Posted by: Lisa Hill | April 4, 2022

The Idea of Australia, a search for the soul of the nation, by Julianne Schultz

Gosh, I thought when I opened this book to 6 pages of enthusiastic praise from advance readers… what can I possibly say about The Idea of Australia, a search for the soul of the nation, that hasn’t been said by these eminent Australians?

Who are they? Not your average blurbers!

They’re all public intellectuals, who like Schultz herself, are engaged in what we might call the Australia Project:  a plethora of Professors including Glyn Davis, Tom Griffith,  Jenny Hocking, Ann Curthoys, Frank Bongiorno and Clare Wright; journalists Kerry O’Brien and Tony Koch; authors and editors of important books like Peter Mares, Yassmin Abdel-Magid, and Melissa Lucashenko.  That’s just half of them, the ones that I’ve read.

Well, I’m not going to try to cover the same territory in a different way, except to say that this is a very timely book.  We are about to have an election, which gives us a chance to reset directions in important ways.  I should also say that if you have already decided that you have had enough of the present government and its commitment to its ideological predecessors you will probably enjoy this book and its wide-ranging survey of Australia and its issues.  If you are undecided, you will probably find it interesting if not always even-handed, and if you are planning to vote for more of the same, well, no book will help you.

The blurb gives an indication of the issues we need to think about, when we cast a vote:

Former publisher of Griffith Review Professor Julianne Schultz challenges our notions of what it means to be Australian and asks timely and urgent questions about our national identity.

Maybe, because Australia has been so rich for so long, complacency and entitlement, rather than innovation and aspiration, have become the norm. Maybe, because the habit of not looking back has become so ingrained, we are incapable of imagining what we might become, as we have little idea of how we got here. Maybe, because we have for so long accommodated bullies, we retreated to smaller dreams in manageable spaces. Maybe, because so few of our political leaders have had courageous imaginations, they are in fact led by others. Maybe, because we are ashamed of our racialist past, we forgot how to hold onto the good bits. Maybe, Australia being home to the world’s oldest continuous culture is just too difficult for its white settlers to comprehend. Australia needs to address these issues if it is to become more than a half-formed idea.

What is the ‘idea of Australia’? What defines the soul of our nation? Are we an egalitarian, generous, outward-looking country? Or is Australia a nation that has retreated into silence and denial about the past and become selfish, greedy, and insular?

A lifetime of watching the country as a journalist, editor, academic and writer has given Julianne Schultz a unique platform from which to ask and answer these big and urgent questions. The global pandemic gave her a time to study the X-ray of our country and the opportunity for perspective and analysis.

Schultz came to realise that the idea of Australia is a contest between those who are imaginative, hopeful, altruistic and ambitious, and those who are defensive and inward-looking. She became convinced we need to acknowledge and better understand our past to make sense of our present and build a positive and inclusive future. She suggests what Australia could be: smart, compassionate, engaged, fair and informed.

Braiding her personal experience with often untold stories from our poorly understood history, Schultz finds a resourceful and creative people who have often been badly served by timid and self-interested leaders: a people eager to meaningfully recognise First Australians and address the flaw at the heart of the nation. A people who are not afraid of change and put culture ahead of politics. She tells us revealing stories that we rarely hear from our media or leaders. This important, searing and compelling book explains us to ourselves and suggests ways Australia can realise her true potential. Urgent, inspiring, and optimistic, The Idea of Australia presents the vision we need to fully appreciate our country’s great strengths and crucial challenges.

In lieu of a proper review, I’ll quote the clarion call at the end of the book, with one from the beginning to give it context.  In the first chapter, titled ‘Terra Nullius of the Mind’, Schultz quotes from David Marr’s book My Country:

My country is the subject that interests me most, and I have spent my career trying to untangle its mysteries… Wanting to understand my country came, right from the start, with wanting it to change.  I had a naïve notion that change would come simply by setting out the facts with clarity and goodwill.  I had a lot to learn… Why I wonder, is a secular, educated, prosperous and decent country so prey to fear and capable of such cruelty?  Why are we ruled from the edges? (P4)

Schultz explores these contradictions in 400+ passionate pages of philosophy, political history and memoir, and she comes to the conclusion that boldness is needed.

Be bold, be bold, be bold.  Reform is hard.  But worth it.  Adopting this ambition and applying the values of respect and truthfulness, imagination, fairness and egalitarianism would be a start.  Platitudes are not enough.  A fully formed nation—grounded in a civic, not ethnic, way of belonging—without fear is still possible.  The soul of the nation has a rich inner life.  It holds the dreams and stories of those who have always been here and those who have come in waves ever since.

My search for the soul of the nation tells me that despite the noise from the fringes, and Canberra’s selective hearing, many, maybe even most, Australians are willing to be bold.  (p.416)

My Google search for responses to The Idea of Australia brought up only two paywalled reviews and a host of festival events and author talks. But I did find Melissa Lucashenko’s review: ‘A decent and fair Australia? The solution may lie in the old fashioned notion of community’  at The Guardian so take a look at that if you want a proper review.

You can read an extract here, and you can also listen to the author talking about the book with Phillip Adams at Late Night Live.

Author: Julianne Schultz
Title: The Idea of Australia, a Search for the Soul of the Nation
Cover design by Christabella Designs
Publisher: Allen & Unwin, 2022
ISBN: 9781760879303, pbk, 460 pages
Source: Kingston Library




  1. The idea of The Australian Legend as a blog was to discuss alternative/better ways of being Australian and of talking about being Australian. It seems to have not got lost so much as to have been pushed aside by me talking about me, and about books, in that order probably.

    I struggle reading ‘general’ books about Australianness because I am so set in my own mind, though I hope not so much that ‘no book will help me’!


    • Oh you know what I meant by that. This is a watershed moment in the nation’s political life. In the future we will look on people who didn’t vote to get rid of a mean, lazy, corrupt government in the same way as when we are taken aback when we meet people who didn’t vote for change in 1972.
      And I say that fully aware that Albo is no Whitlam and the ALP’s policies are uninspiring. The best we can hope for is that they get a landslide, which would give them two terms and thus confidence to do more of what needs to be done.

      Liked by 1 person

      • I do know, but am also conscious that my leftism is every bit as inflexible, without the same recourse to dishonesty, as their rightism.


        • You’re probably still on the side of the angels…


  2. “. . . and if you are planning to vote for more of the same, well, no book will help you.” That gave me a Laugh out Loud moment, for sure.
    As I travel the globe, I am becoming more aware of Australia’s lapsed reputation. We have all been tarred a little by the actions of our leaders which, to be fair, makes sense. We are seen to have been accepting and complicit and there is a large section of the population that seems to have enjoyed the increased bigotry and racism opportunities that have come with closed borders.
    I mustn’t even get started on the topics of Australians locked out of their own country and our treatment of refugees.
    I can feel my fingers itching to fly so I’d best step away from the keyboard.
    Anyway, a worthy and timely book and a great review. Thanks.


    • Oh yes, it’s so embarrassing. We felt that a little on our last European trip and that was back in 2015, but now we can feel it even from here. I watch the news on France 24 and of course we’d expect them to be a little testy with us, but still, it’s galling to see their clips of UN and NGOs’ condemnations of Australia on climate change and refugees. We never see these on our own “most trusted” media and I doubt that the Murdoch media screens them so most Australians do not realise how we have lost our reputation as good global citizens.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. A terrific review Lisa, and a book I must get hold of – not that I need converting! We have quite a lot about which to feel embarrassed.


    • That’s great, and thank you, Eleanor. I want lots of people to read this one!


  4. I have a close friend, the child of Polish immigrants to Australia – she wails to me about how once, travelling in Europe, she was glad to say she was Australian and we were well regarded – now she says it is embarrassing to admit it – and I told her I feel the same.

    I fear the worst though – so many folk I talk to are busy buying their fourth or fifth investment property, and don’t give a hoot about people who are priced out, the precarious situation of renters, refugees in detention, the need for quality public housing, the dire situation of much of our wildlife, public housing, indigenous health services. They might care a bit about climate change, as most will admit it’s getting hotter. A young German couple I got talking to recently (here for a few years to study) told me how insular and self absorbed they found Australians.

    I wish I felt more hopeful! Fingers and toes crossed…


    • On the upside, I spoke to three people yesterday (out exercising our dogs!) who normally vote for the current incumbents and are so disenchanted with the corruption that they are voting differently this time. A glimmer of hope on the horizon perhaps!
      I’ve reserved this book at the library..


      • Well, that is encouraging.
        I can’t take my little Amber for a walk, she’s got kennel cough. (A week after she had her vaccination to stop her getting it.)
        She’s not very sick with it, but it’s so contagious I can’t let her have any contact with other dogs.


        • That’s nasty – my little dog Sam has recurrent eye infections, we think from grass seeds irritating him – trying to put ointment on his eyelid when it stings is challenging, poor guy! We are lucky to have superb vets here, but finding a GP can be challenging! Where I lived previously on the north coast my solitary GP was exhausted from long hours and my GP here has employed two psychologists to help deal with mental health issues among young people as she’s become overwhelmed with the lack of affordable mental health services in the region – the psychologists are bulk billing.
          More issues that need addressing!!!!


          • I wish they’d let us run the country for five minutes, there’s a lot we could fix.
            Gough did a lot in three days, but we’re women and we can multi-task.


  5. Loved your comment “if you are planning to vote for more of the same, well, no book will help you” particularly because we’re coming up to local elections here next month and I suspect within Wales we’ll get the same navel-gazing, parochial politicians elected. But still people moan and groan.


    • So true. Here, a candidate for local council elections only has to declare that they won’t raise rates, and lo! they get elected. Never mind that they lock the council budget into not having enough money for the services we need.

      Liked by 1 person

      • And then politicians wonder why levels of trust and engagement in local government are declining .

        Liked by 1 person

  6. […] Julianne Schultz’s The idea of Australia: A search for the soul of the nation: (Cassie McCullagh) (Lisa’s review) […]


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