Tuesday, November 24, 2009

Train Reading - Don Aitkin's What was it all for? 1

My train reading now is Don Aitkin's What was it all for? The Reshaping of Australia. (Allen & Unwin, Crows Nest, 2005). This is a remarkably good book for reasons I will explain in a moment.

For the benefit of international readers, Don Aitkin is a very senior academic, an historian and political economist. From his beginnings at the University of New England, he was Professor of Politics at Macquarie University in the 1970s, and then Professor of Political Science in the Research School of Social Sciences in the ANU. In 1988 he was appointed the foundation Chairman of the Australian Research Council, and it was from this post that he joined the University of Canberra in 1991 as VC.

Again for the benefit of international readers, this book is almost completely accessible to the non-Australian. It will, in fact, give you an extremely good introduction to this country in terms of post war history and society.

Don did the Leaving Certificate, the precursor of the High School Certificate, at Armidale High School in 1953. Fifty years later, he went back for a reunion of the class of 53. This led him to think of an article that became a book looking at change in Australia since the Second World war through the prism set by the experiences and attitudes of the class of 53.

Don is a very skilled writer. His two early books on the NSW Country Party have strongly influenced my own writing, although my focus is a little different. Don focused on the Party, whereas I came to see the Party as a part of what I called the broader regional movements and especially the New State movements.

His introduction provides an overview to the whole book. This is followed by a snapshot of Australia and Armidale at the time the book starts.

I found this valuable because it provides a benchmark against which to measure change. It is also, I think, a useful technique to use in general histories. Don also uses overviews to set a context for his deeper and more personal analysis.

In many ways, the lives of the class of 1953 breaks into two halves.

The first half begins with a conservative, regulated, socially constricted society. Yet this was also a world of low unemployment (2% was considered a Government breaker), of economic security and opportunity.

The second half is a word of change, of de-regulation, of downsizing, the end of permanent jobs. It was also a world of greater social freedoms, of advancements in a whole range of fields, of substantial increases in wealth. The class of 53 would generally not go back to the old world, but it is clear that by the end of the period under study a sense of unease had developed, along with a deep weariness at the pace of change.

One of Don's points is the remarkable capacity of Australia to accept social change, including especially the presence of so many migrants. Here he uses Canada as an equivalent benchmark, arguing that only Australia and Canada among developed countries went through such large social change, a remodeling of society, although the relative scale was greater in Australia.

He suggests that one reason Australia was able to absorb so many migrants from different backgrounds lay in the national consensus welcoming migration.

The term New Australian is no longer used and might today be seen as very suspect. The point, however, is that the term applied to all new migrants. They were new, but were also seen as Australian, at least Australians to be.
Today, the term Australian is applied only to citizens. There is no modern equivalent to New Australians, a term that applied regardless of formal citizenship.

I will finish this story in a later next post (here).

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