His­tory of big coun­try is long on am­bi­tion

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Books - Lyn­don Me­gar­rity

The Mak­ing of Aus­tralia: A Con­cise His­tory By Robert Mur­ray Rosen­berg Pub­lish­ing, 320pp, $29.95 THERE is an abun­dance of sin­gle and mul­ti­ple vol­ume his­to­ries of Aus­tralia to choose from in our pub­lic li­braries and book­shops. The chal­lenge for any writer at­tempt­ing to add their own con­tri­bu­tion to this bulging genre is that the task has al­ready at­tracted so many of the best and bright­est his­to­ri­ans of this and pre­ced­ing gen­er­a­tions. In­deed, the his­tory of Aus­tralia has been writ­ten so many times that any new­comer to the field faces an up­hill bat­tle to shed new light on fa­mil­iar his­tor­i­cal events and themes while de­vel­op­ing a dis­tinc­tive au­tho­rial voice.

Best known for his im­por­tant ac­count of the 1950s ALP split, jour­nal­ist and his­to­rian Robert Mur­ray is the lat­est to try his hand at writ­ing a short his­tory of Aus­tralia for a pop­u­lar audi-

April 26-27, 2014 ence. Mur­ray’s pas­sion and enthusiasm for Aus­tralian his­tory is ad­mirably dis­played in this work, but ap­par­ent gaps in his knowl­edge of re­cent his­tor­i­cal writ­ings limit the ex­tent to which The Mak­ing of Aus­tralia can be said to stand out from pre­vi­ous na­tional his­to­ries.

The de­vel­op­ment of Euro­pean set­tle­ment, Aus­tralia’s place in the world and po­lit­i­cal­cul­tural change con­sti­tute the main themes of the book. The prose is read­able and gen­er­ally easy to fol­low, but the au­thor’s un­ortho­dox nar­ra­tive struc­ture can lead to rep­e­ti­tion and anachro­nis­tic place­ment of in­for­ma­tion. For ex­am­ple, a chap­ter cov­er­ing the two world wars is fol­lowed by a chap­ter on the in­ter­war pe­riod (1919-39), then a chap­ter on the Men­zies era of the 1950s and 60s. But to un­der­stand the Men­zies era, for ex­am­ple, it helps the reader to first have a solid grasp of the Curtin-Chifley pe­riod and its lin­ger­ing in­flu­ence.

As might be ex­pected from a highly ex­pe­ri­enced po­lit­i­cal jour­nal­ist, the great strength of Mur­ray’s work is his use­ful ac­count of the evolv­ing po­lit­i­cal land­scape from Robert Men­zies to Tony Ab­bott. He brings the reader with him as he traces the rise and fall of Aus­tralian po­lit­i­cal stars such as Harold Holt, Bob Hawke, Gough Whit­lam and Paul Keat­ing. Like most his­to­ri­ans be­fore him, he dis­plays lit­tle cu­rios­ity about lo­cal govern­ment, the role of which has ex­panded sig­nif­i­cantly since the 70s. Sim­i­larly, a com­mon be­lief that Aus­tralian pol­i­tics is es­sen­tially a strug­gle be­tween two ma­jor par­ties pre­vents Mur­ray from ex­am­in­ing the sig­nif­i­cant po­lit­i­cal role of the Aus­tralian Democrats dur­ing the 80s and 90s with suf­fi­cient depth. Nev­er­the­less, the au­thor’s nar­ra­tive raises some in­ter­est­ing ques­tions about the na­ture of po­lit­i­cal power in an age when the author­ity of politi­cians is chal­lenged by glob­al­i­sa­tion.

While Mur­ray has read a broad range of sources, some rel­a­tively re­cent, the re­search for this book has not been as ex­haus­tive as it might have been. His com­ment that pre-Euro­pean indige­nous cul­ture was ‘‘lit­tle changed over twenty or thirty cen­turies’’ ig­nores arche­o­log­i­cal re­search sug­gest­ing trade and cul­tural ex­changes took place across large ar­eas. There are also nu­mer­ous places in the book that would have been en­livened by the ju­di­cious use of less fa­mil­iar pri­mary documents: the all too com­mon sto­ries of gov­er­nors and bushrangers pre­sented do not of­fer new com­pelling in­sights.

Mur­ray’s de­ci­sion to avoid us­ing foot­notes or ap­pen­dices robs him of the chance to pro­vide con­vinc­ing ev­i­dence of the va­lid­ity of his sta­tis­tics. We are not gen­er­ally told the ori­gins of in­di­vid­ual sta­tis­tics and why we should trust them over oth­ers. The use of foot­notes would also have al­lowed the reader to as­sess whether a quote from an his­tor­i­cal fig­ure is gen­uine or a piece of folk­lore. For ex­am­ple, while I would like to be­lieve Billy Hughes re­ally did say ‘‘I had to draw the line some­where’’ when asked why he never joined the Coun­try Party, with­out a foot­note pro­vid­ing doc­u­men­tary proof it is im­pos­si­ble to know.

There are sub­stan­tial sec­tions of the text de­voted to race re­la­tions. With some skill, Mur­ray

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