Tom Nairn

On voting day I took the Melbourne tram downtown, stopping only to glance in a bookseller’s window. It was good to see Peter Temple’s The Broken Shore holding its place in the bestseller list. [1] A good cop yarn set in Victoria, stylistically it is West Coast American, and has been received well there. But that’s not why it’s so popular here. The book sets out to display, often brutally, just what Robert Hughes’s ‘fatal shore’ has become: a terrain beset by identity dilemmas and querulous uncertainty. Who dunnit? Well, everybody, in one way or another. Temple’s Joe Cashin fights his way through gangsters and bent cops to reveal Melbourne as the capital of paedophilia, as well as of southern hemisphere organised crime. Down these mean tourist routes a man must go, who is not himself mean, who is neither tarnished nor afraid. The battered policeman from Port Monro (a fictive place somewhere down Great Ocean Road) finds himself searching for an answer far beyond his culprit – and so do the readers, presumably.

Identity lurks between the lines, and surfaces in every punch-up and revelation. Australians don’t tire of reading about this. Recently, there have been three other remarkable versions of essentially the same tale: Kate Grenville’s The Secret River,[2] Thomas Keneally’s The Commonwealth of Thieves[3] and Alexis Wright’s Carpentaria.[4] The mystery of the stolen continent. Naturally, Australian readers know in advance who did it – and in a sense are still doing it. Newcomers took the country from the previous inhabitants, now often called ‘First Australians’ rather than ‘Aborigines’. Hence the point must lie in reimagining the machinery of cohabitation and – more important – in an ever present, questioning epilogue: what’s to be done? Australia was ‘the greatest country on earth’ throughout the recent federal election campaign. Sure, but what (in Benedict Anderson’s inexhaustible phrase) about its ‘imagined community’, its sense of itself? Is community in that overarching sense possible when an unhealed wound remains?

Not long before the vote, the point was cruelly rubbed in. John Howard’s Liberal-Coalition government made the unusual decision to invade its own country, by sending the Australian Defence Force into the Northern Territory. His aim was to deal decisively with concerns about child abuse and corruption among the mainly Aboriginal population. In The Broken Shore the cop-hero repeatedly finds his inquiries sidetracked by crazed ideas about native Australians (‘Bongs’) being responsible for most crimes and complaints. He gets somewhere only by disregarding such delusions. But Howard wasn’t so smart. Instead, his campaign of what one important study has called ‘coercive reconciliation’ led right on to the decisive defeat of 24 November.[5] He forfeited even his own constituency, as did Mal Brough, the minister for families, community services and indigenous affairs, who was directly in charge of the military intervention.

Are identity dilemmas just a hobby-horse for intellectuals and academics? Six weeks before the election I attended a meeting in Brunswick Town Hall, an inner suburb of Melbourne. It was to be addressed by the Aboriginal leader Patrick Dodson, on the theme of reconciliation. Knowing the unpunctuality of left-wing events, I put off driving down Sydney Road until a quarter of an hour before the talk was due to start: a bad mistake. It took twenty minutes to get through the queues and find somewhere to stand, or rather crouch.

Dodson is splendid in appearance as well as oratory, a prophetic white beard underlining his main argument, that Australia should try and emulate Mandela’s South Africa by setting up commissions to work out reconciliation – and, by implication, to revise the historical understanding that has travestied such problems. Comparatively few Native Australians were present, but the Anglo-Celt-Euro audience was totally absorbed. Something was really on their minds. I imagine they nearly all voted Labor on 24 November. As Thomas Keneally put it in The Age a couple of weeks before the election, this vote should have been on something crucial, and not just Kyoto or global warming in the abstract. The populations around the greatest desert in the world are fearful that climate change will let the desert destroy them, amid mainly unresolved problems – including the key one Dodson was addressing.

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[1] Quercus, 352 pp., £6.99, March, 978 1 84724 044 6.

[2] Canongate, 352 pp., £7.99, September 2006, 978 1 84195 828 6.

[3] Vintage, 528 pp., £8.99, June, 978 0 09 948 374 8.

[4] Published in Britain next March by Constable.

[5] Coercive Reconciliation edited by John Altman and Melinda Hinkson (Arena, 340 pp., A$27.50, October, 978 0 98041 580 3).