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A shared identity shaped by many individual stories

2 August 2010 1,147 views No Comment

In 2006 the West Australian- based federal education minister, Julie Bishop, wanted us all to know more about our history. In particular, she urged that young Australians “should study the past to understand the present, so that they can make informed decisions for the future”.

But as William McInnes explains, history comes in all shapes and sizes, so that by 2007 “the page had turned upon the government of which Ms Bishop had been a member, presenting a new minister with the opportunity to speak about history and identity and Australia”.

Many Australians are familiar with the history of academic contention, ranging from Manning Clark and Geoffrey Blainey, to Robert Manne and Henry Reynolds, to Keith Windschuttle. Notice, though, that all these professional historians are men. But then there are other, much less academic histories. The year that Bishop made her remarks about Australia’s history, McInnes was in a TV drama, earning a dollar playing the part of our 14th prime minister, John Curtin, a Labor man through and through, who, many would argue, gave his life in service to this country.

The educated Bishop would appreciate the fact that our history was being told in the form of entertainment, broadcast across the nation, and beyond. She is, after all, the Liberal Party member for the seat of Curtin. As McInnes rightly says, “Curtin’s story belongs to us all.” Yet, as he mentions throughout the book, what we take to be history is many things – and varied.

This easy-to-read narrative of our country since World War II is complemented by scores of revealing and often highly personal black-and-white photographs. This is not surprising given the fact that The Making of Modern Australia was released to coincide with an ABC TV series of the same name. It was produced in association with the makers of the ABC documentary Ten Pound Poms and McInnes stars as the narrator.

This well-crafted book has, for me, many reverberations. Thus we are reminded that, from 1953 to the early 1970s, free morning milk was provided to primary school students to strengthen our diet. As McInnes puts it, “The milk was carried in by specially selected milk monitors, a prized position among students. Small glass milk bottles, and later small cartons, and a free drinking straw, were handed out by the monitors in time for what was termed in Queensland ‘little lunch’, or morning recess.”

In 1964, when I was 20, Donald Horne coined the ironic term “the lucky country”. He believed Australia’s wealth came “not so much from the cleverness of its citizens but from its bountiful natural resources”. Yet most Australians adopted the phrase as a term of praise.

As my father was a Democratic Labor Party voter and an avid supporter of B.A. (Bob) Santamaria, the sections dealing with the great split in the ALP in the mid-1950s and beyond are particularly fascinating. The fact is that many Australian families were rent asunder by the Labor Party/Roman Catholic split. Thus some family members continued to support the ALP while others, staunchly anti-communist, voted for the DLP and, by their preferences, helped keep the Liberal prime minister Robert Gordon Menzies in power well beyond his use-by date.

The Making of Modern Australia ends with a eulogy about Australia Day. Unfortunately, McInnes does not directly discuss the fact that January 26 is regarded by almost all Aborigines and Islanders as Invasion Day and that, for many citizens, black and white, the most appropriate date to celebrate the creation of Australia is January 1, because that was when, in 1901, our separate colonies became a single nation.

Yet for McInnes the fascinating stories of indigenous and multicultural Australians weave their way through this delightful book, as do the tales of Anglo-Celtic and European and Islamic and Vietnamese Australians. So, too, do the stories of Catholic and Protestant and Buddhist and Hindu and atheist Australians, as well as heterosexual, homosexual and transsexual Aussies. The truth is that while we may share many characteristics, we are all shaped by our own stories. As he so rightly puts it, “we come in all shapes and sizes and colours. All types. New and old, good and bad.”

Living in our island continent, in the Antipodes, in the Great South Land, it’s good (and indeed necessary) for us to listen to each other and to ask and learn about each other’s stories. When that happens, we can come to deeply share each other’s experiences and, in the process, to participate in the making of modern Australia.

Review of William McInnes, THE MAKING OF MODERN AUSTRALIA Hachette, 342pp, $35
Sydney Morning Herald, Spectrum, July 31-August 1, 2010