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ANZSOG’s top 2020 Summer reads for public servants

13 December 2020

News and media


stack of books on the table

It’s been a big year, and we hope you are able to take some time off over summer and get stuck in to a good book or two. With that in mind, the ANZSOG team has put together a list of books that will help you expand your mind and get new perspectives on the world.

We’ve focused on recently published books, with something to say about public issues including Indigenous policy, the Black Lives Matter movement, the rise of authoritarian governments, and climate change.

A Life on Our Planet

By Sir David Attenborough


Sir David Attenborough is now 93, and this legacy-defining book (an expansion of the TV series) reflects on his life’s work, the dramatic changes to the planet he has witnessed, and what we can do to make a better future.

Using his personal perspective, he captures the accelerating ruination of the planet in the starkest possible terms, outlining the effects of growing populations, increasing greenhouse gases and declining areas of wilderness. He captures the long-term tragedy of the destruction of unique ecosystems and gives us a way to think about the scale of our collective loss.

A Life on our Planet is his witness statement and outlines a vision for the future that will allow us, if we act now to begin to reverse this damage.

Twilight of Democracy

By Anne Applebaum


A Pulitzer Prize–winning historian, and long-term conservative, uses her personal experience to outline why elites in democracies around the world are turning toward nationalism and authoritarianism, in countries from the USA and UK to continental Europe and beyond.

She explains the lure, and dangers of nationalism and autocracy and contends that political systems with radically simple beliefs are inherently appealing, especially when they benefit the loyal to the exclusion of everyone else.

Despotic leaders do not rule alone; they rely on political allies, bureaucrats, and media figures to pave their way and support their rule. The authoritarian and nationalist parties that have arisen within modern democracies offer new paths to wealth or power for their adherents. Applebaum describes many of the new advocates of illiberalism in countries around the world, showing how they use conspiracy theory, political polarisation, social media, and even nostalgia to change their societies.

The Yield

By Tara June Winch


This novel won the Miles Franklin Prize earlier this year, and combines several stories dealing with the effects of long-term trauma and the loss of culture on an Aboriginal family in regional Australia.

The innovative conceit of this work of fiction is Winch’s use of the language of the Wiradjuri people, to both tell the story and to teach language. The result is a collection of interweaved stories that are revealed at a slow and gentle pace giving the reader the time needed to drop into the narrative.

As well as being a compelling read, this novel reminds us of the importance of language as a way of healing and reconnection, and of the knowledge that is still held within Indigenous languages.

Quarterly Essay The High Road: What Australia can learn from New Zealand

By Laura Tingle


Australia and New Zealand almost united in the 1890s and, in the past half-century, both countries have remade themselves amid shifting economic fortunes. In this essay Australian ABC journalist Laura Tingle examines how New Zealand has been held up as a model for everything from privatisation to the conduct of politics to the response to COVID-19. She considers how both countries have been governed, and the different way each has dealt with its colonial legacy. What could Australia learn from New Zealand? And New Zealand from Australia?


By Adam Tooze


This is a highly readable, and definitive, history of the Global Financial Crisis of 2008 and its aftermath, distinguished by its careful attention to the failures of private institutions in the financial system, the way policy makers across the world coordinated (or didn’t) across jurisdictions, and both the failures and successes of their response. Written a decade after the event, the book puts a mind-numbingly complex set of events into perspective and outlines the long-term impact of the crisis on today’s politics. The book is a reminder of the links between economics and politics, and is full of lessons that are relevant for our post-COVID recovery.

The Colonial Fantasy: Why white Australia can’t solve black problems

By Sarah Maddison


Whatever the policy – from protection to assimilation, self-determination to intervention, reconciliation to recognition – government policies and programs have made little positive difference to the quality of life of the majority of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. In far too many instances interaction with governments has only made Indigenous lives worse, and the successes of a burgeoning Indigenous middle class cannot obscure this fact.

The Colonial Fantasy considers why Australia persists in the face of such obvious failure. It argues that white Australia can’t solve black problems because white Australia is the problem. Indigenous policy in Australia has resisted the one thing that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people want, and the one thing that has made a difference elsewhere: the ability to control and manage their own lives.

This book argues for a radical restructuring of the relationship between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people and governments, seeing the resurgence of Indigenous nationhood as the only way forward.

The Mirror and the Light

By Hilary Mantel


You may have read the first two novels in Hilary Mantel’s Thomas Cromwell trilogy – Wolf Hall and Bring up the Bodies – but the bloody conclusion to one of the greatest works of historical fiction this century is not to be missed. Detailing the last days of political schemer and fixer Thomas Cromwell and his relationship with King Henry VIII, it is both an immensely detailed work of historical fiction and a timeless study of power. As well as a thrilling story, It also happens to be an incredible examination of the birth of rational public administration, what later historian would call ‘the Tudor revolution in government’.

The New Despotism

By John Keane


Drawing on extensive travels, interviews, and a lifetime of thinking about democracy and its enemies, University of Sydney Professor John Keane shows how governments from Russia and China through Central Asia to the Middle East and Europe have mastered a formidable combination of political tools that threaten the established ideals and practices of power-sharing democracy. They mobilise the rhetoric of democracy and win public support for workable forms of government based on patronage, dark money, steady economic growth, sophisticated media controls, strangled judiciaries, dragnet surveillance, and selective violence against their opponents.

He shows how they cooperate regionally and globally and draw strength from each other’s resources while breeding global anxieties and threatening the values and institutions of democracy.

Rodham, A Novel

By Curtis Sittenfeld


What if Hillary Clinton hadn’t married Bill? This novel creates an alternative history for Hillary Rodham that explores the loneliness, moral ambivalence, and iron determination that characterise the quest for political power, as well as both the exhilaration and painful compromises demanded of female ambition in a world still run mostly by men. From the author of ‘American Wife’ – a fictionalised account of the life of Laura Bush, wife of President George W. Bush, this book is an exploration of a complex character, and perhaps some wish fulfillment for those still lamenting the outcome of the 2016 US election.

Women and Leadership

By Julia Gillard and Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala


Almost every year new findings are published about the way people see women leaders compared with their male counterparts. In this book former Australian Prime Minister Julia Gillard and economist and international development expert Ngozi Okonjo-Iweala have taken that academic work and tested it in the real world.

The same set of interview questions were put to each leader in frank face-to-face interviews. Their responses were then used to examine each woman’s journey in leadership and whether their lived experiences were in line with or different from what the research would predict.

Featuring Jacinda Ardern, Hillary Clinton, Ellen Johnson Sirleaf, Theresa May, Michelle Bachelet, Joyce Banda, Erna Solberg, Christine Lagarde and more, this book presents a lively and readable analysis of the influence of gender on women’s access to positions of leadership, the perceptions of them as leaders, the trajectory of their leadership and the circumstances in which it comes to an end.

How to talk about climate change in a way that makes a difference

By Rebecca Huntley


How we respond to climate change is the most pressing and most divisive long-term issue facing Australia and New Zealand today, and one where neither political nor society-wide consensus seem possible.

Australian social researcher Rebecca Huntley gives us a toolkit for understanding our emotional responses to climate change and how we can have meaningful conversations across dividing lines.

Neither a polemic nor a catalogue of environmental catastrophes, the book allows a range of voices to emerge. Huntley believes these emotional responses are helpful to the discourse because they can identify why we feel the way we do. This knowledge, in turn, can assist with driving behavioural change. It can help us believe in hope. It certainly makes this book a completely refreshing and optimistic read.

Southern Nights

By Naomi Arnold


This beautifully illustrated book deals with the history of astronomy in Aotearoa-New Zealand, taking in both Polynesian and European perspectives on a land discovered by following the stars. Both a history lesson and a reminder of the majesty of the natural world. Covering eclipses, aurorae, comets and constellations, backyard observatories, traditional stargazers and world-class astro-photographers, this is the unique story of Te Whanau Marama, our family of light – the night sky that glows above us all.

The Survivors

By Jane Harper


Australian crime writing is (finally) getting some of the international attention it deserves and Jane Harper is at the forefront of this ‘outback noir’. Her latest book is set on the Tasmanian coast and deals with the return of Kieran Elliott to the struggling town of his birth, where the discovery of a body on the beach leads to the unearthing of buried secrets. Her in-depth characterisation and ability to evoke landscape take this beyond standard crime fiction.

The End of Policing

By Alex S.Vitale


This book has been an influence on the Black Lives Matter movement in the USA and outlines what the slogan of ‘Defund the Police’ could mean in practice. The conversation about how to respond and improve policing has focused on accountability, diversity, training, and community relations. Unfortunately, these reforms will not produce results, either alone or in combination. The core of the problem must be addressed: the nature of modern policing in the USA itself.

The book shows how the expansion of police authority is inconsistent with community empowerment, social justice—even public safety. Drawing on ground-breaking research from across the world, and covering virtually every area in the increasingly broad range of police work, Alex Vitale demonstrates how law enforcement has come to exacerbate the very problems it is supposed to solve.