Category Archives: Politics

‘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.


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

‘The Whitlam Mob’ by Mungo MacCallum


2014, 234 p

I didn’t vote for Gough Whitlam in December 1972. I was seventeen, and far too young to vote in those days when the voting age was 21. But if I’d been able to vote for Gough, I would have. The exhilaration, the vision, the feeling of shucking off the grey dust coat of  a seemingly-unending Liberal government  has never left me really, and I’ve never in my life been able to countenance the thought of voting for a Liberal government. There have been individuals in the Liberal party  I could have voted for (Fred Chaney, Petro Georgiou; dare I say Malcolm Turnbull?) but never the party as a whole.

Mungo MacCullum’s book ‘The Whitlam Mob’ makes no pretence at being balanced. Mungo was/is a Labor man in the press gallery and this book is written with nostalgia, affection and loyalty. He is a comic writer, always on the lookout for the quick laugh and the quirky detail. Let’s face it- he’s a gossip and here he’s regaling us with yarns.

The book is written in two fairly evenly weighted parts: The Whitlam Mob and the The Other Mob. Each of the vignettes is fairly short, with the longest chapter devoted to Gough (19 pages) but everybody else despatched with ten pages or less (and as little as two!)

The first thing that struck me about this book was that there is only one woman: Margaret. I think of the Whitlam years as a watershed for women in Australia but when I check Whitlam’s three ministries (counting the first one which comprised just Whitlam and Lance Barnard), there were no women ministers at all.

The second thing that came through was that many of these men had been waiting decades to form government and many of them were old when they got there. Many of them had lived through World War I, the Depression and were WWII veterans; they had endured The Split that had formed the DLP; they had a history of years and years of Opposition. Clyde Cameron, for instance, held the parliamentary record for thirty one years in the House of Representatives, twenty eight of them spent on the Opposition benches.

Reading through this book, I realized that I have many misconceptions about that government over forty years ago (remember, I was only seventeen). The changes wrought by the ALP were (and still are) so BIG, both conceptually and in terms of political courage, that I forgot that Gough was from the Right of the party. I’d not particularly been aware of the struggle between the Left and the Right in the party. I’d forgotten that Jim Cairns had actually been seen as a potential Prime Minister. And looking back, the idea of two men (the duumvirate) forming the whole ministry, as Whitlam and Barnard did between 5-19 December 1972, seems unthinkable today.

I had forgotten how dysfunctional the Liberals were, even though the whole of my VCE Social Studies (i.e. politics) year in 1973 was spent preparing for the absolutely inevitable question on the end-of-year exam “Did the ALP win the 1972 election or the Coalition lose it?” or some variation thereof. What a spiteful man Menzies was. Apparently, one of the first things that Whitlam did on gaining office was to write to Robert Menzies:

It was a courteous, even flattering letter: Whitlam said that Menzies might be surprised to learn how much the Labor leader had always admired him, not only for his mastery of parliament and politics, but also for his resilience in coming back from defeat to shape the Liberal Party into a modern and dynamic force.  This, said Whitlam, was an example he had always held in front of him during his own long battles within the ALP.

Regrettably, Menzies’ reply was terse and dismissive: the Labor Party advocated socialist policies, which were wrong for Australia, always had been and always would be, and that was all that needed to be said. (p. 127)

I wish that there were pictures in this book because, quite frankly, I can’t remember some of the people he writes about. Most of the Whitlam Mob I can remember, although I don’t have a mental picture of Don Willesee. But for the Other Mob: Bill Wentworth, David Fairbairn, Magnus Cormack, Michael Hodgman- nothing.   When I think of Lance Barnard, I think of a grey hat- in fact, I think of hats for many of these men, because they were of the black-and-white generation that wore hats, no matter how much I want to drag them into the bright, full-colour and shiny ‘It’s Time’ frame.

Particularly for the Whitlam Mob entries, there are many times when MacCallum uses the adjective ‘complex’, but his sketches of the Other Mob are more one-dimensional. I don’t know if this reflects the subject, the author, or his access to them- probably a combination of all three. There are many ‘what-ifs’ and good ideas bungled amongst the short Labor grip on power. The Khemlani loans affair, for example- the stuff of pure farce, and yet what vision.

On this day, when I learn of Gough’s demise, I think of myself as very much a product of the changes wrought by the Whitlam government and the vision of a society that it promoted.  Thank you, Comrade.


A damned big ‘small’ business

According to Mike Seccombe in the Saturday Paper of June 7-13, the Abbott government has a rather expansive view of what constitutes a “small” business.  As a result, they have announced their intention to revise section 25-90 of the tax act, the “thin capitalisation” rules.

The previous Labor government had announced steps to limit the process by which companies could structure their operations to load up a subsidiary with debt borrowed from a related company off-shore, and then claim the interest as a tax deduction.  Under this scenario,  once the debt to equity ratio passed 1.5 to 1, and total interest repayments exceeded $250,000, the tax man would start asking questions.

Not any more.  The Abbott government will increase the threshold for interest repayments eightfold, from $250,000 to $2 million, in order to “spare small business compliance costs”.   Somehow, a small business borrowing enough to incur interest repayment costs of $2 million each year, and then writing it off as a tax deduction, doesn’t quite sound like a small business to me…..

Just sayin’.

Memo to self: the IPA wishlist

As I watch with dismay as the hoary ghost of the old Howard government resolves itself into the new Abbott government, here’s a ‘memo to self’ about the IPA’s wishlist of 75 changes they want to see.  They were published in August 2012 and received quite a bit of publicity following news of the IPA’s 70th Anniversary  dinner prior to the last election,  where the keynote speakers were Tony Abbott, Rupert Murdoch, Gina Rinehart, with Andrew Bolt as MC.

The Institute of Public Affairs is a free-market public policy think-tank.  It has connections with the Liberal Party, and it champions privatization, small government and deregulation.  I don’t think I want to link with them, so look them up yourself if you’re interested.

Somehow, I think that we’ll be hearing more about these proposals which you can find if you search for ‘wishlist’ on their site.  I shall keep watch, and unfortunately I think that I’ll be able tick them off as we go.

1 Repeal the carbon tax, and don’t replace it. It will be one thing to remove the burden of the carbon tax from the Australian economy. But if it is just replaced by another costly scheme, most of the benefits will be undone.

2 Abolish the Department of Climate Change

3 Abolish the Clean Energy Fund

4 Repeal Section 18C of the Racial Discrimination Act

5 Abandon Australia’s bid for a seat on the United Nations Security Council Continue reading