Histories of Australia

Stuart Macintyre

  • The Oxford History of Autralia. Vol III: 1860-1900 by Beverley Kingston
    Oxford, 368 pp, £22.50, July 1989, ISBN 0 19 554611 3
  • The Road from Coorain: An Australian Memoir by Jill Ker Conway
    Heinemann, 238 pp, £12.95, September 1989, ISBN 0 434 14244 1
  • A Secret Country by John Pilger
    Cape, 286 pp, £12.95, September 1989, ISBN 0 224 02600 3
  • Convict Workers: Reinterpreting Australia’s Past edited by Stephen Nicholas
    Cambridge, 246 pp, $45.00, June 1989, ISBN 0 521 36126 5

An older generation of my compatriots would regard an Oxford history of Australia as an oxymoron. Quite early in the preparation of my own volume in the series of that name, I became interested in Bill Somerville, a trade-unionist who for nearly forty years served as the workers’ representative on the industrial tribunal of Western Australia. A skilled craftsman (his union, the Amalgamated Society of Engineers, rejoiced in the title of ‘the tin gods’), he grew up, with the Australian labour movement, in the hungry Nineties when troops were used to crush the shearers, miners and transport workers. His whole life was dedicated to the creation of institutions that would prevent the recurrence of such hardships and injustices, and his beliefs – rather, his certainties – provide a roll-call of the advanced nationalist programme.

He believed passionately in national development, the dignity of labour, state socialism, rationalism, racial purity, the male breadwinner, education (he served as Chancellor of the University of Western Australia, created by a Labor government ‘to help the sons and daughters of the working man’), self-education (he called his intellectual autobiography A blacksmith looks at a university) and afforestation. Three of his children passed through the University but the fourth struggled at school and was exiled (‘Dad didn’t believe in failure’) up to a smallholding twenty miles into the hills behind Perth where Somerville kept a smithy for weekend recreation.

Somerville detested most aspects of the British Empire, but for Government House, the symbol of snobbery and privilege, he had a special contempt. Not till the very end of his life did he accept an invitation there, and then, still convalescent from illness, only because of an aberrant desire to meet the young Queen Elizabeth during her tour of the Antipodes in 1954. She charmed him. Stricken by remorse for a lifetime of stiffnecked pride, he dragged himself again from his sickbed on the following Sunday to seek forgiveness at the nearest church. He died from a stroke within days.

Inevitably, the errant son, who told me this story, was truest to his father’s values. I approached him when he was in his seventies, still living in the bush retreat, and explained that since his father’s experience and aspirations were central to the period with which I was concerned, I hoped to write about him in the opening chapter of my volume of the Oxford History of Australia. The identification of my project was ill-judged. ‘An Oxford History of Australia!’ he exclaimed. ‘They will lie, cheat and steal and write countless half-truths to denigrate the Australian, and nobody does that better than the Oxford University Press. You are lower than a snake’s arse to hijack my father into such an enterprise.’

I perambulate in this serpentine fashion for two reasons. First, to declare an interest in the first of the books under review. Second, because the spirit of Bill Somerville still haunts Australian historiography despite all the recent efforts of revisionist academics to exorcise it. His preoccupations were those of his time and class and gender, but their effects linger, and shape popular understandings of the past.

National development. The dominant theme of the received orthodoxy is the coming into being of a mature and autonomous nation. Open almost any of the narrative accounts published during the 1950s and 1960s and familiar signposts mark the path to national fulfilment. Convict origins, free settlement, self-government, gold, wool, federation, war, depression, war, immigration, industrialisation, prosperity. Each stage of the journey leads inexorably towards a still-unattained destination, a final and complete emancipation that somehow continues to recede into the distance just as the vision of fertile plenty receded from the explorers of the arid interior.

The dignity of labour. The subject of this history is the ordinary Australian who made the country into what it is today. He (rarely she) was a convict, a digger, a pioneer, a battler imbued with national characteristics of self-sufficiency, fortitude, egalitarian mate-ship. He found his apotheosis in the nomad bushworkers (like Bill Somerville, humping his bluey on the track during the Nineties) who gave birth to the organised labour movement at the turn of the century.

State socialism. These experiences gave rise to popular expectations that found expression in the institutions created by the new Commonwealth. A sparsely populated country rich in natural resources had to be secured from its northern neighbours – thus the White Australia Policy, pro-natalist measures (including a maternity allowance, or ‘baby bonus’) and compulsory military training. An open economy heavily dependent on foreign markets and foreign capital had to be insulated from external shocks – thus tariff protection for local industry and the provision, through the industrial tribunals on which Bill Somerville served, of wage awards calculated to meet the family needs of the male breadwinner. Enjoying rapid success, the Australian Labor Party (and the prefix was emphatic) augmented the role of the colonial state as a borrower of external funds, a financer of development projects and public utilities, and a provider of employment. The policies lasted well into this century.

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