18 MARCH 2023

Frank Bongiorno is an acute observer of the Australian political “soul”. He spoke to his most recent publication, Dreamers and Schemers; a political history of Australia.

For most of us we tend to see the beginnings of Australian “political” life at Federation, or perhaps earlier when the colony of New South Wales was sectioned into colonies or states after 1850. But Frank takes the story back much further to the political organisation of the first Nations. What seemed to some Europeans as “disorder” and a lot of babble and talking over each other, was in fact a different form of order.

He then talked of the early European settlement period when authoritarian structures were the game of the day, fearful as many were of the French Revolution and Napoleon, and the American revolt lest they infect locals, especially ex-convicts.

But the second half of the 19th century, he suggests, was one of emerging radicalism, often helped by people such as the Symes of The Age newspaper.  But what Australians grappled with in developing their political structures was to meld Westminster structures with Australian geophysical conditions, which also involved including some aspects of American political structures. He felt the Federal “Federation” structure is evidence of this. In this way some political Australian political “protocols” were developed which, for example, came into play when it was discovered that Scott Morrison has transgressed these demarcations in secretly usurping several ministries.

He also saw in the radical 19th century politics of European Australia, the emergence of political possibilities for women, though this is perhaps better understood by a review rather than at the time. Indeed there were hints, as well as actual voting rights well before the official introduction around the first decade of the 20th century.

But for a better understanding of the misogynistic drivel around this topic, you will need to refer to the chapter The New Australia in Frank’s book. Indeed, one of the delights of Frank’s somewhat hefty tome is the fascinating detail of significant political episodes, and political actors (and their words), all written in an entertaining and often amusing style.

The political hot potato of Free Traders versus Protectionists was also both a symptom of and outcome of these “radical” movements, though it was economic protection, not people protection, which held the floor, as seen in the evolution of the White Australia policy.

While the 1930s evidenced more of the radicalism in, for example, Ben Chifley and the pugilistic Jack Lang, post-World War 2 saw a shift to conservatism as demonstrated in the Prime Ministership of Menzies.

Frank’s book tells the story in much more detail – almost mind-blowing detail. It is full of facts and anecdotes of “little-known facts about well-known people” which give colour and dimension to the way in which the political heart and soul of Australia developed.

A VIDEO RECORDING of the seminar can be viewed.

Max Nankervis
Saturday Seminar Facilitator

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