Why do we celebrate Australia Day?
Based on a 2006 federal survey of 10,000 Year 10 students and 10,000 Year 6 students, more than three-quarters of Australian teens did not know that Australia Day commemorates the First Fleet’s arrival and British settlement (but you knew that, right?).
If you have only a basic or faded knowledge of Australia’s past, but would like to learn more, you would benefit from reading this book. Here’s a review:
Australia : A New History of the Great Southern Land covers the main themes of discovery, colonisation, exploration, democratisation, and nationalism. Frank Welsh describes the various discoveries of Australia’s coastline by European nations and the domestic influences in England which led to the transportation of convicts. (Thomas Keneally provides more human detail and drama on the convicts and Sydney’s establishment in Commonwealth of Thieves) The first colony’s initial struggles are presented with emphasis on interaction with the Aborigines, noting their mistreatment while also describing the concerns and efforts of various English leaders for their welfare.
The colonies’ political development revealed the competing interests of the general populace, landowners, governors and the Colonial Office in London. Gold attracted growth in the nineteenth century, while most newcomers integrated peacefully. The development of colonies into responsible states is also interesting, including the settlement of “Van Dieman’s Land,” the Sydney-Melbourne rivalry and the slow progress of the frontier: Western Australia and the Northern Territory. Perceived threats from European and Asian nations, combined with England’s declining governance, led to Federation. The book notes that Australians established some political freedoms that were not yet available in England.
Welsh’s awareness of historical context is valuable in critiquing the progress of Australian democracy and society. In comparison to other former colonies such as India, New Zealand or South Africa, Australia has been hampered by political struggles yet blessed by abundant resources and peaceful development. Problems were generally mild compared to conflicts in US history, such as the violent California gold rush and Civil War. Welsh notes that while mistreatment of Aborigines was wrong and often denounced, it was also very difficult to effectively police the vast frontier regions. (an ironic point, considering the current crisis in Aboriginal communities despite increased government funding)
Australia’s participation in World War II and the subsequent Korean and Vietnam Wars indicated her dependence on the US. Welsh is dismissive of the past communist threat to Australia and also points out the scant US support for Australia’s interests. The prosperous era of Menzies and the controversial Whitlam government are well presented, including the challenges of dealing with Asian powers and the sacking of Whitlam by Governor General Kerr. Welsh provides interesting descriptions of the Fraser and Hawke governments, also narrating the rise of Paul Keating and John Howard. The last chapter, “The Coalition Strikes Back,” describes Howard’s eventual political dominance and the nation’s continued prosperity.
Welsh is sometimes witty and often opinionated. His writing style is detailed and concise so that one must read carefully. Welsh’s background as an international businessman does not detract from his research, which is thorough and well-documented. If you want to learn Australia’s key events and stories in a comprehensive manner and with a balanced perspective, I definitely recommend this book as a starting point.
Australia : A New History of the Great Southern Land. Frank Welsh. Woodstock: Overlook Press, 2004. 768 pages.