December 2015 - January 2016

Arts & Letters

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By Judith Brett
Deconstructing a decade in Frank Bongiorno’s ‘The Eighties’

Cliff Young running off the farm to become a marathon celebrity; Bob Hawke celebrating the America’s Cup victory in a logo-festooned jacket; the spidery designs of Ken Done; the Bicentenary “celebrations”; computers entering the workplace; the Neighbours wedding of Scott and Charlene; the rise of INXS; big hair and padded shoulders … Frank Bongiorno’s The Eighties (Black Inc.; $45) has plenty to refresh the memories of those who lived through these years, but it also makes larger arguments about the effects of the decade on today’s Australia. It is a very impressive achievement of historical synthesis, written in lucid, fast-moving prose with an eye for the telling detail. This is fine writing for the decade that brought Australia fine dining.

Bongiorno is alert to what it was like to live through the decade, as well as to its retrospective shapes. He begins with the election of the Hawke Labor government in March 1983 and ends with Paul Keating becoming PM in December 1991, after Hawke failed to honour the Kirribilli agreement they had struck before the 1990 election. During this era, the global forces shaping decisions such as floating the dollar and reducing tariffs were obscure to most Australians, for whom the end of a long boom was still slowly sinking in. There were disconcerting economic-rationalist arguments about smaller government, privatisation and user-pays systems being voiced, but these were yet to grip the imagination of Australia’s policy elites. When journalist Paul Kelly published The End of Certainty in 1992, it all fell into place: financial deregulation, more open immigration, the retreat of government paternalism, dismantling the tariff wall, reforming industrial relations, and opening a closed society and economy to the world. This was all done by Labor. The party of the old working class had transformed itself into the midwife of Australia’s new cosmopolitan modernity.

Kelly’s powerful narrative has had a recent rerun, as the reforming courage and skill of Hawke and Keating are contrasted with the timidity and confusion of our recent federal governments. It was the policies of the 1980s, argued journalist George Megalogenis in The Australian Moment (2012), that set up Australia for 25 years of economic growth, enabling it to weather the 2008 global financial crisis with comparatively little damage. Maybe, but some of today’s intractable social problems also began then.

Reading The Eighties reminds us of Labor reforms that came to naught, like John Button’s plan to save Australia’s automotive industry, or Keating’s push for manufacturing to generate high-end export products so as to curb our reliance on the quarry and the farm. This was Labor in a neoliberal era, as it tried to shift the balance from governments to markets in a Labor way, by strengthening social welfare safety nets with Medicare and family benefits, making industrial relations more flexible to keep trade unions relevant, and restructuring to encourage manufacturing jobs for the future. But the decade also saw some very nasty industrial conflicts – including those at Mudginberri abattoir and Robe River iron ore mine. The book gives a very fair-minded account of the emergent New Right’s determination to break the “Industrial Relations Club”.

Despite the stronger safety net, Bongiorno makes clear that for many Australians the 1980s was an anxious time. As well as providing the perspective of policy insiders, he has drawn on the work of social researchers like Hugh Mackay to include the experiences of ordinary folk who, by the middle of the decade, were “bewildered” and “deeply concerned about the pace of change”. As reduced tariffs and industry restructuring decimated jobs, it started to dawn on people that the days of full employment were gone for good. In manufacturing centres like Adelaide’s Elizabeth and Wollongong’s Port Kembla, unemployment levels for men reached around 17%. Many never worked again. This created the new social problem of long-term unemployment that has proven resistant to policy solutions. Unemployment passed from parents to children, creating a welfare-dependent underclass. The 1980s was when inequality began increasing from postwar levels, and the super rich started pulling away from the merely rich.

Bongiorno charts the rocky careers and conspicuous consumption of the new super rich, including Alan Bond, Laurie Connell and Christopher Skase. These were men who took advantage of the deregulated financial system to take great risks with other people’s money. Bond paid almost US$54 million for Vincent van Gogh’s Irises, and Skase threw ostentatiously extravagant parties, making his grand entrance through smoke and tickertape like a Hollywood star. But when the stock market tumbled in October 1987 and credit tightened, many of these empires crumbled. The crash also brought down the State Bank of Victoria and the State Bank of South Australia, which had been caught up in the heady expansion of credit and given the nod by politicians inexperienced in managing a deregulated financial system.

As well as inexperience, there was straight-out political corruption. “Corruption’s bedfellow was mateship,” writes Bongiorno, and there were mates everywhere: in Western Australia with Premier Brian Burke and WA Inc propping up Laurie Connell’s failing Rothwells merchant bank; in New South Wales where Justice Lionel Murphy allegedly asked a magistrate about his “little mate” (in reference to criminal charges against solicitor Morgan Ryan); in Queensland where Premier Joh Bjelke-Petersen’s authoritarian populism provided a veil for a corrupt police force. When the lid was blown by Chris Masters’ Four Corners episode ‘The Moonlight State’, the Queensland government appointed Tony Fitzgerald QC to lead a commission of inquiry. Bjelke-Petersen ended up in court, but was saved from prison by a hung jury with a National Party member as the foreman. Burke was not so lucky.

The book deftly shows that as economic inequality increased, so too did anxieties about Australia’s disappearing cultural and racial homogeneity. In the decade following the fall of Saigon, around 80,000 Vietnamese migrated to Australia and became a visible presence in Australian cities. When, in 1984, the historian Geoffrey Blainey suggested that the pace of Asian migration might be too fast and lead to social unrest, an ugly debate began that broke the bipartisan support over race and multiculturalism. John Howard’s first stint as Opposition leader (1985–89) came to grief over it, and in retrospect the debate can be seen as the first round of the culture wars.

For Aboriginal Australians it was a politically disappointing decade as the Hawke government retreated from its 1983 election commitment to land rights, in the face of opposition from Brian Burke and mining industry groups. Bongiorno nevertheless shows just how much change was already under way in white attitudes towards Aboriginal people and culture, as knowledge of indigenous history and dispossession entered the mainstream. Sally Morgan’s My Place was a bestseller. “No book since Darwin’s On the Origin of the Species (1859) had exercised such a powerful influence over the attitude of white Australians towards black Australians,” writes Bongiorno. He also describes how Henry Reynolds’ histories invested Aboriginal people with resilience, courage and patriotism – qualities that white Australians claimed for their own national heroes.

Aboriginal music, dance and art all took off in the ’80s. Bongiorno sees this mainly as the result of increased middle-class interest and sympathy, but it was also a response to the growth of international tourism and a world market in cultural products. Australia needed something distinctive to brand itself, and Aboriginal culture was one option, along with the revived frontier imagery of its pioneering heritage. A national costume was created from the Driza-Bone, akubra and RM Williams boots, and Paul Hogan took his outback larrikinism and knife skills to the world as Crocodile Dundee. Whitlam’s dream of a culturally sophisticated Australia was a world away.

While Hawke’s prime ministership provides Bongiorno with the decade’s national frame, the Cold War provides an international one. When the decade began, tensions still shaped global politics. Australia had a spy scandal when a KGB agent targeted former ALP secretary David Combe. Ronald Reagan’s determination to take on the “evil empire” with his “Star Wars” Strategic Defense Initiative, and Australia’s hosting of US military bases, heightened fears of nuclear war. The peace movement grew, with huge Palm Sunday rallies and Peter Garrett standing as a Senate candidate for the Nuclear Disarmament Party in 1984. But in 1989, when the Berlin Wall came down, the Cold War was over and the fear of nuclear war receded.

It was a complex decade, and Bongiorno’s book invites readers to make their own assessments of its gains, losses and most significant transitions. The float of the dollar and de-regulation? The end of old Labor? The rise of the New Right? Computers? Increased gender equality? The start of the culture wars? An Aboriginal renaissance? The significance of some of these changes only became apparent much later on. And as people campaigned against nuclear weapons, another threat to the world’s future was appearing, as scientists began finding evidence that certain gases were heating the planet with potentially catastrophic consequences. This did not yet register in public debates, but the general shift to the right in Western democracies and the attacks on government as an agent of the common good seriously diminished our capacity for quick, effective action to reduce carbon emissions. This issue is outside the scope of Bongiorno’s close-up on our recent past, but in the longue durée of human history, it may be what the decade is most remembered for.

Judith Brett

Judith Brett is an emeritus professor of politics at La Trobe University. Her latest book is From Secret Ballot to Democracy Sausage: How Australia Got Compulsory Voting.

Alan Bond, 1987. © Tony Feder/Getty Images

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