The Idea of Australia, a search for the soul of the nation, by Julianne Schultz

Gosh, I thought when I opened this book to 6 pages of enthusiastic praise from advance readers… what can I possibly say about The Idea of Australia, a search for the soul of the nation, that hasn’t been said by these eminent Australians? Who are they? Not your average blurbers! They’re all public intellectuals, who like Schultz herself, are engaged in what we might call the Australia Project:  a plethora of Professors including Glyn Davis, Tom Griffith,  Jenny Hocking, Ann Curthoys, Frank Bongiorno and Clare Wright; journalists Kerry O’Brien and Tony Koch; authors and editors of important books like Peter Mares, Yassmin Abdel-Magid, and Melissa Lucashenko.  That’s just half of them, the ones that I’ve read. Well, I’m not going to try to cover the same territory in a different way, except to say that this is a very timely book.  We are about to have an election, which gives us a chance to reset directions in important ways.  I should also say that if you have already decided that you have had enough of the present government and its commitment to its ideological predecessors you will probably enjoy this book and its wide-ranging survey of Australia and its issues.  If you are undecided, you will probably find it interesting if not always even-handed, and if you are planning to vote for more of the same, well, no book will help you. The blurb gives an indication of the issues we need to think about, when we cast a vote: Former publisher of Griffith Review Professor Julianne Schultz challenges our notions of what it means to be Australian and asks timely and urgent questions about our national identity. Maybe, because Australia has been so rich for so long, complacency and entitlement, rather than innovation and aspiration, have become the norm. Maybe, because the habit of not looking back has become so ingrained, we are incapable of imagining what we might become, as we have little idea of how we got here. Maybe, because we have for so long accommodated bullies, we retreated to smaller dreams in manageable spaces. Maybe, because so few of our political leaders have had courageous imaginations, they are in fact led by others. Maybe, because we are ashamed of our racialist past, we forgot how to hold onto the good bits. Maybe, Australia being home to the world’s oldest continuous culture is just too difficult for its white settlers to comprehend. Australia needs to address these issues if it is to become more than a half-formed idea. What is the ‘idea of Australia’? What defines the soul of our nation? Are we an egalitarian, generous, outward-looking country? Or is Australia a nation that has retreated into silence and denial about the past and become selfish, greedy, and insular? A lifetime of watching the country as a journalist, editor, academic and writer has given Julianne Schultz a unique platform from which to ask and answer these big and urgent questions. The global pandemic gave her a time to study the X-ray of our country and the opportunity for perspective and analysis. Schultz came to realise that the idea of Australia is a contest between those who are imaginative, hopeful, altruistic and ambitious, and those who are defensive and inward-looking. She became convinced we need to acknowledge and better understand our past to make sense of our present and build a positive and inclusive future. She suggests what Australia could be: smart, compassionate, engaged, fair and informed. Braiding her personal experience with often untold stories from our poorly understood history, Schultz finds a resourceful and creative people who have often been badly served by timid and self-interested leaders: a people eager to meaningfully recognise First Australians and address the flaw at the heart of the nation. A people who are not afraid of change and put culture ahead of politics. She tells us revealing stories that we rarely hear from our media or leaders. This important, searing and compelling book explains us to ourselves and suggests ways Australia can realise her true potential. Urgent, inspiring, and optimistic, The Idea of Australia presents the vision we need to fully appreciate our country’s great strengths and crucial challenges. In lieu of a proper review, I’ll quote the clarion call at the end of the book, with one from the beginning to give it context.  In the first chapter, titled ‘Terra Nullius of the Mind’, Schultz quotes from David Marr’s book My Country: My country is the subject that interests me most, and I have spent my career trying to untangle its mysteries… Wanting to understand my country came, right from the start, with wanting it to change.  I had a naïve notion that change would come simply by setting out the facts with clarity and goodwill.  I had a lot to learn… Why I wonder, is a secular, educated, prosperous and decent country so prey to fear and capable of such cruelty?  Why are we ruled from the edges? (P4) Schultz explores these contradictions in 400+ passionate pages of philosoph

The Idea of Australia, a search for the soul of the nation, by Julianne Schultz

Gosh, I thought when I opened this book to 6 pages of enthusiastic praise from advance readers… what can I possibly say about The Idea of Australia, a search for the soul of the nation, that hasn’t been said by these eminent Australians?

Who are they? Not your average blurbers!

They’re all public intellectuals, who like Schultz herself, are engaged in what we might call the Australia Project:  a plethora of Professors including Glyn Davis, Tom Griffith,  Jenny Hocking, Ann Curthoys, Frank Bongiorno and Clare Wright; journalists Kerry O’Brien and Tony Koch; authors and editors of important books like Peter Mares, Yassmin Abdel-Magid, and Melissa Lucashenko.  That’s just half of them, the ones that I’ve read.

Well, I’m not going to try to cover the same territory in a different way, except to say that this is a very timely book.  We are about to have an election, which gives us a chance to reset directions in important ways.  I should also say that if you have already decided that you have had enough of the present government and its commitment to its ideological predecessors you will probably enjoy this book and its wide-ranging survey of Australia and its issues.  If you are undecided, you will probably find it interesting if not always even-handed, and if you are planning to vote for more of the same, well, no book will help you.

The blurb gives an indication of the issues we need to think about, when we cast a vote:

Former publisher of Griffith Review Professor Julianne Schultz challenges our notions of what it means to be Australian and asks timely and urgent questions about our national identity.

Maybe, because Australia has been so rich for so long, complacency and entitlement, rather than innovation and aspiration, have become the norm. Maybe, because the habit of not looking back has become so ingrained, we are incapable of imagining what we might become, as we have little idea of how we got here. Maybe, because we have for so long accommodated bullies, we retreated to smaller dreams in manageable spaces. Maybe, because so few of our political leaders have had courageous imaginations, they are in fact led by others. Maybe, because we are ashamed of our racialist past, we forgot how to hold onto the good bits. Maybe, Australia being home to the world’s oldest continuous culture is just too difficult for its white settlers to comprehend. Australia needs to address these issues if it is to become more than a half-formed idea.

What is the ‘idea of Australia’? What defines the soul of our nation? Are we an egalitarian, generous, outward-looking country? Or is Australia a nation that has retreated into silence and denial about the past and become selfish, greedy, and insular?

A lifetime of watching the country as a journalist, editor, academic and writer has given Julianne Schultz a unique platform from which to ask and answer these big and urgent questions. The global pandemic gave her a time to study the X-ray of our country and the opportunity for perspective and analysis.

Schultz came to realise that the idea of Australia is a contest between those who are imaginative, hopeful, altruistic and ambitious, and those who are defensive and inward-looking. She became convinced we need to acknowledge and better understand our past to make sense of our present and build a positive and inclusive future. She suggests what Australia could be: smart, compassionate, engaged, fair and informed.

Braiding her personal experience with often untold stories from our poorly understood history, Schultz finds a resourceful and creative people who have often been badly served by timid and self-interested leaders: a people eager to meaningfully recognise First Australians and address the flaw at the heart of the nation. A people who are not afraid of change and put culture ahead of politics. She tells us revealing stories that we rarely hear from our media or leaders. This important, searing and compelling book explains us to ourselves and suggests ways Australia can realise her true potential. Urgent, inspiring, and optimistic, The Idea of Australia presents the vision we need to fully appreciate our country’s great strengths and crucial challenges.

In lieu of a proper review, I’ll quote the clarion call at the end of the book, with one from the beginning to give it context.  In the first chapter, titled ‘Terra Nullius of the Mind’, Schultz quotes from David Marr’s book My Country:

My country is the subject that interests me most, and I have spent my career trying to untangle its mysteries… Wanting to understand my country came, right from the start, with wanting it to change.  I had a naïve notion that change would come simply by setting out the facts with clarity and goodwill.  I had a lot to learn… Why I wonder, is a secular, educated, prosperous and decent country so prey to fear and capable of such cruelty?  Why are we ruled from the edges? (P4)

Schultz explores these contradictions in 400+ passionate pages of philosophy, political history and memoir, and she comes to the conclusion that boldness is needed.

Be bold, be bold, be bold.  Reform is hard.  But worth it.  Adopting this ambition and applying the values of respect and truthfulness, imagination, fairness and egalitarianism would be a start.  Platitudes are not enough.  A fully formed nation—grounded in a civic, not ethnic, way of belonging—without fear is still possible.  The soul of the nation has a rich inner life.  It holds the dreams and stories of those who have always been here and those who have come in waves ever since.

My search for the soul of the nation tells me that despite the noise from the fringes, and Canberra’s selective hearing, many, maybe even most, Australians are willing to be bold.  (p.416)

My Google search for responses to The Idea of Australia brought up only two paywalled reviews and a host of festival events and author talks. But I did find Melissa Lucashenko’s review: ‘A decent and fair Australia? The solution may lie in the old fashioned notion of community’  at The Guardian so take a look at that if you want a proper review.

You can read an extract here, and you can also listen to the author talking about the book with Phillip Adams at Late Night Live.

Author: Julianne Schultz
Title: The Idea of Australia, a Search for the Soul of the Nation
Cover design by Christabella Designs
Publisher: Allen & Unwin, 2022
ISBN: 9781760879303, pbk, 460 pages
Source: Kingston Library