What Is to Be Done (2020) by Barry Jones

Australian National Living Treasure, ex quiz champion, leader of the campaign to abolish the death penalty, polymath and our longest-serving Science minister (phew!) Barry Jones’ recent book consciously echoes Vladimir Ilyich Lenin’s 1902 treatise, What Is To Be Done? – but there is no question mark; Jones is not asking a question but telling us what must be done. His 1982 book Sleepers, Wake! won international acclaim and was known to have influenced the thinking of Deng Xiaoping among others, but Australia and much of the world continues to snooze.

Sub-titled ‘Political Engagement and Saving the Planet’ (and speaking as a former Labor party stalwart), Jones proposes that just as we face a climate crisis poised to spiral out of control both major political parties are failing us miserably. Aware of the grave danger of climate change since 1967 and believing that our continent’s vulnerability should have propelled Australia to be a world leader on the issue, he comments, “Australia’s response has been feeble, confused and, at times, corrupt”. One answer could be for concerned citizens to join the major parties in large numbers so as to force reform of party platforms. Another could be to form a new party; Jones and Malcolm Fraser seriously discussed doing this before Fraser’s death in 2015 and had agreed on a strong progressive agenda. However, since early in the 20th century Australians have conservatively voted for one of the two big parties and only strayed elsewhere in relatively small numbers.

Barry Jones is indeed a great Australian: an idealist, a dreamer and a formidable intellect, but also with a former teacher’s tendency to over-explain. He is remembered for his contribution to then Labor leader Kim Beazley’s ‘Knowledge Nation’ policy – a complex diagram of circled phrases mocked by Coalition politicians as ‘Noodle Nation’ and hence not taken as seriously as it deserved. Linda Jaivin notes of parts of this book, “If any male reader … is curious what it feels like for women to have things mansplained to them, I commend these sections.”

The Labor party Barry Jones joined as a young man consisted of mostly men, as he ruefully admits, but men who were “actual workers … passionate readers, had strong convictions, and knew how to debate a powerful case. Some had been jailed for their political/industrial activity.”                            He continues:                                                                                                                                                                             I regularly receive requests for advice from young people who tell me, ‘I’m thinking of going into politics.’ I ask, ‘Which party?’ Typically, they respond, ‘I don’t know. I haven’t decided yet.’ Then I ask, ‘So, you’re passionate about an issue?’ Mostly, I receive a quizzical look and the response, ‘Oh, should I be?’

No wonder we are so badly served by our politicians when for the most part they have no commitment other than to a generous salary and retirement plan, no passion about issues or interest in ideas – let alone a conscience – and imagine that staying ‘on-message’ is an appropriate substitute for debate.