Book Review – The Tyranny of Distance: How Distance shaped Australia’s History (1982)

As promised, I have come to report on the above. Written in the tradition of the French Annales School (of history), I dare say that this was and perhaps unfortunately remains a pioneering work. In the tradition of Confucius and past practice in university, I had taken to re-reading several parts again, especially the beginning and end segments of certain chapters.

Admittedly, (Geoffrey) Blainey writes with some poetic grace. It is relatively well organised – kudos to both the writer and editors. The map of the ‘Great Circle Route’ (p.181) was a revelation. It shows you how much a map, with Antarctica in the centre, can change your perception towards the distance between different lands.

From his work, it appears that Britain entry into modern day Sydney (or thereabouts in Southeastern Australia) was a hasty and rather poorly weighed decision. This was because the distance between the UK and Australia deterred further investigation into the merits of extensive verification of the continent’s actual value. (p.38) In the era of competition for colonies, the risk was taken and the first convict colony was implanted.

From there, more port like settlements grew since they lay on the more heavily used trading routes. Conversely, as New Zealand was tangential to the trading routes, it was colonised much later. (p. 98) Interestingly, whaling was a large component of the local economy. Sydney and Hobart (on Tasmania) were near the whales! (p.116-117)

Back to the continent itself. Subsequently, gold was found in Victoria and New South Wales. This seem to help cemented the importance of the ‘Boomerang Coast’. This according to the map on p.134-135, roughly from Port Pirie to Brisbane, with pivot above Canberra. See also this site for corroboration. The ‘Coast’ contained the majority of the populace. This enabled the said area to enact the ‘White Australia’ policy. They ‘outvoted’ those in the north that wanted cheap migrant labour. (p. 317) To some degree this was reversed during the Menzies led government. (p.333)

Socially, there were much fewer women or families moving to Australia. It appears that the US was more preferred. Based on recollection, land was cheaper; and it was closer to the UK and therefore cheaper for travel meaning easier repayment of travelling expenses. Thus, men did what they did in their absence. Many went drunk until the conclusion of the 19th century. There was great emphasis on leisure and sports. Since there were less workers coming from Europe, the workers on the continent had better bargaining chips to sustain this kind of lifestyle in face of employer demands.

Male loyalty was the rule of the day, and this promoted a kind of negative egalitarianism. Meritocracy and upgrading (such as through education) was not well received apparently. On a related note, Blainey seems to hypothesise, that railway expenditure (presumably to overcome the internal distance within Australia) probably took up the government budget that could have been spent on ‘education or social services’. (p. 264)

Closer to modern times, technological advances like shipping and television; as well as international alliances with the US (especially during the Cold war) effectively weakened Australia’s isolation. I was much surprised to see that US culture dominated their cultural life by the 1970s. The States had replaced the UK which had felt more like neighbours in the earlier era of Australian history. So too had China and Japan become bigger trading partners with the continent.

Blainey ended by querying how Australia was to deal with this increased interconnectedness. Here then is where we engage his narrative with the present. A recent (and former) Australian Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd, can communicate in Chinese. Penny Wong, a Malaysian born Chinese, became in the 21th century, a minister in the Rudd and Gillard governments. In contrast, the entry of the new Abbott government seems to imply the rejection ‘Big Australia’ – growing the population through migration. And my friend who had a friend who was completing his Phd at the Australian National University stated more than once: ‘China – flavour of the month’ or something to that effect.

Is there a clear path forward?

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