Colonial Ambition: Foundations of Australian Democracy


Colonial Ambition: Foundations of Australian Democracy This is my favourite book of Australian history Peter Cochrane achieves his vision of an excellent narrative history, enlivened by character and colour and details in the right context In contrast to the bored schoolboy view, pining for wars and revolution, he shows our democratic achievement to be full of struggle and early defeats, stratagems and controversy, with complicated opponents and very human advocates. Co winner of the Prime Minister s History Awards in 2007, this is a robustly researched and elegantly written account of Australia s difficult and in some ways unlikely transition from a pastoralist oligarchy under the thumb of a British appointed governor and legislative council to a parliamentary democracy with close to universal male suffrage The writing does justice to the larger than life, eccentric personalities of the main players aligned either side of the battlefield for constitu Co winner of the Prime Minister s History Awards in 2007, this is a robustly researched and elegantly written account of Australia s difficult and in some ways unlikely transition from a pastoralist oligarchy under the thumb of a British appointed governor and legislative council to a parliamentary democracy with close to universal male suffrage The writing does justice to the larger than life, eccentric personalities of the main players aligned either side of the battlefield for constitutional reform W.C Wentworth, spurned emancipist, master orator and champion of the squatter conservatives and, taunting and opposing him, the liberal democrats, Robert Lowe, the Rev Doctor John Dun Lang, and Henry Parkes There is a deftly drawn supporting cast as well.The book judiciously quotes the no holds barred, rhetorical flourishes of these men s speeches in the parliament and out of doors With rigorous attention to detail, it manages to make dramatic the struggle to establish features of democratic governance we take for granted today collective responsibility, a broad franchise, party discipline, an elected upper house, access to Crown lands This book proved invaluable background reading as research for a novel I am currently writing set in 1850s Sydney This historian has the imagination and eloquent style of a fiction writer offering a compelling political narrative against the background of broader developments It colourfully evokes the atmosphere of Sydney as a city coming of age with an urban professional and mercantile class with their own sense of its prosperous, steam powered, post transportation future A highly recommended read loyal radicals and liberal capital team up to battle sheep lords for control of vast exercise in subjugation and expropriation of indigenous people and land recommended for vindicators of manhood sufferage for her majesty s antipodean colonies, Sydney locals, New South Welshpeople inclined to believe that their state politics has fallen on hard times. Colonial Ambition has all the strengths and a few of the weaknesses of narrative history On the one hand it is vivid Cochrane summons his characters to the stage like a visionary director, and has them act out their parts with grand gestures and booming voices William Charles Wentworth thunders in the Legislative Council, overflowing with the lava of his indignation Icy Robert Lowe throws a few crystal shards at his foes Henry Parkes rushes about the streets of Sydney, tub thumping, going Colonial Ambition has all the strengths and a few of the weaknesses of narrative history On the one hand it is vivid Cochrane summons his characters to the stage like a visionary director, and has them act out their parts with grand gestures and booming voices William Charles Wentworth thunders in the Legislative Council, overflowing with the lava of his indignation Icy Robert Lowe throws a few crystal shards at his foes Henry Parkes rushes about the streets of Sydney, tub thumping, going for broke, stumbling and getting up again Dr Lang grins like a solemn Quixote Slippery Charlie Cowper scrawls off letters to his allies and sweats under his collar while he tries to get government in the colony to work The men of Sydney are restless The fogs of London are stifling New South Wales is asserting itself, and every tick of the clock strikes a second closer to the hour of its independence It is vivid largely because of how Cochrane writes He says in the introduction that he is determined to let his heroes speak for themselves They knew that literacy and oratory were pathways to success They had experienced the power of political speech Cochrane tells a dramatic story in the sense that he structures it like a drama or a film He gets his characters in position Then he opens their mouths Like the great dramatists of Ancient Greece or the finest songwriters of Broadway, he knows the value of a chorus Throughout the book, the orations of his heroes are offset by the words of the men and women of the street, who speak as a collective, and who demand their rights in no uncertain terms Men with brains, men with ambition, men with a ha penny s worth of gumption and tuppence worth of nous were not going to sit in some shepherd s hut for the benefit of some big fat absentee shepherd king No sir And even an imbecile knew that to discourage the gold interest was a great public wrong Once again, it was said, Wentworth and company had shown their hand and once again the popular preference for London over Macquarie Street was voiced loudly over the quiet hum of the city s political talk That is a fine example of free indirect discourse, one of Cochrane s favourite and best stylistic techniques He lets his own voice meld with that of his characters, and the effect is electrifying.It is a ripping yarn that Cochrane tells in this gripping way The men we ll mention the women in a minute who fought for and won NSW s independence were fascinating figures It is easy to dismiss the white Australians of colonial times They were generally racist, had a poor understanding of their environment, committed terrible depredations on Aboriginal people and were rather too keen on the Crimean War But they had impressive qualities too, and Cochrane brings them out independance, insouciance, a remarkable love of culture and erudition, a keen understanding of their little country s place in the wider world, and a fiendishly strong sense of egalitarianism however compromised it was by other ideas These are truly democratic qualities, as Cochrane insists, and we should cherish them always Now for the flaws, and they must be pointed out The first is the book s incredibly narrow focus, on Sydney and on men Both these flaws might be excused given the political and social structure of NSW at the time This is a political history, Sydney was were nearly all the political institutions of NSW were based, and all the politicians were of course men But the book would have beencompelling had Cochrane taken the time to weave in some other perspectives Democracy was won out on the diggings as much as in the streets The Eureka stockade is barely a footnote in his account The campaigns for self rule in Queensland, Victoria and South Australia are pushed right to the fringes And the various regional towns are barely in the picture at all Charles Harpur published his radical writings not only in Sydney but in Maitland Daniel Deniehey was an MP and journalist in Goulburn Surely Sarah Wentworth had a larger influence on her husband s political career than merely to believe in him And Adelaide Ironside whom Cochrane does mention a few times surely demonstrates that women could have a visible impact on the campaign for self rule, if only we look hard enough for evidence of it More broadly, it would have pleased this reader if Cochrane had providedsocial context The people in his book are extremely vivid and full of life, but the world they live in is often a little vague Perhaps I am simply too fond of description These faults are almost inevitable in a fine narrative history like this It seems to be a law of the universe that the whole truth is messy, vague, and difficult for the human mind to grasp To reduce any part of history to a clear and compelling narrative basically requires focus and simplification The very greatest narrative historians Barbara Tuchman, for example, or Eric Rolls somehow manage to wedge complexity into their lively stories The very greatest analytical historians E.P Thompson, Tim Flannery, Hannah Arendt manage to inject narrative flair into their philosophical and speculative analyses Cochrane is very nearly in this league, and I ll be keeping my eye out forof his books. A detailed history of 18th and 19th century Australia, with focus on the political landscape of the time. Colonial Ambition tells the story of the politicians and would be politicians of Sydney who were driven by a determination to lift themselves and their new colony to a higher level

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