The Idea of Australia by Julianne Schultz

Reviewed by Richard Tutin

I began to read this book by Julianne Schultz during a stay in hospital. Since it was often sitting prominently on the bedside locker, staff members who came into my room at various times would make some comment on the title. This often led to some discussion about what Australia meant as a nation. The question, “what is your idea of Australia?”, caused some to stop and start thinking about their own personal view of Australia and what it meant to them.

Schultz invites the reader to think about Australia from the beginning of the book and only lets one stop thinking long after the book is finished and put back on the shelf. Along the way, she treats us to some history and social discourse that urgently asks if we are willing to learn and help forge a national identity that is in tune with the present age.

The Covid 19 pandemic has caused writers to look to the future and use the opportunity to shape a more inclusive and respectful society. Ian Goldin puts forward this argument in his book Rescue From Global Crisis to a Better World. His clinical dissection of what needs to be done is compelling and radical. Schultz does not quite go down that path. She injects her argument with personal anecdotes and thoughts that lend encouragement to the idea that we too should join the search for our nation’s soul.

Sher makes the very important point that we, as a nation, should confront and learn from the past. This is especially true in the treatment of our Indigenous or First Nations people, those who were rejected because of the White Australia Policy and those who have been prevented from coming into Australia because of government policies about refugees and asylum seekers.

Acknowledging and confronting the past is not easy. People shy away from it in their personal lives. However, when the confrontation occurs, and mistakes have been acknowledged, then it is both easier and more fulfilling for reconciliation and attitudinal changes to occur that allow for a different way of life and understanding to emerge and take shape.

Schultz challenges the notions that have underpinned Australians’ view of themselves in the same way that Donald Horne did in 1964 with his book The Lucky Country. For Horne, the title was meant to be ironic. Often though the title has been used as an honorific rather than a challenge to look at ourselves with different eyes. It’s important that nations look carefully at themselves and ask the very serious question about how they are seen by other nations especially the ones they trade and seek alliances with. The Idea of Australia is then a book that has a serious and urgent message. By confronting the past and being willing to change our understanding of ourselves on the world stage takes on a new and possibly exciting meaning.

Nation building does take time. Opportunities can be and have been wasted. Yet there is hope that things can happen. As Julianne Schultz says at the end of the book, “many, even most, Australians are willing to be bold. Brave enough to make the nation in which they live more than ‘slightly better than average, again’”. If that is so, then our individual ideas about Australia may lead us to a better than average collective reality.

Professor Emeritus Julianne Schultz AM FAHA is the Chair of The Conversation. She was the publisher and founding editor of Griffith Review and is Professor Emeritus of Media and Culture at Griffith Centre for Social and Cultural Research. She is an acclaimed author of Reviving the Fourth Estate (Cambridge) and Steel City Blues (Penguin), and the librettos to the award-winning operas Black River and Going Into Shadows.

The Idea of Australia

Julianne Schultz


Allen & Unwin

ISBN 978 176087 930 3

$34.99; 460pp

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