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Bob Ellis the gifted troublemaker



Verbal pyrotechnics, a dash of spicy recall and analysis as a 'commentator diarist': Bob Ellis, who died in Palm Beach in Sydney's North on Sunday, was the sabre rattling inspired by the Sydney Push; a delightful Antipodean Samuel Pepys, with a vernacular to shape.

Bob EllisHis versatile penmanship would dot all brows of Australian culture. With Michael Boddy came The Legend of King O'Malley, which inaugurated a theatrical amalgam of satire, dance and music.

Philip Noyce's Newsfront (1978) saw Ellis co-author the script with wife Anne Brooksbank and others, while propelling the careers of Wendy Hughes, Bryan Brown and Bill Hunter.

Most importantly, Ellis' work is a prime example of the notion advanced by the French existentialist philosopher Jean-Paul Sartre: that committed literature, and the act of writing, are political and ethical acts. Even in a film script, one can ponder social political change, a world of newsreel men in the Australia of the 1950s that saw an effort by the Menzies Government to ban the Communist Party and jolt Australia with Cold War fears.

Always of the left, but never formally the structured party man of faction and following, the dishevelled, sometimes wild Ellis proved contrarian even to Labor stalwarts. There were never pious reflections, or unqualified praises.

Paul Keating, for instance, was considered hefty in terms of IQ yet a victim of the 'hey-presto quick fix', giving the green light to 'corporate mendacity and rapacity'. The insanity of economic rationalism remained a permanent bugbear in the Ellis repertoire.

Suddenly Last Winter — An Election Diary (2011) supplied readers with a withering portrait of then Prime Minister Julia Gillard. 'She has no power, no influence, no friends, no learning.'

In contrast, and ever niggling to the ALP, future Liberal prime minister Tony Abbott came in for some praise, possessing 'good manners' and a 'first-class mind'. The latter, for instance, could remember that sentence from Evelyn Waugh's Brideshead Revisited on 'the cloistral hush which down the years'.


"As former NSW premier Bob Carr, for whom Ellis penned many a speech, wistfully observed, Ellis was not the sort 'who would miss a train because he was back in the office checking every last fact'. "


This was Ellis the alchemist of political matter, able to navigate positions without tribal fanaticism. It was a rare thing in the parochial settings of Australian party politics. He could still lunch with Abbott and praise the latter's Battlelines, while having severe disagreements about other matters.  

He would, however, always detest John Howard, who, Ellis claimed in his entry of 22 November 2001 (Goodbye Babylon), makes 'war, enslavement, the cruel torment of children — seem absolutely normal'. Typically, Howard bears the brunt of one of The Ellis Laws: power flows to the most boring in the room.

Politics pulsates through his writing, and it was inspired by Australia's participation in the Vietnam War. 'Anyone in journalism who has experience or travelled winds up on the left.'  

Such political inspiration would also see him take the plunge in running as an independent against the Liberal Party's Bronwyn Bishop in 1994 Mackellar by-election. 'She is now over as a threat to the nation,' he prematurely suggested, happy to have taken any gloss off a future leadership challenge.

Always in the proverbial hot water for his words, Ellis would face defamation suits, be released from Fairfax in 2011, and then find another voice in the emerging format of independent media such as Independent Australia, a nostalgic throwback to the days he scribed for the Nation Review.

Table Talk, since 2012, had been providing the customary round of riveting observations in the blogosphere. In December, he tagged the coalition government as being of 'criminal tendency', one which would, 'on its way down' take Malcolm Turnbull, 'his chute in flames', with it.

Goodbye Jerusalem led to Tony Abbott and Peter Costello, accompanied by their wives, taking out defamatory suits against Ellis. The published line that led to legal and reputational damnation involved that heady mix of sex and politics. 

The book was removed from sale and Ellis bankrupted, financially and spiritually. 'It cost me the right to address mass rallies and demonstrations, it cost the column on moral issues I had in the Sydney Morning Herald, it cost me status.'  

As former NSW premier Bob Carr, for whom Ellis penned many a speech, wistfully observed, Ellis was not the sort 'who would miss a train because he was back in the office checking every last fact'.  

In leaving Australian political and cultural debate that much duller, Ellis joins the world of posterity shared by such wordsmiths as Robert Hughes, who could write the ordinary canvass into the extraordinary impression.

Thank goodness for their words of commitment and insufferably caustic iconoclasm.


Binoy KampmarkDr Binoy Kampmark is a former Commonwealth Scholar who lectures at RMIT University, Melbourne.

Topic tags: Binoy Kampmark, Bob Ellis



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Existing comments

What? No comment so far! I have always regarded Bob Ellis as The Pink Pimpernel of Australian political writing. Pink because of his socialist tendencies, Pimpernel because of the combination of being an irritating pimple and at the same time as elusive as the original Scarlet Pimpernel, in that one never knew where he would attack next. He made me laugh - quite an achievement for a political commentator. Ave atque vale, brave warrior of the word!

Uncle Pat | 05 April 2016  

"For God's sake, let us sit upon the ground/And tell sad stories of the death of kings". Ellis was great. Viva Ellis. I will never forget him. Bravo!

Peter Goers | 05 April 2016  

Vale Bob Ellis, so sorry to see such a talented, acerbic wit go the way of all flesh. He will be missed by all thinking feeling people engaged in political life. PS - could someone please sub this story? It is a bit messy. Thanks.

Karen | 05 April 2016  

I could say "Rest In Peace" Bob Ellis but that wasn't his modus operandi.

Pam | 05 April 2016  

Goodbye Jerusalem from someone who loved it. Cheers Bob.

Brett | 05 April 2016  

Bob Ellis R I P. You wrote one of the best journalistic pieces I have ever read. You were covering the Royal commission into the British nuclear tests of the 1950s and 1960s, travelling to England and back and to each of the 'black polis of the RC hearings. And you named ' the worst story of all' that of Edie Milpudie who with her family were camping in the bomb crater. Please intercede for her family and community in these days of new threats!

Michele Madigan | 06 April 2016  

I think it would be fair to remark that in his later years at least, Bob was self-evidently alcoholic and this affected his creativity and his personality. i say this in love, because he was a loveable man. he was broken, too, by the fire that destroyed their home at around the same time as he lost the defamation battle. I have the unexpurgated version of Goodbye Jerusalem on my library shelves. I guess I'm a bit of a sucker for sincerity, and he certainly had that in spades. Ave atque Vale.

moira rayner | 06 April 2016  

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