Graham Freudenberg on ‘The Making of Australia – A Concise History’ by Robert Murray

Mar 26, 2014

When I was a teenage Tory in Brisbane in the early Fifties, Bob Murray, a bright young spark from the Melbourne Argus was the most persuasive of my newspaper contemporaries who led me gently towards the light.  In Sydney a couple of years later, at the end of 1954, in midnight to dawn sessions at the old Phillip Street Journalists’ Club, we debated the coming of the Labor Split, unwittingly laying the foundations for his classic account The Split – Australian Labor in the Fifties (1970).

In the halcyon early Seventies, as one of the few people I knew who had actually been behind the ‘Iron Curtain’, he helped me keep Ostpolitik and  Détente in the perspective of the continuing awfulness of regimes like the East German. This clarity of views, sharpness of insights, balance and common sense abound in his octogenarian opus The Making of Australia – A Concise History (Rosenberg Publishing).

This is the first single-volume general history of Australia since the ‘history wars’. To some extent it complements from a more conservative perspective the monumental Cambridge History of Australia edited by Stuart Macintyre, at less than a tenth of the price. Both works show how the ‘history wars’ have transformed our approach, especially about the relations between the Aborigines and the occupiers after 1788.

For the first time, the relations between the aborigines and settlers form an integral part of the whole narrative. In the index, there are 196 entries, with substantial references, by my count, on 103 pages – one third of the book. The aboriginal story is woven into the ongoing narrative. This inclusiveness is unprecedented in Australian general histories.  We have come a long way from the great flowering of Australian historiography in the 1950s and 1960s, when Manning Clark subsequently apologised for his comparative neglect of Aborigine studies and Gordon Greenwood, in the first post-war general history Australia, ignored them altogether.

In dealing with Australia’s military history, Bob Murray has taken a very different approach, and I think less successfully. He has chosen to lump the First and Second World Wars together in a single chapter entitled ‘The Call of Khaki’. This approach may emphasise the continuity of the two wars, at least in their European and imperial context. But, besides wrenching the chronology of the narrative somewhat, this treatment understates what I believe to be the centrality of the wars to our political, social and economic development.

There are signs that the Anzac Centenary is going to spark another round of ‘history wars’ in much the way that the Bicentenary set in train the debate that led to the ‘history wars’ about Aboriginal Australia. Perhaps John Menadue’s blog last year about the political manipulation of the Anzac tradition was a first shot.

This time around, I hope we are mature enough to avoid some of the nastiness that accompanied the last round. In his book on the Split, Bob Murray memorably noted ‘the absence of goodwill’ as a major factor in Labor’s self-destruction. There was a notable absence of goodwill in the waging of the first ‘history wars’.

It would be ironic if the renewed debate on Australia’s military history came down to competing slogans of ‘best we forget’ versus ‘lest we forget’. After all, ‘best we forget’ was a sentiment often used to discourage the quest for truth about the Aborigines.

When it comes to Anzac (as shorthand for all our wars) I uphold ‘lest we forget’ in the sense that the author of the phrase, Rudyard Kipling, used it in his poem Recessional, written for Queen Victoria’s Jubilee in 1897. Kipling meant it as a warning against the pride and arrogance of imperial power and that even the mighty British Empire would one day be ‘as Nineveh and Tyre’.

Bob Murray and I belong to the last Australian generation for which the British Empire was still a going concern. This fine book can stand as the testimony of our generation and our understanding of what it means to be Australian.

We were the depression babies, formed politically in the Chifley-Menzies era, with our adulthood dominated by the Cold War in all its manifestations. Despite this tumultuous and often menacing background, we have been an exceptionally lucky generation of Australians. Perhaps because the low birth rate in the Depression made our path to education and employment so easy, we were optimists. Fittingly, Bob Murray ends his book on a high note, quoting the ‘other half of Malcolm Fraser’s (and George Bernard Shaw’s) ‘Life wasn’t meant to be easy.’ – ‘But take courage, it can be delightful.’ Both halves of the quotation apply to the writing of books about Australian history. And in this case, the second half certainly applies to the reading of it.

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