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

The Weekend Australian - Review - - Contents -

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

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