Reviewed by Ian Lipke
Professor Frank Bongiorno has produced a political history of Australia by focusing on people types, those he can loosely call dreamers and some that are schemers, the assumption being that individuals fall into one character type or the other. Alternatively, he must argue that those falling outside these typologies must have had an insignificant impact on our history.
The work that Bongiorno has expended on his major study is beyond question. First, he begins with pre-settlement, the social and political customs of the indigenous people. I found this section uninteresting partly because there is little I know about it and would have to accept Bongiorno’s views. To give Bongiorno his due, his writing hangs together logically and would persuade the reader to accept in blind faith what the professor has to say. I am uneasy with this approach.
As far as the remainder of the book is concerned, we are presented with moments of political renewal that, as often as not, suggest something unthought of, some sort of creative twist that the author feeds into our understanding. These keep coming, whether the author is stationed in the hall of parliament or in some local drinking hole. One cannot predict where something novel will appear, and so the book requires close reading.
It is clear that readers are expected to be transformed by the visions and the skulduggery they find. Figures familiar to the general absorber of politics surface regularly. Bongiorno is the master of the political moment but can be vague where lucidity is required. John Gorton, furious that he had to find out information of doubtful significance, abandons his staff and ambassador to sit apart, talking to Willesee (260). What that was all about in the context of scheming or dreaming is not clear. Was Gorton a dreamer or a schemer or simply a man who was pissed-off for the moment?
The dreamer-schemer scenario is not as tightly fitting as the author appears to believe. “The 1969 elections boosted Whitlam’s stocks considerably when Labor won a swing of just over 7% and a narrow majority of the of the two-party preferred vote” (261). A lengthy paragraph follows, none of it referencing ‘dreamers or schemers’. Similar, emotion-free passages can be found virtually anywhere in the book. On page 354, a discussion on Steve Bracks in Victoria is just one more example.
The title carries with it some inadequacies. It is the press reporter’s grab phrase, not the selection of an experienced academic researcher. But cast one’s thoughts beyond the trivialities of the title and the book changes. It becomes a comprehensive, thoroughly researched tome that does what it sets out to do. Whether discussing local issues or those of international importance, the author has something to say, and does so with authority.
Bongiorno highlights that, while Australians regard their politics in an instrumental or utilitarian way, his book sees a richer conceptual model than this. He writes of “a politics of ideals, visions and dreams as well as of roads, bridges and electric wires. Of dreamers and schemers…while all of us – including historians – can choose to behave as if political affairs matter little to how our society functions, politics in the end has a habit of seeking us out, of becoming entangled in lives that we imagine as purely private and disconnected from its demands” (3). Given this is so, who are the dreamers? Who are the schemers?
A great book for frustrating intellectuals – good value.
By Frank Bongiorno
La Trobe UP
ISBN: 978 176064 009 5