On Charlatans by Chris Bowen

Reviewed by Gerard Healy

Chris Bowen, the senior ALP politician, has penned an interesting little book on the rise of the political charlatan in the recent past. Bowen attempts two things in this book. Firstly, to seek to understand how these charlatans work and secondly, to sketch a roadmap back to victory for Labor at the federal level.

Depending on your dictionary, the word charlatan comes to us from the Italian for ‘babble’ or ‘to chatter’. Combine this verbal facility with the chutzpah to pretend to have skills or knowledge you don’t have and you have your garden-variety snake-oil salesman. Originally infamous in the medical world for selling “cures” that didn’t work, the political charlatan today sells ‘solutions’ (less trade and immigration) that Bowen thinks harms the workers they’re meant to help.

Often draped in their national flag and wrapped in a fake concern for the less-well off they purport to be angry on behalf of, these politicians have been remarkably successful globally. Bowen lists Donald Trump, Boris Johnson, Recep Tayyib Erdogan and Jair Bolsonaro, among others, in this category. Conversely, parties of the centre-left have struggled electorally over recent years and Bowen gives an interesting account here.

Bowen lists four tactics he thinks the charlatans use; dishonesty is the best policy, identity politics on steroids, hyper-partisanship all the time and fear and loathing on climate change (p 23). He also seems to use the term charlatan and right-wing populist interchangeably and you won’t be shocked to learn that he thinks Scott Morrison is a political charlatan.

Climate change gives Bowen the chance to analyse and unpick the tactics employed by the sceptics. Denial, disinformation, scare champaigns about job losses and price rises and defeatism have been used in many jurisdictions. It’s been a depressingly successful tactic so far, but just maybe, the times are a’changing.

Bowen argues that by sowing division (inner-city elites against rural and regional workers, or Mexicans /Chinese versus locals) these operators can have someone to blame, demonise and warn about (31). He picks out Pauline Hanson as ‘an archetypal populist, who spins the message that Australia’s problems are the result of others (Aboriginals, foreigners, Greenies)’ (37). Bowen says that she, along with Clive Palmer, helped the Coalition win the last federal election. He points to the millions of dollars in advertising by Palmer, effectively for the Coalition, as a factor in Labor’s loss.

I think he’s got his work cut out tarring our Prime Minister with the likes of heavyweights like The Donald or Johnson. Trump, in particular, is in a class of his own when it comes to babbling nonsense. Bowen cites a 2020 book by the Washington Post Fact Checker Staff that claimed Trump had made 16 000 misleading statements in his first three years in office (63). ScoMo might duck and weave occasionally but surely nothing on this scale.

The nickname ‘Scotty from Marketing’ has gained traction, Bowen claims, because there’s a grain of truth there. There’s a list of transgressions. He says that Morrison only became interested in the local Rugby League team after winning pre-selection for the seat and his penchant for wearing baseball caps and being a “daggy dad” character is contrived.

More seriously, Morrison allegedly urged colleagues to talk up Muslim migrants’ inability to integrate back in 2011, according to a Sydney Morning Herald report (36). In his maiden speech he spoke in favour of foreign aid but as Treasurer and PM he’s slashed it, according to Bowen. Then there’s the describing of refugees as illegal immigrants posing a threat to national security.

Bowen starts the book with a reminisce of his 1970s childhood and the origins of his political world-view in Western Sydney. He moves on to the 2019 Federal election defeat of Labor, a bitter pill to swallow if ever there was one. Interestingly, he doesn’t specifically mention the Franking Credits policy or Bill Shorten’s leadership as reasons for the defeat. He does single out the ‘death taxes’ scare champaign as a Liberal low-point, but then there was the Labor ‘Mediscare’ champaign in an earlier poll.

The solution to this set-back, Bowen believes, is for Labor to become a better voice for the real and legitimate anger of traditional Labor supporters (p 9). Then there’s the power of Government to focus and prioritise (such as during the Covid-19 pandemic) and Bowen thinks Labor needs to ‘compartmentalise our agenda into more realistic tranches’ (107).

Biden’s win in the 2020 US election gives parties of the centre-left hope, he thinks.

I would recommend this informative book, in-which Bowen lifts the lid on some of his political opponents’ tactics.

Chris Bowen was born in Sydney in 1973 and attended public schools before gaining a Bachelor of Economics degree from Sydney University. He was elected to the Fairfield Local Council in 1995, later becoming mayor. He entered Federal Parliament in 2004 and held numerous ministerial positions in the Rudd/ Gillard/ Rudd governments. He was Shadow Treasurer leading up to the 2019 election. He is married with two children and has published Hearts and Minds (2013) and The Money Men (2015).

On Charlatans


by Chris Bowen

Hachette Australia

ISBN: 978 0 7336 4523 5

135 pp;  $16.99

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