Rewriting Australia: The Way We Talk about Fears and Hopes

By Beilharz, Peter | Journal of Sociology, December 2004 | Go to article overview
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Rewriting Australia: The Way We Talk about Fears and Hopes


Beilharz, Peter, Journal of Sociology


What might it mean, to rewrite Australia? Is this not the kind of imperative that would be urged upon us, with compulsive enthusiasm, by those intellectuals who David Landes describes as the 'semiotically aroused'? Is not Australia, New Zealand, Mexico or Manhattan always in a process of rewriting? Can there ever be a singular narrative, which, even in its contingency, forecloses on the Babel of other stories about place, origin, or destiny? Do we not, as intellectuals, at the very least take ideas, words, too seriously? I don't think so; ideas have consequences.

Writing Australia may well be a task for sociologists, but in any case we have now been beaten to it. Australia has already been rewritten, in the form of a renewed narrative of fear and insecurity which looks, for the moment, to be culturally and electorally enduring. Instead, in this article I take three steps. First, I indicate some of the main frames within which the Australian story has been constructed. Second, I shift to the present, with the new, liberal populism of the Howard Government, and its capture of the dominant narrative ground. The extraordinary hegemony of Howard's view of Australia combines its own novelties with a series of motifs that stretch back a century, where Australians are imagined as egalitarian among themselves and just possibly towards others, real or imaginary, where we might still be mates rather than citizens of the planet, where the best approach to the external environment is to keep it out. This is a culture of exclusion and fear. Would a return to Labor under the revitalized authority of Mr Latham change all this? Possibly, if by mainstreaming it, adding a dose of broader decency or rights-talk. Third, and finally, I offer some remarks on populism and fear.

I

How have we, or our historians, seen ourselves, and how has this changed? I turn first to the main frames within which Australian history has been written across the 20th century. It seems to me that, to simplify, there are five dominant frames of Australian history writing since, say, 1900. They are as follows:

1. The social laboratory/workingmen's paradise, c. 1900-1920.

2. The most enduring--labour left nationalism/egalitarianism--say 1940-1970.

3. The radical denial of Australian egalitarianism c.1970.

4. Leftwing social history/social sciences 1980--

5. The centrality of racial exclusion 1990--

These are predominantly leftwing frames, which reflect the fact that intellectual culture in Australia was for most of the 20th century dominated by left or labourist interpretation. We could add a sixth, non-labour frame, in parenthesis, for which the history of white Australia is one of military virtue; it might extend from C.E.W. Bean through to the enthusiasm of The Australian newspaper for reiteration of military senses of national identity. The five dominant frames can be detailed as follows.

1. The image of the antipodes as the social laboratory is as clear a case of cultural traffic from south to north as you could imagine. The influence of this thinking or of its project in Australia is clear, but partial. Across the antipodes Fabians or new liberals such as William Pember Reeves and H.B. Higgins sought openly to civilize capitalism, not least through the use of institutions such as Arbitration, where the just wage was to be decided not by markets or capitalist criteria but by arguments addressing needs, or labour criteria, via the agency of the third, middle class of social engineers and moderators. The power of this narrative is undermined in the Great Depression, but revives and peaks in the period of postwar reconstruction in its labourist form. It is given a final, expanded spin by the Whitlam Government between 1972 and 1975, when the ambit of citizenship is opened and the historically racist profile of the parliamentary wing of labour is further distanced. Probably it is fair to say that the power of the social laboratory trope is overcome by its own success, or at least by the widely-shared relative prosperity of the postwar boom.

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