For over sixty years - or more than half of the federation period - Geoffrey Blainey has been chronicling Australia's past and bringing our national history to a wide audience through his masterfully lucid, evocative prose. His first book, The Peaks of Lyell, was published in 1954, the year the second Menzies government won its third term in office and only a year after the coronation of the young Queen Elizabeth. Since then, Australia's greatest living historian has written over 30 books, ranging from histories of Australian mining and Australian Rules football (AFL) to Christianity and the world. He has not merely recounted and popularised the country's history but become a part of it, with his important contributions to debates on issues related to national identity and his memorable phrases entering popular vernacular.
Blainey's newest work, The Story of Australia's People: The Rise and Rise of a New Australia, follows on from 2015's The Rise and Fall of Ancient Australia, which traced the story of the continent's indigenous peoples from their first arrival to the early period of British settlement commencing in 1788. Combined, the two volumes offer a grand sweep of Australia's history and represent a capstone of Blainey's long and distinguished career.
Starting from the transformative gold rushes of the 1850s, the early chapters of The Rise and Rise of a New Australia are in part derived from Blainey's 1980 book A Land Half Won, albeit with the content significantly revised and re-written, while the lion's share of the material is new. Drawing on a diverse range of sources, Blainey adroitly sketches out the key events and themes of the past 170 years, including upheaval on the Victorian goldfields; the exploration of the vast interior and attempts to tame the north; the expansion of pastoralism and agriculture, along with dreadful drought; the settlers coming to grips with a strange natural environment utterly unlike that of the verdant British Isles; working life and the relentless advancement of technology; the Sydney-Melbourne rivalry; the economic depressions of the 1890s and 1930s; the move towards federation and changing political dynamics; the world wars; waning British influence over Australia and the world during the twentieth century; the emergence of Aboriginal leaders and land rights; and shifting social mores and population changes.
One of the reasons this work is so eminently readable is that Blainey does not get bogged down with dry political or economic history but rather pays greater attention to the lived experiences and contributions of the common folk who collectively built modern Australia. Some towering political figures do naturally enter the picture at various points throughout the tome, with Blainey offering pertinent insights into their personal backgrounds, idiosyncrasies and social views. Sir Henry Parkes, he notes, was a restless man who forged a varied and colourful career by "always starting again in this Land of Start-again." While Parkes was a statesman with a "commanding and almost unworldly" presence, Blainey argues that this long-serving New South Wales premier deserved the 'Father of Federation' title for only a brief time. According to Blainey: "The birth of a nation called for many fathers, none of whom could be pre-eminent, and when Parkes died the federation was only a balloon floating beckoningly in the air."
Of all the leaders since federation, Blainey contends that none has made such a mark on the global stage as Billy Hughes achieved in the first half of 1919 while a leading member of the British Empire's delegation at the World War I Paris Peace Conference. Hughes remains a controversial figure partly due to the conscription referendums which divided Australian society along various lines such as English Protestant versus Irish Catholic, Empire loyalist versus Australian nationalist. Blainey dedicates two chapters to the calamitous First World War, which cruelly robbed Australia – and other Western nations – of a generation's best and brightest. He writes: "If, on the eve of the war, a fortune teller had pointed to all the Australian men between the ages of twenty and thirty, and had predicted that a number equal to 60 per cent of that age group would be killed or permanently disabled in the coming war, she would have been ridiculed but she would have been correct."
On Australia's longest-serving prime minister, Blainey observes that some thought Sir Robert Menzies' accent to be English, while others believed it was Australian – "in short it was just right for his era." Menzies was a master of cutting retorts. At one particularly clamorous public meeting in Tasmania's second-largest city, Menzies responded: "I didn't come here to talk to the sons of convicts but to the decent people of Launceston." Such a remark would be far less withering today, with many Tasmanians now proud - rather than ashamed - of their convict heritage. Blainey writes that Menzies was "the first – and maybe the only – national leader of whom it could be safely said that he was capable of rising to the top of almost any ladder he dared to climb."
Blainey also has kind words for the man who sought to topple Menzies at the 1961 and 1963 federal elections: Arthur Calwell. The late Labor leader, the historian asserts, has been unfairly maligned in recent times, with his now infamous 'Two Wongs' comment taken out of context and mischievously altered. Nevertheless, Blainey concedes that Calwell "would have been wiser if he had been less witty." Questionable witticisms aside, perhaps Calwell's greatest legacy remains initiating the post-war influx from Europe while immigration minister in the Chifley government. It is sometimes forgotten that immigration has been a contentious issue in Australia as far back as the 1830s when the choice between allowing in mainly convicts or predominantly free settlers sparked public debate. Blainey himself is no stranger to the controversy surrounding the topic, attracting censure and even vicious hatred from the left in the 1980s when he criticised the pace of non-traditional immigration to Australia.
Shifting immigration patterns and their effects on the country are visited at regular intervals in The Rise and Rise of a New Australia, with Blainey noting, among other trends, the quadrupling of the Asian population in Australia between 1981 and 2000. "For the first time Europe and especially the British Isles ceased to be the main source of migrants," he writes; also "What had seemed unimaginable at the end of the Second World War swiftly came to pass." In the final chapter, he makes the observation that a nation whose way of life had more faults than merits would not find itself in a situation where more people seek to move here than can be feasibly absorbed.
With the education system all too often failing to provide many with a proper account of our history, books such as this are more important than ever. Australians owe Blainey a great debt for his contributions over the years. The Rise and Rise of a New Australia is a fine and compelling addition to his extensive body of work.
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