A Boastful Boomer’s Boring Idea of Australia

When Griffith University academic Julianne Schultz looked for the soul of Australia she found what she expected to find. Her book The Idea of Australia: A Search for the Soul of the Nation is bad history, too much autobiography, zero conversation and stifling conformity. Between the covers you won’t find Australia but you will find the soul of modern academia. Schultz began her university studies long ago in 1974 and over that time, as she added new prejudices, few if any of her original Left/feminist beliefs have been sufficiently challenged.

This review appears in the latest Quadrant.
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Hypocrisy in academia has become a literary genre: “David Marr wrote that he was no longer sure that change could come by setting out the facts with clarity and goodwill. I too am no longer sure where these transformative conversations will happen.” Her modestly tentative doubts do not last as far as the following page where there is no conversation or goodwill towards Sky News commentators: “They shout their opinions at the camera [Rita Panahi and Douglas Murray?], puffed up with angry certainty, ready to harangue and belittle those who do not share their views.”

Her opinions are strong—though she sometimes misses her own humour: “I have seen these racist sentiments, and their angry siblings—keeping women in the kitchen, refugees in detention and First Nations peoples out of sight or in jail—flow and ebb.” Feelings have replaced logic: “The shadow of the founding racist White Australia policy still lingers, a humiliating collective memory easily triggered by words and actions.” And her feelings are based on prejudice: “Racism was still at the heart of Australian politics and the very modern voters were as susceptible to its threat as their parents and grandparents had once been.”

She is blindsided by a lack of respect for those whose opinions differ from her own. Treated as enemies, they are described in prose that is demeaning and unprofessional. Schultz claims a violent convict past contaminates our present, “a brutal brashness still reverberates. Public shaming remains one of its most powerful manifestations.” In the next sentence she does her own shaming: “The Murdoch press has refined it [public shaming] to an art form …” Demeaning epithets are scattered through the text. Rupert Murdoch is “literally and metaphorically an old white guy”; readers of The Australian are “reflexively grumpy”; Prime Minister Scott Morrison is the “Blatant-Blatherskite-in-Chief”.

Pauline Hanson’s supporters are considered in terms which are completely unreflective, and insulted in terms which are snobbish, offensive and embarrassing:

…her supporters—especially those who felt they had been left behind, bamboozled by clever words or simply didn’t understand—rallied behind her. It was not their fault they had been left behind in the new meritocracy stewing in resentment; few were willing to engage deeply and offer a hand up to the new world.

Some pages further on she describes journalists and others like herself as “committed to broadening the conversation”.

The autobiography that winds through the book is the dreary boomer boastfulness that younger generations despise. The lack of self-awareness could be a satirist’s delight as she brags of real estate acquisitions, careerism and achievements—unfortunately she is serious. On page 398 she boasts of her son’s “elite school” and on page 399 she abuses Australia for being “meritocratic if you went to the right school”.

On a page where David Marr is further praised as “the erudite critic”, John Howard is un-praised as having “perfected the art of doublespeak” while possessing “even more disdain than most men of his age and class”. Her rolling enmity sweeps across the opening ceremony of the Sydney Olympics where she sees the “Sorry” advertising worn by self-promoters Midnight Oil as an insult intended for the Prime Minister: “Humiliation is rarely a good political strategy, but many [that is, Julianne Schultz et al] felt this was justified.”

Trust in the author is quickly lost, never regained, and the text is over 400 pages long. The foundations of her book are corrupted by historical inaccuracies, unsound sources and ineptness in dealing with them. Her eyes are tightly shut as she drives her book over a precipice: “A nation that does not know its history well enough to interrogate it, extract meaning from it and challenge its received wisdoms cannot imagine a robust future.” If we as a nation don’t know our history then surely she should correct the inaccuracies. Unfortunately, the history she thinks she knows includes lies and invention smeared with the familiar fingerprints of error-teller Henry Reynolds. Incidentally, it is not a matter of knowing history but reading history.

Her first chapter is “Terra Nullius of the Mind”. She does not know or care that the abused phrase is a legal term in international law theory meaning territory without sovereignty. An invented definition by Henry Reynolds in The Law of the Land gave it an additional meaning of an absence of property rights. Academics and activists, often the same people, added readings that included unpopulated. The use of terra nullius in Australia was always intended to spread division and dissension, and it succeeds remarkably well—as this mean-spirited and inaccurate book demonstrates.

A second lie is a recent invention, again from Henry Reynolds though he is not credited, and it is presented by Schultz as her own research. Reynolds misread a short passage in Jeremy Bentham’s A Plea for the Constitution (1803) and appropriated a colourful phrase, “The flaw is an incurable one”, which he applied to relations between colonisers and Aborigines and specifically the lack of a treaty. Bentham was writing about government charters for the foundation and administration of the colony. Reynolds is clearly the source when Schultz erroneously asserts: “He [Bentham] considered the failure to come to a legal agreement with traditional owners a flaw and predicted it would be ‘incurable’.” The accompanying footnote is for Bentham’s original pamphlet though as it does not give a specific page reference perhaps it was never consulted—if it had been she should have seen and avoided the error.

With fine accidental irony a later chapter is called “The Incurable Flaw”. The bad history and its use illustrates her defensive and inward-looking attitudes (the cover blurb disagrees with me):

It was clear to them [the organisers of the Uluru Statement from the Heart], and anyone who paid attention [sic], that the wound Jeremy Bentham described in 1803 as ‘incurable’ needed to be healed for the nation to mature.

Professor Jenny Hocking calls Schultz’s calamity “A towering achievement”: those words remind me of the 1970s disaster movie Towering Inferno. Hocking has caught the Bentham infection from Schultz and writes carelessly of “‘the incurable flaw’ at the heart of the nation”.

More bad history is undeniably the author’s own work: “His [Bentham’s] prolific writings were widely read in the colonies and provided a counterweight to the prevailing authorities. He opposed transportation, favoured self-government, and urged that land should be sold not taken.” Apart from the exaggeration of his contemporary influence, the mistake she is making would once have been obvious to high school history students who would have noted that the reference to land dealing is not to Aboriginal land, as Schultz implies, but to crown land which was to be sold instead of being granted or freely given to colonists. They would have recognised a mangled reference to the colonising theories of Edward Gibbon Wakefield. Schultz has referenced and misread an essay titled “Bentham and Australia” by David Llewellyn. The discussion concerns Bentham and Wakefield’s projects which Bentham supported. In explaining the Ripon Regulations of 1831 which were influenced by Wakefield’s proposals, Llewellyn is quite clear: “The rules required land be sold rather than granted.” Schultz might also have noted that the revenue gained by the government was to be devoted to strengthening colonisation by increasing assisted immigration for working men and women into the colony.

Australia has many voices, past and present: Schultz has an inability to listen. One of the voices she does not hear is Dame Mary Gilmore, who she praises even as she mocks Scott Morrison’s pride in his family relationship with her. Schultz commends the dead white woman as a courageous voice speaking out against the White Australia of her time: “In the new nation founded on racist exclusion, she fought for inclusion.” Nothing in the past is so simple, for Gilmore was a strong and influential supporter of White Australia.

Gilmore’s 1920 poem “Song of Anti-White” began with a short preface explaining the origin of her text. It was a sentiment Pauline Hanson would have understood: “With special reference to the Sydney Morning Herald and other papers with a cold policy towards the white man.” The poem is exactly what its title suggests and the final stanza is an unequivocal warning:

We flung down the white and drained him of his blood,
We broke upon the levee, and now comes by the flood,
The fools who fiddled Rome have turned the children out—
And it’s Asia for the morning, so Shout, boys, Shout!

Several weeks later she wrote an essay titled “The White Man’s Flag”: “We are white. Without enmity to any we are white. Without enmity we will stay white. But if that is made impossible then we will take up arms in self-defence.” How could Schultz not have heard Dame Mary’s own voice?

Much of Schultz’s writing resembles gotcha journalism. A short and colourful phrase or sentence is found and on it she bases her own, often anachronistic, construction. The text is strongly influenced by the contemporary dogma of her academic peers. Her sources are untested, context is irrelevant. She boasts of listening to people to embarrass them, not to understand them. As a journalist or academic she exercises power to embarrass people who can’t explain or answer back. Power over people without power such as the man who “let his guard down over dinner”, or a taxi driver, or a local man on a plane. What she did as a working journalist she applies to history writing.

When a colonial governor wanders into her sights he is abused from the future:

Four years later [1800], when Philip Gidley King became governor of New South Wales, he closed the [first Sydney] theatre in a fit of pique. For five months this unlikely audience had laughed as the Lord Chief Justice in Shakespeare’s Henry IV Part One was mocked and insulted. It must have felt deliciously familiar, risky and dangerous. Governor King took it personally and razed the playhouse.

None of that is true. Always undiscriminating in her choice of sources, she has used and abused David Malouf’s 1998 Boyer Lectures A Spirit of Play. Malouf described Governor King as “blustering, wrangling, breaking out in the same bad language as themselves [the convicts]” and then claimed that “in September 1800 when his Governorship was confirmed, he closed the playhouse and had it razed to the ground.” Malouf had also noted that Henry was performed in April 1800.

Malouf is partly incorrect—there is no truth to the claim that King either closed or “razed” the theatre. Schultz’s accusation that the governor acted “in a fit of pique” is unjustified invention. Records from the period are scarce but Robert Jordan in his history Convict Theatre of Early Australia traces the continuing existence of Robert Sidaway’s playhouse from January 1796 through to Christmas 1800 to 1802 and then to a later reminiscence of the period 1803/4 by a sea captain who had visited Sydney and wrote:

The colonists, in general, appear to be well reconciled to their situation, and a proof that their minds were not very ill at ease is afforded by the fact that they had a theatre, and, under the patronage of Governor King, gave several representations during the time I was there, all very tolerably acted.

Later Schultz will reuse the same material—combining authorial cant and invented history: “Political attempts to control and limit cultural expression and inquiry have a history that dates back to Governor Philip Gidley King’s decision to raze Sydney’s first theatre in September 1800.” The book is shoddy but the errors will live on.

Julianne Schultz is emeritus professor of Media and Culture at Griffith Uni­ver­­sity, and she misused journalism history for more sermonising:

Ever since William Charles Wentworth launched The Australian in 1824, in opposition to the government-sanctioned Sydney Gazette, owning a newspaper had been a passport to political influence. It is one of Australia’s most enduring features, a breeding ground for oligarchs and reformers, those currying favour and exercising influence.

The history is wrong and the theorising she bases on it is without foundation. Wentworth only had a financial interest in the Australian for about a year. His later political influence was based on being very rich, very loud around town, and a successful lawyer. Robert Wardell was the newspaper’s owner and editor and it was not his passport to political influence: he was shot dead by a convict in 1834.

Quadrant is granted a single spiteful but significant entry: “Their [post-war intellectuals’] ideas found expression in radical magazines like The Nation, Meanjin, Overland and later Nation Review, the more conservative Observer and CIA-backed Quadrant.” If concerned with context or fairness she might have added that Overland was founded with Communist Party funds (Moscow gold?) and that its first editor, Stephen Murray-Smith, had lived in Communist Czechoslovakia (during a period of show trials and Stalinist terror) where he attended the Communist Party School in Prague and also worked as a communist journalist. Returning to Australia he published a CPA-funded pamphlet called There Is No Iron Curtain (1952). She might also have provided further useful information on finances when she wrote defensively of a famous left-wing historian: “[Manning] Clark’s book from his 1958 trip to the Soviet Union, Making Soviet Man [sic], was condemned by both left and right.” His overseas tourism, which also included a week in Prague, was funded by the Union of Soviet Writers (KGB?) and Communist Czech government, and the title of his book is Meeting Soviet Man.

Confusing a book title is a minor error, fabricating a quotation is less defensible. Dealing with National Life and Character: A Forecast by Charles Pearson (1830–1894) she is facile and gushingly admiring, though she seems not to have looked at his book but relied on a discussion of it by Marilyn Lake and Henry Reynolds: “He was the first Australian intellectual to decisively influence thinking around the world—the forefather of the brilliant Australians who have since shone on a world stage.” A supposed quote from Pearson is inaccurate; the rewriting of a summary given by Reynolds and Lake. A correct transcription and an extensive examination of Pearson’s book is to be found in Keith Windschuttle’s The White Australia Policy.

Mutilating a source is also less defensible. On the same page as the doctored Pearson quote is a doctored quote from the British philosopher Isaiah Berlin. A long sentence by him has been presented minus sixty words without any indication a cut has been made, but the subtlety and intent of Berlin’s argument are destroyed.

Schultz ransacks texts or the internet for the gotcha moment. Her abuse of Irving Kristol’s Two Cheers for Capitalism (1978) further illustrates the process: “In it he damned, among others, ‘scientists, teachers and educational administrators, journalists and others in communication industries, psychologists, social workers [and] those lawyers and doctors who make their careers in the expanding public sector.’” The list of professions is actually longer than this. It wasn’t a catalogue of people to be “damned” but part of Kristol’s examination of the new class—his chapter is called “Business and the ‘New Class’”. The unquoted next sentence, even though written over forty years ago, contains a portrait of our modern Australian author and her friends: “It is, by now, a quite numerous class; it is an indispensable class for our kind of society; it is a disproportionately powerful class; it is also an ambitious and frustrated class.” Kristol is well worth reading or re-reading. In this essay is the observation that “Members of the new class do not ‘control’ the media, they are the media—just as they are our educational system, our public health and welfare system and much else.”

The Australian historian Greg Melleuish was demeaned for being an academic as Schultz suddenly turned from hectoring prosecutor to sensitive victim: “we were pilloried as elites, often by those who by virtue of birth, wealth or class were unequivocally elite”. Allowed several new-class exploratory sentences from Melleuish’s “treatise” The Packaging of Australia, Schultz did not examine the argument he was making but changed the subject, in the same paragraph, to attack the Institute of Public Affairs.

Not everybody is mistreated by the author, and certainly not “My friend Melissa Lucashenko”. The friend has provided a flattering front cover quote, more praise on the opening pages (where a further twenty friends compete in obsequiousness—or is it tongue-in-cheek fawning?), was cited in the text and then acknowledged for her assistance during the writing. Lucashenko gave the author a newly minted slur to use in her attack on Sir Samuel Griffith: “Slippery Sam: monster of the Maiwar [Brisbane River].” Schultz has no idea where to find the soul of Australia, but this is the soul of her book—the debased modern academy—a quote from a friend which takes gotcha history (an historical nickname), adds contemporary and anachronistic malice, and is then presented as serious commentary. It could be called fabricating evidence.

Lucashenko reviewed The Idea of Australia for the Guardian, which had already published an extract, but without disclosing her connection with its author or the puff writing texts she provided for the publisher. Her review included a shallow-with-insincerity statement that Schultz herself could have (may have?) approved: “Fairness matters, just as history matters.”

Hypocrisy breeds hypocrisy—this was Australia in 2022.

10 thoughts on “A Boastful Boomer’s Boring Idea of Australia

  • Blair says:

    ““The shadow of the founding racist White Australia policy still lingers, a humiliating collective memory easily triggered by words and actions.” And her feelings are based on prejudice: “Racism was still at the heart of Australian politics and the very modern voters were as susceptible to its threat as their parents and grandparents had once been.”
    How come Griffith academics are immune ?

  • STD says:

    More Lefty tripe ,anyone?

  • Paul W says:

    Judging by the endorsements on the cover, what else would you expect?

  • Katzenjammer says:

    Tell ‘er she’s dreamin’

  • Sindri says:

    “They shout their opinions at the camera . . . puffed up with angry certainty, ready to harangue and belittle those who do not share their views.”
    Irony is not her strong suit, is it.

  • wdr says:

    Grossly ignorant left-wing claptrap. Even by the standards of the academic Left, it is amazing that this book was published.

  • Daffy says:

    I still think Conway’s (?) The Land of the Long Weekend is a better snap shot of Australia.
    “First Nations peoples out of sight or in jail” (sic) I don’t remember any of my Aboriginal bosses or clients being out of site.

  • Stephen Ireland says:

    One wonders what ‘transformative conversations’ Dr Schultz is expecting to stimulate when it seems that this book is designed for and will only be read within her cosy in-group. If this is the case her book is but a monumental exercise in virtue signalling.

    Not for the first time in such contexts Thomas Sowell comes to mind:

    ‘The great problem – and the great social danger – with purely internal criteria is that they can easily become sealed off from feedback from the external world of reality and remain circular in their methods of validation. What new idea will seem plausible depends on what one already believes. When the only external validation for the individual is what other individuals believe, everything depends on who those individuals are. If they are simply people who are like-minded in general, then the consensus of the group about a particular idea depends on what the group already believes in general – and says nothing about the empirical validity of that idea in the external world.
    Ideas sealed off from the outside world in terms of their origin or their validation may nevertheless have great impact on that external world in which millions of human beings live their lives.’

    Sowell, Intellectuals and Society, 2009 p.7

  • 12845 says:

    I am so pleased to read reviews like this. Often one comes across some piece by an academic that you know is deficient, distorted, or just plain nonsense. You know it through your own discipline and experience. But research would be needed to find exactly where the problems are. I can think directly of David Marr’s bestselling The High Price of Heaven. To call it tendentious would be to praise it. It was full of error, distortion, ignorance and bad argument, but was ideological elixir for his political class who greedily swallowed it all. It is the same for much academic writing on Australian history. Quadrant cannot have too many articles pulling apart the work of academics like Julianne Schultz and Henry Reynolds.

  • Joseph says:

    Twenty one copies of this book have managed to find their way into the shelves of the SA library system, including one in the ghost town of Leigh Creek. However it must be a slow burner only five copies are out on loan.

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