“Men make their own history, but they do not make it as they please; they do not make it under self-selected circumstances, but under circumstances existing already, given and transmitted from the past. The tradition of all dead generations weighs like a nightmare on the brains of the living.”
– Karl Marx
It is often remarked that Australian history is boring, but only a boring person finds the history of their own country uninteresting. Fortunately, this philistine stereotype and culturally cringy excuse for ignorance is simply not true. Australian history is interesting. Readers of Frank Bongiorno’s recent political history of Australia, Dreamers and Schemers (2022), will encounter stories they wouldn’t expect to find in Australia: violence at polling booths, political assassinations, an MP who earned the moniker “the minister for murder” because his political opponents kept disappearing without a trace…and branch-stacking allegations so severe they resulted in the whistle-blower being brutally bashed inside his own home.
I don’t mean to imply that history is only interesting when it is violent. These examples service a broader point. Australians like to imagine that we achieved our democracy peacefully, as if in 1901 all the frontier violence against Indigenous peoples ceased, our political institutions were perfectly representative, and our present-day prosperity was preordained. Of course, none of this is true. Well into the middle of the twentieth century there was violent repression of Indigenous people and state elections were gerrymandered in ways that would make the US Republican Party blush. Australia’s peaceful and prosperous stability is very recent.
Australian political history is also filled with near misses. Robert Menzies’ political domination almost never happened. In 1954, the Australian Labor Party (ALP) won more votes than the Coalition, capturing 50.7% of the two-party preferred vote. Labor also won more votes than the Coalition at the 1998 federal election, with the Howard Government suffering a 7.7% swing against it. Had Labor won in 1998, Howard would have been Prime Minister for less than three years. Instead, he is Australia’s second-longest serving Prime Minister. Labor has learnt the hard way that is the number of seats that matters, not just the number of votes. These results also seem to pour cold water on the Right’s favourite bedtime story, the notion that Australians are naturally conservative. It is the structure of our electoral system that has done so much to ensure the Coalition’s electoral dominance, not a widespread repudiation of Labor and centre-left politics.
So, should you read Dreamers and Schemers? Yes. Absolutely. Bongiorno has written a wonderfully accessible introduction to Australia’s political history. It comprehensively covers state politics as well as federal. My only criticism, though it is minor, is that sometimes the book could do with more analysis rather than simply recounting events. Bongiorno gives us the what and the how, but the why is sometimes missing.
Australian politics is filled with both dreamers (idealists) and schemers (pragmatists), but it is the dreamers who made Australia what it is today. On the cover page, “Dreamers” appears in blue and “Schemers” appears in red, inverting the assumption that only Labor Governments make reform. To quote that learned custodian of the English language, Donald Trump: there are “very fine people on both sides.”
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