Monthly Archives: February 2016

‘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.

Movie: Spotlight

Set in Boston in 2001, this film explores the exposure by the Boston Globe of the widescale abuse of children by Catholic clergy, and the part of Cardinal Law in covering it up.

I enjoyed this much more than ‘Truth‘, which was a similar movie.  At the end of the film there are two screens of cities where similar cover-ups occurred, and there was palpable curiosity to see whether Melbourne would be included (it was).  I came out feeling proud that I still subscribe to two hard-copy newspapers and one digital one.

A good solid 4.

This Week in Port Phillip 1841: February 1-7, 1841


You’ll remember that while he was collecting the survivors from the wreck of the Clonmel the observant Captain Lewis noticed navigable access to what he hoped would be an inland sea. [link] This ongoing fantasy- the inland sea- reminds us that although there were established routes etched onto the Port Phillip District, there were still vast expanses ‘unexplored’- at least by white settlers.  They weren’t wasting any time: by the 3rd February the barque Singapore was heading back to investigate further, bearingDr Steward, Messrs Kinghorne, Orr, Rankin, Brodribb, McLeod, Kirsopp and McFarlane

A number of enterprising colonists are about to proceed by the barque Singapore ,to country discovered by Count Streslecki on his land route from Sydney and designated by him Gippsland. Captain Lewis has discovered an excellent approach by sea, and the Singapore will proceed to either this entrance or Corner Inlet.

Port Phillip Herald, 5 February 1841.


Meanwhile, those left at home could amuse themselves at the Caledonian Hotel, as part of the audience for the Amateur Concert. The Caledonian Hotel was located on the southwest corner of Swanston and Lonsdale Streets. Originally built by Rev. Clow it was quite large with 13 rooms, dormer windows, French doors, outhouses. The licence holder was Mr Robert Omond. See   It was later a Temperance Hotel owned by the improbably named Mr Tankard in 1845.

But on 3rd February, the place was rocking:

On Wednesday evening the Amateur Concert came off at the Caledonian Hotel with great éclat. There were above 150 ladies and gentlemen present, composed of the wealth and fashion of Melbourne and its vicinity, amongst whom we noticed His Honor and lady, whose entrance was greeted by the orchestra striking up the national anthem. The room was well lighted, and the platform so elevated as to afford the audience, even at the furthest extremity, a full view of the performers. Madame and Monsieur Guatrot lent the aid of their brilliant talents to add additional effect to the pleasures excited by the Amateur band. The ladies and gentlemen were in ‘full dress’ and the tout ensemble presented an animated scene both “rich and rare”…although the performance was rather protracted, every soul seemed to enjoy the whole to the last with those enlivening and hallowed emotions which it is the special province of music to inspire… At eleven o clock the party rose simultaneously with buoyant and loyal hearts to respect by the echo of their feelings to Britain’s national air “God save the Queen!” This of course closed the evening’s enjoyments and the gay assemblage dispersed with reluctant hearts, but with fond hopes that the generous and gallant band of Amateurs would soon again repeat the attractions which had drawn them together, and which had so charmed their souls and so effectually secured their gratitude.

Port Phillip Herald 5 February 1841.

You’ll note the presence here of Superintendent La Trobe and Mrs La Trobe, ensuring that the concert was a respectable one.  The practice to sing the national anthem at the end of the performance might seem strange to those of us who can remember standing up for the national anthem at the cinema before the pictures started. However, this practice started in Drury Lane in 1745.The anthem was also played when royalty entered the theatre, but I don’t think that the designation ‘royalty’ quite stretched to Superintendent La Trobe at this stage.


When a low-level government position needed filling, it was not uncommon for the governor to look to the convict population. Although the ability to dispense patronage in the form of a job was an important aspect of power, it saved money if a convict could be found who had the skills, especially in the trades. And so:

Assignees of convicts in this District are required to furnish me with as little delay as possible the Names of any Men in their employ, who are either Compositors, Printers, Pressmen or Bookbinders, the Government requiring their services. Men will be assigned in lieu of those returned to the Government. James Simpson Police Magistrate 4th Feb.

Port Phillip Herald 5 February 1841

The substitution of one convict for another reminds us that even though Port Phillip was not, ostensibly, a penal colony, the assignment of ‘servants’ was still a bureaucratized system.


The boggy state of Elizabeth Street was often remarked upon by the newspapers.  As I’ve written about before, Williams Creek runs under Elizabeth Street, and in times of downpour it became very muddy. But the Port Phillip Herald was pleased to see that a gang (most probably of convict workers) were on the job:

We were glad to perceive on Wednesday that the Police Magistrate had placed a gang of twelve men to convert Williams River into a street to be called Elizabeth-street.

Port Phillip Herald 5 February 1841

The good people of Melbourne needed to be chided to keep their dogs – and other animals- off the streets:

Caution to Owners of Dogs &c. The Magistrates have given instructions to the Police to destroy all dogs found about the town without collars. This is as it should be, and if a similar order was extended towards unclaimed pigs it would be of infinite service to the public as the devastation committed by the animals is great, and the soon their destructive pursuits are got rid of the better

Port Phillip Herald 2 February 1841


According to the Government Gazette, it was “fine open weather, with fresh and strong winds, frequently clouded by Cumuli”. The maximum temperature for the period was 92 degrees (33 celsius) and the lowest minimum was 56 degrees (13).  There was no rain.