The 1980s: a detailed history of the era
Frank Bongiorno’s detailed history of the 1980s suggests the decade was more complicated than we have come to believe, writes David Free
If you can remember the 1960s, they say, you probably weren’t there. The 80s are a different matter. If you were there, you probably don’t want to remember them. Who wants to think in any great detail about the heyday of David Hasselhoff, Dan Quayle, the Police Academy movies, an era when Rick Astley wasn’t just a joke meme but an actual cultural force?
We seem to agree, though, that the 80s were good for one thing, at least in Australia: politics. The Hawke-Keating years have assumed the stature of a golden age of grown-up government, especially when measured against our shambolic recent past. Between 1983 and 1996, Bob Hawke and Paul Keating worked the difficult trick of gutsily renovating the economy without being voted out of office. They knocked down trade barriers, floated the dollar, opened the banking sector, introduced Medicare and compulsory superannuation.
Controversial as some of these measures were at the time, few would now contend they were unnecessary. These days, conventional wisdom has it that the Hawke and Keating administrations were about as good as government in this country gets. You can even obtain bipartisan agreement on this, as long as you are ready to concede or pretend the Howard government was solid, too.
Frank Bongiorno, an associate professor of history at the Australian National University, and previously the author of The Sex Lives of Australians, believes the truth about the 80s is more complicated. He thinks our rosy view of the era is premised on an amnesia that has seen us filter out “the anger, shock and disappointment that so many people felt about the lived 1980s”.
His meaty and entertaining new book, The Eighties: The Decade that Transformed Australia, sets out to correct this amnesia by reconjuring the full flavour of the time — the tackiness of its fraudsters and jailbird entrepreneurs, the cruelty of its economic fallout. He wants to put flesh back on the decade’s bones.
He is surely right to think our memories need refreshing. The book is full of people and things that, even if you lived through the 80s, you may not have thought about since. Cliff Young. Warwick Capper. Whinging Wendy Wood, the ALP pitchwoman who asked Howard’s opposition where the money was coming from. BUGA UP, scrawlers of ethical graffiti on cigarette billboards. Cigarette billboards themselves. The Australia Card, the Multifunction Polis — concepts that noisily flamed out on the launch pad, like Australian versions of New Coke.
Even when retelling the familiar story of the 1983 America’s Cup win, Bongiorno spices the
The Eighties: The Decade that Transformed Australia By Frank Bongiorno Black Inc, 370pp, $45 (HB)
brew with details you may never have heard. Did you know that Ronald Reagan sent the American crew a telegram reading: “Nancy and I will be rooting our hardest for you”? Or that Ben Lexcen’s winged keel is now generally believed to have been designed by a team of Dutch scientists?
In the US, the reigning master of this sort of history is Rick Perlstein, who has written a whopping and addictive trilogy about three giants of conservatism: Barry Goldwater, Rich- ard Nixon and Reagan. Perlstein’s books are encrusted with vignettes pulled from the newspapers of yore: he piles on the detail with a lavishness that would have been unthinkable before the advent of the searchable digital archive. Say what you like about the internet: as a research tool, it beats the hell out of a microfilm machine.
Bongiorno’s juicy reanimation of the 80s gives him fair claim to be considered the Australian Perlstein. There are differences between them: for one thing Perlstein writes books twice as thick about periods half as long. But like Perlstein, Bongiorno has a rare combination of virtues. He researches like an academic but he writes like a writer. He can be quick and fluent without being superficial; he can lay on the hard facts without compromising the narrative goforward.
His deft retelling of the Lionel Murphy affair is typical of his approach. Murphy served as Gough Whitlam’s attorney-general before being controversially appointed to the High Court in 1975. In 1984 he became entangled in a scandal that was deeply inconvenient for the new Labor government. The details were complex: the one nugget likeliest to have lodged in your head is the allegation that Murphy called
Bicentennial celebrations in Sydney on Australia Day 1988