Saturday, May 14, 2011

Book Review - Australia - A Social and Political History edited by Gordon Greenwood

Gee, has it really been almost three months since my last book review? This latest book, Australia - A Social and Political History edited by Gordon Greenwood, has taken quite some time to read. There's 437 pages and I'd be lucky to complete six on the bus trip to/from work. As the book was first published in 1955 it is written in older style language and reads much like a British politician speaking. But, I found, the subject matter was fascinating.

Most of you will know that Australia started off as a penal colony for mother England. A few more settlements to house convicts were set up but when South Australia was settled they didn't want convict labour. Western Australia didn't have convicts to begin with but found them necessary when not enough labourers were available. The book details how many convicts were in each settlement, how the colonies grew and interacted, what were the driving forces behind their population growth, etc.

By about 1890 the call for independence, but with a hint more of autonomy, was quite loud. In fact, there had been discussion about independence from around the 1850s when the gold rush in Victoria meant that their colony's population was larger than that of New South Wales which was settled some 48 years earlier.

On January the 1st 1901 Australia gained independence from Great Britain and a Federal (or Commonwealth) government. I loved the way the book critiqued each of the early prime ministers, of whom I have learnt little during my life, and how they appeared to be more statesmen than we have today. There were some fine leaders early on in our federal history.

Prior to federation, the joining of the states, each state could tax its citizens however it deemed fit. The constitution, so it was ruled in the High Court, considered that it should be that income tax was the same for all people regardless of which state they lived in. This could only be overseen by federal government and so state income taxes were abolished. A Tariff Board was set up to determine protection levels, which seems so strange in our free trade world that we aim for today, and they had wide ranging powers.

Most interestingly Australia didn't have a foreign affairs policy/minister until the early 1940s. For 40 years we had sovereignty but no foreign affairs. Blindly following Great Britain into wars and adopting the same policy with respect to other nations meant our soldiers suffered great hardship and unnecessary deaths and it took the second world war to bring about this great, and necessary, change.

Did you know why the White Australia Policy was introduced? It came about to stop the flood of cheap labour from Asia, in particular, to a young and non-populous country which would have been detrimental to the living standards and wages of ordinary Australians. The fact that it survived so long is a bit of a surprise.

Perhaps what I found most astonishing is that the Labor Party has made the most significant changes federally even though their main aim was to ensure that each man was not socially disadvantaged. The beginnings of the Labor Party were very much socialist and so I was a bit shocked to see the greatest change in the country had come from them. The constitution is written in such a way that it makes it possible for the federal government to take control of almost anything - during WWII workers were assigned to particular industries by the government!

This book, written by six university teachers of history and edited by Gordon Greenwood, was hard going at times. But the depth of research that has taken place is extraordinary. Anyone that wants to know the social and political history of early Australia should read it. Highly recommended. And to think that I paid $5 for it at the book fair. Money very well spent.

Australia - A Social and Political History edited by Gordon Greenwood

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I would like to learn more. You are an Indian so most likely your relatives were not convicts. That is great. I must read this. Gil