Towards the end of Dreamers and Schemers, his ‘political history of Australia’, Frank Bongiorno tells us that the term ‘democracy sausage’ first entered public discourse in 2012. The date, he suggests, is significant, for while the coinage seemed on one level to speak to the relaxedness and egalitarianism of the Australian electorate, and even to a sense of celebration and fun as regards the institutions of democracy, its introduction coincided with a sharp decline in public trust in politicians and the political process. To the question ‘How often do you think the government in Canberra can be trusted to do the right thing for the Australian people’ only 26 percent of people polled answered ‘Almost always’ or ‘Most of the time’. In the year of the democracy sausage, democracy itself was on the nose.
The detail is a telling one, in that it goes to the gap that always exists between political myth and political reality. Bongiorno’s book opens with the 2014 funeral of former Prime Minister Gough Whitlam, and the author notes how the obsequies often belied the fierce internal battles that had delivered Whitlam the leadership in 1967, not to mention the ideological ructions to which his reign as PM gave rise. Later Labor leaders would go out of their way to distance themselves from Whitlam’s legacy; and yet here they were – all of them – singing his praises. In this way, Bongiorno signals his intention. He will not feed us inspirational titbits; he will show us how the sausage is made.
As its title suggests, Bongiorno’s book is an attempt, in part, to elucidate the antagonistic tango between principle and pragmatism that exists in all political systems. For many, Whitlam’s funeral was an opportunity to declare how far Australians have wandered from the first thing in pursuit of the second, but Bongiorno is a little more nuanced. It is unlikely federation would have happened at all, he tells us in the book’s conclusion, had it not been for ‘schemers’ such as George Reid and John Forrest; it is not only the ‘dreamers’ such as Alfred Deakin and Sir Edmond Barton to whom credit is due. As Whitlam himself had cause to assert, only the ‘impotent’ are ideologically ‘pure’.
In contrast to the ‘whither Australia’ books that tend to shoehorn political history into arguments about the underlying character of Australia (a bastion of liberalism; a nation of immigrants; an untidy mob of drunks and racists), Bongiorno has no particular vision or version of Australia to push, seeking rather to lay out events in their social and cultural, as well as political, context. Determined to keep the clichés at arm’s length (John Howard won the battlers, yes, but only after Paul Keating had lost the public’s trust), he wants to see Australian politics steadily, and to see it whole. His own opinions are lightly worn, and tend to emerge in flashes of humour. One Nation’s second coming is described in terms of rock band reforming in wizened old age (even though they were ‘dreadful’ the first time around), while Malcolm Turnbull is described (on the same page!) as ‘Sydney’s version of a Florentine renaissance merchant statesman’. Describing Kevin Rudd’s uneasy eloquence, Bongiorno reaches for an old description of the colonial administrator William Bligh, whose language ‘was the ambiguous language of command … men could not read in it a right relationship to his authority’. So it was with the Milky Bar Kid, ‘the party outsider who never quite spoke its language, however often he said “mate” or “fuck”.’
While Bongiorno’s writing is often brilliant, I did sometimes long for a little more depth when it came to his analysis. For example, in his chapter on Hawke and Keating, he writes that their economic reforms amounted to a ‘de facto acceptance that financial markets were the arbiter of government policy’. But if that’s the case (and I think it is) then that has momentous consequences for the relationship between principle and pragmatism – between dreaming and scheming – that is Bongiorno’s subtext. It seems to me undeniable that the increasingly technocratic character of politics under neoliberalism, and the related rise of rightwing populism, is inseparable from that ‘rationalisation’. Not to tease that out a little more, in a book thus framed, seems like a missed opportunity.
Nevertheless, and coming as it does at a time of (purported) political renewal – amidst much talk of the Voice to Parliament, republicanism and the Teal-Green insurgency – Dreamers and Schemers is a great book to have, from one of our best historians. To believe that change is possible, one needs a sense of how it occurs, a feeling for the drama of events. In bringing our political past to life, Bongiorno has enhanced that sense, and given texture and context to the politics to come.
Frank Bongiorno, Dreamers and Schemers: A Political History of Australia La Trobe University Press (in conjunction with Black Inc.); $39.99; 472pp
This reive was first published in The Weekend Australian