The Eighties: The Decade That Transformed Australia
2015, 368 p.
I’m kicking myself that I didn’t write this review earlier- or if I did, I can’t find it. I must confess to a sense of deja vu with every sentence I write, so perhaps my computer has eaten it. I read this book some weeks ago and have since returned it to the library, so I’m having to write from memory. I suppose if my review lacks detail, it does at least sketch out the lasting impressions I gained from the book.
It’s rather challenging to read a ‘history’ of a time that you remember well, especially when it’s written by someone who is younger than you. I suppose that people older than I encounter this phenomenon all the time. Bongiorno is playful enough to put his own photograph of himself in 1983 on the inside rear dustjacket- a free-faced young lad, aged perhaps 14. I was in my thirties during the ’80s, caught up in the whirl of parenthood with young babies, living in suburban Bundoora, on parental leave from teaching but inching back to work on a casual basis in TAFE. I was not as politically aware then as I am now- no doubt a reflection of the person I was then, and the stage of life that I was at. But without the deluge of information, opinion and so-called news on the internet, perhaps we were all less politically fevered then.
When a historian is writing a chronology, there is always the issue of periodization: when do you start and when do you finish? It has become acceptable to fiddle with the boundaries of decades and centuries (the long 18th century; the long 19th century), and indeed part of the intellectual challenge in a narrative chronology is to identify the themes that give a period or phenomenon its unity beyond the mere elapse of time. Bongiorno starts his 1980s in 1983, with the Ash Wednesday fires swirling around Victoria and South Australia, while in Sydney Bob Hawke was giving an address at the Sydney Opera House as Opposition Leader and basking in the adulation and anticipation of an election victory just weeks away. He finishes his 1980s in 1991 when Paul Keating replaced Hawke as Prime Minister.
The most memorable impression that the book conveys is the sheer brashness, crassness, and odiousness of the politics of the decade with a seemingly-neverending succession of shysters and spivs. Christopher Skase, Alan Bond, Joh Bjelke-Petersen, Brian Burke, WA Inc, the white shoe brigade- all larger than life and breathtaking in their audacity and shamelessness. Bongiorno’s perspective is largely Political (with a capital P) and economic as he examines the Accord and the disruption of what Paul Kelly calls ‘The Australian Settlement’ that followed in its wake. There’s the excess in consumption, the excess in nationalist mawkishness (think Hawkie and the Americas Cup celebrations) and the excess of pain in exorbitant interest rates and the ‘recession we had to have’.
It is also a very male-dominated book. It comes as a surprise to realize that Susan Ryan was only the Minister Assisting the Prime Minister for the Status of Women, and not Minister for Women in her own right. (Wikipedia has an interesting table showing the shifts in title for this role over the past 40 years- who would have thought that Judy Moylan would be the first Minister for the Status of Women, appointed by Howard? or that Turnbull appointed the first Minister for Women outright with no mention of ‘issues’ or ‘status’?) Bongiorno paints on a broad canvas, examining both high and low culture, although I found myself remembering events and thinking ‘Ah, so that’s what that was about!’, rather than recognizing my own suburban experience in the narrative he provides.
In his final chapter, he becomes more personal as he steps out from the wings in what has seemed, until now, something like a television documentary. He is more reflective and analytic in this chapter, admitting to his own reservations about the decade and the overall value of the changes it wrought. But perhaps it’s too soon to do this? When the overwhelming response is embarrassment- as in this book- at the music, the clothes (Princess Di’s wedding dress, for instance), the behaviour, the Multi-Function Polis, the sheer bizarreness, perhaps there’s not enough distance to judge yet. It’s often been said that journalism is the first rough draft of history, and I feel, despite the footnotes and the access to cabinet documents, that this book teeters on the cusp between the two. Nonetheless, it’s an engaging read, told briskly and with humour.