James Walter

James Walter is Emeritus Professor at Monash University. ‘He has published widely on leadership, biography and political ideas. Volume two of his history of the Australian prime ministership (with Paul Strangio and Paul ‘t Hart) The Pivot of Power (Miegunyah Press) was published in 2017.’ (Monash Website)

This is only a very brief synopsis of the many published books, articles and reviews written by James. James is a familiar face on U3APP Saturday Seminars, the most recent being ‘Prospects for the Albanese prime ministership.’

James was born in Hamilton, Western Victoria, where he lived together with his sisters until Form 3 when he became a boarder at Wesley College Melbourne. His English teacher at Wesley College encouraged his writing skills. His family would read widely but did not discuss politics more than “other interests, including music, they shared.”

With some amusement James recalls that he planned to enrol in English and history at Melbourne University. However, following an enrolment interview by prominent philosopher, Lauchlan Chipman, and feeling rather “bewildered,” he decided to enrol in English and philosophy. This perspective over subsequent years has shaped James’ interest in the underlying philosophical aspects of politics, particularly Australian politics. After completing 3 years of English and philosophy, James transferred into politics, completing an honours degree in politics at Melbourne University. He comments, “I was much influenced by two people, Alan Davies and Graham Little, I met in the Politics Department at Melbourne University.”

James’ various academic qualifications, leading to important positions in a number of universities, are significant and impressive, too many to list here. They include Professor of Australian Studies at the Menzies Centre for Australian Studies at the University of London. Also, a more instrumental role in management at Griffith University, Queensland, over a number of years. James felt there was a need to combine the social sciences and humanities, to look at political sciences and sociology from a specifically Australian perspective.

James wrote a case study on student radicals in the early 1970s for his master’s degree in politics, at La Trobe University. It dealt with the different interpretations motivating protest action, and reaction of right wing students. While there, he also tutored in philosophy.

James makes particular reference to his PhD. This was intended to be a “sort of history of Australian prime ministers, but it ended up being a psychobiography of Gough Whitlam”. This psychobiography “being built in some ways on psychological theory. It was umm … quite controversial.” When published, it received a lot of attention; some commenting it was an innovative approach, others viewed it as overly critical. However, this then led to James receiving an Australian Parliamentary Fellowship.

In respect to James’ interest in psychology, “well, it was about … you know, why … what influences people to make the decision to go into politics? It is quite unusual when you think about it.” Research in the US shows that less than 1% of people ever consider going into politics.

James’s book, ‘The Ministers’ Minders’, was the first book about “what we now call ministerial minders,” giving an historical perspective as well as looking at their potential influence on policy making.

Reflecting further on his interest in studies on Australian perspectives, James found that working overseas at the Menzies Centre, London and also for a period at Princeton University, in the US, “it becomes necessary to think comparatively about what’s happening in your own country.”

After a number of extended years as Pro-Vice Chancellor at Griffith University, James became concerned that he was “losing academic currency. I had to decide whether I am just going to be a manager.” He applied for a large research grant, as a sort of “gamble … a long shot”, but he received the grant which fortuitously coincided with an academic position at Monash University.

Pursuing the theme of “what drives you? Is it a more purely intellectual interest, what of social issues?” James refers to themes that had been “sort of germinating,” leading to a number of publications, one being The Citizens Bargain. This is about ”what does citizenship mean, who gets included, who gets marginalised. Questions about immigration, refugees.’’ When asked, do you have an end point? James laughs – Well, “the end point was, we have to understand that … the bargain is that if you accept shared responsibilities, you get certain entitlements, such as state protection and support.” That is how it works. As a writer you would like to think, “this is a problem, how can it be fixed? You may offer solutions, but they hardly go anywhere.” James believes that his work on political advisers and leadership has had some influence on how those roles are understood.

Is there any politician you think has really made a difference, in recent history? “Gough Whitlam, despite some chaotic years, made some major social initiatives, some lasting changes.” Hawke, Keating, made “an enormous difference to the economy and understood the way it worked.” Howard too made a difference though he did it by running a prime ministerial government, not a cabinet government. However successive prime ministers have felt that they have to do everything themselves, when in fact the most successful ones have always been collaborative. Even competitive Hawke let people get on with their own jobs. The most egregious example was Scott Morrison, thinking “I am going to do everything.”

Policy activist politicians often say ”only we can… make decisions… we have information that nobody else can have, so only we can make these big decisions. This leads to a sort of “group think” trap. These are the sort of issues I am interested in.”

James is currently writing a book on the period between 1940 and the present. What’s changed? What are the patterns? “I look at three areas. 1. Immigration because this is a settlement society -leading to our economic growth. 2. Indigenous policy. Our secular society has marginalised First Australians, we now have to face up to this and deal with it. 3. Housing. Policy on social housing was more prominent in 1940 then slowly was whittled away, now we have this huge problem that is simply not being addressed.”

Moving the topic away from politics, James loves reading and music in particular. He used to be a member of a choir as a boy, but now medical issues restrict him from singing. But not from whistling! James plays the ukulele and is a member of Minuk Richards’ class. He has a good ear for music and will often whistle an introduction for a new piece, “I’m fairly proficient at it, cool chord changes, I can usually do virtually anything she puts up – she’s a great teacher”.

Also, petanque is “fun”. James and his wife Robyn, a well-known member and office volunteer at U3APP, join a group of other U3APP players. Afterwards they go to the pub for dinner. Making comment on U3A, “I would recommend it as a new way of social networking for people who have left professional lives behind.”

James has a long standing interest in films and at one stage earlier in his academic pursuits, while in London, he applied to the Slade School of Fine Arts’ film program, still toying at that time with “this fantasy of being a literary writer.” He submitted a couple of short films. It was only some time later that he received a letter confirming that he had been admitted. However, he had by then commenced his long career in political writing. James’ favourite film is ‘Notorious’. He likes Humphrey Bogart, Billy Wilder, “my interests are fairly scattered.”

At home James and Robyn are kept busy looking after their grandchildren. They have four adult children and six grandchildren, all living currently in Melbourne. The youngest two grandchildren who are at preschool stay with them at least one day a week. These duties are juggled with James’ other responsibilities and finishing off his book.

In November, James will be hosting a documentary on Julia Gillard, ‘Strong Female Lead’, for the U3APP Friday Films class. Whilst anticipating this may evoke robust discussion from several aspects, U3APP encourages and provides a ‘safe’ place to air opposing views.

James ends with an amusing reflection. He used to play to his Honours students a video of Ry Cooder playing Chuck Berry’s song, ‘The 13 Question Method (is the one to use).’ His students would ask “why, why?” James would respond, “That’s what the search is all about, the question, rather than the destination.” A more eloquent version of the true meaning of Chuck Berry’s song!

The Australian political scene has gained much from the tireless and ongoing work of James Walter, asking important and discerning questions.

James Walter was interviewed for “Spotlight On” by Felicity May.

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