On Borrowed Time by Robert Manne

On Borrowed Time

Reviewed by Dr Kathleen Huxley

The poignant title of this new collection of essays by Robert Manne, Australia’s acclaimed intellectual, emeritus professor of politics and well-known journalist, refers to the very touching and personal first chapter of the book. Diagnosed in 2016 with throat cancer that necessitated extensive surgery and a laryngectomy, Manne conveys a very detailed and challenging account of how he feels about living ‘on borrowed time’. He expresses the irony and frustration he feels in moving from a life where verbal communication was his major strength to one where this ability is now greatly diminished. His emotional account of diagnosis, treatment and prognosis is treated with humour and particularly with compassion for those around him when he notes that ‘I have learned that there is almost nothing more precious in this world than the love of family and friends’.

The book title also has significance with regard to the subject matter of the collection of essays which make up the rest of the book. If we simply add a few words and a question mark it can then pose the question: are we all living on borrowed time? Subjects pertinent to this query are presented in theme or topic headings which include ‘Climate Change’, ‘The Murdoch Empire’, ‘Australian Politics’, ‘Australia and Asylum Seekers’, ‘Australian History’, ‘The United States’, ‘The Islamic State’ and ‘The University’. In the majority of topics there are a group of relevant essays concerning the subject at hand. For example, in ‘Climate Change’ we are presented with several narratives including the historical context, the explanation of our failure, the thoughts and ideas of Naomi Klein and Jonathan Franzen and a piece of writing on the political reading of the issues.

On the topic of ‘Australia and Asylum seekers’, Manne’s account presents us with a detailed historical and political context which seeks to present the origins of current thinking on the previously unthinkable idea that ‘Australia would create the least asylum seeker-friendly institutional arrangements in the world’. His exposition of the formulation of this thinking is illustrated in two main ways; analytical narrative and complementary general lines of explanation. These two ways are not alternatives but merely an approach which sheds light on why and how the ‘general reasons took the shape it did’. The author feels that the harsh anti-asylum seeker policy has developed and is maintained by ‘an irrational but consensual mindset that has Canberra in its grip: the conviction that even one concession to human kindness will send a message to the people smugglers and bring the whole system down’.

The topic of the ‘United States’ is also a very interesting read that begins with an essay entitled ‘Julian Assange: Alex Gibney’, followed by essays on ‘The Snowden files’, ‘Donald Trump’s victory’, ‘The Muscovian Candidate?’ and finishing with ‘Julian Assange: Laura Poitras’. Central to the essays are the confirmed and unconfirmed conspiracy theories that abound in relation to Donald Trump and his victory in becoming president of the United States. Confusion seems to be the key word in all the accounts of spying, posturing and international espionage and manipulation. No aspect of these convoluted events and issues appears to be candid, open or direct with Manne himself asserting that ‘nothing concerning Assange is straightforward’. It appears that none of the characters in the story are straightforward with allegiances and alliances shifting constantly. The French expression “plus ça change, plus c’est la même chose”—”the more it changes, the more it’s the same thing” comes to mind when reading and considering the events and people. Manne’s conclusion regarding Trump and the role of WikiLeaks, Assange, specific journalists, the media and all the other actors in this ‘show’ is that ‘a revolutionary movement born of idealism and the hope of creating a better world has thus ended by assisting the election of the most dangerous President in the history of the United States’.

This book which was a pleasure to read is an extremely well-written compilation of essays which, whilst being polemic at times, offers detailed vision into some of the most important political issues of our times. The current political climates we live in are exposed and debated with insight and in-depth research whilst opinion is discussed thoughtfully and with reflection.  Some of the most important and pertinent Australian and global issues of our time are discussed intelligently with forceful arguments made. The very personal story is candid and touching in its openness and serves to remind of us of our own mortality as individuals and the informative essays remind us of our vulnerability as members of our emerging global society.

On Borrowed Time


By Dr Kathleen Huxley

Imprint: Black Inc.

ISBN: 9781760640187

AUD$34.99; 384pp


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