Inside Story

Vision splendid

Frank Bongiorno’s new political history of Australia is as much about the spectators as the players

Patrick Mullins Books 4 November 2022 2118 words

Citizens waiting outside Sydney Town Hall for the state memorial service for former prime minister Gough Whitlam on 5 November 2014. Daniel Munoz/Getty Images

Members of the modern political class often claim ownership of privileged knowledge drawn from their direct experience of the blood, sweat and tears that flow in democratic politics. Outsiders, as Graham Richardson once wrote, merely have their “noses pressed against the windowpane” and can’t comprehend the stakes involved and the dilemmas confronted. Journalists, who might otherwise think it their mission to break that glass, often reinforce it by emphasising the inside knowledge to which they are privileged to have access.

When ordinary voters are placed so insistently on the outside, cynicism is bound to be pervasive. The political class, for all its platitudes about working families, is seen as detached from everyday concerns.

As Frank Bongiorno writes in his new book, Dreamers and Schemers: A Political History of Australia, “Some of us are expected to be content with a place at the back of the grandstand, with little hope of our voices carrying to other spectators let alone those heroic figures competing in the arena.” And yet, as he shows, the interplay between spectator and player is greater than those terms might imply. The contest plays out as much in the stands as it does in the arena, and the results affect us all.

Bongiorno illustrates the point by describing 2014’s memorial service for Gough Whitlam. In front of 2000 people in Sydney Town Hall, dignitaries and speakers ranging from Noel Pearson to Cate Blanchett celebrated the influence and achievements of Australia’s twenty-first prime minister. Outside, watching the service on a giant screen, were people happy to tell the TV cameras how Whitlam’s achievements had manifested in their lives.

The abolition of tuition fees had allowed some of them to attend university. The final removal of race as a criterion in immigration policy and the passage of the Racial Discrimination Act had helped to reduce prejudice. Politics had sought them out, Bongiorno writes, and become entangled even in lives imagined as “purely private and disconnected from its demands.”

Exploring how politics has been done on this continent, from deep time through to the modern day, Dreamers and Schemers is a sweeping history that feels especially apt in the wake of the pandemic and this year’s federal election. Dismay with political institutions and processes followed hard on a renewed awareness of what government can do, mixing an exhausted cynicism with a nascent sense of hope. To what extent do Australians need to dream right now? And to what extent will they need schemers to make those dreams real?

Frank Bongiorno is one of Australia’s most versatile, lively and prolific historians. He has reached into the bedroom to explore the sexual mores of Australians, probed the imperfect humans who wore the power suits of the 1980s, and investigated the furious currents of thought and action that shaped the Labor Party. His writing — whether at book length or in shorter pieces for this magazine and others — is characterised by its reach, its wry tone and its humanity. People are always at its heart, the powerful and deprived alike given clear-eyed appraisal.

Dreamers and Schemers is built on an immense variety of sources and is replete with colour and personality — including some personalities whose behaviour might suggest Australia’s aversion to its politicians is well founded.

Who, after all, could respect John Norton, the editor turned politician who urinated on the floor of NSW parliament, repeatedly assaulted his wife, was frequently drunk in public, and ran a scandal rag whose egregiousness exceeded the modern-day Daily Mail? How to explain the election of Tom Ley, who almost certainly murdered three people in Australia, before being convicted in Britain of the murder of his mistress, to both the NSW and the federal parliament? And what about the halo that attached to Joh Bjelke-Petersen, that corrupt hillbilly dictator of the moonlight state, who was knighted for “services to parliamentary democracy” and whose death was marked by a state funeral?

Amid this parade of the conniving and vile, though, Bongiorno draws attention to figures whose influence is more nuanced and significant than a “shilling life,” in W.H. Auden’s phrase, might let on.

George Reid was dubbed “Yes–No Reid” for his equivocation on Federation, despised by Alfred Deakin for his opportunism, and relentlessly satirised by cartoonists as a monocled glob on stubby legs; yet a case can be made that he was responsible for the union of liberalism and conservatism that still colours non-Labor politics, and for the final iteration of vital clauses in the Constitution. Stanley Bruce is chiefly remembered for wearing spats and losing his seat — along with his government — in 1929, but in office he also consolidated an alliance with the Country Party that has been maintained by the non-Labor parties.

Peter Beattie, meanwhile, might well be the “media tart” who cravenly praised Bjelke-Petersen at that state funeral, but back in 1971 he was beaten by Queensland police while protesting the racially charged Springboks tour that Bjelke-Petersen had facilitated. And his election as that state’s premier, in 1998, opened space for a compromise with the Howard government over the High Court’s Wik native title decision.

Rather than dividing people like these into his titular categories, Bongiorno is interested in the expectations Australians have of their politics — utilitarian and practical, abstract and big-picture — and how those expectations have receded and resurged, failed and been surpassed. The politics of Bongiorno’s history is made up of “ideals, visions, and dreams,” yes, but also of “roads, bridges, and electric wires.” The ideal political actor is one who brings both together, who can build castles in the air as well as on the ground.

One of the reasons Whitlam’s death was so notable, in Bongiorno’s telling, is that it threw into relief the narrowness of the contemporary political class. The “old man” whom Pearson eulogised was someone who could speak to dreams and schemes — of a mature and independent country but also of lives made “happier and more enjoyable for people in small and, some might say, unusual ways.” A man who could sign international treaties and return stolen land by pouring soil into Vincent Lingiari’s hands, but also talk of improving bus services and extending municipal sewerage.

Bongiorno has an eye for the surprising detail, the epigrammatical summation and the illuminating remark. In the 1950s, prime minister Bob Menzies finds, as many do, that Vegemite jars make perfectly good drinking glasses, and Pattie, his wife, forages for mushrooms in the paddocks surrounding the Lodge. In the 1980s, Queensland’s Russ Hinze is “a morbidly obese, deeply corrupt, and yet highly capable Gold Coast politician.” Observing Alexander Downer’s faltering leadership of the Liberal Party in 1994, colleague Peter Reith confides in his diary that “the shine is coming off his balls” — cricket balls, that is.

Dreamers and Schemers maintains its shine. It is provocative and illuminating, underscoring political scientist James Walters’s claim that contemporary debate is “always a hostage to history, even when unconscious of it.” In the deeply resonant passages that open the book, Bongiorno notes the early European writers who, “through a glass darkly,” observed sophisticated political arrangements in Indigenous societies and yet denied they had government. He points to the way seniority, ceremony and contest underpinned pre-contact political life.

The “kind of magic” practised by the British — a planted flag and assertion of sovereignty that supposedly changed the country’s status — didn’t mean the end of this political life: as Bongiorno notes, the early colonial authorities assumed the existence of Aboriginal law and its ongoing force, as well as the many coexisting sovereignties on the continent. But the cracks emanating from where that flag was planted spread far: the British claim to territorial sovereignty soon became exclusive and encompassing of land and people. Campaigns of murder, deprivation, intimidation and destruction followed — as did the activism of Indigenous peoples.

Two of the most affecting examples of that activism are presented sequentially: Wiradjuri men Jimmy Clements and John Noble’s presence at the 1927 opening of Parliament House, and Yorta Yorta activist William Cooper’s 1937 petition seeking direct representation in parliament, enfranchisement and land rights. Clements and Noble’s attendance in the presence of the future King George VI was a reminder of “a sovereignty unceded, in a moment when White Australia was engaged in ceremonial performance of its own claims to possession.” The failure of Cooper’s petition — sent to the same man, now the King — lent considerable moral power to the campaign he subsequently launched with Bill Ferguson and Jack Patten to recast Australia Day as instead a Day of Mourning.

Bongiorno never underplays the obstacles to a real reckoning with the dislocation, violence and deprivation visited on First Nations people, but he also points to their resilience and adaptability, which he suggests is keenly apparent in the push for constitutional recognition and in the record number of First Nations people now in the parliament.

This is of a piece with the optimistic argument that pervades Dreamers and Schemers: that, in times of crisis, Australia’s myriad political actors, systems and institutions have been resourceful enough to adapt and pull through.

In the 1890s, economic depression in Victoria was followed by a shearers’ strike in Queensland that helped give birth to the Labor Party. Labor’s ascendency anticipated the growing domination of class politics across the colonies, but the emergence of Georges Reid (1894–99) and Turner (1894–99) saw stable government in New South Wales and Victoria.

Suffrage for women, introduced in South Australia in 1894, was debated in New South Wales and Victoria, but the only colony to enact it before Federation was Western Australia. The movement towards Federation meanwhile became stronger — inflected, perhaps, by a fin de siècle optimism that spurred one clergyman to tell his congregation they would be “entering a new life” come 1 January 1901.

Other moments of crisis — the second world war, for instance, and the economic upheaval of the 1970s — revealed a similar capacity for renewal. This account is never without nuance: Bongiorno makes note of the gaps, vicissitudes and regressions that mark events later often celebrated uncritically.

Bongiorno cites Sydney feminist Rose Scott’s criticism that Federation would create a parliament that was elitist, centralist and distant from the communities and families and homes in which women lived. The failure of successive women who tried to be elected to that parliament over the next forty years tends to bear out Scott’s point, which Bongiorno reinforces by noting that even the architecture of Parliament House was hostile: when Dorothy Tangney and Enid Lyons arrived in Canberra in 1943 as (respectively) a senator and an MP, a separate bathroom had to be found for them — “set well apart from the men’s.” Scott’s criticism continues to reverberate when Bongiorno describes how Julia Gillard’s “misogyny speech” in 2012 was regarded in the Canberra press gallery as a cynical ploy but outside it as a genuine and accurate account of the sexism routinely experienced by women.

Dreamers and Schemers can be read as a rebuttal of claims that an “Australian crisis” has manifested in a turnstile prime ministership, hysterical and polarised public debate, and a public service impotent and leaderless in the face of complex problems. Far from being pollyanna-ish, though, Bongiorno’s optimism is grounded in the existence of people “willing to resist complacent utilitarian appeals to majority interests and consensus opinion,” people who refuse “to accept injunctions merely to tinker rather than transform.”

In this way, May’s election results might presage a renewal of the nation’s “creative energies.” The Morrison government’s cynicism and tribalism had seemingly exhausted these energies, but reinvigoration came with the election of a Labor government promising a new politics, the election of teal independents demanding action on climate change (the problem most emblematic of policy paralysis in Australia), and the unprecedented diversity of the new parliament.

“Dreamers imagined that a new era of political creativity might be just around the corner,” Bongiorno writes. Ever judicious, he adds a caveat: “Even as the schemers manoeuvred in their familiar patterns.”

Many years ago, a retired John McEwen made a point of prefacing an oral history interview with the caveat that his perspective on the events he had seen, as leader of the Country Party, long-time deputy prime minister, and temporary prime minister, was limited. “The spectator,” McEwen insisted, “sees more of the game.”

In Bongiorno, we have a spectator whose knowledge is keen, whose outlook is expansive, and who wields his pen with elegance to deliver insight. Thanks to Dreamers and Schemers, we see much more of the game of Australian politics. •

Dreamers and Schemers: A Political History of Australia
By Frank Bongiorno | La Trobe University Press | $39.99 | 480 pages