Review of What If: Australian history as it might have been



'Imagining alternative Australian histories Review of What If: Australia as it Might Have Been' ABC Radio National Book Show, broadcast 28/4/07 (2007)

It seems the stuff of idle day dreams, thinking how things might have been otherwise. But our world is more than the straight and narrow. Our wonderful English language opens up all sorts of subjunctive corridors beyond what is to what could be, should be, will have been, might have been. So what ‘might have been' Australian history and how does it help us understand what is?

Like the history of real Australia itself, this volume edited by Stuart McIntyre and Sean Scalmer offers modestly practical deviations. There are no civil wars or invasions by Asian imperialists. We have instead scenarios such as Frank Bongiono's ‘What if New South Wales parliamentarians were not given fees?' Tim Rowe's ‘What if Central Australia was administered independently?', Virginia Spate's ‘What if there was a figurative school of painting in Sydney?' And Tom Griffiths and Tim Sherret's ‘What if the rivers were turned inwards?'

The authors in this volume set to tweaking Australian history. Their trick is to nudge the course of events ever so slightly, in order to gradually unravel the familiar train of reality. It's an intriguing premise. In his introduction, Sean Scalmer alludes to chaos theory as a way of appreciating the role of chance events in affecting the course of history. It's like an historian's take on the butterfly effect—how a butterfly flapping its wings in Brazil can set of a tornado in Texas. This technique opens up the hood of reality and allows us to investigate the motors of change within. What we see are the pistons of history, driving the various courses of events.

Some of these pistons recur in different scenarios. A glance at the index will reveal certain characters who have a disproportionate sway in Australian histories—shape-shifters like Billy Hughes, for instance.

In Stuart McIntyre's counterfactual, Australia's entry into the First World War is pre-empted by a Pearl Harbour-like attack on Australian troop ships in the Cocos Islands, well before they reach Gallipoli. In the shock that follows, Billy Hughes stubbornly rallies his nation to the cause of empire.

On the other hand, Helen Irving imagines what might have happened if Australia's initial attempt at Federation did not win British approval, and was therefore deferred until 1910. Rather than Alfred Deakin, Irving has the irracible Billy Hughes bring Australia together as a nation. Greater confidence in nationhood leads to a less obstructionist senate, paving the way for Australia to become a republic by 1980.

Certain flashpoints of Australian history recur. The 1969 election figures as a kind of ‘sliding door'. The 10 year delay in Federation tweaked by Helen Irving gives momentum to nationhood during a more progressive moment, which lays the base for an 11-year Whitlam government, beginning in 1969, extending its reforms in ways such as growing the national health service to include dental care.

In Sean Scalmer's scenario, when Caldwell is killed by his assassin's bullet, Whitlam takes leadership of the Labor party in time to win the 1969 election, ensuring a more technocratic and stable government than the libetarian days of 1972. These scenarios bring to mind the tragi-comic denouement of David Williamson's play Don's Party , when the hero sits on a backyard swing, pondering the vicissitudes of electoral fortune.

Luck reveals the importance of timing as Australia's fate is tied to global forces. In James Walter's gripping tale, Whitlam is tipped off about Kerr's dismissal plan—thanks to the Governor General's portraitist, Clifton Pugh. Whitlam pre-empts the plan, depriving Fraser's caretaker government of funds—not avoiding a subsequent election loss, but tainting the future Liberal government and allowing Whitlam to be re-elected in 1978 for a brief period. Australian politics then follows the British cycle, aligning Howard's victory in 1980 with Thatcher, and then setting up a third way Keating government in 1989. Strange that it should be otherwise, really.

The publication is framed in a way to ensure that alternative histories are not confused with fictions. Each counterfactual is counter-balanced by a sobering coda, where writers can explain their choices, like director's commentaries now available on DVDs. The book's design is similarly a bureaucratic powder blue without any alluring cover image.

But it's hard for some contributors to resist the pleasures of imagination. Some operate as ‘flings of history', offering brief respite from the stolid grip of Australian practicality. We can enjoy Jim Davidson's elegantly constructed francophone Tasmania, imagine sipping wine in its open air cafes before catching the opera—that is until their Australian neighbours restore order in 2007, with peacekeeping troops directed by Prime Minister John Howard.

There are also Borges-like pleasures in counterfactuals. We can begin to build a maze of mirrors out of historical speculation. Even the editor Sean Scalmer indulges, with his scenario of Caldwell's assassination, which includes imagining what might have happened if Caldwell had indeed lived. He did, didn't he?

But this seeming lack of historical rigour does lead to some important extra-curricular uses of fiction. One contributor was allowed to use a different format. Rather than immerse the reader in a road not taken, Peter Read maintains a parallel path between what did happen, and how it might have been otherwise. His speculation is—What if Australia did not exercise a policy of forced assimilation on its Aboriginal population? Cameos from a NSW reservation are compared: under the policy of assimilation, Joey, the offspring of a mixed marriage, disappeared forever into Mittagong State Homes; whereas in a more liberal system Joey learns to appreciate both the Waradjuri and Christian stories.

Read's method brings into stark contrast alternatives to the course of colonisation. In a time of historical fatalism, this kind of imagination helps motivate us to ensure the future does not follow the same course. After the black armband, and the white blindfold, might we now have the purple mask as the latest costume of Australian history?

Maybe. But one thing we know about masks is that they help us believe in the reality of what lies beneath. This volume What If has the consequence of essentialising history, creating an opposition between what really happened and what writers imagine might have happened.

But what if what might have happened is what really happened? Our idea of a ‘lucky country' seems to be haunted by alternative histories that would have cast in our lot with our poor neighbours. In 1986, Paul Keating warned of Australia becoming a Banana Republic, conjuring up the prospect of Australia as a failed Latin state with revolving dictatorships. Soon after, Pauline Hanson envisioned that a future Australian Prime Minister would be a Korean lesbian, evoking the spectre of our ‘orientalisation'. Both these imaginings are real documented history.

Australia is at heart a speculative enterprise. This is recognised by even the most conventional historians. In his canonical book Tyranny of Distance, Geoffrey Blainey, noted the contradiction of an Australia that ‘depended intimately' on a country that was further away than any in the world. To loosen our fearful clinging to the north requires a brave act of the imagination.

We could do with some bolder speculative histories. We need to get the white fortress on the couch, to dream of streets alive with Brazilian rhythms and hawker food, to confront the spectre of invasion.

But that goes both ways. We also need to find a way out of the left political dreaming. What if we could turn back time and take our pick of colonisers? Who would we choose? The Swedes? An ecologically sound settlement with little interest in sport? How soon before we get restless, wanting something more lively. Perhaps none of the alternative Australias would be perfect. But we need to go down those paths in order to discover their limits. These various ‘make up' histories are an important path for returning us the essential ‘make do' of life in Australia. These dreams lead us back to the reality of custodianship—the responsibility to the land and its indigenous cultures that history has arranged for us to share.

As we now enter into election mode, our fate as a nation becomes charged with possibilities. What If awakens the demons that inhabit our democracy. This isn't a bad thing. It's the demons of hope and fear that give Australian history its life. We could do well to extend this use of fiction as history, and start developing a history of our fictions.


Geoffrey Blainey The Tyranny Of Distance: How Distance Shaped Australia's History London: Mcmillan, 1966, p. 339

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