hard to follow, especially towards the end when things get apocalyptic. The romance side-story is feeble, unbelievable and unhelpful. It's wall-to-wall with racist invective (some creative but much of the yo-mumma genre, somewhat equal-opportunity) and the demimonde of gays and trans. It's not quite real and it's not quite a comic book — the lighting, acting etc. of the initial scene makes it feel like we're in for something confected — and so it's a bit unsettling.

The cast is vast and often good to excellent. Nick Nolte leads in his canonical full-on bent mode. Timothy Hutton is a baby-faced sorta semi-innocent Tom Hanks fresh DA. Armand Assante stole a few scenes (and previously the woman) before sliding into cliche. I'd like to think he did what he could. Luis Guzmán is mostly solid in a modulated performance, as is Charles S. Dutton (Cookie's Fortune). And so on.

Roger Ebert: three-and-a-half stars: he wanted to believe. Vincent Canby thought that NYC is somehow all of "urban America".

Prince of the City (1981)

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Sidney Lumet completism. It's a bit like a sophistication of his earlier Serpico — one breaking-good NYC cop against the rest — but more like Once Upon a Time in America in that the band of brothers comes undone at great length. I found it a bit airless, perhaps because Treat Williams is no Al Pacino or James Wood or Robert De Niro, and his histrionics are often a bit too much. Or perhaps it was the endless hand wringing of the lawyers (Lance Henriksen and many others) who take him for all he's got and more. The vast cast is well used and it is extremely well constructed, though there are a few bits here and there that I didn't get, such as why Jerry Orbach's Detective Gus Levy got set up in a garment sweatshop, and what options the unit had once the Feds got involved.

Roger Ebert: four stars, based on a book about a true story. Janet Maslin.

Network (1976)

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Second time around with this Sidney Lumet classic. A jag via Peter Finch (Oscared) from A Town Like Alice, and via Vincent Canby, The Running Man. Invariant at #219 in the IMDB top-250. I enjoyed Faye Dunaway (Oscared) a lot more this time around. William Holden represents something long gone now.

Roger Ebert: four stars at the time (almost a doco!) and another four stars in 2000 as a "great movie" ("like prophecy"). Perhaps the arc of inconclusively losing control was (Oscared) writer Paddy Chayefsky's way of mirroring the times. Vincent Canby.

A Town Like Alice (1956)

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A black-and-white "based on a true" story about some English women-and-children in Japanese-occupied Malaya in World War II, adapted from the Nevil Shute novel of the same name. In essence it's a long walk, tedious and trying for all, including the audience, and unlike Rabbit Proof Fence (for instance) the cinematography is mostly stodgy and there's no cracker soundtrack. Wikipedia suggests the book is a bit Great Expectations.

The plot has lead English Rose Virginia McKenna meet Australian mechanic Peter Finch (later Oscared for Network) and fall into histrionics. I wasn't persuaded by her: she's no Julie Christie. The novel's narrative is (apparently) greatly truncated (where did her money come from? how did they get repatriated? what has the title got to do with anything? etc. etc.) with what remains going in obvious directions. There is some brief archive footage of Alice Springs and Tennant Creek late in the piece. Alongside this is the thoroughgoing and oblivious classism, racism and mostly one-sided storytelling (the Japanese have little interiority, only Maureen Swanson is subject to sexual exploitation, and only then with her consent, etc. etc.) of the imperial sunset.

A. H. Weiler at the New York Times. Ozmovies observes it's not much of an Oz movie. Later given the Bryan Brown treatment at length in 1981.

Dreaming of Joseph Lees (1999)

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More Samantha Morton completism. Here she is one corner of a 1950s love triangle in rural England. She's fine and does provide the odd moment of light. In contrast the blokes are blank slates (Rupert Graves as Joseph Lees), moppets (Lee Ross) and irascible cliches like her stodgy father (Frank Finlay). Holly Aird has the most fun as a mostly fancy-free sister/friend, with precocious sister/almost daughter Lauren Richardson close behind. It just sort of chugs along until it evaporates in artifice and inevitable female self sacrifice.

Janet Maslin: Morton as the new Sarah Miles! She wasn't convinced. Charles Taylor reckoned this was Morton's best vehicle hitherto. Madeleine North.

The Running Man (1987)

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What can I say but that it might be better to be disappointed by the movie you know than all the dreck being pumped out now. (I got a bit depressed when I heard Jason Di Rosso will spend more time this year on "repertory" cinema, and not because it will probably be a better show thereby.) Well they don't make them like this any more (they make The Hunger Games instead) and while there may be good reasons for that I did enjoy Arnie's delivery of some of his best one-liners in that semi-polished manner he had before going full robot.

Roger Ebert: two-and-a-half stars. Vincent Canby was more indulgent.

Blueback (2022)

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I read somewhere that this is the sixth adaptation of raw material by Tim Winton and realised that none I've seen are great. This one is adapted and directed by Robert Connolly (The Dry, The Turning) and is one of the poorer ones. Mia Wasikowska notionally leads as a professor of marine science (it's all a bit vague) whose mother (mostly Radha Mitchell in Australian TV mode; she put me in mind of Gary Sweet) has a stroke, bringing Mia home to Bremer Bay (which stands in for somewhere on the west coast near Ningaloo). Eric Bana (in Chopper mode) has a cameo as the local colour. Of course there's some overdevelopment in the pipe, and everyone wants things to work out like The Castle. I wasn't persuaded by the animatronic Western Blue Groper (perhaps it fell into the uncanny valley) or the community dynamics but by far the most excruciating scene was the party on the beach: even the cast did not appear to be enjoying themselves.

Sandra Hall and Luke Buckmaster make their apologies for the local product. Later Amy Nicholson.

Exotica (1994)

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A bit of misguided Atom Egoyan completism; he wrote, directed and cast his wife Arsinée Khanjian as the madam of a strip joint in Toronto. The erotic thriller framing is supposed to give heft to other sliced-up stories of loss and grief, of overlapping entangled lives, of contraband wildlife. Again it's very 1990s: the large CD-holder furniture, the Volvo 240 station wagon of dreams (Egoyan's own?), Leonard Cohen on soundtrack alongside some intriguing Eastern music. Perhaps the set is the most interesting thing. Bruce Greenwood leads. Again Sarah Polley as some kind of wide-eyed wise ingenue. Elias Koteas. More miss than hit for me.

Roger Ebert: four stars at the time and another four stars in 2009 as a "great movie". Caryn James at the New York Times.

Martin Riker: The Guest Lecture (2023)

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Kindle. Yet another bum steer from Dwight Garner. I initially thought Riker was trying to better Spufford by ventriloquising John Maynard Keynes but the vast bulk consists of the first-person hand wringing of a very normatively-normal American female junior economics academic who has all the correct opinions. Vast sections are repetitiously tedious. It completely lacked animal spirits.

Goodreads splits into those operating in the confirmation mode, who saw themselves in Abigail, and those who were expecting something more novel.

The Sweet Hereafter (1997)

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Adapted and directed by Atom Egoyan (Ararat) from a Russell Banks novel. A two-track from the lost age of movies for adults: we're shown lawyer Ian Holm's life in parallel with the goings-on of a small-town where a school bus crash killed almost all the children. It's a bit slow and moody in the Twin Peaks mode: the music, acting, mood, wintry mountains, smallness of the community, relations between people and so forth. The last needed some more digging to make it matter more. The plot is framed by the Pied Piper fable, read by Sarah Polley who steals every scene she's in. Bruce Greenwood is also solid. Somehow it put me in mind of Mystic River. The Tragically Hip provide most the soundtrack.

Roger Ebert: four stars, one of the best films of the year. Stephanie Zacharek. Janet Maslin.

The Overlanders (1946)

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Gestured at by Dean Ashenden as a romantic take on (functional) relations between Australian Aborigines and settlers. The first feature that Ealing Studios made in Australia. A wartime (1942) black-and-white cattle drove from Wyndham to Rockhampton (or thereabouts; things get vague east of Anthony's Lagoon). There's a stampede! — even Rocky Kangaroo: The Australian Story / Red River / Australia had a stampede, but these guys got there before all those. Chips Rafferty plays a mostly laconic slave-driving drover who takes a moment in the middle to express well-rehearsed anti-exploitation sentiments about the Northern Territory and a touching faith that government will not screw it up.

Bosley Crowther at the time. All the details at Ozmovies. Wikipedia tells me romantic interest Daphne Campbell was born in Orange and fled to Queensland and the N.T. at a young age.

Film (1965)

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An erratically amusing short by Samuel Beckett starring Buster Keaton. A pointer from John Lahr's review of a biography of Keaton.

New York Times: while filming, and A. O. Scott in retrospect.

Babylon (2022)

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Damien Chazelle's latest. I still haven't seen La La Land (but did see Whiplash). Three Oscar noms, all for design. It is interminable, vast, imitative, punishing and mostly boring, especially after a very saggy scene at the halfway mark. The point, if there is one, is that Hollywood has run out of stories to tell, even about itself. Margot Robbie, Brad Pitt, Lukas Haas (!), Tobey Maguire (in whiteface, converging with Jared Leto?), endless ladies. I often felt I'd've been better off watching Mother! again.

Widely reviewed, of course. Keva York at the ABC. Peter Bradshaw: "... so much like Baz Luhrmann he should be getting a royalty cheque." Manohla Dargis: joyless, juiceless, unsexy, punishing. Dana Stevens couldn't get much past the elephant. Shane Danielsen: the source material is a book from 1959 and Boogie Nights ("... Chazelle owes Paul Thomas Anderson a co-writing credit."). And so on.

Dean Ashenden: Telling Tennant's Story: The Strange Career of the Great Australian Silence. (2022)

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Kindle. From Black Books Inc for 16.99 AUD. It's been on the pile for a while due to the topic and rave reviews; Noel Pearson's Boyer lectures prompted me to read it. Both point back to Bill Stanner's apparent Boyer-of-Boyers lectures of 1968, with Ashenden having the space to canvas Stanner's broader academic/political output.

Briefly this is a capsule history of the relations between Aboriginal and settler Australians through the prism of Tennant Creek and the greater Barkly region. It is a rich source book and mostly evenhanded (as far as I could tell, given that the politics was sometimes hard to parse; for instance both Paul Hasluck and Stanner are deemed conservatives but are shown to have diverged significantly over the goal of Aboriginal policy). The meat is on anthropology and its shading into history and then legalism: the story of Spencer And Gillen (there apparently being little source material before about 1900), the politicking at Sydney Uni, the routine imposition of hierarchy, the early days of land rights (the bark petitions sent by the wily Yolŋu, who are unfortunately left opaque here). I felt a bit brought-up-to-speed by his coverage of Mabo (putting Henry Reynolds's role into perspective, as well as Justice Blackburn's) and was surprised that he did not go on to explain the Wik decision (pastoral leases versus native title) or the legal system's inability to grapple with issues of sovereignty. And much else. The concluding movement has him in Nyinkka Nyunyu in Tennant, trying to extract some oral history from various elderly Aboriginal ladies.

More dispiriting was his coverage of the culture/history wars of the Howard era that I lived through; it seems to have mostly quietened or gone underground now. Ashenden concludes on an optimistic note — things are changing — while observing that (much like the USA) it is politics and not legal manoeuvring that will (have to) ultimately make the difference. I'm not as optimistic as objectively (deaths in custody stats, a return to child removal, the grog, the lack of meaningful activity, ignoring the locals, etc.) things look like (at best) more of the same. Perhaps there will be movement again later this year.

Overall a thumbs up for me. I wished he'd written at twice the length. Excerpts are everywhere. Ashenden talking to (being cut off by) Phillip Adams on 2022-12-07. Kieran Finnane: yes, I always wanted to understand Aboriginal thought better. Goodreads. Apparently he won the 2022 Australian Political Book of the Year Award.