Sean Scalmer, Democratic Adventurer: Graham Berry and the Making of Australian Politics (Clayton: Monash University Publishing, 2020), 349. pp. $39.95 Paper. (Review)
In 1969 I chose to write an essay on the battles between the Victorian Legislative Assembly and the Legislative Council in the 1870s. I was deeply engaged by the drama of ‘the people’ seeking to wrest political and economic power from the propertied classes, and by the most notable champion of this cause, Graham Berry, sometimes with and sometimes without the support of David Syme of the Age. Back then, political history still had a firm place in the Australian History curriculum, and it was that ‘precocious, bold and unstable’ moment in Australia’s democracy that drew my burgeoning interest in history back ‘home’. On the other hand, I was also instructed that ‘the great man theory of history’ belonged to the past and I should avoid giving much credit to individuals as significant drivers of historical developments in my own work. Most of what I have studied since has contradicted that view, and this latest biography from Sean Scalmer further cements my conviction that certain individuals can and do change the course of history, and that understanding how and why that occurs not only provides deeply engaging reading, but offers significant insight into the present. Given the current angst about the state of democracy around the world and the emergence of populism – variously defined – this book is especially timely. As Scalmer explains ‘the aim of Democratic Adventurer is to recapture a moment of political experiment, recover its sense of possibility as well as its fragility and terrors, and salvage from it resources for our own beleaguered polity’.
Scalmer’s aim is also to recover a figure of considerable significance in the development of democracy and protectionism in Victoria whose contribution has been eclipsed, partly by the self-serving writings of Alfred Deakin and partly because aspects of Berry’s era offend modern political sensibilities. London-born Berry arrived in Victoria in 1852 and set up as a store keeper. Quickly, he was drawn into reform activities. The quality of Berry’s oratory was soon apparent and Scalmer’s fine-grained analysis of the rhetorical styles of the period is a sparkling feature of this biography. First elected to the Legislative Assembly in 1861, by 1871 Berry was spear-heading the protectionist cause both inside and outside parliament, having learned valuable political lessons which Scalmer documents with insight and empathy. As undisputed leader of militant radicalism Berry forced the Legislative Council to accept a land tax and some reform of the chamber. In the process he played a significant role in shaping the wider Australian political landscape. He founded Australia’s first mass political party. He demonstrated the power of public speech and newspaper ownership as tools of public persuasion, ‘laboured tirelessly to fulfil the promise of colonial self-rule’ and to ensure better conditions for working men and women. He even foreshadowed the outlines of a federated Australia.
Built around a series of critical episodes, narrated and analysed, the biography is dense and detailed. Scalmer remains puzzled as to why a man who was so ‘loquacious for so long’ left no reflections on his public life, but what he lacks in personal papers is well compensated by comprehensive newspaper reporting and Hansard. Scalmer quotes this material extensively enabling the reader to glimpse the vision, feel the passion, listen to the propositions, the arguments, the plans, the justifications, the vilifications, and empathise with the frustrations, the compromises, even the tedium, in what is something of a master class in politics. In the process we can see both the strengths and the limitations of progressive politics in this era, and also why in retrospect Berry has been difficult to position in the founding narratives of either the Labor or Liberal parties. Scalmer’s biography, with its subtle analysis and judicious balancing of eighteenth and twenty-first century sensibilities, restores Graham Berry to his rightful place in the gallery of democratic heroes, and biography to its rightful place in historical studies.
Carolyn Rasmussen, University of Melbourne.