Is the so-called political heyday really the decade that transformed the country? Writes Richard Allsop
You could probably write a history of any decade in the nation’s 20th century and give it the sub-title ‘the decade that transformed Australia’.
However, ascribing this title to the 1980s certainly has a ring of truth about it to those of us who have been long-term fans of Paul Kelly’s famous thesis about the eighties and the dismantling of the Australian Settlement.
Kelly argued in The End of Certainty (1992) that after enjoying largely bipartisan support for most of the 70 years since its post- Federation creation the Australian Settlement was killed off in the 1980s.
For Kelly, and other subsequent writers such as George Megalogenis in The Longest Decade (2006), the internationalising reforms of the 1980s made Australia a better country both economically and culturally.
Academic historian Frank Bongiorno does not deny the significance of many of the events described by Kelly and Megalogenis, but feels there has been a tendency to eulogise the 1980s as a political golden age and forget that much of the reform was contested, producing results which were not entirely positive.
In this new book he has set out to ‘provide an antidote to that amnesia’.
Re-reading The End of Certainty itself would achieve much of the same effect.
As it graphically showed, the politics of the era were of course vigorously contested.
There were defenders of much of the old Australian Settlement, and at times there was populism every bit as shallow as the depressing contemporary scene.
While there is no harm in reminding modern readers of this, Bongiorno’s account does little to undermine the view that Kelly’s overarching narrative does capture the big picture of the eighties uniquely well.
When one starts reading Bongiorno’s book the impression that Bongiorno’s book is going to be a political work is reinforced by learning that it is actually not a history of the eighties per se, but rather a history of the period of the Hawke Government, from early 1983 to late 1991. Bongiorno describes Bob Hawke as ‘the man who more than any other had defined Australia’s 1980s’, a statement which would undoubtedly annoy Paul Keating.
However, Bongiorno does a good job balancing Hawke and Keating’s rival claims to the government’s achievements, such as floating the dollar, and describes the trajectory of their declining relationship through the 1988 budget, the Kirribilli Agreement and the ‘Placido Domingo’ speech.
Similarly, the book covers all the key political events of the era on the Coalition side, from Joh for Canberra to the release of Fightback. Bongiorno has done some original research in the archives of both major parties, like finding in the ALP’s large piles of correspondence from branch members objecting to the Hawke Government’s stance on MX missiles, and in the Liberals’ internal polling on the defining rivalry of the decade between Andrew Peacock and John Howard.
Bongiorno also covers the rise of other groups and parties such as the environmental movement and Nuclear Disarmament Party (NDP), reminding us of the long-forgotten detail that Peter Garrett knocked the founder of the NDP off the top of the NSW
Senate ticket for the 1984 election. However, the focus on these more marginal groups might perhaps make the Australian Democrats, who were well represented in the Senate throughout the decade, feel somewhat overlooked.
The labour historian in Bongiorno is most evident when discussing the industrial relations disputes of the decade—the famous names of Mudginberri, Dollar Sweets, and Rove River—plus SEQEB and the pilots’ strike. Bongiorno’s sympathy with organised labour is best illustrated when, after describing aspects of the militancy and corruption of the Builders Labourers Federation (BLF), he writes that some of its members:
Were left broken by the destruction of a union that, for all its faults, had provided a lowly group of workers not only with better pay and conditions but also a sense of pride and belonging.
What is surprising about this book, given the political superstructure, is how broad its canvas actually is. It is the telling of this broader economic, cultural and social story that Bongiorno does particularly well, bringing the eighties back to life comprehensively, empathetically and lucidly.
His starting point in 1983 means we begin with the Ash Wednesday bushfires, Cliff Young and the America’s Cup, before we go on a parade through all the cultural icons of the decade from Geoffrey Edelsten to Crocodile Dundee and Neighbours.
One of the requirements of a book like this is the author’s ability to segue seamlessly between topics. Occasionally, Bongiorno’s moves look a touch contrived, such as when he makes the shift from discussing nuclear disarmament to bottom-of the-harbour tax schemes, by mentioning two rock bands, Midnight Oil for their anti-nuclear message and Painters and Dockers solely because of their name. However, at other times there are seamless transitions such as one particularly rich page which manages to include the rising percentage of women in the workforce, meal preparation, domestic wine consumption, wine exports, the popularity of wine coolers amongst young women and the introduction of boutique beers which:
Provided a means of combing cosmopolitan sophistication, contempt for Bond and Elliott and the love of drink still most commonly associated with the old Australia.
Bongiorno recognises that not all politics were conducted at a federal level and reading his work certainly gives the impression that what happened at state level was paid more attention to in the eighties than it is now. Of course, part of the reason for this was the shocking governance in most states at the time. It was certainly not a golden age for state governments. During the eighties, ABC TV’s Four Corners program exposed corruption in NSW and Queensland, with its memorable exposes The Big League and The Moonlight State respectively.
There was also Brian Burke and WA Inc, the problems with the state banks of both Victoria and South Australia, and the Brian Gunn bribery scandal in Tasmania. Every state gets its turn.
Overall, this book compares pretty well with similar types of books written about Britain and the United States by the likes of Dominic Sandbrook and Rick Perlstein. Bongoirno’s feel for the issues of the time is well captured by his writing about the multi-function polis, an issue which was a minor one in the media in the 1990 Federal Election, but which was certainly one of the most raised topics by callers to the political office where this reviewer worked during the campaign.
Bongiorno recognises that, despite his book’s sub-title, there were ‘continuities of life for many during the decade’. The author himself was 13 at the start of 1983 and has memories of some of the events he describes. Other things he writes about just passed him by, such as the Bicentennial of which he writes:
I have no recollection of 26 January 1988 at all. I was with a group of old school friends holidaying on Great Keppel Island in Queensland where the main interest was in girls and drinking.
Australia was in recession at the start and end of the Hawke Government’s period in office, but the fact that we have not had one since then, is in significant part due to the changes which took place during the eighties.
Bongiorno may have some reservations about the reforms, and his opinions may occasionally stray off to the Left, but his book is well worth reading.
And this should be the case whether you yearn for the whiter, more protected Australia provided by the remnants of the Australian Settlement in the 1970s, or whether you prefer the transformed version, the increasingly multi-ethnic country with a more open economy of the 1990s and beyond.