Playwright and Labor speechwriter Bob Ellis has died

Bob Ellis (centre) with actors Jackie Weaver and Marcus Graham in 2002. Photo by Patrick Riviere/Getty Images.

Bob Ellis, writer and the Rosencrantz and Guildenstern of Labor politics, has died of liver cancer. He was 73.

Ellis hailed from a golden age in Australian thinking and writing that produced the likes of Germaine Greer, Clive James, Robert Hughes, Les Murray and John Bell, honing his political views at the University of Sydney – ironically, on a Sir Robert Menzies scholarship – before going on to write speeches for Labor leaders such as Kim Beazley, Paul Keating and Bob Carr.

Beazley once remarked that he would have been thrown out of politics if he’d used the speeches Ellis presented to him.

Ellis spent more than a decade writing speeches for former South Australian premier Mike Rann, who described the writer as occasionally outrageous and iconoclastic, as well as “incredibly, sweetly sympathetic”.

“He was one of the great melancholic writers, one of the great film reviewers,” Rann said.

Robert James Ellis was born in the northern NSW regional capital of Lismore on May 10, 1942. His older sister was killed while crossing the road when he was just 10. His father, a Labor stalwart, instilled those values in his son.

The experience of growing up as a Seventh-day Adventist in the 1960s in a country town was turned into the 1992 romantic comedy “The Nostradamus Kid”, starring Noah Taylor, which Ellis wrote and directed.

His film credits also included 1978’s “Newsfront”, his biggest success, “Fatty Finn” (1980) and “Goodbye Paradise” (1983). He collaborated with director Paul Cox (“Man of Flowers”, “Cactus” and “My First Wife”) and Werner Herzog on 1984’s “Where the Green Ants Dream”.

He was also a prolific playwright and “The Legend of King O’Malley”, a 1970 musical satire he co-wrote about the last surviving member of Australia’s first parliament, was restaged as recently as 2014.

For a decade from 1975, he owned the Stables Theatre in Kings Cross, which became the Griffin Theatre Company.

Ellis spent his adult life in the wings of Labor politics, a somewhat shambolic figure hovering in the background of seminal moments in the party’s history, like a local, savvy version of Forrest Gump. Ellis was like Paul Revere in the 1975 Dismissal, shouting to the Canberra press gallery that “Kerr has just sacked Whitlam!”

He would write prolifically on Australian politics over four decades, but suffered a major blow to his reputation in 1998 when his book “Goodbye Jerusalem” was pulped following a successful defamation cause brought by Peter Costello and Tony Abbott over false claims of a sexual liaison.

And there was the contradictory, quixotic irony in Ellis that emerged following a 1997 affair with another screenwriter Alexandra Long.

Two years later, as Ellis railed against the “Goodbye Jerusalem” defamation case as an attack on freedom of speech, he threatened to sue Sydney Morning Herald journalist Kate McClymont for reporting his own indiscretion, which resulted in the birth of a daughter.

It descended into a tawdry sex scandal that played out on the public airwaves, with Ellis attempting a defence of impotence against his paternity in the court of public opinion.

Over the past two decades, some comments would see Ellis denounced as a misogynist on several occasions, especially for his attacks on Julia Gillard, one of the few Labor leaders he openly dared to criticise.

His 2011 book “Suddenly, Last Winter – An Election Diary”, excoriated Gillard, and praised Tony Abbott for his “first-class mind”.

Gillard, on the other hand, “has no power, no influence, no friends, no learning. There’s not much there.”

Ellis wrote around 20 books, both fiction and non fiction, most notably “First Abolish the Customer – 202 Arguments Against Economic Rationalism” (1998) and “The Capitalism Delusion – How Global Economics Wrecked Everything and What To Do About It” (2009), “Goodbye Babylon: Further Journeys in Time and Politics” (2002), “Night Thoughts in Time of War” (2004) and “One Hundred Days of Summer” (2010).

In 1993, his house at Palm Beach, on Sydney’s northern beaches, burnt down on the day he published a satirical diary, “The Hewson Tapes” on former Liberal leader John Hewson.

His penultimate book, 2014’s “The Ellis Laws”, included the observation that “power flows to the most boring man in the room”.

Ellis was also an incisive film reviewer, penning more than 2000 reviews, with an especially fond regard for George Lucas and “Star Wars”.

His observations on political life could be both astute and wildly amiss. Writing about the Liberal Party’s leadership tensions on his blog last year – after his cancer diagnosis – he chose Tony Smith to replace Abbott saying “Turnbull does not have the numbers — and, to judge by what he said… will never have them”.

But he was correct in predicting the unthinkable – that Abbott would lose office – even if, like much of his fortune telling, it was a prediction made in hope over many years.

But as he told Honi Soit, the university newspaper he once edited with Laurie Oakes, in typically droll style to mark turning 70, “I don’t believe I’m ever going to die. But there is some evidence that you do.”

Ellis’s biggest political success was standing against Bronwyn Bishop as an independent in 1994. The former speaker was moving from the Senate to the lower house in the blue ribbon seat of Mackellar and being touted widely as a future Liberal leader. The ramshackle Ellis campaign was little more than a media circus, but he managed an embarrassingly 19% swing with a primary vote of 23% (Labor did not put up a candidate) just as voters were turning against PM Paul Keating. It crippled Bishop’s ambitions to seize the Liberal leadership.

He continued to haunt Bishop at the next two elections, with his wife, fellow author Anne Brooksbank standing in 1996, and more recently, despite his illness, offering to campaign in support of Dick Smith, the entrepreneur, who was threatening to run against Bishop.

Opposition leader Bill Shorten paid tribute to “more than four decades of brilliant phrases”.

“Bob’s writing moved people to tears and drove others to litigation. At every turn he confounded and delighted, he shocked and awed, ” Shorten said.

“There was truly no such thing as a dispassionate Ellis piece. With Bob, it was always personal, it was always emotional, it was never dull.

“He belonged to a generation of Australian genius whose irreverent disregard for convention helped sculpt an independent, confident sense of identity, free from the cultural cringe. He helped write, and tell, our national story.”

Shorten said Ellis “revelled in the contrary prediction, the outside chance”.

“As a member of the vast, diverse, ever-expanding tribe of Ellis correspondents, I can say that I will miss much more than Bob’s writing. I will miss his friendship, his counsel and his unshakeable faith in difficult times,” he said.

Former NSW premier Bob Carr said Ellis was colourful and enormously loyal.

“I think the world will be a bit more monochrome without Bob Ellis around,” Carr said.

“I’ll always treasure those moments when a dishevelled, somewhat moth-eaten Bob Ellis would shuffle into the office and say ‘look, I’ve written something on…’

“And your spirit would leap, that he’d been applying his genius, his gentle genius to paper and there were going to be some good words coming out of it.”

His family took to his blog to say Ellis “died, as was his wish, at home. His family were by his bedside.”

They signed off with a familiar refrain “And so it goes…”

Bob Ellis is survived by his wife and their three children, Jack, also a writer and actor, Tom and Jennifer.

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