History of big country is long on ambition
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