Australia in the Pacific – a story: book review.

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[This is an excerpt from an article in The Round Table: The Commonwealth Journal of International Affairs.]

This book makes appreciate the importance of the oceanic dimension in the history of Australia. Given the Pacific orientation, the focus is on eastern Australia. It is interesting to read that before 1817 the authority of the Governor of New South Wales extended eastward, encompassing not only Norfolk Island and New Zealand, but as far as Tahiti. It was not inevitable that “Australia” (meaning the Commonwealth of Australia) would emerge as the Australian mainland plus Tasmania. For a period in the 1890s, New Zealand was a possible federation partner. There have been various developments over time regarding Australia’s ties to the Pacific Islands (particularly in relation to what is now Papua New Guinea), but political incorporation as that option was never far away.

In the book, there are 20 substantive chapters, starting with prehistory and natural history, and the long history of the first peoples, and ending with the issue of climate change. The order is roughly chronological, the chapters focusing on general topics, covering early explorations in the Pacific region and Australia, the establishment of New South Wales as a Pacific colony, various links between Australia and the Pacific Islands (such as missionary activity and the role of indentured labor from Melanesia (“blackbird”)), the development of the White Australia policy and the experience of the two world wars in the context of the Pacific.

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There are seven chapters for the period after 1945. Chapter 13 (entitled “Governing Papua and New Guinea”) covers immediate post-war issues rather than focusing solely on Papua and New Guinea. -Guinea. Chapter 14 (“Learning from the Pacific”) examines the ways in which Australians have studied the Pacific, particularly through anthropology and art history (Bernard Smith, European Vision and the South Pacific (1957 ) being particularly noteworthy). In Chapter 15 there is an interesting discussion of Conservative scholar and poet James McAuley’s views on Australia’s cultural crisis, focusing on McAuley’s negative assessment of modernity, but lending also pay attention to how the Western encounter with the Pacific had exacerbated this crisis. The title of the chapter (“Post-war Australia meets Cold War Pacific”) does not do justice to the content of the chapter. While it is entirely appropriate to have an entire chapter on climate change (Chapter 20), given the existential threat to island nations (and their dissatisfaction with Australia’s climate change policy), the chapter 19 on Pacific Islanders in Australia Today also makes interesting reading in light of the shift to a non-racial immigration policy and the development of short-term work programs for Pacific Islanders.

Although not detracting significantly from the general presentation of the book, there were various points of detail requiring attention. Women gained the right to vote in Australian federal elections not from the first election in March 1901, but under the Commonwealth Franchise Act of June 1902; previously, women in South Australia and some in Western Australia had been able to vote on the basis that Commonwealth suffrage was the same as state suffrage (p. 205). On the issue of the Soviet Union not using its veto at the start of the Korean War (p. 317), this was due to a Soviet boycott of Security Council meetings in support of the Republic’s demand People’s Republic of China to represent China at the United Nations. Sukarno’s government was influenced by Indonesian Communists but was not “Communist” as such (p. 128); the situation in Indonesia was not a major factor in Australian support for the United States in Vietnam. Dr. HV Evatt resigned as Leader of the Federal Labor Opposition in 1960, not 1962 (p. 330). Australia’s lobbying of Indonesia over East Timor took place in 1998-99, not 1997 (p. 370). John Paton, the famous New Hebrides missionary, was Presbyterian and not Anglican (in 1977 the majority of Presbyterians in Australia joined the Uniting Church mentioned here) (p. 384); Paton’s discussion in Chapter 8 goes into detail about his Presbyterian background.

The reference to the Commonwealth in the context of Fiji as “the association of Britain and her former colonies which emerged with the post-war independence movements in 1949” (p. 362) is oversimplified to the point of misleading.

Overall, the author has developed a very interesting ‘interpretation’ of Australian history in relation to the wider Pacific context. The book makes compelling reading.

Derek McDougall is a Professor in the School of Social and Political Science at the University of Melbourne, Melbourne, Australia.

Australia and the Pacific: A History by Ian Hoskins, Sydney, NewSouth Publishing, 2021.

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