9 March 2015

That time again


It's that time of year. The buildings are aglow at night and we celebrate Canberra Day and enlighten ourselves with Shortis & Simpson appearing with a historian mate to explore a past year of our national history. It's apt that it should be in Canberra and it occurs at the National Archives. After all, the records were made here and later stored and released here, even if they were decided on by visiting ministers. This year they were investigating 1988/89. S&S looked at the social circumstances and Nicholas Brown, their new offsider ANU historian, looked at cabinet documents. I amuse myself by thinking of these as a double act, S&S as the funny man and NB as the straight man, but Nicholas was witty enough in his own right/write. There's an impressive amount of work in this and it deserves much greater awareness. John Simpson spends many hours in the National Library leading up to this event and he and Moya create a truly impressive cabaret-like visit to the era in words and song. 1988/89 were the era of Bob Hawke and rising tension with Keating over leadership; the cheapest mobile phone cost $2,796; it was the time of the first commercial Internet, GPS, email; Australia had the most McDonalds in the world per head; a Sunbeam frypan cost $59.95; Mandela was still in prison; George Bush Snr won an election; it was the time of the Bicentenary and Charles & Dianna at Sydney Harbour and protests and the Royal Commission into Aboriginal Deaths in Custody following the Brewarrina race riots of 1987; pilots' pay dispute and the Kiribilli Agreement; Tienanmen Square Gorbachev and Glasnost (the Berlin Wall fell in 1989) and Home & Away; the new Parliament House was opened. S&S sang songs from the year to accompany the history lesson: Bette Midler Wind beneath my wings; Kylie I should be so lucky; Louis Armstrong (returned from the grave) What a wonderful world; Bangles Burning flame; Cher If I could turn back time; Crowded House Better be home soon; Paul Kelly Dancing on his grave; Celebration of a nation; Tracey Chapman Fast car; Bobby McFerrin Don't worry be happy; Proclaimers 500 miles; maybe others. It was also the time of the first ACT election resulting an in assembly containing four members who didn't approve of self-government after 2 months counting of the metre-wide ballot paper. And Jo Bjelke-Petersen and the Fitzgerald Inquiry and Peacock/Howard and a better national awareness of the Separation of Powers.

Nicholas Brown started with a joke but soon resumed more academic rigour. He spoke on the politics of the time after release of Cabinet papers. Interestingly, these are the formal papers presented to Cabinet. The Cabinet Notebooks (~= minutes of Cabinet) are held for 50 years. There were strains in government and Australia. The Labor government were putting through a broad-ranging set of neo-liberal changes and not all was well. The election theme was "Let's stick together". A new language entered public policy: micro-economic reform; productivity; restrictive work practices; incentives; reciprocal obligations (and you thought this was all Liberal thinking?). Keating spoke of a "new social contract" and "bring[ing] home the bacon". Hawke spoke of "no child living in poverty". There were disenfranchised groups, divisions in cabinet, retrenchments, rising interest rates. There was the Expenditure Review Committee (ERC) and the Accord Mk4. HECS arrived and there were immigration reforms, ATSIC was created and the environment became an issue. John Button spoke of a "productive culture" and the MFP (Multi-Function Polis)idea was floated. Keating spoke of Placido Domingo. Qualitatively, NB spoke of the strong work of the APS, the well-argued policy papers, the strength of ministers to push for change. Perhaps this is personal memory, but it was a time of turmoil in Australia under a government that implemented harsh changes but at least tried to support the losers, if not always with success, and the "recession we had to have" was coming. But there were winners, too, and it led to the Australian "miracle economy" that we are seeing fade right now.

To some degree this is nostalgia - certainly many in the audience would remember this time - but also it's serious and important history and it's ours and there are a million quotes to argue that we should know it. S&S are our local gems and they make a formidable intellectual team with Nicholas Brown. Catch them whenever you can. Shortis & Simpson are John Shortis (piano, chatter, vocals and extensive research) and Moya Simpson (chatter, vocals). They were accompanied by Dr Nicholas Brown (ANU historian).

  • John Shortis' new history website
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