FRANK BONGIORNO Dreamers and Schemers: A political history of Australia. Reviewed by Bernard Whimpress
Dreamers and Schemers provides an expert overview of Australia’s political history.
There is always a place for big history such as this. Near the end of his introduction, author Frank Bongiorno outlines his approach:
The book begins in deep time, among Indigenous people who lived on this continent for millennia, and ends in the age of COVID-19, the latest of many external shocks to affect Australia’s political system … I tell the story of a politics that has adapted to such challenges … The durability of the political system has relied on people capable of making it work, and that has demanded ingenuity, ambition and – when politics is at its best – imagination and creativity.
He adds that in a white settler society ‘democratic politics is [also] a story of domination, contest and spectacle’, of ‘winners and losers played out among larger-than-life individuals’, a story of ‘shortcomings and disappointments’, of ‘promise and possibility’.
Bongiorno neatly organises his text into nine main chapters covering autocratic government by colonial governors to the mid-nineteenth century, responsible state government by colonial and state parliaments from the 1850s, and the federal sphere since 1901.
The first chapter, ‘Autocracy, Community and Democracy From Earliest Times to 1855’, deals with the longest period, when the governors’ powers are tested by new forces agitating for popular politics, including the events at the Eureka Stockade in 1854, which have a radicalising influence.
Factional politics dominate the years from 1856 to 1890, but while democrats seek power through lower house legislative assemblies, upper house legislative councils invariably protect squatter interests, in particular, and put a brake on democracy. Colonial governments come and go but nevertheless manage to achieve major benefits for their societies, as Bongiorno notes:
The system relied heavily on public funds for roads, bridges and, above all, railways. One eminent modern economic historian has called it ‘colonial socialism’; an earlier commentator, more accurately, ‘colonial governmentalism’. The funds came from loans the governments raised through underwriters in London, a flow of cash and confidence courtesy of British investors driven by sentiment, speculation and self-interest … [which] subject to some supervision and control by the Colonial Office and the English courts reassured investors that their money would be reasonably secure from default.
The main political parties – Free Trade and Protection – are formed in the 1890s, along with a third force – organised labour – which sees the emergence of the Australian Labor Party. The road to Federation has several hiccups before being achieved at the start of the new century, but while the federal sphere then takes precedence in Bongiorno’s account, the states are by no means ignored.
Indeed, the world’s first Labor government holds office in Queensland (for one week) in December 1899, and when the second federal election of 1903 sees Labor, the Free Trade and Protectionist parties win almost equal numbers of seats, Labor briefly attains government in coalition with the Protectionists. However, as Labor continues to increase its vote, the Free Traders and Protectionists fuse into a non-Labor grouping before becoming the first Liberal Party under the leadership of Alfred Deakin.
Australian politics has operated mainly as a two-party system since before the First World War, although the emergence of the Country Party in 1919 (which became the National Party in 1982) leads to coalitions with its larger conservative allies (Nationalists, UAP and Liberals) at the national level. In the states it is sometimes the major coalition partner; and briefly, during the Bjelke-Petersen regime in Queensland, it governs in its own right.
The Labor Party’s early electoral success has been damaged by three major splits – over the struggle between national, imperial and class loyalties during the First World War; over responses to the Depression in the 1930s; and over anti-communist fears in the 1950s. Splinter parties such as Lang Labor in New South Wales and the Democratic Labor Party have denied them the treasury benches for long periods.
In his broad sweep Bongiorno alerts us to major issues in our political history: the maritime and shearers’ strikes, depression and search for national identity in the 1890s; the fights between Capital and Labour that spark fears of fascism, communism and socialism for much of the twentieth century; and the prosecution of wars and how to deal with society (and especially returned service personnel) in their aftermath. By the 1960s, however, ‘the modes of politics’ are changing. The Charlie Perkins-led ‘freedom ride’ of 1965 exposes discrimination against Aboriginal people; the increasingly unpopular Vietnam War becomes a galvanising issue, and the mood of protest is reflected elsewhere: by conservationists, in resident action groups, by women’s liberationists, gay activists and libertarians. Gough Whitlam’s government (1972-75) epitomises the spirit of change, although critics regard it as too much of a wild ride and its dismissal ‘raised the spectre of serious civil violence for the first time since the Depression’.
If ever there was a time for revolution in Australia this might have been it, yet the call to ‘maintain the rage’ is not answered. In the election that follows, Labor wins only 36 seats in the 127-seat House of Representatives. Bongiorno argues:
Some people have seen in this result endorsement of Kerr’s and Fraser’s actions, but the Whitlam government’s performance, especially on economic management, was more influential than the constitutional question raised by the dismissal. Fraser himself turned out to be a less aggressively right-wing national leader than many expected … [partly because he] thought he had to work on the business of healing some of the bitterness left by the events of late 1975. After all, even in the landslide defeat, almost 43 per cent of electors still supported the ALP with their primary vote.
A 43 per cent primary vote is something today’s Liberal and Labor parties can only dream about as the outstanding characteristic of modern Australian politics is the collapse of long-term party allegiances, exemplified by the growing influence of the Greens, and, as we saw at the 2022 federal election, the remarkable performance of the teal independents. Bongiorno writes:
… Many of the previously disillusioned said the result had restored their faith in Australian democracy, by which they seemed to mean something more than that the preferred team had won.
The 2022 election also disclosed the resilience and adaptability of the country’s distinctive democracy. Independent candidates had sufficiently challenged well-resourced party machines and raised the profile of issues that mattered to voters but which had been handled badly by the major parties and especially by the incumbent government. There was an increase in the number of women elected, of Indigenous parliamentarians, and of members of non-English-speaking backgrounds; the parliament would at last begin to reflect the notable diversity of the country.
The ‘Dreamers’ and ‘Schemers’ make a long list. I leave it to readers to choose the teams on which to place them, although some would qualify for both. In the colonial era a young William Wentworth is a significant advocate for political reform while Henry Parkes is described as ‘once a radical and a republican and forever the thrusting, ambitious, name-dropping migrant [who] was committed above all else to projecting his self-image as a great imperial statesman and man of affairs’. Parkes’s Tenterfield oration of 1889 is often regarded as a founding moment in the Federation movement, although it was the long-term endeavours of Edmund Barton, Alfred Deakin and Charles Kingston that carried it through to fruition.
In federal politics Billy Hughes, Stanley Bruce, Earle Page, Joe Lyons, Robert Menzies, John Curtin, Ben Chifley, Bert Evatt, Arthur Calwell, Harold Holt, Jack McEwen, John Gorton, William McMahon, Gough Whitlam, Malcolm Fraser, Bob Hawke, Paul Keating, John Howard, Kevin Rudd, Julia Gillard, Malcolm Turnbull, Tony Abbott and Scott Morrison are among those who take centre stage and make their impact for better or for worse. Hawke and Keating reform the Australian economy in the 1980s, Keating and Howard engage in culture wars in the 1990s, Turnbull accuses Howard of being ‘the prime minister who broke a nation’s heart’ after the republic referendum is defeated in 1999, and Rudd raises climate change as ‘the great moral challenge of our generation’ in the 2000s, only for the issue to be sidelined since.
But Bongiorno’s analysis of state politics is also impressive. Firebrand orator and twice Labor premier of New South Wales Jack Lang is termed ‘one of the greatest haters ever to sit in an Australian parliament’ yet capable of having ‘an intensely loyal following’. Long-term South Australian Liberal premier Thomas Playford (1938-65) benefited from an ‘electoral system drastically biased towards the country’ and a dispirited opposition, but he also boasted major achievements in the growth of secondary industry and socialist measures such as the creation of the Electricity Trust and Housing Trust.
Victorian Liberal premier Henry Bolte (1955-72) benefited from the Labor split of the 1950s but was also ‘a shrewd manager of people, money and publicity’ who built freeways and railway lines, opened factories and two new universities, and expanded public housing, although he is most often remembered now for presiding over the hanging of Ronald Ryan in 1967. In the 1970s South Australia and Queensland represent opposite poles of the political divide. South Australia’s Labor premier Don Dunstan does the most ‘to define a renovated progressive politics’ with his anti-discrimination laws, consumer protection, relaxation of liquor laws, promotion of the arts and abolition of capital punishment. By contrast, in Queensland Country/National Party premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen (1968-87) establishes his authority by declaring a state of emergency over the South African Springbok rugby tour in 1971, which enables police to bash protesters; six years later street protests are banned altogether. Presiding over a corrupt regime that eventually saw government ministers and police commissioner Terry Lewis jailed, Bjelke-Petersen was fortunate to avoid the same fate himself.
Dreamers and Schemers will serve as an important text for students of Australian politics and history, as well as providing rich rewards for the general reader.
Frank Bongiorno Dreamers and Schemers: A political history of Australia Latrobe University Press/Black Inc. 2022 PB 472pp $39.99
Bernard Whimpress is a historian who usually writes on sport. His most recent book is Adelaide Oval 1865-1939: A History.
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