I was introduced to John Anderson in 1991 by a Christian member of the Coalition outside Aussie's Café in Parliament House, Australia's ultimate power networking venue. On learning that I was a Christian and an Australian Democrat Senator, Anderson looked me in the eye and said "I don't know how you can be a Christian and a member of the Australian Democrats'.

Needless to say I was rather taken aback at this forthright questioning of my orthodoxy and suggested that the Coalition didn't have a mortgage on Christians and political ideas. Kevin Rudd is trying hard to break this perception even now.

Does John Anderson always view the world in such black and white terms? One would never know by reading this authorised biography. Written by Melbourne-based freelance writer Paul Gallagher, his background as a journalist and editor for Rural Press publications in country NSW meant that Gallagher saw Anderson at close quarters over a long period. His admiration for Anderson is evident on almost every page.

John Anderson is well-known as a politician of deep Christian conviction and integrity. He has served Australia faithfully in the House of Representatives since 1989 as the National Party member for Gwydir, Howard government minister and as Deputy Prime Minister from 1999 until his resignation in June 2005. He still sits in Federal Parliament and will serve out his term as a backbencher until the next election.

This book charts his childhood on the land, family life, conversion to Christianity while at the King's School, meeting his future wife Julia, introduction to politics and subsequent career in Canberra. His sister Jane's accidental death on being struck in the head with a cricket ball by Anderson's own hand is recounted in detail.

One can only grieve with him, and later at the heart-wrenching account of the death of Andrew, John and Julia's fifth child. I was moved to tears but uplifted by their faith and trust in God.

But 288 pages later, I still came away with an unsatisfying feeling that I had learned little new about John Anderson. The book gives a detailed account of selected events from his political career, and we get an interesting glimpse of life behind-the-scenes, with its complex web of relationships, party bickering and family stresses. 

Moreover, the roots of a more robust National Party in the form of Senator Barnaby Joyce and his ilk are clear in the way Anderson handled the demands of his increasingly fractious party and loyalty to the Howard Coalition government.

Much is made of Anderson's character, including an unnecessarily chapter of laudatory quotes from speeches following his resignation as Deputy PM in 2005. But what is left out is instructive.

How did Anderson juggle the complex reality of Christian belief conflicting with the exercise of political power? For example, the book is silent about Anderson's views when the Howard Government was lying over the children overboard and dissembling over the dreadful sinking of SIEV-X with the loss of over 350 lives, including women and children.

The question of how Anderson reconciles his belief in small government with the fact that this Government, of which he was part, has presided over an ever-increasing concentration of power over many areas previously the domain of the states, is one of many political questions that is not addressed.

John Anderson is only 50 and he has many years left to contribute to Australian public life. And this is perhaps the problem with this book. Although the events are still clear in the subject's memory, the book lacks distance from them.

As a former Cabinet member, Anderson is still bound by the secrecy of the Cabinet Room. Moreover, as a still-serving member of the Coalition, he is unable to honestly appraise decisions of which he was a part or political colleagues with whom he worked. Loyalty is clearly one of Anderson's qualities and he is not about to dump on the PM and his colleagues.

Gallagher should re-visit this book in ten years with a second edition that allows for real reflection of Anderson's political career. By then the key players will be out of office and the impact of his achievements as a minister will be more evident (or not). There can be no backlash for the government of the day in a more realistic appraisal of the Howard Government's successes and mistakes, and of John Anderson's role in them.


The tragedy tempered the confidence of an already shy boy who'd entered boarding school later than most of his peers. It also fuelled early sober tendencies bordering on melancholy. But in the years that followed, it would steer him in another direction " one that led to a more spiritual yearning for truth and purpose in an otherwise tragic world.

In 1972 a new chaplain arrived at The King's School, younger than his predecessor. Young Anderson, at least, was prepared to give the man's words a go. John listened but had trouble connecting the chaplain's sermons with his own seared worldview.

Duncan Anderson was not a spiritual man, and this had left his son detached from spiritual matters. The new chaplain's evangelical proclamation of faith was a world away from John's heritage. This minister was talking about "loving God'. The content of the chaplain's sermons was nothing theologically new. Neither was it doctrinally opposed to anything he'd heard before in church services at The King's School. But the new chaplain's personal exhortation to Christianity puzzled the fourth-form teenager " so much so, John now remembers actually being irritated by the concept.

"How on earth could you love God?" John thought to himself, then aged 15. "I'd always thought of God as above everything, an impersonal being."

John sought out the advice of someone he'd grown to admire in the faculty " a teacher from, of all places, his commerce class that year, Mr Cam Stewart. The man had been particularly tender in his concern and consideration for Anderson immediately after the 1970 accident. Although not a chaplain, John knew he was a committed Christian.

John walked up to him after classes one day and asked the teacher if he could talk with him about a personal matter. "Sure," Mr Stewart replied, "Come on round and see me this evening." Being an assistant housemaster at another residence on site, Cam was available if boys needed advice or counselling " one of the unwritten job descriptions for any boarding school staffer.

John went to his residence that evening, was welcomed inside and soon got to his question: "Sir, I'd really like to know what you believe as a Christian."

What followed was a standard description of the Christian faith as it related to an individual believer. There was talk of the centrality of Jesus Christ in the Gospel accounts of the Bible's New Testament. And Stewart explained the importance of Christ's sacrificial death and resurrection as tenets of a personal faith. In short, the teacher opened John's eyes to a God of the here and now.

No fireworks or prostrate praying. Just a conversation that, Anderson remembers, changed his life. Intellectually, he was impressed with the conviction of the assistant housemaster. And, leaving the residence after they'd talked, John sensed a light going on in his life " something of a spiritual high, though not with any emotional outpouring. His experience was a totally internal, private one.

Faith and Duty

"I still don't understand it," he says, "except to know that occasionally the Holy Spirit works in people's lives in a very definite way." Heading back to his home room in Waddy House, John had an awakening to faith that transcended any denominational religious affiliation. "From that point on, I knew that the God of the Bible was real and personal."

The 15-year-old was convinced he'd found a sense of purpose and meaning. A new world opened up beyond the pessimism his father had progressively adopted " a place of spiritual belief that offered hope. Faith was, for John Anderson, a deeper place than self-confidence could ever have taken him.

"I've often thought to myself, it's awful when tragedy strikes " like in my case, my sister's death " but there's no doubt it's often through deep personal suffering and trauma that you're brought to your senses and made to realise that you need answers to life. It's not enough just to say we're some sort of glorified ape wandering through life on a planet out of control. So in that sense it probably saved me from myself."

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