‘Dreamers and Schemers: A political history of Australia’ by Frank Bongiorno

2022, 396 p. plus notes

My overwhelming feeling on finishing this book is sheer admiration for the breadth of endeavour to write a political history of Australia right from pre-colonial through to COVID times. Few historians would take on such a task: even fewer could carry it off without flagging. But Frank Bongiorno does, with his customary clarity and a mischievous twinkle in the eye when he encounters absurdity and pretension.

I like Frank Bongiorno, and he is a historian who takes his role as a public commentator seriously. He is current president of the Australian Historical Association, and on the Federal Executive of the Australian Society for the Study of Labour History. He is a contributor to newspapers and journals (both academic and general) and he’s likely to pop up on politics programs on the ABC television and radio. I found myself wondering whether his own political leanings would influence his analysis once he reached the years which he would remember (he was born in 1969) but I couldn’t really detect any change in his stance. The title, while catchy, is a little misleading: it evokes a ‘Hundred Ratbags’ sort of book based on crackpots and shysters. The book takes a much more general approach than this, with more emphasis on the big sweeps and arcs of history rather than the foibles of transitory individuals. The ‘Dreamers and Schemers’ are not just found on the floors of parliamentary chambers – they are out in the pubs, meeting halls, churches and unions as well, but the main focus is on formal political structures.

We often talk today of ‘political junkies’, who delve into the minutiae of political events that many others flip past when they encounter them in the newspapers, and who see everything through a political lens. By writing a political history, Bongiorno focuses his attention on the science of politics as it played out chronologically over Australia’s white history, which means that there is necessarily an emphasis on the dead white men who dominated big-P politics, while many other forces are omitted. Women, for instance, are barely seen in the first third of the book because, politically, they were insignificant. Bongiorno starts the book with First Nations politics: something that is barely acknowledged in Australian history, and when it is, it is more anthropological than political. Indigenous politics are woven throughout the rest of the text, but reflecting the events of the time, they disappear for whole decades only to reappear 40 or 50 years later. Economic fluctuations and wars appear in the narrative, but only to the extent that they affected the politics of the day. Likewise, international events feature in the early chapters, when Australia’s nascent politics were a reflection of political currents that affected the empire generally, and they reappear in the closing chapters when a world-wide pandemic disease and cynicism over politics generally bring politics to uncharted territory.

One of the real strengths of this book is that it considers both federal and state politics alongside each other, taking care to address each of the states, and not just the most populous ones. Personalities tended to loom larger at state level, with a predominance of ‘schemers’ over ‘dreamers’. The distinctiveness of the different states is highlighted: the conservatism (by design) of the Legislative Council in Victoria; the radicalism of Queensland at the turn of the 20th century which contrasted so much with the Bjelke-Petersen era some 70 years later; the way that South Australia often seemed to be travelling its own path. This emphasis on the states means that the full range of politics is explored -not just the big moves of a Federal government, but the compromises and obligations of State governments as well.

I was interested to see how Bongiorno structured the chronology of the book. He proceeds chronologically, but decisive events like Federation, war, the Depression or the Dismissal are subsumed under broader categories, rather than meriting a chapter in their own right. The chapters are:

  • Autocracy, Community and Democracy: from Earliest Times to 1855 (i.e. the granting of a degree of not identical self-government to the separate colonies as part of a broader sweep towards reform across the settler empire)
  • Making Democracy Work: 1857-90 (which takes us far from the 1850s view of self-government to a concept of government as an entity which can transform society, alongside increasing demands – particularly through the unions- for direct representation of class
  • A New Australia 1891-1914 (emphasizing the importance of the ‘Deakinite Settlement’, and the rise of the Labor Party and fusion of conservative forces)
  • Loyalty and Interest: 1914-1939 (a big time span, collapsing WWI into the post war era until the start of another war. Labor dominance during the early years of the war, the rise of sectarianism, rise of the Country Party, first Menzies government)
  • War and Peace: 1939-49 (war and post-war considered together. Co-operation between Menzies and Curtin in welfare provision. The Labor Party would not have dreamt that they would be in Opposition for so long)
  • The Good Times 1949-1966 (Menzies’ second prime ministership; influence of Santamaria and Victorian Labor split)
  • Revolt, Reason and Reaction: 1966-1982 (series of Liberal prime ministers after Menzies, Victoria a brake on an ALP victory earlier than 1972, Kerr/Whitlam/Fraser conceptualized as a contest of manhood; Fraser more like a Country Party politician. A changed world- free trade, unions but reaction through Bjelke-Peterson in Qld, Charles Court in WA; rise of Australian Democrats)
  • Australia Remade? 1983-99 (Winding back of the protective state, much of it by the ALP; influence of globalisation and free market economics; Howard and Hanson)
  • ‘The Glimmer of Twilight’: 2000-19 (2001 the end of progressivism- emergence of the darker side of globalization. 2005 Howard wins Senate majority and introduction of WorkChoices, Australian Wheat Board, David Hicks, the Intervention; Kevin Rudd and the Summit, Kyoto, the Apology. Gillard’s first minority government since WWII but passing of 561 pieces of legislation; lower primary vote and rise of independents and Greens; Abbott, Turnbull, Morrison – studied ordinaryiness)
  • Conclusion – In the Age of COVID

I’m not going to go through the details: you’ll need to read the book for them. It’s a fact-heavy book, driven by chronological events. But there are themes that arise out of this mosaic of personalities and events.

The first is the continuity of the view of an interventionist government. He devotes much attention to the Deakinite Settlement of the 1890s, which held over many decades (perhaps there are even traces of it today) and brought Australia to the forefront of progressive legislation in the early decades of the 20th century. The economic interventions of the post-WWII governments in the 1940s – and here Bongiorno echoes Stuart Macintyre, to whom the book is dedicated- continued under Menzies and were only ruptured in the 1980s. Even during the COVID pandemic, with which the book closes, there remained

a broad acceptance, no doubt stronger among some than others, that government should play the predominant role in defining where the boundaries between individual rights and the common good lie….Outside extreme libertarianism, a minority taste in Australia, there tends to be only mild political disagreement. Otherwise, most people get on with their lives, expecting the state to set reasonable parameters for individual behaviour while allowing people a wide scope to pursue their private interests as individuals and families.

p.392

Related to the early adoption of progressive electoral legislation, voting schemes continued to evolve over the early 20th century. The method of voting (preferential, above-the-line, secret) etc. continued to be experimented with as the system was finessed. Democracy was not delivered cut and dried: instead, it evolved over time.

Some issues remained constant (or intransigent) over decades. The question of land and vested interests dominated colonial politics. Free trade versus protectionism was a major dividing line between states and parties, and still underpins politics today. Sectarianism and racism (against First Nations, Chinese, immigrants) bubbled under the surface throughout Australia’s political history.

That said, another theme was the sense of roundabouts and swings. One or the other of the major parties would make a clean sweep at both federal and state level, only for the jigsaw to be quickly broken apart as the opposing parties would have electoral success and the cycle would begin again. Where there was a long period of one-party dominance, it was largely through the weakness of the opposition. The significance of sectarianism, and especially the influence of Bob Santamaria and the ‘groupers’ in Victoria is highlighted as a brake on Labor success at both federal and Victorian level over an extended time.

Despite the title ‘Dreamers and Schemers’, the relationship between individuals and the big movements of political history is a nuanced tension between practicality, complacency and continuity on the one hand, and vision and courage on the other. In this, we see Bongiorno the progressivist historian coming out. He notes:

Australian political history has had its dreamers and visionaries alongside the pragmatists and schemers…Big change of the kind that occurred in Australia in the 1850s, 1890s, 1940s and 1980s would have been impossible without the idealists and thinkers: that is, without political leaders, activists, intellectuals and movements who refused to be merely ‘practical’. Change depended on people willing to resist complacent utilitarian appeals to majority interests and consensus opinions, on refusing to accept injunctions merely to tinker rather than transform. In the end, it depended on a vision, however modest, of the good life.

p. 392

This book is written for the general reader, but the relentlessness of change and a succession of actors means that it does require concentrated reading. It provides a wide sweep of history, enabling ‘political junkies’ to step aside from their own cauldron of day-to-day politics to reflect on continuity and courage, both of which have existed across Australia’s political history. Although I have read ‘generalist’ Australian histories that take a broad-lens approach from settlement onwards, I haven’t read another book quite like this one that is so disciplined in its focus on politics as the framework of analysis. It’s an important book, and well worth reading.

My rating: 9

Sourced from: review copy Black Inc books

5 responses to “‘Dreamers and Schemers: A political history of Australia’ by Frank Bongiorno

  1. artandarchitecturemainly

    States differences were never clear to me until the late 1960s. As you mention ,the conservatism by design of the Legislative Council in Victoria; and the radicalism of Queensland at the turn of the 20th century which fell apart in the Bjelke-Petersen era some 70 years later 😦

    Thank you for the link:
    “At least Australia had no Trump or Bolsonaro! Oh really???”
    https://melbourneblogger.blogspot.com/2022/12/at-least-australia-had-no-trump-or.html

    • I enjoyed your blog post about Bjelke Petersen. I’ve been listening to ‘The Sirens Are Coming’- a podcast on ABC Dig program, which I’m finding fascinating.

  2. This sounds like one for the wishlist. I’m not sure that I’d want to read the whole thing, but I’d be interested in my era onwards, I think.

    • I have “on the deck” books for daytime reading and “bedtime books” for just before I fall asleep. This is definitely an “on the deck” book because there is a LOT of detail in it. Possibly a little too much detail!

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