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Summer 2001 cover

National Observer Home > No. 47 - Summer 2001 > Book Reviews

Book Review: Australia A Biography of a Nation

by Phillip Knightley

London: Jonathan Cape, 2000, pp. 372.

While Manning Clark's work is of course in a class of its own, peerless and beyond question or comparison, I believe that Phillip Knightley's new book has a high place in a richly competitive field among the runners-up for the title of worst recent populist history of Australia. It appears biased, dated, superficial and inaccurate, its mistakes ranging from the exotic to the elementary.

Knightley is an expatriate Australian journalist who has lived mostly abroad for several decades. His work is praised by Left-wing British papers such as "The Guardian" and "The Independent".

The very jacket-blurb is wrong, claiming the British Colony in Australia started with "only two sorts of citizens, convicts and gaolers". In fact there were free settlers and ordinary civilians with the first fleet, and convicts were not citizens. How can a book published by one of the world's major publishing houses display such ignorance or indifference to accuracy?

Here are some of the errors in the description of a single incident which I have personally studied in detail: the riot at the Fremantle wharves in 1919 over the unloading of the ship "Dimboola". (Knightley has copied much of his account, without attribution, from Manning Clark's initially inaccurate and mythologised version, though he adds confusions of his own. Is he unaware of the compelling exposes of Clark's bad scholarship that have been made in the last decade?)

Anyway, it is alleged here that the Premier ordered the police to train a "military raiding party equipped with rifles and bayonets", to attack lumpers who were preventing the ship from being unloaded. (Manning Clark: "He equipped a squad of police as a military raiding party, complete with rifles, ball cartridges, revolvers and other military tools.") There was in fact no such "military raiding party" which in any case there would have been no time to train, and which would have been in contravention of the Constitution. When Clark published his account in 1988 I challenged him on it but he refused to make a substantive reply.

Police went to the wharves to preserve law and order and to escort the Nationalist workers who were quite lawfully to unload the Dimboola (the Commonwealth under Prime Minister Hughes had established preferences to the Nationalists in 1917) and the official party, including the Premier, who went to the wharves in an attempt to broker a peace settlement.

Firearms were issued to police on the wharves after an attack was made on the Premier and after several shots had been fired at police but they were not used. It is claimed by Knightley that the striking watersiders managed to prevent "non-union labour" unloading the Dimboola and there is a reference to "scab" workers. In fact the dispute was between two unions, the National Workers' Union and the Waterside Workers' Union.

"Mounted police rode the strikers down and drove them away." There is no evidence that anything like this happened. "Ex-servicemen came to the strikers' aid." Again, there is no evidence for this statement. If ex-servicemen had been allowed to intervene they would probably have attacked the strikers, as they had done in Queensland shortly before. They did not like Reds. Further, servicemen in both world wars had a particular hatred of lumpers because wharf-strikes and pilfering had damaged the war-effort. Knightley claims, again following Clark, "One striker received a bayonet wound from which he later died." Wrong again. A man was killed by unknown causes, possibly as a result of being hit by a missile thrown by the strikers or by being trampled. An inquest was held and returned an open finding. Knightley alleges that "scabs" were thrown in the river (Clark: "the lumpers ... threw the 'scabs' into the Swan River"; Knightly: "The strikers ... overwhelmed the 'scab' workers, and threw them into the Swan River"). Again, there is no evidence of this.

Knightley alleges the Premier tried to erect barricades himself. Again, this is a complete fantasy. He alleges also the Federal Government turned down a request from the Premier for military intervention. In fact the Premier had earlier asked the Federal Government to intervene to broker a settlement on the wharves which were a Commonwealth responsibility but it had done nothing. The State Government had intervened reluctantly because hospital patients were reported suffering from a lack of necessities on the Dimboola and because, as a result of the Spanish 'flu quarantine, Perth and Fremantle generally were suffering from lack of goods which "The Dimboola" was carrying. Knightley claims, "In the melee 33 men and women were injured", evidently again copying from Clark, who states "there were 33 casualties". Another account gives the casualties as six lumpers and 26 police, and there are other figures. In any event, no source is given either in Clark or Knightley. What is known is that the labour leader, McCallum, accepted that all shots had been fired at, not by, the police and helped calm the situation.

Both Knightley and Clark fail to mention that when travelling down-river to Fremantle in two launches the Premier's party came under a literally murderous attack when, as the boats were passing under the Fremantle bridges, iron and concrete blocks were thrown down on them and several people injured. The boats could easily have been sunk and the occupants killed. Professor Frank Crowley says the Premier narrowly escaped assassination. This attack on the Premier's unarmed and unsuspecting party is omitted from both accounts presumably because its less than exactly heroic nature is not in accord with leftist and politically-correct mythology. Nor is the point made that the lumpers concerned were not down-trodden proletariat but a combination of Marxist (Bolshevik and I.W.W.) revolutionists and thugs determined to preserve a lucrative monopoly for themselves by force.

In other words, in this account of 13 sentences (pages 94-95), virtually every one is wrong. There has evidently been no proper attempt made to check impartial sources, though the incident has been analysed by historians such as Professor Brian de Garis and there are official records available.

Moving on, it is reported that Australian troops at Lone Pine at Gallipoli attempted to surrender en masse. The report is unsourced and I know of no reference to such an incident in any Australian or British records. There is considerable attention given to the Forrest River massacre of Aborigines, which compelling research by the West Australian writer Rod Moran shows did not occur. Yet the Myall Creek Massacre, which did occur, and for which seven white men were hanged, is not mentioned. The account of the so-called "Battle of Pinjarra" is wrong in numerous ways, including the reference to "British soldiers under the command of Captain James Stirling". Stirling, the colony's first Governor and a Royal Navy, not an Army, Captain was not there. And so it goes on, including an absurd claim that a dingo fence can be seen from outer space.

Knightley claims, "Between 1931 and 1932 Australia came closer to civil war than at any other time in its history" (page 141). Since Australia had never been remotely close to civil war (well, there was a minor Irish-convict uprising in 1804 but he fails to notice that), this kind of statement is both easy to make and impossible to refute. It does, however, say nothing.

The central political issue of the Depression upon which everything else turned tariffs and industry bounties and their effect on Australia's exporting capability is not even mentioned. In dealing with heroic army doctors in World War II, he knows about Weary Dunlop. There is no evidence he has heard of Roger Dunkley, a West Australian.

Knightley manages one of the biggest of stylistic embarrassments: the flippant wise-crack that does not come off. He makes some witticisms about Sir Otto Niemeyer's allegedly cold and arrogant persona. He appears incapable of grappling with the question of whether or not Niemeyer's recommendations to the Australian governments of cutting spending in the depression were actually right or not. (They were, of course, but no subscriber to Australian left-wing mythology could be expected to think in such terms). He writes that at the beginning of World War II: "The Menzies government was determined that this was to be an 'all-in' war, with no backsliders, pacifists, Communists, Fascists, anti-British foreigners or trade union shirkers to stand in the way of victory" (page 171). The reaction intended from the reader is plainly amusement at Menzies' quaint Xenophobia.

One left-wing myth after another is recycled with tedious predictability: "In Britain many Conservatives in high places admired Hitler . . ."(page 170). In Britain as in Australia it was the Labour Party that voted against rearmament, against the Defence budgets and against conscription. Struggling to prepare for military resistance to Hitler was an odd way of showing admiration for him.

Regarding the bombing of Darwin, it is insinuated that defences were in adequate because of Blimpish complacency by the Establishment. There is not a word about the ceaseless strikes that had hamstrung the Government's efforts to upgrade defences. (There are photographs extant of senior Air Force officers black with coal-dust as they shovelled coal for the strike-bound power station themselves). Darwin is described, quite ridiculously, as "a target almost as juicy as Pearl Harbour" (page 188).

It is claimed that Menzies believed "that the 'great betrayal' of the Second World War [that is, the fall of Singapore] could be forgiven", thus importing into the text the idea that Menzies believed in such a "betrayal" by Britain and indeed that there had been one at all. What evidence is there that Menzies ever thought in such terms?

It would of course be completely bizarre to believe Britain wanted to lose Singapore, which apart from anything else was the key to desperately-needed war-resources including tin, rubber and oil (and therefore also dollars). Britain made frantic efforts to reinforce it late in 1941 and early in 1942, when the war was in a dire phase in Europe.

Further, of course, the claim from some figures identified with the Australian Labor Party that Britain betrayed or abandoned Australia at Singapore smacks of nauseating hypocrisy when we remember that Britain sent its own conscripts to defend Singapore when an Australian Labor Government would not, though Singapore was half a world away from Britain and in Australia's own backyard. One might have hoped these noisome ideas had been laid to rest with the hate-ridden rhetoric associated with Paul Keating, but such is apparently not the case.

Mr. P. P. McGuinness has pointed out in the November 2000 issue of "Quadrant" that Knightley swallows whole the dominant politically-correct propaganda line on Aborigines, asserting: "Australia was able to get away with a racist policy that included segregation and dispossession and slavery and genocide, practices unknown in the civilised world in the first half of the 20th Century until Nazi Germany turned on the Jews in the 1930s." It would be hard to imagine more absurd and distasteful nonsense, insulting to Australia and the victims of the holocaust alike.

I am only able to touch on a few of Knightley's errors here, but sometimes error and omission are varied by the technique of insinuation. We are told of Brigadier Sir Charles Spry, the then-head of A.S.I.O., and the Petrov defection:

"Given what we know about Brigadier Spry's views on the Labor Party, is it not highly probable that after Menzies had announced the election date, Spry himself decided the date of Petrov's defection so as to cause the biggest impact on the election campaign?" (page 246).

In a word, No, it is not probable or even possible. Every aspect of the away from Britain and in Australia's own backyard. One might have hoped these noisome ideas had been laid to rest with the hate-ridden rhetoric associated with Paul Keating, but such is apparently not the case.

Mr. P. P. McGuinness has pointed out in the November 2000 issue of "Quadrant" that Knightley swallows whole the dominant politically-correct propaganda line on Aborigines, asserting: "Australia was able to get away with a racist policy that included segregation and dispossession and slavery and genocide, practices unknown in the civilised world in the first half of the 20th Century until Nazi Germany turned on the Jews in the 1930s." It would be hard to imagine more absurd and distasteful nonsense, insulting to Australia and the victims of the holocaust alike.

I am only able to touch on a few of Knightley's errors here, but sometimes error and omission are varied by the technique of insinuation. We are told of Brigadier Sir Charles Spry, the then-head of A.S.I.O., and the Petrov defection:

"Given what we know about Brigadier Spry's views on the Labor Party, is it not highly probable that after Menzies had announced the election date, Spry himself decided the date of Petrov's defection so as to cause the biggest impact on the election campaign?" (page 246).

In a word, No, it is not probable or even possible. Every aspect of the Petrov affair has been investigated in exhaustive detail and allegations of politically-motivated behaviour by Sir Charles Spry and others have been absolutely disproved. (This polemical technique has a certain smell and I use the word "smell" advisedly of Erich von Daniken about it, along the lines of: "Given what we know, is it not highly probable the pyramids were built as navigation beacons for spacecraft?")

In any case, what authority does Knightley have to pronounce so confidently on Sir Charles Spry's politics? Sir Charles Spry was not a member of any political party and though he like many others attracted the enmity of the demented Evatt, he had friendly relations and worked with both Menzies and Arthur Calwell. Though Knightley puts himself forward as an expert on intelligence matters, he gives no evidence of being aware of any of this.

To mention waterside strikes in World War II is politically incorrect, but they cannot quite be ignored. Knightley refers to the fact that: "A waterside strike [singular] in April 1943 was broken by Australian and American servicemen" (page 213). In fact there were scores of waterside and other strategically-targeted strikes in Australia affecting every major port as well as massive pilfering and sabotage. The Battle of Milne Bay was fought by Australian troops without heavy guns because watersiders in Queensland refused to load them in time another instance of this book's catalogue of errors and, probably more significantly, omissions.

Naturally, John Curtin is described as "Australia's wartime leader" (page 215) when Australia's leader during the darkest and most heroic period of the war, when America had not come in and victory was anything but certain, was Robert Menzies.

When dealing with some of the best-known figures in Australian public life it is a good idea to get basic facts right: B. A. Santamaria was not expelled from the A.L.P. (page 248). He was never a member of it. Knightley claims the Democratic Labor Party "[g]ave the Liberals a constituency of single-issue voters the anti-Communists motivated by religion and therefore not amenable to critical discussion"(page 248). In fact anti-Communists were a coalition of many different shades of political opinion, including Liberals, monarchists, East European and Baltic refugees, social democrats and many Labor people, not to mention the remarkable group associated at one time with the Melbourne University A.L.P. Club. Leading "anti-Communist" intellectuals in Australia included secularised Jews like Frank Knop-felmacher (mentioned here once) and Richard Krygier, founder of "Quadrant" (not mentioned here at all), the Catholic poet James McAuley (ditto), and others of all religions and of none. The D.L.P. itself was predominantly Catholic but never entirely so, and the inaugural President of the D.L.P.,Robert Joshua M.C., M.H.R.,, was not a Catholic. In Western Australia the long-time State President, W. R. Sawyer, Secretary of the Federated Clerks' Union, was also a Protestant. Anti-Communists were not single-issue-voters.

Knightley describes Whitlam's dismissal as "a political assassination" (page 273). This is certainly a politically correct description for the aging lefties who still dwell on it over their chardonnay in preference to getting a life but it somewhat overlooks the fact that what actually occurred was that an election was called which Whitlam contested and lost by a landslide. An odd sort of assassination.

There are of course (see what I mean about tedious predictability) more than very heavy hints of a C.I.A. conspiracy behind the dismissal - "Whitlam and Labor were out and an America-friendly government was back in power" (page 278-279). Such an assertion would only be put forward as credible by someone who has no feeling for Australian politics at the time: Whitlam lost because a series of scandals, disasters, sackings and economic mismanagement had discredited his government. The C.I.A. did not need to destabilise Whitlam who destabilised himself. Had the Whitlam government completed its normal term of office it would probably have lost the next election by an even bigger majority than it did in December 1975. The proposed "21 Bills", not mentioned here, had created widespread fear for Australia's constitutional future and civil liberties (one proposed jail terms for "insulting" Federal public servants), and he had alienated the State Governments by plans to by-pass the States with the Australian Assistance Scheme. Inflation and unemployment were way up after years of general prosperity and economic growth under Menzies and the Liberals. There were the Cairns, Morosi, Murphy, Connor and other bizarre affairs, not to mention the squalid and unsuccessful political trickery of the Gair appointment, which was the ultimate trigger for the final crisis. Peter Walsh, Finance Minister in a subsequent Labor Government, gave as his opinion that most of Whitlam's cabinet were economic cranks. The fact that the Whitlam Government or individuals in it flirted with some pro-Soviet and anti-American gestures (for example over the Baltic States) and its behaviour at the time of the fall of Saigon may have angered the Americans, but certainly angered many Australians. Knightley betrays little knowledge or understanding of any of this. Instead all sorts of dealings between the American and Australian intelligence services are alleged which would be hardly worth the trouble of denying but no sources are given (pages 277-279).

Knightley says with what may be unintentional self-revelation: "I have learnt during thirty years of writing about the international intelligence community that proof about anything in the secret world is hard to come by . . . The whole point of a covert intelligence operation is to leave no trace that it ever took place, much less who organised it. So there is no paper in the C.I.A. archives setting out how the Whitlam Government could be destabilised." The lack of evidence of a conspiracy becomes proof of one. That must make it very difficult to write about. Or perhaps very easy. Can I please be an intelligence writer too?

However, where there is an intelligence matter, important in Australian history, where some facts are known, because they were tested in court that is the question of Wilfred Burchett's treason Knightley's treatment is inexcusably ignorant and/or slanted. It is simply said that Burchett "strongly denied" having helped interrogate Australian prisoners of war in Korea, and that by restoring Burchett's passport the Whitlam Government "ended what had become a cause celebre that had divided Australia on Cold War political lines" (page 240). There is no mention of the subsequent case of Burchett v. Kane or of the voluminous evidence that was given by ex-prisoners there, or that after the case proved Burchett's treason he was forced to flee the country and never returned: it has gone down the Left's capacious memory-hole.

Anyone of Mr. Knightley's politics which means practically everyone he quotes and refers to is given the highest credentials. Donald Horne is an "historian" (I would be interested to know what university he got his degree from) while a Mr. Paul Kelly is given the sonorous title of "political historian". The anti-British polemicist David Day is quoted repeatedly.

Politically incorrect commentators, such as Peter Coleman, Professor Ken Minogue or Geoffrey Partington do not get a look in, of course. Nor, though the book was published in 2000, does the most politically-incorrect event of all: the application of the Australian people's collective boot to the Republic referendum. Nor does the Howard Government's objectively skilful and praiseworthy handling of the Timor crisis.

Dealing with modern Australia he claims "half my friends of my generation seem to have children in [drug] rehabilitation programmes". I am pleased to say that I seem to have different friends.

Jonathan Cape and its commissioning editor have done themselves little credit by publishing this collection of Left-wing and counterculture mythologies as history. People who have read Knightley on other subjects (he has published a lot on spies) may revise their estimation of his work in those areas after reading this book.

"Anglo-Australian Attitudes" is yet another of a seemingly endless and rather expensive procession of highly-laminated slabs of sociological mediocrity and politically correct mythologising, produced this time by George Orwell's former publisher.

Michael Davie is an Englishman who has held senior positions on British and Australian newspapers. It is not quite of Knightley standard, but its publication by such a publishing house is still a fairly depressing event.

As with Knightley, there are too many errors, omissions and oddities to list in detail. Davie writes of Manning Clark: "The proposition, advanced after Clark's death, that he was a covert Marxist or fellow-traveller, can only be entertained by people who had not opened his book." In fact the gravamen of the ethical charge against Clark, apart from his inaccuracies and generally unpleasant value-system, was not that he was Marxist he was completely ignorant of economic history but that he was pro-totalitarian and possibly a Soviet agent of influence, an entirely different thing.

These two books, and a number of others like them, are significant not for what they contain but for what they are: that is, evidence of an inchoate and possibly even unconscious but effective networking to put forward, to the exclusion of others, certain politically-correct lines, people and mythologies in the culture war which, with the collapse of the Left's overarching political project around 1990 and the diversion of its energies into kulturkampf, is now affecting Australia and the whole English-speaking world. It is also significant they are able to attract the support of major publishers.

Hal Colebatch

 

 

 

National Observer No. 47 - Summer 2001