Robert “Bob” Murray’s The Making of Australia – A Concise History is reviewed by Patrick Morgan in the May edition of Quadrant. In this companion Q&A, contributor Tony Thomas discusses the book with its author:
Thomas: What gap is this general history trying to fill?
Murray: The travel writer Bill Bryson was here to write Bryson Down Under a few years ago and complained he couldn’t find a satisfactory short history of the country. He was being unfair to some good books, but it made me think there was room for a brisk one by a journalist, rather than another academic history.
Thomas: Your own personality doesn’t show through in the writing, not like, say, Manning Clark’s does.
Murray: I took the old-fashioned approach to journalism, or rather reportage, play myself down and let the story tell itself – accurately. People keep asking me, what’s my thesis? There’s no thesis, more a digest.
Thomas: “A round unvarnished tale deliver”?
Murray: Yes, I’m not claiming the ‘truth’, that’s just asking to be knocked down. But I try to be accurate.
Thomas: Where does this history stop?
Murray: With the election of the Abbott government. I don’t make any forecasts.
Thomas: What’s your background in journalism?
Murray: I started at the old Melbourne Argus as a cadet in 1950. After moving around this country and overseas for a few years I spent thirteen years with the Financial Review in Melbourne. I mostly wrote about industry generally – the operational rather than financial side — and especially about oil and gas, which was then being produced in Australia for the first time. I also wrote a lot about Victorian government. It was the Bolte and Hamer era.
Thomas: And what’s been your history output?
Murray: A dozen-or-so books. Most were commissioned to cover single topics such as the centenary history of the Shell Company in Australia, but there were some uncommissioned general ones. My first, written as a hobby, was the The Split (on the split in the Labor Party in the Fifties). The last before this one were a short memoir of growing up and a history of Victorian government from the 1850s to 2005, to mark the 150-year anniversary.
Thomas: How long did you take to write the new history?
Murray: Three or four years part-time.
Thomas: It’s not footnoted. Why?
Murray: I would have needed hundreds of footnotes and it would have added a year to the project and 20 pages to the book. It would not have interested a general audience much. Instead I added a substantial general note on sources, as well as bibliography and a detailed index.
Thomas: How the heck did you work out what to leave out?
Murray: As journalists we were trained to be concise and to the point. The principle is that both newspaper space and a reader’s attention are limited. I was reasonably familiar with the outline of Australian history and relied mainly on instinct about what to use. I had an idea of what length was appropriate to meet the right overall size. Students, I’m told, find Federation boring. Students would rather have a revolution. I did my best to make Federation reader-friendly while not skipping difficult topics like the debate over powers to be given to the Senate.
Thomas: Australian history these days is subject to heated controversies. What was your approach?
Murray: I briefly outline both sides of an argument, and leave readers to follow-up if they want to. Readers might want to know about the disputes between Bligh and Macarthur, for example, or the arguments on our participation in World War 1 and conscription. Was Ned Kelly a good bloke or a bad bloke? Was the Eureka Stockade the onset of Australian democracy or not? I usually sketch both sides as an introduction to the issues. The role of Eureka is easily overdone, though. I mention that democracy was already on the way at the time.
Thomas: On Aboriginal aspects of our history, you’re not orthodox?
Murray: There’s no real orthodoxy, more fashions. I have integrated the Aboriginal aspect into the overall story, rather than treat it as exotic and separate. This is easier to do than it once was, as there is so much more research and writing about it. The scarcity of recorded information seemed to make earlier historians shy of it.
I was suspicious of the ‘black armband’ view. I found it was thinly-sourced and polemical. The more I read, the more I felt the need to tread warily. I was influenced partly by Keith Windschuttle’s work, but also by Judy Campbell’s Invisible Invaders, about the impact of smallpox. Another good source is Marie Hansen Fels’ studies of the work of native police in Victoria and the note books of Assistant Protector William Thomas on issues like infanticide and black-white relations. John Connor on early frontier conflict between British troops and Aborigines was yet another influence. There were many more. White-black conflict was only one cause, and a lesser one than disease, of the severe decline in Aboriginal populations.
Thomas: Did you track down where Kevin Rudd in his apology got his figure of up to 50,000 stolen children from?
Murray: I suspect it was from an Australian Bureau of Statistics (ABS) survey in the 1990s. They asked Aborigines if they had spent time away from their family while they were children, but it didn’t go into the reasons why. The official “Bringing Them Home” report gave excerpts from interviews with Aborigines but they didn’t give reasons for being taken.
The inquiry didn’t look at the other side or seek out official policy documentation. It just referred vaguely to ‘government policy’ without even saying which of the seven governments they referred to.
Thomas: Which aspects of our history give you the most buzz?
Murray: Early colonial to 1850, it’s both demanding and rewarding to write about. It’s a bit exotic.
Thomas: I enjoyed your discussion of convicts.
Murray: I try to follow through a bit on things. Not many people know that Governor General Richard Casey descended from a First Fleet convict. There are lots of notable families originating from convict stock. Most convicts integrated into Australian society and became farmers, bush workers, labourers and business people. It’s hard to generalise about 150,000 convicts arriving over 80 years. On rough estimates at least 20 per cent of modern Australians have convict ancestry.
Thomas: What about Robert Hughes and Fatal Shore and all that?
Murray: A beat-up. Brilliantly colourful and a big seller worldwide but he was mainly interested in blood-and-guts stuff.
Thomas: How do you think this history will be received in academia?
Murray: A mixed reaction. I have sought the middle ground, but that may not win me friends among the academics who dislike their orthodoxy or discipline being challenged. But they’re not too bad. The difference is easily exaggerated.
Thomas: Journalists writing history is quite common these days?
Murray: Yes, people like Paul Kelly, Les Carlyon, Graham Freudenberg and John Hamilton. From early times journalists and other independents wrote a lot of history, but funding for academic Australian history has ballooned in recent decades and so has their output.
Thomas: It’s well illustrated. That must have involved a lot of copyright holders.
Murray: Yes it did. I started with photographs from the Australian Encyclopaedia and followed up. My publisher already had the cover photograph of the nearly-finished Sydney Harbour Bridge, but the idea came from the Encyclopaedia.
Thomas: What’s your next project?
Murray: I have no plans. I feel just about written out, but you never know.
The Making of Australia – A Concise History is published in paperback by Rosenberg. It is now on sale in bookshops at $29.95 and online via Amazon, $14.95