Arts Listings

Book Review: A People’s History of Australia

By Estelle Jelinek
Tuesday December 23, 2008 - 10:22:00 AM

Don’t waste your money on the romantic-epic film Australia, but rush out and buy Berkeley writer Celeste Lipow MacLeod’s Multiethnic Australia. Conn Hallinan has written in these pages of the country’s increasing cooperation with the United States, from sending troops to Iraq, allowing the U.S. to build a military base on Australia’s west coast, and agreeing to let the country become the world’s nuclear waste dump with its reward: joining a nuclear-technology information clearing house. 

International politics is not the focus of this history of Australia. What is is the country’s extraordinary accomplishment of peacefully integrating dozens of disparate cultures despite its predominantly Anglo-Saxon culture. Like MacLeod’s previous book, Horatio Alger Farewell, this one finds her interested in working people’s struggles to cope with or co-opt the power elite. 

Multiethnic Australia could easily have been called, a la Howard Zinn, A People’s History of Australia. It’s an amazing story of how the country consciously nurtured each newcomer’s customs and language, six million of them in a land with 20 million people, arriving since 1947, along with a slower recognition and support of the indigenous Aborigines. And it all happened peacefully—with no rioting—because the country devised practical services to help the new arrivals retain their cultural traditions while becoming loyal Australians. 

Little known abroad is the country’s progressive social heritage, with its original prisoners, finding themselves in a spacious land with a labor shortage, joining forces with poor immigrants and turning the country into a “fair go” society. They organized trade unions and then formed a political party geared to their own needs. By the end of the 19th century, labor had emerged as a political force in Australia. MacLeod writes, “Unlike the United States, where self-made millionaires were cheered and worshipped, in Australia they were seen as traitors to their class.” Australia was also an innovator in women’s suffrage, women getting the vote as early as 1902. 

You may recognize prominent names like diva Joan Southerland, film director Peter Weir, writer Christina Stead; novelist Patrick White, the only Australian so far to win the Nobel Prize in literature; and Miles Franklin (My Brilliant Career), but there’s much more to Australia. Founded as a British penal colony, defining itself as a satellite of the British Empire, during the 19th century it restricted immigration in what was known as the “White Australia” policy. When the Australian colonies became a federation of states in 1901, one of the new government’s first acts was to pass a law aimed at keeping out people of color. At that time, working people and their unions were strong supporters of the policy. 

But after World War II, the country came increasingly to identify with its neighbors in the Pacific Rim, and in 1960 the old protection legislation was dismantled in every state, and even indigenous people became citizens, making them eligible for the same social service benefits as other Australians. In 1962 they were given the vote, and their numbers keep growing because of better living conditions and health care. 

Multiculturalism gradually took on the meaning of replacing assimilation with a policy that validated diversity. The policy of cultural pluralism received bipartisan support, not because of a need for migrant labor (by the mid-’70s there were labor surpluses) but because the old White Australia policy had become a political embarrassment and an economic liability for a country at the edge of Southeast Asia. 

Politically savvy readers may know the names of prime ministers like Robert Gordon Menzies, who in the late ’30s identified more with Britain and its empire than his own country or its Asian neighbors. When the Labor Party won the national election in 1973, Prime Minister Gough Whitlam was determined to reverse support for White Australia, to reduce the British connection, and to oppose racist ideas and practices, launching a series of sweeping reforms. Racially selected sports teams were banned from entering Australia. Equal pay for women was introduced. Wages, pensions, and unemployment benefits rose. A national health service was established, open to all. But he tried to change things too quickly and was dismissed, which reinvigorated the desire to make Australia a republic. Prime Minister John Howard, leader of the Opposition Liberal (sic) Party, was opposed to multiculturalism and worked hard to save the constitutional monarchy. In 1999 a referendum to become a republic was defeated 55 percent to 45 percent. Queen Elizabeth still remains the country’s head of state. 

MacLeod believes that Australia will remain a predominantly Anglo-Celtic-Irish country into the foreseeable future, and Asian nations will not accept Australia fully as part of the region as long as its official head of state is the monarch of a Western nation. But there may be some hope. With Labor Party Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, elected in 2007, who is opposed to the Iraq war and supports multiculturalism, Australia may have an even better future. 



By Celeste Lipow MacLeod. 226 pages. N.C.: McFarland.