Pages Menu
Abbey's Bookshop
Plain engish Foundation
Categories Menu

Posted on 20 Apr 2023 in Non-Fiction |

JULIANNE SCHULTZ The Idea of Australia: A search for the soul of the nation. Reviewed by Braham Dabscheck

Tags: / / / /

Julianne Schultz finds difficult truths – and some hope – in her examination of the Australian psyche.

Is it a good thing to be racist? For one group of people to believe they are superior to others and to act accordingly in the name of creating a ‘perfect society’?

Examining the principles of a racist society is one way to consider the issues canvassed in Julianne Schultz’s insightful and wide-ranging The Idea of Australia: A search for the soul of the nation. As her title indicates, Schultz seeks to understand the essence of Australia, and what it means to be an Australian. Her investigation was prompted by a desire

… to better understand the tension between labour and capital, men and women, black and white, immigrant and native-born, conservationists and developers … Why we persistently resist learning about the past, let alone fully atoning for it. Why this essential step, to imagine and create a genuinely inclusive and robust future for all, is so hard.

Much of The Idea of Australia engages with Australia’s sorry dance with racism. In virtually every chapter Schultz draws attention to the various ways White Australia has discriminated against Indigenous Australians. When Governor Phillip arrived in Sydney in January 1788, it was estimated that there were between one million and 800,000 Aboriginal people in Australia. By Federation, this number had fallen to 100,000. Aboriginal people were not included in the Constitution because it was expected they would either die or be bred out (the policy of assimilation). The first action of the new national Parliament was to enact the White Australia Policy, a policy designed to restrict the entry of people from Asia, especially from China.

Schultz refers to the expropriation of the lands of Aboriginal people and the subsequent maltreatment and killing inflicted upon them as ‘the original sin at the core of the nation’; a sin we are yet to atone for. To this sin we need to add the White Australia Policy. Schultz quotes historian Raymond Evans, who said that with this policy Australia embarked on ‘the largest and most tremendous experiment ever tried in race building’. He in turn referred to a nativist journalist, Randolph Bedford, who in 1911 commented that ‘Australia has been handed a sacred duty of breeding a pure race in a clean continent.’

Schultz also quotes Alfred Deakin, Australia’s most important prime minister in the first decade of Federation, who declared that at the heart of Federation was ‘the desire that we should be one people, and remain one people, without the admixture of other races’. This would result in a ‘united race’ that could safely ‘intermarry and associate without degradation on either side’.

From white settlement to Federation and beyond, racism was the ‘essential characteristic’ that lay at the heart of Australia’s idea of itself as a nation. There was no higher praise than to describe someone as a ‘White Man’.

With the passage of time, Australia’s racism has come under increasing attack from within and without. Aboriginal and other groups mounted campaigns that resulted in changes to the Australian Constitution in 1967, which included Aboriginal people in the census for the first time and gave the Commonwealth responsibility for Aboriginal affairs. Not that the objective circumstances of Aboriginal people improved. With Australia becoming more enmeshed with Asia and Britain abandoning Australia for the European Common Market, Australia dropped the White Australia Policy. This resulted in persons from places other than Europe and with skins other than white obtaining entry to Australia.

Despite these changes, Schultz maintains that the racist prejudices of the past do not require much watering to quickly spring back into life. In particular, she points to the rise of Pauline Hanson, the denigration of immigrants, the hostile response to refugees, the rise of Islamophobia, the continued poor treatment of Aboriginal people and the inability of non-Indigenous Australians to acknowledge the ills of the past.

Schultz also examines how those within Australia’s citadels of power deal with criticism when historians and scholars draw attention to the wrongs of the past, such as the frontier wars and the slaughter of Aboriginal people; the treatment of children, orphans, single mothers, migrants, refugees, and minorities; sexism and discrimination against women, including attitudes to sexual violence. Or increases in inequality and how the rich and powerful have captured the state and use it for their benefit at the expense of the majority. Such criticisms attack notions that Australia is an egalitarian and essentially ‘fair’ society.

The response of the powerful to such attacks is to dismiss them as unjustified and ‘un- Australian’, or to turn on those who have expressed such views with vitriol and hatred. Criticism is reviled as a ‘black armband’ view of Australia. This has driven many of the ‘culture wars’ that have engulfed Australia in recent decades.

Schultz asks why it is that Australia’s ‘ambitions are generally defensive, protectionist and prosaic’, speculating:

Maybe because the habit of not looking back has become so ingrained we are incapable of imagining what we might become, having little idea of how we got here. Maybe because we have for so long accommodated bullies, we have retreated to smaller dreams in manageable spaces. Maybe because so few of our political leaders have had courageous imaginations, they have to be led by others. Maybe because we are ashamed of our racialist past, we forget to hold on to the good bits. Maybe being home to the oldest continuous culture is just too difficult to comprehend.

It is unfortunate to report that the book’s implicit conclusion is that Australia does not have a soul. However, Schultz believes this problem can be solved:

It is hard to escape the conclusion that until Australians are prepared to seriously consider the good and the bad of the past, to recognise and address the structural factors that, as a nation and as individuals, prevent us from realising our potential, we will be trapped forever on a treadmill, running but going nowhere … A fully formed nation – grounded in a civic, not ethnic, way of belonging – without fear is still possible. The soul of the nation has a rich inner life. It holds dreams and stories of those who have always been here and those who have come in waves ever since.

The great strength of The Idea of Australia is that it forces you to think about the nature of the country and what it means to be an Australian. It is highly recommended for all of us to obtain a better understanding of the nation we find ourselves in.

Julianne Schultz The Idea of Australia: A search for the soul of the nation Allen and Unwin 2022 PB 472pp $34.99

Braham Dabscheck is a Senior Fellow at the Melbourne Law School at the University of Melbourne who writes on industrial relations, sport and other things.

You can buy The Idea of Australia from Abbey’s at a 10% discount by quoting the promotion code NEWTOWNREVIEW.

You can also check if it is available from Newtown Library.

If you’d like to help keep the Newtown Review of Books a free and independent site for book reviews, please consider making a donation. Your support is greatly appreciated.