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Goodbye, Bob: Babylon turns its back

By Stephen Holt - posted Monday, 25 November 2002

In the wake of Bali, Bob Ellis called for John Howard to be sacked as Prime Minister. This is a subject on which he is never neutral. His latest book on politics is called Goodbye Babylon because he equates life under a twice re-elected Howard government with a Biblical life of exile in unholy Babylon or Egypt.

Goodbye Babylon features a flood of colourful flashbacks in which Ellis dwells on a dozen or so elections in Australia, Britain and Florida in the apocalyptic years spanning the millennium.

The trouble is that Ellis now seems to be losing the plot, literally. Inside information is needed if good stories are to be told but Ellis is finding it harder to obtain access to political insiders. So he has to resort to padding. Goodbye Babylon includes previously published articles and verbatim interviews and speeches which have been inserted to keep the narrative ticking over.


Ellis’s whimsicality (which culminated in a defamation case heard in the ACT Supreme Court) is enough to scare off any politician. A professionalised ALP is the cause of frustrated partisanship in Goodbye Babylon. ALP national conferences are seen as "the town meeting of the nation" where Ellis loves to bob along on a sea of political and journalistic speculation. But the Ben Chifley-era attitudes that he champions have, it seems, been stifled by a party attuned to global capitalism in the Hawke and Keating years.

The suspicion is reciprocated. Labor staffers and minders fear the mercurial Ellis. Goodbye Babylon hints at attempted acts of exclusion by Labor insiders linked to Kim Beazley, Bob Carr and Steve Bracks. Michael Costello, Beazley’s chief of staff, is denounced as "a stupendous fool" and other hard hearts are also discernible such as Wayne Swan who is invited to a New Labour victory bash in London though Ellis is not.

When he looks at the Liberals Ellis commits the fatal error of turning opposition into obsessive personal distaste. His dislike for John Howard, now white hot, dates back to 1974 when he campaigned against the Prime Minister when he first stood for federal parliament. The passage of time has not bred insight. Ellis has to admit that he has "often, gamely, fruitlessly, tried to study" Howard. Mocking entries from an imagined John Howard holiday journal comprise one of the weaker ingredients in this book.

After three federal election defeats in a row Ellis has to acknowledge that the Howard years are "well and truly kicking in". The Age of Menzies is getting a second innings.

But there is an upside. Menzies, for a while, faced a sea of unbroken State Labor governments (except for gerrymandered South Australia). So now does Howard. Goodbye Babylon plots successful provincial election campaigns from Geraldton to Hobart, with a reference to tally room excitement on the night of the last ACT election thrown in as well.

South Australia’s Mike Rann is the State ALP leader with whom Ellis has most affinity. Ellis indulges in some proudly partisan bagging of Rann’s one time Liberal opponent John Olsen, portraying him as a Nixonian stage villain. Further human interest is provided by references to an Adelaide diary which, apparently, precipitated the exit from politics of Don Dunstan, an heroic figure for both Rann and Ellis.


Ellis is a wonderfully old-fashioned story teller who, while mourning the treatment of refugees after September 11, must have a happy ending. This is provided by Rann’s finally winning the SA premiership in March this year. Ellis’s account of the excitement surrounding Rann’s success in getting the numbers in a hung parliament is first rate. He has direct access to a political drama.

The loose cannon syndrome is never missing for long though. Goodbye Babylon includes a parenthetic reference to the Snowtown murders case. This has led to the book being embargoed in South Australia even as Ellis was positioning the State as a reborn New Jerusalem. The "civilised Left", Ellis notes in his book, often seems intent on being its own worst enemy. So too, it appears, does Ellis himself.

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Goodbye Babylon is published by Penguin, rrp $29.95.

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About the Author

Stephen Holt is a Canberra-based historian.

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