Note: this video essay was first presented at the 2016 Emerging Writers Festival in Melbourne.
Election season is upon us here in Australia, with the double dissolution of the Federal Parliament on May 9th setting the stage for a July 2nd election. That means that, yes, we’re nearing the end of an exhausting 8-week campaign, marked by a fundamental misunderstanding of the word “bigotry”, a Prime Minister slowly regretting calling this election and idiotic witchhunts perpetrated on both a Q&A audience member and an actor in a political ad. It’s a sorry state of affairs that prompts a kind of unchecked political nostalgia; a desire to return to the reigns of Whitlam, Hawke and, for some, John Howard.
20 years ago, Howard’s Liberal opposition took office, defeating the Keating Labor government with a 29-seat swing. That same year, another election narrative was thrust into the public consciousness, one not marked by swings but moods and on a much, much smaller scale. Rats in the Ranks, the impressive political documentary from Bob Connolly and Robin Anderson, followed the 1994 mayoral race for Leichhardt Municipal Council, in Sydney’s inner west.1
Elections for mayor in local councils in Australia are not public elections, but are voted on only by sitting members of council, which for Leichhardt means twelve people. Then-sitting Mayor Larry Hand was an independent elected as part of a four-person coalition that ran under the banner of Community Independents. In 1994, a member of that coalition left the group over disagreements with Hand ahead of the mayoral election, making his job to reach seven council votes substantially more difficult. The Labor voting bloc—four members of council—is strong only in numbers on paper, and while Deputy Mayor Kate Butler and Councillor Neil Macindoe both want to be the Labor candidate, the other two Councillors are split in support.
Hand spends the documentary playing councillors off one another, leaking information to the press and fueling the clashes of ego in the Labor caucus. What’s so striking about this is that he explains to the documentarians—by extension to us, the viewers—each step along the way in real time. We watch him ring up a news reporter, then relish afterwards in the printing of his anonymous quotes. More than a peek behind the political curtain, it’s a brazen confessional with no remorse whatsoever. Since Hand is the only person in the film to use the camera as an opportunity to justify his actions by talking directly to it, the film becomes another limb of his political ploy.
Hand seems keenly aware that the film can in no way harm him politically in the short-term, which proved to be correct: he was deposed as Mayor in 1995, the film was released the following year.2 He has a pearl of an admission in his final mayoral speech:
“Yes, I did crash the car while driving with a cancelled licence and, yes, I really was a little late with my rate payments.”
It’s a statement so in keeping with the version of Hand we see on-screen, a savvy political operator whose larrikin-esque charm endears him to us completely. Writing in the Sydney Morning Herald, Robert Drewe said of Hand: “so blatant are his strategies, so shameless and frank his self-congratulatory reflections to the camera, that his chutzpah ends up taking the film into another realm entirely.”
It’s a shame that Rats is underviewed today, 20 years on. This is partly because the tradition of Australian political documentary-making is nowhere near as strong as that of our Stateside counterparts. Almost no local documentaries about politicians or the political process ever make it to the cinema screen. We don’t have a clear canonical lineage—Rats is basically it. We have a tradition of television documentaries about our politicians stretching back decades, whether episodes of Four Corners or one-off television films on Channel Ten, the ABC and SBS. The most popular of these in recent memory is the ABC television program The Killing Season, though it’s less impressive documentary making than it is a gossipy string of talking head interviews cut up with news footage.
Rats in the Ranks stands alone as a potent and oft-hilarious film about the political process which is still relevant today, particularly in its depictions of scrambling for votes, internal party disputes and the disconnect between politicians and their constituency. Most interesting of all its elements, though, is Larry Hand, whose notoriety is ultimately self-made.