Category Archives: Australian Women Writers Challenge 2019

‘Her Mother’s Daughter’ by Nadia Wheatley

Wheatley_Mothers_Daughter

2018, 352 p.

I’ll be honest: I don’t really like the ‘parental memoir’ books, even though I seem to keep reading them.  You know the ones I mean, where a child (often already an established writer) writes the biography of one of their parents, interweaving it with their own memoir and ‘journey’ in trying to understand their parent/s. I’ve read my share of them, historian Jim Davidson writing about his father; Biff Ward writing about her historian father and his wife; Catherine de Saint Phalle writing about her Parisian parents Poum and Alexandre; Marie Munkara writing from the point of view of a member of the Stolen Generations re-discovering her family; Anne Summers writing about her mother and a painting, and Magda Szubanski writing about her family and coming out.

That’s a lot of books for a genre that I’ve said I don’t like. I am uncomfortable with the stripping-bare of a parent who cannot defend their actions, and I dislike the sense of long-held grievance that often permeates a child’s judgement of their parent, no mater how long ago these childhood events occurred.

So why, then, did I read this ‘parental memoir’? I think it’s probably because I admire Nadia Wheatley as a biographer through her excellent biography of Charmian Clift The Life and Myth of Charmian Clift and I was interested to see how a professional biographer/historian deals with the problem of writing a hybrid biography/memoir. [It was this methodological curiosity that led me to read Davidson and Summers, and will probably lead me to Jill Roe and Brenda Niall one day.] More immediately, it was as a response to reading excellent reviews by Jonathan Shaw and Sue at Whispering Gums.

The title of Wheatley’s book Her Mother’s Daughter is an act of claiming back her relationship with her mother. She was told by family that because she was only nine when her mother died, she couldn’t possibly remember her. Besides, she was told, her mother would have hated her Leftist policies. It was in reconstructing her mother’s life as an adult, from what people told her about her mother, and drawing on her own memories written at the time of her mother’s death in a valiant attempt to stop them dissipating (surely the act of a future writer and biographer!) that she realized that her mother would not have rejected her because of her politics and that she was, indeed, more of her mother’s daughter than her wider family recognized.  The choice of title is also an act of distancing herself from her father, to whom she was often likened, and with whom she had a fearful, strained relationship. His behaviour, as her research proved, was even darker than she realized as a child.

The book is written in four parts. The first section ‘Neen’ tells of the early life of Wheatley’s mother Nina Whatley, born in 1906 in northern NSW, whose own mother died while Nina was young. Her life seemed destined to end in nursing her much-loved elderly father and her less-loved stepmother, but World War II was her escape, when she enrolled as a nurse and worked with the 6th A.G.H. in Greece and Palestine. After the war she worked in refugee camps with Displaced Persons with the United Nations Relief and Rehabilitation Administration, taking up a position of responsibility that saw her nicknamed “Miss UNRRA”.

It was in these camps that she met the English doctor, Dr (John) Norman Wheatley, as described in Part II ‘Nina and John’. Dr Wheatley was married (although separated) at the time, and unknown to Nina he had a darker side that manifested itself through his alter ego ‘Mr Black’, a legal identity that he used for gambling, dodgy enterprises, affairs.  Already here as a reader you sense the perils for Nina in finally marrying Dr Wheatley. Their affair, while it was clandestine and without responsibilities, filled their weekends with liaisons, parties and travel. When Neen unexpectedly fell pregnant, he did not welcome the child, and Neen returned home to Australia to have her child.

Part III ‘Nina, John and Nadia’ is the longest section of the book, and it conveys well the anxiety evoked in this little girl by her father’s capricious, heedless and manipulative behaviour. They shift from one house to another as her father’s enterprises turn sour. Her sardonic father plays mind-games with both mother and daughter, with his menacing repetitions “do you understand?” when telling or showing Nadia aberrant  anecdotes and images. When Neen complains of chest pain, he ignores her, dismissing the pain as psychosomatic, a diagnosis too easily conveyed and shared amongst the male-dominated psychiatric fraternity. It was a dismissal that probably robbed Neen of years of health.

In the final Part IV, after Neen’s death, Nadia goes into the care of a school friend’s family; a paid arrangement she later learns, and one where she is vulnerable. The relationship with her father, already brittle, petered out.

Looking over this summary, there’s not a lot of joy here. Disappointments and betrayals, when they occur, seem inevitable. Yet, the book does not have the howl of grievance that too many parental memoirs have, perhaps because Wheatley’s intent is to recover her mother in order to identify with her, instead of to judge. The judgement is directed towards her father instead.

There is a narrative distance between Wheatley the author and Wheatley the character, and I think it is this detachment and – is ‘professionalism’ the word?- that makes this book a work of biographical reconstruction as much as memoir.  Most of it is written in the third person, but occasionally Nadia Wheatley the adult biographer breaks into the narrative, commenting on information that she has uncovered, responding with scepticism, regret or shame (as when she realizes that Neen’s inheritance of the family home had caused such resentment in the family). Wheatley has brought her biographer’s eye to her own family, contextualizing it within the mores and expectations of the time, filling in background information about the refugee schemes after WWII and psychiatric medicine during the 1950s, particularly in relation to women. She is explicit about her sources – her mother’s letters (often quoted verbatim), interviews and conversations with family members,  discussions with people who knew Neen – as a way of testing her own reality and memory against those of other people. Although the structure of the book is mainly chronological, it skips back and forth, shifting between third and first person. It is a deft book, written with confidence. Its emotional tone is dispassionate, and you, as a reader, do the emotional work of being enraged at people’s self-centredness, fearful of what seems inevitable, and hollowed by grief and unfairness. That Wheatley has brought you to this place is a testament to her skill as a writer.

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library as an e-book

My rating: 9/10

AWW2019I have included this on the 2019 Australian Women Writers Challenge database

 

‘Angel of Death: Dulcie Markham, Australia’s most beautiful bad woman’ by Leigh Straw

straw_dulcie_markham

2019, 251 p. & notes

Historian Leigh Straw has been working on the underworld in Sydney between the 1920s and 1950s for some time. This book forms the third part of a trilogy. In The Worst Woman in Sydney: The Life and Crimes of Kate Leigh (2016) looked at underworld figure, sly grogger and cocaine dealer Kate Leigh, while in Lillian Armfield: How Australia’s First Female Detective took on Tilly Devine and the Razor Gangs and Changed the Face of the Force (2018) she looked at Lillian Armfield, the policewoman who, excluded from other types of crime fighting, was charged with chasing down young girls and diverting them from the vices of prostitution and addiction. Working on these two opposing forces – the criminal and the police officer- she kept coming across Dulcie Markham, who was well known to both Kate Leigh and Lillian Armfield. Obviously fond of the long book-title, in Angel of Death: Dulcie Markham, Australia’s most beautiful bad woman, Straw traces the life of this beautiful and notorious woman, who traversed Australia and was completely embedded within the underworlds of the cities in which she lived.

And Dulcie Markham was beautiful: stunningly so. She was known as “Pretty Dulcie”, but she was also known as the “Angel of Death” and “The Hoodoo Girl” as the men with whom she associated were shot and stabbed in a mounting rollcall of violence and death. Born in 1914 in Surry Hills (in Sydney) she ran away from home at the age of fifteen and took up prostitution as one of Tilly Devine’s girls, at a time of rivalry between the two Sydney crime-madams, Kate Leigh and Tilly Devine, and at a time when sly grog, gambling, larrikins and the Razor Gangs made Sydney a dangerous place to be. She first appeared in court as a member of Sydney’s underworld in 1931, when she gave evidence – or more correctly, stalled in giving evidence- at the inquest into the death of her erstwhile lover by her more recent paramour. This was the first of a number of deaths of five lovers and husbands where she was not physically present, but could well have been involved.

It is interesting to see how the sources available have shaped this story. Dulcie Markham was certainly talked and written about, and her police file was bulky, but she herself rarely spoke to reporters and there is virtually nothing written by Markham herself. As a result, Dulcie’s story was completely embedded within the stories of other people. At times I felt as if the author let herself be caught up too much with these other minor personalities, who had crime histories just as sordid as Dulcie’s.  Sometimes the excursions were triggered by some association, for example a sudden jump forward to the murder of a prostitute in the 1980s when discussing whether Dulcie was intimidated – a fairly tangential connection.  Perhaps it’s part of the crime writing genre itself (I’m thinking of John Silvester’s columns in The Age) but there’s a chatty, familiar chumminess and a bit of a chortle that comes through when the excesses of the underworld are being written. It makes me a little uncomfortable.

Yet this intimacy with the underworld is written within the academic framework of sources, academic books and theses, endnotes and bibliographies. The book wears its research lightly.

What these interwoven anecdotes and networks do demonstrate, again and again, is the violence which seemed almost casual, and the narrow line between being a perpetrator and being a victim.  Dulcie was herself shot and bashed, but bound by the code of silence as part of milieu in which she moved.  Surprisingly, although charged and convicted many times,  she spent remarkably little time in jail herself.  Clear, too, is Dulcie’s mobility as she shifts between Brisbane, Sydney, Melbourne and Perth, each time bobbing up in the middle of that city’s underworld, and switching her name frequently. Once in, it was hard to escape.

Straw contextualizes Dulcie’s life well, giving insights into the nature of criminal empires, the specific crime scene in a particular city, the nature of prostitution, and more general social life in Australia across these decades. Her final chapter, when she weighs up Dulcie Markham’s life is strong, where she discusses the trope of the ‘femme fatale’ and assesses her against Anne Summer’s dichotomy of ‘Damned Whores and God’s Police’. As against all the things that we don’t know about Dulcie Markham, Straw concludes:

What we do know is Dulcie May Markham was one of the toughest crime figures in Australia from the 1930s to the 1950s. In the violent neighbourhoods of crime across three cities, she proved herself by utilising the avenues then open to women involved in crime- prostitution, sly-grogging and gambling houses. Dulcie showed great intelligence, resilience and a staggering ability to live through intimidation and violence. She was a survivor in a world that saw few live to retire as she did to a quieter life. (p. 243)

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

My rating: 7/10

AWW2019 I have included this book on the Australian Women Writers Challenge database.

‘The Dismissal Dossier’ by Jenny Hocking

Hocking_Dismissal

Updated edition 2016, 75 pages & notes

Is it only Labor supporters ‘of a certain age’ who remember where they were in 1975 when they heard that the Whitlam government had been dismissed? I was in my second year at La Trobe University, and being November 11, it was in the midst of exams. I remember sitting on the brick steps at the Agora, wondering if the student troops would rally and whether there would be a march on Parliament House. But there was nothing- at least not immediately. I think that people were just stunned.

And, after reading Jenny Hocking’s small book The Dismissal Dossier: Everything You Were Never Meant to Know About November 1975, I’d have to add that not only were people just stunned, they were lied to as well. It has taken over forty years for the truth to trickle out, through vendettas, scribbled notes in archives, interviews, and  re-evaluations. The story isn’t over yet: Jenny Hocking, who wrote the celebrated two-part biography of Gough Whitlam, is still pursuing ‘The Palace Letters’ between the Queen and her secretaries and Australia’s then-Governor General Sir John Kerr, which have been designated ‘personal and private’ by Buckingham Palace, and thus out of the reach of Australians.

So- what weren’t we meant to know and now we do, largely through Hocking’s persistence?  We now know that the Palace did know ahead of time that Kerr was planning to sack Whitlam. Through Reg ‘Toe-Cutter’ Withers’ spilling of the beans after himself being dismissed, we know that Fraser was aware of it too.  We now know that  Sir  Anthony Mason  had been involved even before Sir Garfield Barwick (the Chief Justice) was, and that Barwick and Kerr agreed to obscure his involvement at the time and afterwards.  We also know that Kerr, fearful that Whitlam would sack him first, had shored up his position with the Queen’s secretary and Prince Charles in advance.  We now know that Kerr was anxious that a Royal Commission not be held into the Loans Affair because it would have come out that he had signed off on the minutes of the Executive Council meeting that approved the plan.

There’s a lot, too, that we have either forgotten or not realized the significance of.  The Senate had not refused Supply, but the Liberal/Country party refused to vote on it. Whitlam’s poll numbers were improving, while Fraser’s were plummeting over the stalemate in the Senate. Whitlam had already spoken with Kerr about holding the half-Senate election days earlier and had the agreed papers in his pocket, which would have brought the stalemate to a head. The House of Representatives still sat on the afternoon after the Dismissal, and passed a motion of no-confidence in Fraser as Prime Minister by a margin on 10 votes – the ultimate breakpoint in our parliamentary democracy, which should have seen Fraser stepping down immediately.  There were in effect two dismissals on 11 November: first the dismissal of Prime Minister Gough Whitlam, then later that afternoon, the dismissal of the House of Representatives, which Kerr prorogued to avoid having to do anything with that embarrassing vote of no confidence.

These things have been revealed over the last forty years, but because they have been drip-fed, you tend not to see the whole picture. After Reg Withers revealed that Fraser had been in on it before the Dismissal, Fraser admitted that he had lied. How did I not know that? I remember Sir Anthony Mason’s dismissive “I owe history nothing” but I’d forgotten his role. I remember news of a dinner with Prince Charles, but didn’t make the connection. That’s why this book is so important. It’s only short, but it draws the threads together. It re-kindles the rage.

I was fortunate to hear Jenny Hocking speak last week (and a recording of her presentation can be found here). She reminded us that Gough’s exhortation was to “Maintain your rage and your enthusiasm“. Reading this book reminds me why we should maintain the pressure for a republic, and why Hocking’s own persistence and assiduity has been so important.  After the Federal Court dismissed her attempt to have the Palace Letters revealed, just this afternoon she was granted Leave to Appeal to the High Court of Australia. Those letters will and must be revealed one day: I just hope that she and  I live long enough to see them.

My rating: 5/5 because it’s it’s such an important book. Read it.

Sourced from: SLV e-book. (Did you know that you can download e-books from the State Library if you have a card?)

 

AWW2019I have included this on the 2019 Australian Women Writers Challenge.

 

‘Elizabeth Macarthur: A Life at the Edge of the World’ by Michelle Scott Tucker

elizabeth-macarthur

2018, 339 p.

I am old enough to remember when Australia’s wool trade was a source of national pride. Primary school children would send off to the Wool Board (or whatever it was called at the time) to receive a project pack that included samples of wool at different stages of processing: straight off the sheep’s back, washed, combed, and carded, right through to a piece of woven material, all in a big envelope. John Macarthur was on our $2.00 notes, with a whopping great merino beside him, with William Farrer on the other side with his wheat, symbols of the importance of the pastoral industry and agriculture to Australia’s history and economy.

But it was all very male-dominated. I first heard of Elizabeth Macarthur when I visited Elizabeth Farm in Parramatta about twenty years ago. It struck me then, listening to the guide, that much of the glory that attached to John Macarthur more rightly should be shared with her, given that he spent so many years overseas. In this book Michelle Scott Tucker brings Elizabeth Macarthur to centre stage as businesswoman, wife and mother, dealing with a difficult and eventually mentally ill husband.

The book opens with a premature childbirth at sea on a convicts’ ship, where Elizabeth Macarthur, a gentleman’s daughter, is the only woman on board.  She, her husband John  and her infant son were sailing as part of the Second Fleet to Sydney Cove where he would take up his position as a commissioned officer in the New South Wales Corps.  As was common right up to the 20th century, Elizabeth kept a ship board journal, and Tucker contextualizes this journal well in explaining what shipboard life was like in the Second Fleet, and the social distinctions and rigidities within the hierarchy of the passengers. There were tensions, slights and confrontations and even here we see John Macarthur’s hair-trigger sense of honour which was to blight and shape the social life of his family within the colony.

I must confess that even though I’ve read about the early days in Sydney Cove, I didn’t realize the significance of the navy/army distinction as the basis of much of the dissatisfaction at the elite level within the colony (and come to think of it, probably in the other colonies I have read about as well).  Macarthur quickly moved into the centre of the social life of ‘good society’ and was deeply implicated in the Rum Rebellion against (Navy) Governor Bligh led by the New South Wales Corps (Army). His involvement in local politics at a time when official power was exercised through the Colonial Office meant that he spent many years overseas, clearing his name and honour, and then in a sort of political exile that in effect split the family. As was common at the time, young boys were sent ‘home’ for their education, and for many years Elizabeth kept the properties going, soothed the local politics as much as she could and built up the family enterprise on this ‘edge of the world’, while her husband and a number of sons did the same back in England. When a son went off ‘home’ as a seven year old schoolboy, sometimes he never returned to Australia. Instead, opportunities brought about through extended family connections and marriages kept him back in the’ old country’.

Colonial histories in the past, tended to focus on the world of men. In recent years there has been more attention on the networks of influence, opinion and behavioural constraints that operated in colonial societies. While John Macarthur had his own political involvements, so too did Elizabeth Macarthur within the women’s networks of early Sydney. His behaviour directly impacted on her own friendships and status, and Tucker describes this well.  Although aimed at a popular, as distinct from academic audience, the bibliography at the back of the book shows that she has read widely on early Sydney, although I’m surprised that she doesn’t reference Kirsten McKenzie’s Scandal in the Colonies which would have fitted in so well here.

The family correspondence has been kept, and it is through this lens that Tucker shapes her reading of Elizabeth Macarthur. Family correspondence has its limitations, of course, and these were exacerbated by distance and slow communications.  For letters to  friends, who had never -and would never- see Australia, there is an ‘other-worldliness’ to her situation. In letters to her sons, who did not need to have things explained, the maternal relationship still held. In letters to and from her husband John, beyond reporting events and business, the politics of their relationship was interwoven with the family mores of the time.

In several places, Tucker notes that Elizabeth Macarthur has not commented on particular events or people. This is always frustrating, perplexing and yet these silences often reflect something of the personality and times of the writer. Sometimes Tucker surmises “she must have….” which I found myself resisting. One of the questions of biography,  is how much we can claim a common worldview at the emotional level with people of the past, especially in the light of recent work in this field.

In this regard, the book reminded me of another biography of a ‘colonial wife’: that of Anna Murray Powell, wife of the Chief Justice in Upper Canada in the 1820s in Katherine McKenna’s A Life of Propriety: Anna Murray Powell and her family 1755-1849 (my review here).  A more academic text than this one, McKenna uses the family correspondence of the Powell family to examine how as matriarch and wife, Anna Murray Powell grappled with a young daughter whose very public and unseemly infatuation with the future attorney-general.  As with Elizabeth Macarthur, there are silences and omissions about the things we are most curious about as 21st century readers, particularly when dealing with a socially unacceptable situation – for Anna Powell, the behaviour of her daughter, and for Elizabeth Macarthur, her husband’s mental illness.

Elizabeth Macarthur was a mother, with her love stretched between ‘home’ and this new life very much on the edge of the world. She was a wife, displaying affection, but also exasperation and diffidence when dealing with a difficult husband. Within her own family relationships, she dealt with distance and madness.  She was an astute businesswoman, handling a large enterprise in the colonies while her husband had all the financial power. Tucker has given us a rounded picture of Elizabeth Macarthur, one that is faithful to the times and also to the sources.

My rating: 8.5

AWW2019I have included this review on the Australian Women Writers challenge

 

 

‘The Glad Shout’ by Alice Robinson

The-Glad-Shout-Alice-Robinson

2019, 310 p

This book opens right in the middle of the action, with Isobel clutching onto the arm of her husband Shaun, with her daughter Matilda clamped to her hip. They are in what reads like the MCG in Melbourne, which has been turned into an emergency evacuation centre after Melbourne has been lashed by a destructive storm. Set in a near future, encroaching sea levels have poisoned bayside gardens and lap the boulevards along the bay, and with storm damage making places uninsurable, the suburbs have become increasingly derelict and dangerous.  We have seen flashes of this in our news already: the Louisiana Superdome stadium after Hurricane Katrina, the huge waves crashing onto the Malecon in Havana Cuba, people sitting on their roofs in Queensland floods, awaiting rescue. In The Glad Shout, Robinson sets her story after the consequences of climate change have come crashing, literally, into Melbourne. Tasmania, which has heeded the perils of climate change, is still safe; Western Australia has finally seceded, and the other states are closing their borders against the climate refugees who want to join family members interstate and escape this climate nightmare.

The book has two narratives, told in alternating chapters. The present-day chapters, written in the present tense, have Isobel having to fend for herself in the stadium and finally making the decision to leave, putting her own life and that of her daughter into the hands of people-smugglers. We’ve seen this scenario too: people crammed onto dinghies with insufficient food and water, the lifejackets and the oil slick of dysfunctional engines.

The other narrative is flashback to Isobel’s tense relationship with her mother Luna, her sometimes ambivalent love for her husband Shaun, her guilt over her own mothering of Matilda. Her mother Luna, who had purchased the house that was swamped by floodwaters, was a real-estate agent and property investor. She placed great store on possessions and wealth, and she grieved intensely when Isobel’s brother, Josh, left home. Much of the flashback sections is involved with the nuances and Isobel’s sense of grievance over the people who surround her, and her conflicted relationship with motherhood, both as daughter and mother herself.

There’s always a risk in having double narratives running through a novel. Too often, as in this case, one is more compelling than the other, and so the reader feels a sense of impatience at having to wade through this section before reaching the next. I tired of the flashbacks, which bordered on the banal, and rather implausibly, they increasingly found their way into the present-day-disaster section as well. I suspect that the author herself has young children, and perhaps its my middle-agedness that makes me impatient of her obsession with her birth-experience with Matilda: something that is only a small part of the relationship between mother and child, in the long run. I wouldn’t presume to know what those exhausted, bedraggled mothers we see on television stumbling ashore from refugee boats had been thinking on the journey. But I suspect that they haven’t been mentally rehashing the slights and annoyances of their relationship with their mother, or castigating themselves for their ambivalence over their own motherhood.

On the other hand, I liked her celebration of  women’s strength in an emergency. I liked the politics of climate change and refugee policy being brought into the personal realm, and her exploration of the instincts of maternity, survival and communality in the midst of disaster.  I think that these will be the things that I take away from the novel, and that will keep it memorable. I just wish that there had been less of the emotional angst over relationships and human frailty.

My rating: 8/10

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library.

AWW2019I have included this on the Australian Women Writers Challenge database

 

‘Exploded View’ by Carrie Tiffany

Tiffany_ExplodedView

2019, 191 p.

Carrie Tiffany seems to be writing about times at twenty year intervals. Everyman’s Rules for Scientific Living was set in the 1930s, Mateship with Birds was set in the 1950s and here now with Exploded View we find ourselves in the outer suburbs in the late 1970s. As with her other books, this most recent book is made up of fragments and set in the present tense, with short sentences and a slow rhythm.  This time, however, Tiffany gives us a nameless adolescent narrator, who is fragile, dissociative and in trauma.

The title comes from the type of diagram that one finds in a car repair manual or instruction book, where an action or object is pulled apart, with the separate components shown separately.

example_exploded_view

Wikipedia

Our narrator knows cars well. Her stepfather (‘father man’) repairs cars in an unlicensed repair shop at the back of the block, but she is not his willing assistant. Instead, she sabotages his work, taking the cars out at night and damaging their motors. She does not speak and she reads the Holden workshop manual, not for what it says but for its depiction of what she cannot say.

If you had never touched an engine, if it were only a matter of looking in the manual, you would think it was a miracle, that it couldn’t have been made by a man…In the manual you can choose to look at the parts, or the air in between them. The air in between isn’t nothing; it isn’t blank. If you make yourself look for what’s not there the empty spaces become parts themselves. (p. 27)

The narrator avoids naming the trauma, but she tells it in “the air between” the parts. Father man is violent and abusive, and her impotent mother turns a blind eye. Her brother is irrelevant. The longest part of the book is taken up with a rather pointless road trip taken across the country where they drive, drive, drive and sleep in the car at night. At night, the darkness comes.

Threaded through the book is a sense of menace, but there is no plot or climax as such. It reminded me of Sonia Hartnett’s disquieting work with which it shares an adolescent narrator, quivering tension and long silences.

I loved Carrie Tiffany’s earlier books, but I was disappointed in this book. Tension held for a length of time becomes excruciating, and I felt that way about this book.  It would have been better as a short story.

AWW2019I have added this book to the Australian Women Writer’s database.

‘From Secret Ballot to Democracy Sausage’ by Judith Brett

brett_democracy

2019, 183 plus notes

When she was a lecturer in politics at LaTrobe University, Judith Brett tells us, she used to ask her first-year students to talk about their first political memories as an ice-breaker activity in their first tutorial (p157). Many mentioned going with their parents to their local school while their parents voted. I must confess that my only memory of going with my parents when they voted was the election before I turned 18. It was 1972, and the Labor Party was about to be elected after 23 years of successive Coalition governments. I knew whom I would have voted for, had I been allowed, and to this day I wonder if my father voted Labor, just that once. I had a strong sense of “this will be me, next time” and I felt quite excited about it. But other elections? I just can’t remember. My family (including me) all played tennis on Saturdays: I assume that they nicked in to vote either before or after the tennis court.

I am proud of Australia’s electoral system, despite grizzling about the politicians it throws up, and fearful of the effects of lobbyists and deep pockets. Judith Brett, in From Secret Ballot to Democracy Sausage is too, and as we head into one of our more important elections, it’s good to read this book from one of Australia’s foremost political historians that affirms and celebrates the process. Sometimes we forget just how distinctive our system is. We have compulsory voting (as do Belgium, Luxembourg, Lichtenstein, Cyrus, Greece, two regions of Austria and one Swiss canon; Central and South America, Egypt, Fiji and Singapore) (fn1. p. 185). And more importantly, compulsory voting is popular, with 77% support in 2007 (p.151). We vote on Saturdays (not Mondays, Tuesdays or Fridays). We have preferential voting in the House of Representatives (in itself a rarity) and proportional representation in the Senate. Our elections are conducted by the Electoral Commission, who are public servants at arm’s length from government. We don’t have to queue for hours. And there are sausages and a cake stall.

 

[Back in 2010 at my local school]

This book is quite current, taking us right up to 2018, but two-thirds of the book is a historical analysis of how we ended up with the electoral system that we have today. Unlike America, which was first settled during the 17th century constitutional struggles between monarch and parliament and steeped in the ideas of John Locke, Australia’s first political institutions were established when the British Parliament was supreme, and beginning to expand its own franchise. Our philosophical roots lay in Jeremy Bentham who believed in government first, rights second (p6). As historian W.K. Hancock wrote:

The Australian democracy has come to look upon the State as a vast public utility, whose duty is to provide the greatest happiness for the greatest number…To the Australian, the State means collective power at the service of individualistic ‘rights’ and therefore he sees no opposition between his individualism and his reliance on governments (Hancock Australia, 1930 cited on p.7)

Newly expanding colonies needed infrastructure, and the government provided it. In fact, for the first 100 years or so, Australian taxpayers didn’t have to pay much for it: the British government did. We didn’t have income tax until 1915, and Britain paid for our defence. Why would people want to limit government expenditure on services that benefited them? (p.8)

Our first elections, starting in the 1840s on a limited franchise, followed the English model of public voting. They were held in a carnival-like atmosphere, ‘treating’ supporters with alcohol, and keeping up a running tally. It was the desire to largely  circumscribe the abuses of this system that led to the development of the secret ballot, complete with separate cubicles and a pre-printed ballot paper issued only at the booth, which came to be known as “the Australian ballot”. Brett highlights three South Australian electoral innovators whose contributions are often overlooked : Catherine Helen Spence who devoted years to her campaign for proportional representation, William Boothby who as Provincial Returning Officer bureaucratized and regularized electoral administration, and Mary Lee who campaigned tirelessly for women’s suffrage in South Australia. (I had always wondered why South Australia had an electoral district called ‘Boothby’ when Justice Boothby caused as much trouble as my own Judge Willis did. But it’s the son William, not the father Benjamin). Ironically, her table showing state-based changes to Legislative Assembly and Legislative Council franchises now shows South Australia as the laggard, with compulsory voting for Legislative Council elections in South Australia introduced only in 1985! (p. 138)

It was because South Australian women had had the vote since 1895 -and thus, should not be disadvantaged by losing their suffrage under Federation-  that the new Commonwealth Australian constitution allowed anyone enfranchised to vote at a state level to also vote in Commonwealth elections. A similar arrangement was made for Aboriginal voters. Disturbingly, right up until 1962 Aboriginal people could not vote in federal elections unless they were on the state roll or had served in the armed forces, thus leaving Western Australian, Queensland and Northern Territory Aborigines unable to vote. There’s a grubby little secret in her chapter “Women In Aborigines Out” where the Commonwealth had a ‘preponderant blood’ rule whereby “all persons in whom the aboriginal blood preponderates are disqualified”. It was left up to electoral officers to decide largely on the basis of skin colour and their own judgements about individual Aboriginal people’s capacities (p.68). It wasn’t at the 1967 referendum that the right to vote was extended to all ATSI subjects: it was the 1962 act. Aboriginal people were not subject to exactly the same voting laws as other Australians until 1983 (p.72).

In fact, one of the most contested features of Australia’s electoral system was the postal vote, which was allowed, disallowed and allowed again according to the vicissitudes of the different political parties. The Labor Party opposed postal voting because it removed the act of voting from the public booth into the private realm, where domestic power dynamics could lead to voters being pressured to vote against their wishes. Conservative parties supported postal voting, citing women’s interests, arguing that women were confined to their homes before and after the birth of children, and were not comfortable attending a polling booth alone.

One of the things that comes through clearly is that neither party acted from high principle in tweaking the system. Parties supported changes that they thought would have some advantage in it for them, although sometimes the consequences were unforeseen. And as her chapter ‘Liberals push back’ shows, hard right Liberals and libertarians have tried (and probably continue to try) to repeal compulsory voting. Likewise suggestions from the Liberal party that voter ID be introduced, and Howard’s attempts to reduce the time after the writs are issued for enrolment or change of details, are threats to our system of compulsory voting.  As far as undermining our system is concerned (especially from the Right), we need to be alert, and then alarmed.

The book has a light touch on what could otherwise be pretty turgid material.  There are enough ‘jump-forwards’ to keep the currency of her endeavour in mind, and particularly in the latter chapters, Brett herself comes forward more.  Just as with Rebecca Huntley’s Australia Fair (which I reviewed here), sometimes we need to be reminded, as Brett does in her final sentence, that

What the story of compulsory voting tells us is how very good we are at elections. We should celebrate it. (p. 183)

AWW2019 I have included this book on the Australian Women Writers Challenge for 2019.