Category Archives: Book reviews

‘Estates: An Intimate History’ by Lynsey Hanley

hanley_estates

2007 1st edition; revised edition 2017, 247 p.

It seems that somehow every British police drama you watch ends up in a council estate. To antipodean eyes, they look terrible places: bleak, cold-looking and bare against a leaden sky. Growing up in a country that provides little state-owned housing – and then, generally only for the poorest – it seems strange that local governments in Britain would have (or more correctly, used to have) such large holdings of housing, and  that it had such popular, cross-class support. Interwar housing  did not have the stigma that we attach to it here in Australia, and the Blitz gave state-owned housing added emphasis. But by the second half of the twentieth century, all that had changed in Britain too, and this is the story that Lynsey Hanley tells from her own personal experience.

She grew up in Chelmsley Wood, an overflow scheme built in the mid-1960s in what had been woodland and farmland in Birmingham’s greenbelt,  when post-war demand for housing soared. It combined low-rise housing with tower blocks, in an estate largely isolated from the city centre. You can see a gallery of pictures of Chelmsley Wood in the 60s, 70s and 80s here. By this time, living in a council housing estate meant that children grew up with a “wall in the head” that separated them out from the aspirations and experiences of children living in the central city, and as a bright girl from the estate, she had to consciously work at scaling that mental wall to fit in with her university friends.

But it hadn’t always been that way. Between the two World Wars, there was a concerted effort to clear the privately-owned slums from British cities, and “…to be given a council house in the 1930s, was in many ways, comparable to winning the lottery.” (p.65) Influenced by the Garden City movement, council housing was protected by what was known as the Tudor Walters standards, which mandated minimum room sizes, the number of windows and density.

It is hard to overstate the importance of the Tudor Walters standards: backed by the state, they expressed a commitment to building mass council housing of the highest quality. They did not extend to the two million private homes built by speculative builders between the wars, meaning that council houses built around this time were likely to be larger and of a higher quality than many of the suburban homes you could buy (p. 66)

Aneurin (‘Nye’) Bevan, of the British Labour Party, was most famous as Minister for Health, who introduced the NHS. But he was also responsible for housing policy, and he insisted on good quality public housing. Even the Conservatives, when they defeated Labour in 1951  continued, and indeed increased, the construction progress that Bevan had instituted. But the emphasis on quality was sidelined, and private building was encouraged.

And even though council housing tenants were insistent that they did not want to live in high-rise flats, that’s exactly what they received, with the building industry pressuring the government to adopt pre-fab high-rise designs citing a shortage of tradespeople (who, ironically were the very workers sidelined by the emphasis on factory-created prefabs). Corners were cut, leading to the actual collapse of a high-rise at Ronan Point in 1968, just two months after it was opened, due to construction faults. (The television series ‘Endeavour’ worked this into one of their plot lines recently).

Ronan_Point_collapse_closeup

Ronan Point Collapse  1968 Photo: Derek Voller Creative Commons Wikipedia

Council housing was further decimated by Thatcher’s ‘Right to Buy’ scheme, where tenants were encouraged to buy their house, but councils were not allowed to replace the now-purchased housing with new rental stock. As a result, the existing estates became increasingly run-down, and like Australian public housing, became stigmatized as ‘social’ housing for people unable to be housed elsewhere.

Like much non-fiction at the moment, this book combines the political and the personal. The notes in the back, more in the form of further reading than footnotes, show that the author has read widely, rather than academically. It is also interwoven with the author’s own story, but not just as memoir but also from a present perspective. At the time of writing the book, she was living again in what had been an estate, in a house she had purchased as part of the ownership push. But under the Housing Choice program,  being rolled out across the country, there were plans (with which she concurred) to demolish her house and redevelop the estate.  Her afterword, written in 2017 and ten years after the book’s first publication saw a decline in the number of home owners, an increase in homelessness and a sustained attack on  the housing security of non-owners. Her afterword was written too soon for the Grenfell Tower fire.

I enjoyed this book, particularly the first 3/4 which took a more historical approach. I liked the way that she drew on her own experience, and interwove the personal and political. I admit that the present-day politics of the last chapters of the book largely went over my head, but I could find parallels with our own government’s drive for public/private development of former housing estates which somehow always seems to be short-changing the public system. I wish that there was some way of recapturing the idea that public housing was not a stigma, but a right, and part of being in a good society.

My rating: 8/10

Sourced from: purchased

‘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

 

 

‘Samuel Pepys: The Unequalled Self’ by Claire Tomalin

Tomalin_Pepys

2002, 380 P plus notes

There are some biographies where you think that there’s no point in anyone else even picking up their pen to write another one. Claire Tomalin’s biography of Samuel Pepys falls into that category.  This isn’t the first time I have read this book, because I read it in 2005- certainly long enough to have forgotten much of the details. That was before I had been to London myself, and before I had started my own academic work in biography. I very much enjoyed it in 2005 and enjoyed it even more fourteen years later.

I think that I first became aware of Samuel Pepys in a school reader, where his eyewitness report of the Great Fire of London was reproduced. I’d always associated him more with the events that he wrote about (the fire, the plague etc) rather than as a person in his own right. But as Claire Tomalin points out, perhaps his most striking and original achievement was to see himself, his actions and his motivations, as a topic in themselves. One of the most opaque things over time and culture is to sense how people saw themselves, especially when such a question was so often overlaid with religious language. In Pepys we have a man holding himself up to his own scrutiny, laughing at himself, and at times writing what he knew could be used against him politically.

Pepys’ diaries covered only nine of his seventy years. It’s not really clear why he started writing them, but it was a very deliberate act when he purchased a notebook and carefully ruled up each page – all 280 of them- and drew 20-30 evenly spaced lines on which to write. He wrote in shorthand, with some proper nouns written in English, and breaking into pidgin Spanish when he wanted to describe some of his (all too frequent) amatory adventures.

Although Pepys’ diaries of course provide the richest source for Tomalin’s work (and indeed, the work of any Pepys scholar), this biography devotes about 1/3 of its length to the 1660-1669 period of the diaries. The other 2/3 deals with his life before beginning the diaries, and then after the diaries. This seems a judicious weighting, and one which placed the journals, important though they are, into the context of his whole life.

The book starts with a lengthy list of ‘who’s who’ which I found myself turning to frequently. As Tomalin highlights, when Pepys was starting out on his career, contacts were everything in making it possible for this son of a tailor to end up as a high-level civil servant and Member of Parliament. Even though I’m not in the habit of taking my history from Academy Award winning films, the recent film The Favourite exemplified the trails of patronage that could bring distant cousins into orbits far beyond their expectations.

What struck me particularly on this second reading, and particularly in days when watching the so-far unsuccessful attempts at political change in Venezuela, is just how dangerous it is when a country undertakes a huge political change. I’m not talking about elections, which in our case are just variations on the same, but the big political about-faces. Pepys experienced a number of such changes, at an uncomfortably close quarter to royal power, but without the means or patronage to have any influence at all on events. He saw the execution of Charles I; he supported Oliver Cromwell when he was a young man; he managed to switch to Charles II in time; he escaped suspicion (just) after the Popish plots; and he acquiesced when William took the throne. The people he aligned himself with survived, and so he did too.

Although the book is largely chronologically arranged into 3 parts (Part I pre-diaries; Part II 1660-1669 diary entries; Part III 1670-1703), its chapters are thematic as well e.g. work, marriage, science. She does not cite at length from the journals themselves, choosing to comment on them instead of reproducing them.

At times Pepys seems like us: at other times, not. His infidelities and what now reads like rank sexual harassment are uncomfortable reading; his domestic violence to his wife and servants is not endearing. But I found myself laughing when his enraged wife threatened his manhood with red-hot fire tools when she found out about his affair with the maid, and his own awareness of his hypocrisy, failings and weakness keeps him human.  Tomalin has given us a fully rounded man, and I just can’t imagine anyone else doing it better.

By the way, the first time I read this book, I was fascinated by the Pepys Diary page, which is still going. Each day an entry from the diaries is posted in full and people, who have a wealth of information about Pepys and London, annotate the entries.  Another site which I’ve enjoyed, although it’s aimed at children is an interactive site  fireoflondon.org.uk

My rating: 9.5/10  This is biography at its best

Sourced from: CAE bookgroups.

‘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

 

‘ Lost Children Archive’ by Valeria Luiselli

Lost+Children+Archive

2019, 400 p.

Hailed as “a vital work for the Trump era”, Lost Children Archive is a thinly-veiled fictionalization of Valeria Luiselli’s non-fiction essay Tell Me How It Ends. In both her essay and this novel, there is a road-trip across the states of America: a genre familiar to Australian readers through American film and television and explored in our own films (think Mad Max, Priscilla Queen of the Desert) and literature (think perhaps Rabbit Proof Fence, and most recently Carrie Tiffany’s Exploded View). Both Luiselli’s essay and the novel are concerned with the fate of unaccompanied children crossing the Mexican border into America, an issue thrown into the author’s own personal spotlight after volunteering to act as an interpreter for young Central American migrants seeking entry to the U.S. and writ large by Trump’s mantra of Building the Wall.  The essay Tell Me How It Ends was named for her daughter’s pleading to know how the story of these unaccompanied children ends, and already the crossover between the fictional and nonfictional works is blurred. It combines the personal and the political, and among other things, is about story-telling and story tellers.

The Lost Children Archive has resonances of W. E. Sebald’s work, with its integration of photographs and documents. The narrative is structured as an archive in itself. The book is divided into four parts. Its chapters reflect seven archive boxes that stowed in the boot of a car that is carrying an unnamed woman and her husband, and their two children, across the southern border of the US. The two children are not related by blood, each coming from their parent’s previous relationship, but they are considered “our” children and despite (and perhaps because of?) the difference of five years in their ages (10 and 5) they are very close. Sitting in the back seat of the car, day after day, the older boy in particular is aware of the tension between his father and his step-sister’s mother. They had met during a project to document the soundscapes of New York, he as a sound engineer and she as a journalist/producer, or as they distinguish it, one a documentarian, the other a documentarist.  The father wants to embark on a project capturing the lost sounds of the removal of Geronimo and the Apaches, while the mother has been drawn into looking for two little girls sent across the border with only a phone-number written onto the collar of their dresses. The son is aware, without being told, that this will be their last trip together as a family and he and his stepsister decide to run away and become like the lost children that Mama is so driven to find.

The first half of the book is narrated by the mother, and it comes as a surprise to have the narration taken over by her son half way through, and to revisit events and conversations from his perspective. Each section starts with an inventory of one of the boxes, listing  the books and articles, maps and CDs that have been gathered together, and the book itself ends with a series of Polaroid photographs that have – supposedly?- been taken on the trip.

This is a very clever, self-aware book that echoes influences as diverse as Virginia Woolf, Cormac McCarthy’s The Road,  Golding’s Lord of the Flies, and David Bowie’ Space Oddity. There is a long, twenty-page sentence near the end of the book that echoes Molly Bloom in Ulysses. A type of bibliography at the end references the resonances in the book, not direct quotations, many of which are translations of translations. Such reflexivity could be clunky and derivative in clumsier hands, but it’s not: it’s confident and deliberate, and a book of the heart and head.  All of my mental contortions that I’ve had  about a narrator inserting herself into the text dissolve here, with her very clear sense of what she is doing as a creator in a piece of autofiction , as distinct from memoir. As soon as I started reading it, I knew that I was in the hands of a very talented, intelligent writer. It’s been ages since I enjoyed a book as much.

My rating: 10/10

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library

‘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.