‘The Eighties’ by Frank Bongiorno


The Eighties: The Decade That Transformed Australia

2015, 368 p.

I’m kicking myself that I didn’t write this review earlier- or if I did, I can’t find it. I must confess to a sense of deja vu with every sentence I write, so perhaps my computer has eaten it. I read this book some weeks ago and have since returned it to the library, so I’m having to write from memory. I suppose if my review lacks detail, it does at least sketch out the lasting impressions I gained from the book.

It’s rather challenging to read a ‘history’ of a time that you remember well, especially when it’s written by someone who is younger than you.  I suppose that people older than I encounter this phenomenon all the time.  Bongiorno is playful enough to put his own photograph of himself in 1983 on the inside rear dustjacket- a free-faced young lad, aged perhaps 14.  I was in my thirties during the ’80s, caught up in the whirl of parenthood with young babies, living in suburban Bundoora, on parental leave from teaching but inching back to work on a casual basis in TAFE.  I was not as politically aware then as I am now- no doubt a reflection of the person I was then, and the stage of life that I was at. But without the deluge of information, opinion and so-called news on the internet, perhaps we were all less politically fevered then.

When a historian is writing a chronology, there is always the issue of periodization: when do you start and when do you finish?  It has become acceptable to fiddle with the boundaries of decades and centuries (the long 18th century; the long 19th century), and indeed part of the intellectual challenge in a narrative chronology is to identify the themes that give a period or phenomenon its unity beyond the mere elapse of time.  Bongiorno starts his 1980s in 1983, with the Ash Wednesday fires swirling around Victoria and South Australia, while in Sydney Bob Hawke was giving an address at the Sydney Opera House as Opposition Leader and basking in the adulation and anticipation of an election victory just weeks away.  He finishes his 1980s in 1991 when Paul Keating replaced Hawke as Prime Minister.

The most memorable impression that the book conveys is the sheer brashness, crassness, and odiousness of the politics of the decade with a seemingly-neverending succession of shysters and spivs.  Christopher Skase, Alan Bond, Joh Bjelke-Petersen, Brian Burke, WA Inc, the white shoe brigade- all larger than life and breathtaking in their audacity and shamelessness. Bongiorno’s perspective is largely Political (with a capital P) and economic as he examines the Accord and the disruption of what Paul Kelly calls ‘The Australian Settlement’ that followed in its wake. There’s the excess in consumption, the excess in nationalist mawkishness (think Hawkie and the Americas Cup celebrations) and the excess of pain in exorbitant interest rates and the ‘recession we had to have’.

It is also a very male-dominated book. It comes as a surprise to realize that Susan Ryan was only the Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for the Status of Women, and not Minister for Women in her own right. (Wikipedia has an interesting table showing the shifts in title for this role over the past 40 years- who would have thought that Judy Moylan would be the first Minister for the Status of Women, appointed by Howard? or that Turnbull appointed the first Minister for Women outright with no mention of ‘issues’ or ‘status’?)  Bongiorno paints on a broad canvas, examining both high and low culture, although I found myself remembering events and thinking ‘Ah, so that’s what that was about!’, rather than recognizing my own suburban experience in the narrative he provides.

In his final chapter, he becomes more personal as he steps out from the wings in what has seemed, until now, something like a television documentary.  He is more reflective and analytic in this chapter, admitting to his own reservations about the decade and the overall value of the changes it wrought.  But perhaps it’s too soon to do this? When the overwhelming response is embarrassment- as in this book- at the music, the clothes (Princess Di’s wedding dress, for instance), the behaviour, the Multi-Function Polis, the sheer bizarreness, perhaps there’s not enough distance to judge yet.  It’s often been said that journalism is the first rough draft of history, and I feel, despite the footnotes and the access to cabinet documents, that this book teeters on the cusp between the two.   Nonetheless, it’s an engaging read, told briskly and with humour.

7 responses to “‘The Eighties’ by Frank Bongiorno

  1. My memory of the eighties is a sense of rage against the excesses of uncontrolled capitalism. In 2016 after being rid of what is surely one of Australia’s worst Prime Ministers, now we hear Palmer’s company donated millions of dollars to his party to get him elected and the company has now gone broke. Umm, this equals that? Then we hear The Abbott is not only not pro socially progressive policies, he is actively working against any such progress. I still feel the rage about politics but I feel impotent about doing anything.

    I feel a little comfort in that the excesses of 80s would not happen now, but I would not like to put my money on it.

  2. This sounds like a good read. I remember though the best thing on the 80s I’ve come across – and undoubtedly there will be more things with this specific focus in future – is a movie called The Final Winter, which was released in 2007. It’s about football and how the game changed with the ingress of money in the 80s. Written and directed by an ex-footballer, it is gorgeous.

  3. The Eighties I think marked the transition from Mixed economies to Free-Market economies. In the Eighties the spivs and business crooks stood out, yes they were lauded but we knew what risks they were taking. In the oughties – before and after the GFC – the spivs were/are firmly in control. Banking and Speculation have been merged where formerly (since the Depression) they had been separated, Treasury and the Reserve Bank have been infiltrated, and governments have no choice but to wear the spivs’ mistakes and greed.

  4. Frank Bongiorno

    Thanks for this very thoughtful reflection on The Eighties – and a good point near the end about teetering between journalism and history. I think that’s fair comment. The book was inspired, in part, by the kind of work being done a few years back by the likes of Andy Beckett (on the 1970s) and Dominic Sandbrook (on the 1950s-70s) and I always thought of it as something I’d call ‘contemporary history’. But that might just be a fancy way of saying it teeters in the way you suggest!

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s