John Howard has just been elected…

04 Mar

… in Frank Welsh’s Great Southern Land (Penguin 2004/5), which I am nearing the end of; I propose later a few small gems from this history which I have found genuinely informative as well as often entertaining.

It can rile some though. Take Australian poet John Kinsella.

Rarely have I been so angry over the publication of a book as I am over Frank Welsh’s Great Southern Land: A New History of Australia. In the past, if I have had to negatively review a book I’ve felt a pang of regret. This book is the exception. Welsh’s so-called history is a disgrace.

It is not so because it is a history of Australia written by a non-Australian. In fact, there should be more of those. It is a disgrace primarily because of the way this book deals with Australia’s indigenous people. Though he gives the impression at times of being anti-racist and deeply humanist, Welsh is a classic apologist for the invasion and occupation of the Australian landmass.

Welsh’s understanding of anything indigenous is laughable and insulting. He mocks the fact that census figures have shown that the number of people claiming Aboriginal heritage has increased. Of course it has: it is now recognised that Aboriginality is not a matter of how much Aboriginal blood you have, but that you have Aboriginal identity. It might be surmised that another reason the census showed more people claiming Aboriginality was their increased confidence to live a life without the general societal and governmental persecution of the past.

Even with the removal of ‘light-skinned’ Aboriginal children (the ‘Stolen Generation’) from their parents, a process he eventually declares racist, Welsh waters down the crimes through a surface effort to be the impartial historian.

“The road to hell is invariably paved with good intentions, and the intentions of Sir Paul Hasluck, in charge of Aboriginal Affairs and the Territories from 1949 for twelve years, were demonstrably excellent.” Here condemnation of white Australia should be in full force. It is not. Heritage is far more complex than Welsh understands or wants to understand.

One of the hundreds of Welsh’s misrepresentations comes in his brief gloss on the negative effects on Paul Keating’s Labour government of the notorious ‘Hindmarsh Island affair’. In the 1990s, a proposed bridge construction was blocked because of Aboriginal concerns over traditional fertility rites, dubbed ‘secret women’s business’. A subsequent Royal Commission concluded that this secret business was a hoax contrived to prevent the bridge being built; but it has become gradually clear that the commission’s findings were deeply flawed.

This incident has been seen as a marker in Australia’s cultural wars (though Welsh seems to know nothing of Australian culture outside sport). Whatever the truth, the issues are more complex than Welsh’s summary: “a Royal Commission… found that the Aboriginal ladies had ‘fabricated’ convenient secret religious beliefs; it was the stuff of which satire is made, and did nothing to advance Aboriginal causes… or Labour’s appeal to cynical voters.”

You need not deconstruct this language much to pick out the condescension in “Aboriginal ladies”. And the book is full of such things. Welsh pretends to be sympathetic but is constantly mocking.

He is at least capable of recognising the vileness of the present administration (that of Prime Minister John Howard) in its treatment of refugees, particularly in the appalling Tampa incident of 2001, when a Norwegian freighter carrying Afghan refugees rescued from a sunken vessel was refused entry. Yet Welsh investigates nothing adequately, and there is always a tone of superiority.

One could further mention Welsh’s witticisms and put-downs (“A short person with oversized vanity, Kerr had been known as the ‘Liberace of the Law’…”), his dubious citing of observers such as Bill Bryson, and his bizarre choices in what to include. The problem with these choices is evident when he tells the story of a government or a period: the 1974 double dissolution of Gough Whitlam’s government is at least worthy of more serious analysis, surely. Facts and primary sources are supposed to inform a history – in this work they flutter around like illustrations in a picture book. Even the footnoting is inadequate.

Some might believe Welsh’s style flamboyant, but it cannot compare with that of Charles Manning Clark’s classic six-volume History of Australia.

The book paints Australia as a cultural vacuum. A place where the Irish Ned Kelly is simply a hoodlum, and not worthy of mythologising. Why not think a little bit more about why such mythologies are created? A thug and murderer he might have been, but his “spirited” manifesto, ‘The Jerilderie Letter’, is a unique moment in Australian history and merits investigation. The issue of Kelly’s Irishness is not to be dismissed in a few condescending lines. Peter Carey’s The True History of the Kelly Gang may be fiction, but it has more truth than Welsh’s vision.

Welsh appears to think himself fair-minded and generous. He purports to support multi-culturalism (he likes the food), but what of the histories of the Chinese, Greek and Italian Australians, and many other peoples outside the Anglo-Celtic world, as histories in themselves, and not just appendages to the British colonial inheritance?

It is like the age of Empire all over again – yet Welsh doesn’t know he’s doing it. And it is with Aboriginal history that the flaws remain greatest. Welsh has little respect for their private histories – he should try reading Dot Collard’s uplifting story, Busted Out Laughing, or Aboriginal Australia, edited by Bourke, Bourke and Edwards; or maybe a closer reading of Bruce Elder’s sobering Blood on the Wattle: Massacres and Maltreatments of Aboriginal Australians Since 1788. Though the last is listed in Welsh’s bibliography, its lessons appear unlearned.

Frankly, I find Welsh’s judgements are more often than not rather good, and I really think Kinsella has brought his presuppositions to his reading rather too much.  On the other hand, given his record, you may be surprised by Phillip Knightley’s somewhat opposite view, which I tend to agree with.

When Frank Welsh decided to write this book he knew only too well the risk he was taking – it is the first substantial history of Australia to be written by a non-Australian. He foresaw the reaction of some Australians: “What does this Pommie think he knows about our country?” So he got in first: “I have spent five years on the task because I love the place and the people and it is a privilege to write about them. Australia is probably the most successful society in the world and the most agreeable to live in.”

An introduction as fulsome as this arouses the suspicion that Welsh might have lost the historian’s detachment. He might have been dazzled by all the good things about Australia. He might have fallen for some of the more compelling Aussie myths. He might well have gone on to write an upmarket, Bill Bryson-type guide to Down Under.

Instead, he has produced a genuinely original, enlightening, witty account of a nation and its difficult, complicated and contrary people. His theme is the astonishing speed of Australia’s development and the impossibility of predicting where the country is going.

Welsh makes a strong case that Australians and their governments have often been institutionally racist, but he points out that abominable though this sounds today, it seemed eminently reasonable at the time. He quotes the affable Edmund Barton, Australia’s first prime minister: “The doctrine of the equality of man was never intended to apply to the equality of the Englishman and the Chinese… Nothing we can do by cultivation, by refinement, or by anything else will make some races equal to others.”

And he points out that at the beginning of the 21st century more than 70 per cent of the competitive places in Sydney’s best schools are taken by Asian students. “One might conclude that there was something in Barton’s theory, if not quite in the way he intended.”

Welsh takes us through all the important events of Australia’s history with a fresh, sharp eye. The transportation of convicts was not as bad as we may have been led to believe: “Within limits, transportation was generally popular, the colonies got cheap labour, humanitarians could congratulate themselves on the reforming virtues of compulsory work, and all acknowledged that it was much less expensive than having to keep the culprits in prison.” Contrary to popular assumptions, very few of the convicts had any record of violence, and political prisoners and the Irish represented only a small percentage of those deported. By the standards of the time, transportation was a relatively humane punishment.

Great Southern Land turns the split that developed between Australia and the “Mother Country” in the 1960s and 1970s on its head. The divide was not a consequence of Australians developing a greater sense of independence, as has been suggested, nor a sign of the early stirrings of republicanism. According to Welsh, it was the result of Britain declaring its own independence, abandoning traditional trade agreements with Australia in favour of closer economic ties with Europe and imposing, for the first time, restrictions on the admission of Australians to Britain. He quotes from Harold Macmillan’s diary: “It is ironical to hear countries which have abused us for years now beseeching us not to abandon them. The thought that the UK might declare herself independent seems so novel as to be quite alarming.”

The controversial story of relations between the white settlers and the Aboriginals is approached cautiously. Welsh gives this section of the book the heading “People whose proprietary title to the soil we have not the slightest ground for disputing” – a quote from Colonial Secretary Lord Glenelg in 1835. But he notes that Glenelg’s sentiment arrived a little late: in the first 50 years of occupation, the settlers had already taken some four million acres of Aboriginal land.

Welsh’s book is up to date and deals with the hostile approach the Australian government adopted towards asylum seekers in recent years, forcibly turning back their boats and paying the poor island of Nauru to accept a group of Afghans. Welsh calls this “a shameless episode” and adds: “Perhaps the most distressing result was that some 80 per cent of the public appeared to approve the Howard government’s measures; the White Australia policy was reviving.”

Finally, a review I have mentioned before — Anna Clark in The Age:

…Welsh self-consciously places Great Southern Land outside conventions of Australian history writing – he is English, not Australian, his approach is general, not narrowly academic – and the book certainly offers a different point of departure.

Welsh’s voice is present throughout. He frequently moves out of the narrative to give judgement on aspects of Australian history and history writing, offering his own opinions and answers with a degree of interest and authority.

Sometimes this authorial tone appears a little condescending, but it can also be illuminating. Welsh rightly argues that there has been a tendency by Australian historians away from comparative studies and his persistent attempts to situate this history within a broader context are certainly instructive. His comparisons with South Africa, for instance, expand the domestic Australian narrative to include a wider history of the British Empire.

This insistence on a broad historical focus makes the book more complex and engaging.

Great Southern Land is a strong general political and economic history. Welsh’s account of the 1890s depression encapsulates the great shifts in employment and economy, the cycles of Australian industry and the fate of the pastoral industry as part of a growing international economy. As the turn of the century approaches, he turns his attention to the movement for federation and nationalism, which he analyses with care and insight.

Welsh has a real grasp of the political sensibilities that have helped shape Australian life and it is impressive how up to date his history is. His interpretation of the conservative ascendancy over the past decade, especially his account of the rise of Pauline Hanson and the One Nation Party, is perceptive. And his analysis of John Howard’s dominance of Australian political life is equally compelling. Political debates over refugees and Australia’s relationship with the US since September 11 are covered, as is the recent dispute over frontier violence in colonial Australia.

Yet for all its apparent “newness”, the book remains relatively conventional and, at times, even traditionalist. The 19th century takes on the familiar order of discovery, colonisation and exploration, followed by gold, democratisation and nationalism. The next century follows the fortunes of prime ministers and premiers interspersed with war, depression and the long economic boom from the 1950s.

This means that while his political and economic analysis is both thorough and descriptive, there is little room to deviate from the narrative. The topics of women’s suffrage and the White Australia Policy are placed next to one another in the text, for example, but there is no reference to recent interpretations that (white) women got the vote precisely to maintain the racial policy.

Engaging with some of this newer critical scholarship might have added another dimension to Welsh’s history.

More problematic is his repeated reference to Aboriginal people in terms of their “blood”. Welsh is sympathetic to the effects of colonisation on indigenous culture, but his description of the fate of “full-bloods” fails to understand that these remain contentious terms for good reason (they were used to “breed out” and erase Aboriginal culture and identity).

Ultimately, Great Southern Land is perhaps too unclear about the sort of history it is trying to tell. Australians need to feel proud about their heritage, Welsh initially insists, but later proposes that learning it can be dull because Australian explorers were not as interesting as Europeans. Aborigines have a unique piece in Australian history, he acknowledges, but should give up demanding the repatriation of remains on spiritual grounds because it is “robbing a people of much knowledge of their own past”.

There is a real tension in the book between Welsh’s obvious admiration of Australia and his proposals for its improvement.

Most critically, he concludes, Australia’s success has been hampered by an unwieldy democracy. And this is perhaps where he is least convincing. His idea of a round table of retired politicians, distinguished lawyers and “one or two Aborigines” to shape the Commonwealth into next century and make its democracy less cumbersome reads more like strategic planning than perceptive historical review.

These sit oddly with the rest of the book, which is so thoroughly researched and considered. They also detract from the real interest and understanding he has for his subject. Although the “newness” of Welsh’s approach is at times ambiguous, it offers a different perspective to consider how Australian history has come to be understood.

Very quickly on one issue Kinsella slams the book about, and Clark alludes to — Welsh’s treatment of Aboriginal issues. Yes, he does not avoid the politically incorrect, but I would have to say he is not always wrong in that. This is what I meant when I said in another place that we have here a book which is neither black armband nor whitewash. On the other hand, those wishing to avoid the unpleasantness that has been Australian indigenous history — the Windschuttles of this world — will find little comfort in Great Southern Land. Oh, and it is worth thinking about that “200 Tasmanian Aborigines in 1971 had become 13,873 by 1986”, while acknowledging that identity rather than race is the key factor — descent, recognition by the Aboriginal community, and identifying as Aboriginal being the current criteria. (I have always the first, occasionally the second, and at times the third, so do not classify myself as Aboriginal.) It is true nonetheless that Welsh does not fully appreciate what a minefield this is, that “common sense” may not lead in this case to the most helpful conclusion.

Still one of my best reads of 2008. I do find Kinsella’s reaction somewhat grotesque, but I agree with Clark on the book’s epilogue, which is supernumerary  to say the least, though one might argue that Kevin Rudd’s 2020 conference is not unlike what Welsh proposed. The sentences I have highlighted in Clark’s review point to one of the book’s great strengths; it is also excellent on foreign policy in the 20th century, and gives a balanced account of White Australia, seen as one of the three planks of the Deakinite settlement that sustained Australia for years but also seen as the racist policy it undoubtedly was. The book rightly points to Labor as having been even more vociferously in support of that policy than others, at least until the early 1970s, given that the protection of Australian working conditions was its other motive. For Welsh, history and mythologising are separate activities; some will find this awkward but I think he does us a necessary, if sometimes imperfect, service. On balance I have found it refreshing and enlightening. Kinsella is, however, right when he says Welsh is weaker on Australian art and literature. I suspect he would not be much different on the English either.

Site Meter

Comments Off on John Howard has just been elected…

Posted by on March 4, 2008 in Australia, Best read of 2008, Indigenous Australians, Kevin Rudd, reading


Comments are closed.

%d bloggers like this: