Manning Clark rescued Australian history from blandness and predictability by making Australia a cockpit in which the great faiths of Europe continued their battle, with results that were distinctive. He concentrated on the great characters who were bearers of one of the faiths: Protestantism, Catholicism, or the Enlightenment.

Alan Atkinson is modestly offering three volumes instead of Clark’s six. This is Volume Two, which covers the years 1820 to 1870. Atkinson is the more democratic historian; he is tracing the history of the ‘common imagination’ in Australia, which involves him getting to the ‘marrow of common life’. The great characters have their place in his books – more in Volume One (subtitled The Beginning, 1997) than in this one – but their importance is the shape they give by speech or action to the common life.

Atkinson is an oddity among the left-liberal intelligentsia of the academy. He defended the monarchy during the republican debate, but for reasons quite contrary to those of the monarchists. They defended the monarch because she was inconsequential; he because he saw the crown as an energising and creative force in Australia. The creative crown was a central theme of Volume One. The heresy of this volume is that Atkinson refuses to accept the myth about Australia and its future propagated by William Wentworth, the great native son, who fought for the liberties of his country by accusing his ‘aristocratic’ opponents of having no care for it. Atkinson is more impressed by the conservative James Macarthur and his circle, who were concerned with the quality of society in the colony and the lives that might be lived in it – which are Atkinson’s concerns, too. It does not look as if he is going to make Clark’s mistake of thinking the quality of Australian civilisation depends on the party complexion of the government in office – for Manning, finally, it had to be Labor.

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  • Custom Article Title John Hirst reviews 'The Europeans in Australia: Volume Two: Democracy' by Alan Atkinson
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    Manning Clark rescued Australian history from blandness and predictability by making Australia a cockpit in which the great faiths of Europe continued their battle, with results that were distinctive. He concentrated on the great characters who were bearers of one of the faiths: Protestantism, Catholicism, or the Enlightenment.

  • Book Title The Europeans in Australia
  • Book Author Alan Atkinson
  • Book Subtitle Volume Two: Democracy
  • Author Type Author
  • Biblio Oxford University Press, $59.95 hb, 463 pp, 0195536428

When John Hirst accepted the challenge of writing a history of Federation of scholarly quality but fit for a broad popular readership, he may have felt himself on a hiding to nothing. Previous historians have succeeded in convincing Australians that the story of the making of the Australian Commonwealth is at best dull. Who wants to know about a collection of hirsute, largely overweight, and overdressed middle-class politicians arguing about the nexus between the Senate and the House of Representatives?

Unlike the Americans, we did not begin with a ringing declaration of independence from Mother England. Unlike the French Revolution, we offer no images of impassioned crowds storming Pentridge. ‘Advance Australia Fair’ is no substitute for the Marseillaise. Unlike the old Soviet Union, our constitution contains no mission statement of community values and aspirations, and some, such as Don Watson, argue that we are the poorer for it.

Even during the Federation referenda of the late 1890s, Labor writers in Victoria and New South Wales were damning the proposed federal constitution as a bourgeois plot enabling capitalist bosses to organise more efficiently. The federal parliament, claimed the Brisbane Worker, would deliver neither one-man­one-vote, women’s suffrage, nor a White Australia policy. The new Commonwealth achieved the lot within eighteen months of its creation.

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    When John Hirst accepted the challenge of writing a history of Federation of scholarly quality but fit for a broad popular readership, he may have felt himself on a hiding to nothing. Previous historians have succeeded in convincing Australians that the story of the making of the Australian Commonwealth is at best dull.

  • Book Title The Sentimental Nation
  • Book Author John Hirst
  • Book Subtitle The making of the Australian Commonwealth
  • Author Type Author
  • Biblio Oxford University Press, $34.95 hb, 388 pp, 0195506200
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Friday, 26 February 2016 14:53

News from the Editor's Desk - March 2016

Porter Prize

Five poems have been shortlisted in the 2016 Peter Porter Poetry Prize. The poets are Dan Disney, Anne Elvey, Amanda Joy, Lisa Gluskin Stonestreet, and Campbell Thomson; their poems can be read here. The judges on this occasion were Luke Davies, Lisa Gorton, and Kate Middleton.

Join us at our studio in Boyd Community Hub on Wednesday, 9 March (6 pm), when the poets will introduce and read their works, followed by the announcement of the overall winner, who will receive $5,000 and an Arthur Boyd print. This is a free event, but reservations are essential.

These ceremonies always commence with a series of readings of poems written by Peter Porter (1929–2010). This year our readers – Judith Bishop (winner in 2006 and 2011), Morag Fraser, Lisa Gorton, and Peter Rose among them – may choose to dip into the new collection of late Porter poems: Chorale at the Crossing (Picador, $24.99 pb).

Peter Porter portrait 1Peter Porter

States of Poetry

ABR's poetry content continues to expand. To complement the Porter Prize, monthly poems and reviews, and our Poem of the Week podcast, we are delighted to introduce States of Poetry, the first federally arranged poetry anthology project to be published in this country. With handsome support from Copyright Agency's Cultural Fund, each year we will publish individual state and territory anthologies intended to highlight the quality and diversity of contemporary Australian poetry. The full States of Poetry anthologies will appear free of charge on our website, with poems, biographies, recordings, and introductions from our state editors. Each month we will publish a selection in the print edition. South Australia is the mini-anthology to be printed in the print edition while the first full anthology to be published online is ACT, which you can find here

Renting a guillotine

Harper's Magazine carried, in its January issue, a list of queries submitted to the New York Public Library's Reference and Research Services between 1940 and 1989. Here are some examples: 'Where can I rent a guillotine?'; 'Who built the English Channel?'; 'Is it proper to go alone to Reno to get a divorce?'; 'Is this where I ask questions I can't get answers to?'

Whenever we advertise one of our literary prizes, we feel for those librarians. Entrants pose the curliest questions. A few instances will serve. 'Does a short story have to be fiction?' 'What is fiction?' 'Do the spaces in my poem count as lines?' 'Can I enter online but send my story by post?' 'If I published my essay online but no one read it, does that count as publication?'

With the Jolley Prize open until 11 April, we look forward to fielding lots of metaphysically elevated if possibly unanswerable questions.

Gwen Harwood

Harwood GwenGwen Harwood

A footnote to our December lament about the paucity of Australian literary biographies. Brandl & Schlesinger, that enterprising Sydney publisher, has issued Gwen Harwood's Idle Talk: Letters 1960–1964, edited by Alison Hoddinott, the recipient, with her husband, of these brilliant missives. No one wrote like Harwood. Her account in 1961 of the furore that followed the Bulletin's unwitting publication of her two famous acrostic sonnets (SO LONG BULLETIN; and FUCK ALL EDITORS) contains some ferocious comic writing quite worthy of Evelyn Waugh, none better than Harwood's transcript of a conversation with the Bulletin's embattled Desmond O'Grady.

Only three letters survive from 1960. Alison Hoddinott records a late conversation with Harwood in 1995 who became annoyed when her friend confessed that she had burned the other letters, at Harwood's request. 'You shouldn't have taken any notice of me,' Harwood replied. 'Writers always say that. They don't mean it.'

Quite right: if authors really want to destroy their private papers, they stoke the incinerator, like Henry James.

Her majesty's pleasure

Prime ministerial post-mortems can be absorbing, and Aaron Patrick's Credlin & Co.: How the Abbott Government Destroyed Itself (Black Inc., $29.99 pb) is entertaining. The author repeats one claim that, to our surprise, didn't gain much traction in the weeks after Abbott's defeat. Greg Sheridan, reliably close to Abbott, suggested in The Australian that Abbott gave Philip his knighthood 'because he learned the Queen wanted her husband to have one'.

The British monarchy can be accused of many things, but in this case Aaron Patrick's reading seems plausible: 'Sheridan's article could not be verified: Buckingham Palace would never answer a question about the Queen's wishes for her husband. The article sounded like after-the-fact justification.' Of which we can expect to hear much more this year, especially from the Malcontents.

Aaron Patrick, like many scribblers, chooses to dedicate the book to the 'love of his life'; but in an Author's Note he also remembers Roger East, the journalist who was murdered by Indonesian troops in Dili in 1975. Royalties from Credlin & Co. will be donated to a fund honouring the Balibo Five, who perished shortly before East did. Impressively, this fund will help train East Timorese journalists in Australia.

ABR RAFT Fellowship

Alan AtkinsonAlan Atkinson

Interest was high in the inaugural ABR RAFT Fellowship, which examines the role and significance of religion in society and culture. Alan Atkinson was chosen from a large and impressive field. He is Emeritus Professor of History, University of New England, and Senior Tutor and Fellow at St Paul's College, and Honorary Professor, University of Sydney. Professor Atkinson, an occasional contributor to ABR, is the author of several award-winning books, including his three-volume magnum opus, The Europeans in Australia.

Alan Atkinson's proposal began, timelily, 'Can a nation, Australia especially, make an effort, just to be good?' We can't wait to publish his Fellowship article, whose working title is 'How Do We Live with Ourselves? The Australian National Conscience'.

We thank everyone who applied for the ABR RAFT Fellowship, and hope to present a second one in 2017.

ABR Laureate's Fellow

Michael Aiken smallerMichael Aiken

ABR Laureate David Malouf has chosen Sydney poet Michael Aiken as the inaugural ABR Laureate's Fellow. These Fellowships are intended to advance the work of a younger writer admired by the Laureate. Michael Aiken, who lives and works in Sydney, receives $5,000. He was born in western Sydney and raised on the New South Wales central coast. Michael Aiken spent thirteen years working in the security industry. His book A Vicious Example (Grand Parade, 2014) was shortlisted for the 2015 Kenneth Slessor Prize. His poetry and prose have appeared in various journals in Australia and overseas. Michael is working on a narrative poem, part of which ABR will publish in due course.

Hazel Rowley Fellowship

Shannon Burns's ABR Fellowship profile of Gerald Murnane ('The Scientist of His Own Experience', ABR, August 2015) was admired by many, including Text Publishing, which has commissioned him to write Murnane's biography. Shannon Burns has also been shortlisted for the 2016 Hazel Rowley Literary Fellowship. He is one of nine biographers on the shortlist, and the competition is keen. Others include Jacqueline Kent (for a biography of Robert Helpmann), Jeff Sparrow (Paul Robeson), and Philip Dwyer (Napoleon Bonaparte).

The Rowley Fellowship, now in its fifth year and worth $10,000, commemorates the life and work of one of Australia's finest biographers, Hazel Rowley (1951–2011). The intention is to encourage travel and risk-taking – of which Hazel would have emphatically approved. The winner will be announced on 9 March.

Marathons and Prepositions

Few editors write books (they're not meant to have time for such frivolities). Even fewer run marathons (or break into a jog, in our experience). Catriona Menzies-Pike – editor of the Sydney Review of Books – is an exception. Her first book, The Long Run, is described as 'a personal and cultural memoir about why women run' (Affirm Press, $29.99 pb). One of Menzies-Pike's reasons for doing so was the death of her parents in a light plane crash when she was twenty. Those early losses are described in dignified, telling prose, with a moving description of revisiting the family home in Albury soon after the accident, only to find it barred.

The editor in Catriona Menzies-Pike is never sedentary for long: 'To map the meaning of any kind of run, we need to pay attention to the prepositions.'

Vale John Hirst

Distinguished historian and author John Hirst has died, aged seventy-three. For almost four decades he taught history at La Trobe University, always eschewing a Chair and preferring to remain Reader in History. His prose was impeccable, his scholarship highly influential. ACU Vice-Chancellor Greg Craven has described him as 'one of the greatest historians this country has had'.

John Hirst's frequent contributions to ABR began with the current Editor's first issue in 2001. The pair had worked on several books for Oxford University Press in the 1990s, including A Republican Manifesto in 1994 (Hirst was a founding convenor of the ARM in Victoria). With Graeme Davison and Stuart Macintyre, Dr Hirst co-edited The Oxford Companion to Australian History (1998). After retiring from La Trobe University in 2006, he continued to publish books aimed at an enquiring general audience. These included The Shortest History of Europe (2009) and Australian History in 7 Questions (2014).

The new Children's Laureate

1 HobbsLeighLeigh Hobbs (photograph by Sergion Fontana)

Bestselling author and illustrator Leigh Hobbs – creator of the inimitable characters Horrible Harriet, Mr Chicken, and Old Tom – has been named as the new Australian Children's Laureate for 2016–17, succeeding writer Jackie French. Hobbs intends to use his term 'to champion creative opportunities for children, and to highlight the essential role libraries play in nurturing our creative lives'.

The Australian Children's Laureate initiative was developed by the Australian Children's Literature Alliance with the aim of promoting the importance of reading, creativity, and story in the lives of young Australians.

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  • Custom Article Title News from the Editor's Desk - March 2016
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Henry Reynolds is the pre-eminent historian of Aboriginal–settler relations in Australia, and with this theme he begins his history of Tasmania. He eschews the obligatory set piece description of Aboriginal society before the Europeans arrived, with which so many books now awkwardly commence. His opening chapter is ‘First Meetings: Extraordinary Encounters’, where the explorers and founders of settlements are not much more than names and the interest is in how the Aborigines responded to them. I thought it was by design to leave the reader knowing little more about these Europeans than the Aborigines did, but it is not altogether so, for in the next chapter Reynolds operates as if he has told us much more about the identity and motivation of the Europeans than he actually has.

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  • Custom Article Title John Hirst reviews 'A History of Tasmania' by Henry Reynolds
  • Contents Category Australian History
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    Henry Reynolds is the pre-eminent historian of Aboriginal–settler relations in Australia, and with this theme he begins his history of Tasmania. He eschews the obligatory set piece description of Aboriginal society before the Europeans arrived, with which so many books now awkwardly commence ...

  • Book Title A History of Tasmania
  • Book Author Henry Reynolds
  • Author Type Author
  • Biblio Cambridge University Press, $39.95 pb, 336 pp, 9780521548373

John Howard and Tony Blair both came to the prime ministership in landslides, Howard in 1996, Blair in 1997. They were on opposite sides of the traditional political divide, Howard leading a Liberal Party opposed to Australian Labor and Blair leading the British Labour Party. But both rebadged their parties, Blair as New Labour and Howard as Conservative. New Labour and Conservative meet in their concern for society’s health, though the two leaders don’t acknowledge this. They did become open allies as supporters of the war in Iraq. According to Howard, the two have maintained their friendship now that they are out of office. Within a few months of each other, they have published their memoirs, both big books over seven hundred pages long.

Blair’s book is titled A Journey because its theme is how he changed intellectually and personally in the top job. His great policy achievement before he took office was to persuade the Labour Party to drop Clause IV in its platform, which provided for the nationalising of industry, and replace it with this aim:

To create for each of us the means to realise our true potential and for all of us a community in which power, wealth and opportunity are in the hands of the many and not the few, where the rights we enjoy reflect the duties we owe, and where we live together, freely, in a spirit of solidarity, tolerance and respect.

It has been criticised as vacuous. Blair complained that some of his ministers did not understand it or know how to apply it, which was why so much policy had to be run from his office. But better for social democracy to reach for a new explicit purpose when its old one has been abandoned. Though Labor governments in Australia have privatised the state instrumentalities that early Labor governments created, the socialisation of production, distribution, and exchange remains in Labor’s platform, albeit hidden away.

Blair’s interest in social solidarity meant he took seriously the widespread fears of crime and of illegal immigrants (especially in working-class communities), which were not to be treated as bogeys conjured up by Tories for electoral purposes. The famous New Labour slogan was ‘Tough on crime and tough on the causes of crime’. After years in office, Blair changed his mind on this; he now thinks social inequalities and disadvantage in the broad are not the sole causes of crime; there is a small sub-group which causes most of the trouble. Policy must be directed to getting a grip on them – which both major parties in Australia have begun to do with the quarantining of welfare.

Howard was the first Australian prime minister to call himself a conservative. He does not notice this novelty and, though he insists politics was for him always the battle of ideas, there is very little discussion of ideas in the book. His social policies are treated seriatim in one grab-all chapter, without any general analysis of why conservatism is now the proper prescription. His well-known claim that ‘the times would suit him’ – which is an answer of sorts – is not mentioned. His book supports the view that he was an instinctive, not a considered, conservative, and indeed instinct is the term he frequently reaches for. He does not record having read Edmund Burke; he cites him in support of his ‘instinct’ to preserve the monarchy without seemingly being aware of the Burkean obligation on conservatives to know when change is needed and to manage it properly. He records that the president of the Liberal Party urged him to lead Australia to a republic, which was Australia’s destiny, and so gain
a place in history for himself and his party. His reply was that he could not possibly do that because he did not believe in a republic. That reveals his strength as a politician and his shortcomings as a statesman.

There is more detail and more passion in his accounts of his economic reforms: the waterfront, the GST, industrial relations, selling Telstra. It is frequently said that the two major parties have agreed on economic reform since the 1980s. But as Howard justly complains, he supported Labor’s reforms from opposition; Labor in opposition opposed his. So he had a real battle, and showed a boldness and determination sadly lacking in his successors. Now that he is gone, the quality of his leadership begins to be more widely acknowledged. So long as economic rationalism continues to deliver, Howard will have a place in the pantheon.

He was not among the first of the economic rationalists in the Liberal Party. He speaks of an epiphany bringing him to this position, but its intellectual sources are not revealed, again a strange omission in a self-proclaimed ideas man. His biographers suggest that one attraction of economic rationalism for Howard was that it allowed him to differentiate himself from, first Malcolm Fraser, and then Andrew Peacock. So he is a user of ideas rather than a thinker.


Blair did not want to duplicate the many accounts already written of his prime ministership; his aim was to record his personal experience and reflections. Howard, by contrast, is a great duplicator. If you followed his career in the quality press, still more if you have read the biography John Winston Howard: The Definitive Biography (2007), by Wayne Errington and Peter van Onselen (for which Howard was a source), there is very little novelty in Lazarus Rising. On some matters, the biography tells you more about Howard than he does himself (for instance, that he came to regret the Liberals’ blocking supply in 1975). Much of Howard’s book is a political chronicle of the ups and downs of governments and oppositions as they ‘slump’ or ‘get a lift’ or ‘gain momentum’, as measured by the unrelenting polls and by-election swings. Howard was a master at this game, what he refers to as political scrapping and ‘the darker political arts’, but not all his readers will be engrossed. I found most revealing the chapter on his dealings with the Chinese, where he is optimistic but cautious; he thinks Fraser and Bob Hawke were too enthralled by China. In the final chapter on industrial relations, when the government was on the ropes over WorkChoices, there is more detail on cabinet deliberations and divisions than previously.

Blair’s book contains much more reflection on the processes of government: the role of the media, cabinet ministers versus the advisers in the prime minister’s office, the inertia of bureaucracy, the need ‘to conceal the full truth, to bend it and even distort it’. Don’t be too disturbed by this, he warns; we all do it in our business and personal lives. The passage of most significance is Blair’s distillation into ten points of the approach he used to bring peace to Northern Ireland, which he offers as a guide for the settlement of all intractable conflicts.

Blair and Howard defend at length their decision to invade Iraq, the cause that brought them together. Both remind us that everyone agreed that Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction; the issue was whether the time had come to enforce the demands of the United Nations that Saddam had defied (Blair cites a list of these). Howard insists that Australia can’t be bound by the vagaries of France and Russia in the Security Council in enforcing UN resolutions. Blair argues that, though he would have preferred a final resolution endorsing force, the existing ones were enough. Here and elsewhere he is the more persuasive because he concedes that his critics had a case; what he challenges them to do is ponder the consequences of inaction, the consideration that presses so heavily on those who actually have to make difficult decisions.

Howard, oddly for a conservative, agrees with Paul Keating that if you change the government you change the country. But only superficially, surely. On the next page, Howard gives his best account of the conservative mentality: ‘Successive generations have given Australia a good enough vision and a sense of identity … good leadership interprets and applies the received values of a nation.’ Blair, having thought deeply about the gap between what a government intends and what it achieves, concludes that a new prime minister is not a new owner of the governmental apparatus, but a new tenant.

Those who think that the party label of the government in office determines the political agenda should note how similar are the issues preoccupying the two prime ministers: welfare dependency, inadequate state schools, the fear of crime, asylum seekers, the cost of health, clumsy and unresponsive bureaucracies. Blair notes the commonality across the political divide, where parties now disagree only about means.

Both leaders had troubled relations with their presumed successors. Nothing they say – and they say a lot – can hide the fact that, as long-serving, successful prime ministers, they failed in their duty to contrive an orderly transition in the leadership of their party. Blair acknowledges the danger of hubris without fully applying the term to himself. Howard, though he doubted Costello’s personal qualities, knew that he would continue his policies. Blair told Gordon Brown that he would go only when Brown made it clear that he would follow the principles of New Labour. The effect of this demand was to drive Brown into the hands of all those opposed to New Labour in order to be rid of its architect.

Blair immediately delivers on his promise to make his account personal by recording how terrified he was upon winning office. On election night, the more euphoric his supporters became, the more he knew he was bound to disappoint them. Howard does not take us far into the private man. When he records locating the spot where his father and grandfather met when they were soldiers serving in France, he relies on the words of a journalist, who observed him at a distance, to convey what he felt. The lowpoint in his life was when the party refused to reinstate him as leader after the failure of John Hewson. It looked as if his ambition to be prime minister was never to be realised. Howard offers only two words on his feelings, ‘completely deflated’. But what exactly did that entail? It could mean breaking down, hiding away, or thinking of giving up. Howard is not telling. Most likely it meant much less and the life was as undisturbed as the prose. The book tells us no more about the person than we already know: that he is preternaturally resilient, reserved, conscientious, driven though calm and measured, and, as far as the darker arts allow, decent and considerate.

As to the origins of the drive, the book gives only this clue: that this slight boy, the fourth son in a respectable Methodist home, was enthralled by boxing.

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  • Custom Article Title John Hirst reviews 'Lazarus Rising' by John Howard and 'A Journey' by Tony Blair
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    John Howard and Tony Blair both came to the prime ministership in landslides, Howard in 1996, Blair in 1997. They were on opposite sides of the traditional political divide, Howard leading a Liberal Party opposed to Australian Labor and Blair leading the British Labour Party ...