Rewriting Australia: The Way We Talk about Fears and Hopes

By Beilharz, Peter | Journal of Sociology, December 2004 | Go to article overview
Save to active project

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.


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.

The rest of this article is only available to active members of Questia

Sign up now for a free, 1-day trial and receive full access to:

  • Questia's entire collection
  • Automatic bibliography creation
  • More helpful research tools like notes, citations, and highlights
  • Ad-free environment

Already a member? Log in now.

Notes for this article

Add a new note
If you are trying to select text to create highlights or citations, remember that you must now click or tap on the first word, and then click or tap on the last word.
Loading One moment ...
Project items
Cite this article

Cited article

Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited article

Rewriting Australia: The Way We Talk about Fears and Hopes


Text size Smaller Larger
Search within

Search within this article

Look up

Look up a word

  • Dictionary
  • Thesaurus
Please submit a word or phrase above.
Print this page

Print this page

Why can't I print more than one page at a time?

While we understand printed pages are helpful to our users, this limitation is necessary to help protect our publishers' copyrighted material and prevent its unlawful distribution. We are sorry for any inconvenience.
Full screen

matching results for page

Cited passage

Citations are available only to our active members.
Sign up now to cite pages or passages in MLA, APA and Chicago citation styles.

Cited passage

Welcome to the new Questia Reader

The Questia Reader has been updated to provide you with an even better online reading experience.  It is now 100% Responsive, which means you can read our books and articles on any sized device you wish.  All of your favorite tools like notes, highlights, and citations are still here, but the way you select text has been updated to be easier to use, especially on touchscreen devices.  Here's how:

1. Click or tap the first word you want to select.
2. Click or tap the last word you want to select.

OK, got it!

Thanks for trying Questia!

Please continue trying out our research tools, but please note, full functionality is available only to our active members.

Your work will be lost once you leave this Web page.

For full access in an ad-free environment, sign up now for a FREE, 1-day trial.

Already a member? Log in now.

Are you sure you want to delete this highlight?