Julianne Schultz on finding the soul of Australia

Julianne Schultz is a journalist and the author of several books, including The Idea of Australia, Reviving the Fourth Estate and Steel City Blues.

She is the Chair of The Conversation and Professor Emeritus of Media and Culture at Griffith's Griffith Centre for Social and Cultural Research. Julianne was the publisher and founding editor of Griffith Review. She has served on the board of directors of the ABC, Grattan Institute and Copyright Agency, and chaired the Australian Film TV and Radio School, Queensland Design Council and National Cultural Policy Reference Group.

Julianne Schultz on finding the soul of Australia


ASTRID: Welcome to The Garret, Julianne.

JULIANNE: Thank you so much for having me.

ASTRID: Now, you have a distinguished career in the literary Arts, but also in academia and the media. I have a very quick whiz through your bio, here are some of the highlights. You were appointed as a member of the Order of Australia for services to the community as a writer and an editor. You've also served on quite a few boards of note, including the ABC, The Grattan Institute and The Copyright Agency. That is a lot, and I bring it up because it tells me that you understand how the storytelling industries in Australia work – how the wheels move and how stories get out there. You are also the publisher of Griffith Review, which is a beautiful literary journal in Australia, and you have just published The Idea of Australia: A search for the soul of the nation. I would like to start there, and then go into some of your work with Griffith Review.

The ‘idea of Australia’, Julianne, that is a huge topic, and it's also one that requires a lot to write about it well. It requires a clear vision as well as meticulous research. So how do you find such a big idea, but then find that clear vision, that argument, within it?

JULIANNE: Look, I think that the process of trying to come up with a book called The Idea of Australia really grew out of my... Well, it's grown out of my career over a long period of time, but certainly over the years that I was editing Griffith Review. I noticed that when we published issues that address what the notional ambition was for the country, that genre had enormous amount of interest from readers. It also generated enormous amount of debate. So what was clear to me – and has been clear to me for a long time – is that the idea of Australia is very much a work in progress. It's not something which is settled. It's not something which is so cast in stone that it can't be changed. It's something which is evolving all the time.

And partly that's a product of the history of the place. I mean, the ancient history, the process of colonization. The process of nation formation is something which has... it's a work in progress. So that, I guess, was my starting point, but it's not like you're talking about a country where everything has been determined. There's a lot that's up for grabs, and I think that contest and that process of revelation is really instructive. We need to embrace it rather than saying, ‘Oh, it's all been sorted. We know where we are’. Because I don't think we do. The period of European settlement has been brief in the enormously long history of the continent and the peoples who've been here for millennia before. We need to be able to talk about it because it changes, and we need to refine it. We haven't landed on something which is perfect and probably never will, but it's a contest.

ASTRID: We may never land there, but we can certainly try to do better. Did you pitch this book, or were you asked to write it?

JULIANNE: I'd had the idea of writing a book called The Idea of Australia for quite some time. Back in the days when Text was publishing Griffiths Review and Jane Novak was head of publicity and events and so on at Text, I talked to her about it. I said, ‘Look, there's an important book to be written, which is about the idea of Australia’. There are books that have been written in other countries which have formed out of the colonial process called ‘The idea of…’ There was a very famous book called The Idea of India, which was published in ... I can't remember what year it was, some years ago, and it was really about the founding idea of India as a nation, as opposed to ideas for India of how it might be better.

I'd said that to Jane all those years ago, and we'd talk about it periodically. When the pandemic came and I couldn't be doing a lot of the busy things that I'd been doing in terms of flying around the country and going to events and so on, I thought, ‘Oh, this might be an opportunity to actually dust that off’. I spoke to Jane, who by that stage was running her own literary agency, and she said, ‘Oh, I was just so hoping that you would ring and say this, that you wanted to write the book’. So that was how it happened. I mean, she pitched it to various publishers, and Allen and Unwin and were really keen. I mean, it fits the sweep of one of the strands of their non-fiction publishing, so it was a comfortable fit.

ASTRID: That is definitely what you want to hear from an agent, that they were waiting for your call, wanting you to call. Doesn't always happen, so well done.

Now a few minutes ago, you said the word ‘contested’. History is absolutely contested, in often terrible ways. You, in The Idea of Australia, you are writing about history, but also the contemporary moment that we find ourselves in and the idea of where we may end up. Given those two almost conflicting viewpoints that you hold at the same time, how did you navigate our recent past as well as our current moment on every page? Because you can't get away from it.

JULIANNE: Look, I thought about it as a braid really. I think of the book as a braid, and the braid has three strands, as braids tend to do. One is the past, one is the present, and the other is my personal interaction with both. So that's really how I was coming at it. I mean, my long background, I guess, for all the different things that I've done, was starting as a journalist. So, the contemporary moment is something that has always been a springboard for my writing, whatever it is. The challenge was to how to get the braid to hold together, how those three bits could work to give greater strengths to the whole, rather than being compartmentalised. So that was, in a sense, the writing challenge of the book – how to get those three bits working together.

The reason I pay as much attention to the past as I do – and I'm not a historian, I'm not writing as a historian, I'm somebody who is familiar with the processes of history and am comfortable doing the research and understand the discipline as an outsider – but the thing that I have always found is that unless you can put the contemporary stuff into some historical context, you are always going to be missing out because your limit of your personal experience only takes you back 10, 20, 50, 100 years, however old you are. So that's been a part of my writing practise for a very long time, to try and get back as far as I can.

In terms of this question about The Idea of Australia, it's not really the starting point, but in some ways the starting point was the process of unravelling the contemporary, outward-looking, inclusive, generous society that we had begun to create and to celebrate, the process of it's unravelling over the last 20 or so years, 25 years… not complete unravelling, but fraying at the edges. That's been one of the things that I've been trying to figure out. In my journalism, back in the days when I was writing for the Courier Mail, why did Pauline Hansen work? Why did Pauline Hansen appeal and why was Pauline Hanson so fiercely rejected for the first few years of her candidature and role in public life? Why did that happen and why was there such fertile territory for it? Why was it possible for the whole refugee thing to go on with such hideous consequences for so many people and such blatant cruelty? Why was the Australian psyche so equipped to adapt to that?

Why, when after what I describe as the greatest experiment in deliberative democracy that this country has ever seen, which led to the Uluru Statement, why at the end of that very considered and careful and back-breakingly hard process could a Prime Minister reject it out of hand? What were the elements in the national psyche, in a sense, that made it possible? Now, you can try to explain that in terms of individuals, but it never quite gets there of why things happened at a national level. So that's why I keep going back to stories from the past, experiences in the past, decisions and debates in the past which have fallen one way or the other, that actually create the germ of an idea, the germ of possibility that means things play out the way they do.

ASTRID: 2022 is an extraordinary year to think about history and the stories we tell ourselves. Not to bring international politics into The Garret, but as we can see, the stories being told about Ukraine and Russia, it's very much driving a brutal war. Australia is not in that situation, but Australia certainly has perpetrated huge amounts of violence, if we think about the violence of colonisation, if we think about the ongoing trauma inflicted by the state on First Nations people in Australia and the racism that remains in Australia. As a white woman, what subject position do you take? I guess the jumping off point for my question is I had the good fortune of being at a writer's festival over the weekend and I saw Evelyn Araluen, one of the editors of Overland Literary Journal, asked this question, and she essentially said, ‘Well, there are two answers to that, and one is not productive and one is productive’. I'm interested in how you do that, because I think The Idea of Australia is an extraordinary work that I hope remains in print and people read for years to come, but how do you navigate that?

JULIANNE: Look, it's a very good and it's an important question. One of the things that I say in the book, and it's true in my own life, is that the process of discovery and learning and listening and hearing and responding that has gone on in my own life and has changed me as I've developed and as I've listened and I've engaged and I've heard and I've thought. That's changed me, and at the same time, but just coincidentally over that long period, the country has changed as well. Australia has changed. There's been more capacity to hear things, for things to be said out loud, to treat people respectfully, to engage. Not the founding of the settlement, but the founding of modern Australia has silence baked into it. Not listening, not hearing, just not being aware, not paying attention, because actually there's something over there. There's a life to be lived and money to be made, houses to build, whatever. So that process of listening and learning is a starting point for me in the way I go about things. My own personal experience, it's unusual. It's not unusual, I don't know. But my family experience is that I lived as a child in lots of different parts of Australia in quite close proximity with other people in small communities. My father was a minster in the Lutheran church, and so I had that amazing experience that kids who grow up in the manse do of being an insider outsider. So right from when you are a little kid, you're watching and seeing and being told to behave, but also to pay attention to what's going on. It gives you an unusual perspective.

In terms of your question, which is writing about race relations and relations with First Nations people, that is something which is so a part of my being, but I can't say it's something I was never aware of. I mean, I remember as a child in Gilgandra, which was one of those western New South Wales towns, where there were shanty camps on the edges of the town. I remember being in hospital, having my tonsils out, and there was a sign saying ‘Abos only’, and the rest. I spent my childhood in Western Victoria, and I spent a lot of time on my bike looking and exploring and feeling the country and not ever having any sense of Aboriginal settlement there before. I mean, it was just invisible. But then probably when I was about 10, I remember going to the museum in Adelaide and at that time, the museum had human remains in the displays at that gallery. I remember being horrified by this, but the thing that I remember most about was coming down the stairs, back into north terrace, and there was an Aboriginal man standing there who moved and – whether he said something, I don't know – I jumped. Now, I thought they were all dead. They can't possibly be. What is that? His humiliation, in a sense, was palpable even for a child to be able to absorb. I think that for anyone who's had that experience of growing up in a really rich sense of Australia, you can't ignore it. It's always been there.

I don't write as a First Nation person, but I write as a person who is very sympathetic and very engaged and wants to give that voice as much space as possible. But I'm also very conscious that the burden of leadership for First Nations people is immense. We expect an enormous amount, and we always have. The generosity of the response has been extraordinary for all the brutality that's been delivered. There's an obligation on people like me to actually do their bit.

In for my case, that has meant, for instance, in Griffith Review, right from the beginning in 2003, I made it a matter of principle that there would always be Indigenous writers in that volume. It wasn't a big deal if you had to find them, if you had to find new voices and so on, but it wasn't something that was being routinely done. That was an important process, and it was an important part of my learning as well. I got to know people better, I learned more stories, I discovered things along the way. But the other bit of it is that you have to... the Settler stories, which intersect in many ways, quite richly, especially when you've got a family history that goes into the 19th century, there are good and bad family stories. They're not all bad. There are good ones as well and there are points of engagement and good stuff. They're not just all bad stuff. But it seems that there's an obligation for us to face up to our shortcomings as well and our role in it.

The thing that worries me in a sense is that we push it all back. You've got to retell your over and over and over, and we never actually a going to say, ‘Actually, we were pretty ashamed by what we did. We did stuff wrong’. So, it's a two-way process.

It's a long, discursive response to your query, but I think it's important to recognise that there's a role for people like me, for instance, who are actively interested and engage with it to take it seriously.

ASTRID: Australia doesn't need more silence. We need many other things.


ASTRID: Now, Australia, we have culture wars here. We have the history wars and you've just published a book that may very well speak to certain people in different ways. I guess, as the writer, as the thinker, and as the researcher behind this work, are you nervous? Are you over that? What kind of pushback or response are you anticipating from that part of Australia?

JULIANNE: Look, I don't know. I mean, somebody said early on Facebook when the first cover was put out – and there's an endorsement from Yassmin Abdel-Magied on the front cover, and I've known Yassmin for a long, long time and feel a certain sense of responsibility for having first published her and helped her on her way, and then have been watching with horror the way that she's been treated and marginalised and pushed aside. So, when the first cover went out, I noticed on Facebook that somebody said, ‘Oh, you shouldn't have her name on the cover. People won't buy the book because of that. That's terrible’. I said, ‘Well, if that's the response of that cohort of people, that's a great shame’, because in the book I tell Yassmin's story, I think with great compassion and quite a bit of insight and anyone who's not moved by that would have a serious sitting down.

That surprised me when I got that reaction, because I thought there'd be other areas where I would get a push back on. I'm just hopeful that what I've done over a long period of time, the seriousness of my purpose, the evident affection that I have for the place and its people, and my willingness to hear as much as I can of different points of view means that it's a bit harder for those people to get a purchase on it, because they can turn the page and there's another story that actually they could possibly align with. I was quite conscious of trying to make those connections, and insofar as my own experience has been quite diverse, I've got stories that I can tell of all sorts of different interactions. It will never shut up people who are so rigid in their view that they just don't want to listen, but I'm interested in the people who are willing to listen, think, pay attention and be a bit bold. They're the people I'm interested in. So there'll be pushback, I can deal with it.

ASTRID: I'm interested in how you wrote. So, this is a podcast for writers. Earlier you mentioned that you're not a trained historian, but obviously you understand the discipline and as a journalist, you understand research and crediting sources, et cetera. I'm interested in the bigger question behind that, which is who gets to write history – and people have been kept out of that for a very long time. That is obviously changing now, but when you sit down with this huge idea and all of your experience and skills that enable you to fulfil the goal of writing such a long book, how do you place yourself in the contemporary storytelling about Australia, and who we are and who we might become?

JULIANNE: When I first thought about writing a book, I thought that what I would write would be a fairly slim, rather elegant... not a treatise, but a rumination on the state of the nation. That's what I thought I would write. They were the big ideas that were animating my thinking. I wanted to be able to draw some of those long historical threads. I wanted to be able to talk about where we were and where we might be. I thought that it would be possible to write it in a way that went from politics to personal life, personal political sort of stuff in a fairly succinct, short book.

One of the things that my publisher Jane said very early on, not long after they signed me up, which she said, ‘Look, these books about Australia have been written, but they've almost invariably been written by men. There are obviously some of the big history books that have been written and there are various other interventions, but by and large, the interventions in the national conversation have been not coming from women’.

I thought, ‘You're right, that's true. There aren't many women who've been writing and playing in this space’. So that gives me another bit of a thought. Who are the people who I see regularly, for instance, at writers festivals? Well, there're a lot of them are women, young and old and middle aged, but a lot of them are very engaged with these big issues and they're not hearing these stories from a female point of view. I'm being bit careful with using that language, but they're stories that have written, by and large, by men. So that gave me another edge of, ‘Okay, I'm going to have to twist this thinking into something which has a bit more of a gendered lens as well’.

I started it and as I started writing and I thought, ‘Look, I've got thousands of books I've read and stuff. I've published lots of people. I had hundreds of conversations. I think I know this’. And as I started writing it, I realised... I had to go back and read more as I was going, which was a good thing, realising some things that I knew, some things I didn't know, some things that were details that I'd absorbed but hadn't understood where they'd come from. So, I started doing more reading and as I started doing more reading, I found I had to write more. Then when it went out to the first lot of publishers readers, a lot of the feedback, which was very encouraging, but a lot of the feedback was, ‘Oh, you need to explain this. You need to explain that. I need to know more about this’.

I realised that my starting premise was that people didn't know much about the past. That was true. If they didn't know much about the past, you had to help them get there. So that's why it grew from being an imagined 65,000 to being 135,000, or whatever it is in the end. My process, I'd had a rough chapter outline. I'd originally had 10 chapters, and I ended up with 20, and many of the topics of the chapters as they are published were there in my very first outline. I wanted to write the idea of ‘terra nullius of the mind’. I wanted to write about incurable flaw. I wanted to write about being from a place and being from somewhere in a globalised world. I wanted to write about bullies. I wanted to write about power. So, a whole bunch of those topic areas in a sense are in the chapters that were there right from the very first outline of the book, just that they grew. They grew.

ASTRID: I'd like to turn now to Griffith Review. Now, every journal has a different feel, a different purpose, a different audience. Who is Griffith Review for?

JULIANNE: Okay. So, I'm no longer actively involved. I'm now an Emeritus at Griffith University, so I'm no longer the publisher or editor, but I can speak to it because I was the person who got it going. So, when we established Griffith Review, it was 2003 and it had come out of a quite interesting long gestation. I'd had a background in journalism, both as a journalist and editor and reporter, but also teaching journalism at the University of Technology in Sydney for a long period of time, setting up the Masters of Journalism there. I'd had a long involvement in this practise, journalism. I had realised by this turn of the century that a lot of the stuff that I'd been writing about as an academic and observing as a practitioner had come to pass, that is, that the concentration of ownership had got tight.

Well, it had loosened because the same companies didn't own the TVs and radio and newspapers at that stage, but that the pressure on the newspaper industry and the publishing industry was very acute. Newspapers were getting smaller. There was less space for ideas. There were monopoly papers in most of the cities. It was a contracting space. The culture wars, which I write about in a way which I think is different to the way that most people have written about the culture wars, were taking a toll and they were closing down debates. So, the ideas that I'd been educated and brought up with in terms of the best principles of open discussion, pluralism, debate, information and so on, in which journalists and the media played a big part, were being squeezed and the pressure was on.

Now, this was early 2000, so it was nothing compared to what it is now, but at that point we hadn't yet got to the stage where it was so easy to access the best material from around the world by just a click on the screen. The media was being squeezed in Australia, you didn't have access to the best in the world and there was a bit of a sense of being lost. I had judged for a couple of years in Queensland a category in the Premier's Literary Awards, which was called Advancing Public Debate, and it was open to all sorts of writing. It was journalism, it was fiction, it was non-fiction, it was plays, anything that was advancing the public debate.

I remember at the time talking to Glyn Davis, who was then the head of the Premier's Department in Queensland, who also has a strong journalism background and saying, ‘Look, the stuff we are getting here is pretty thin. The idea of the advancing public discussion, it's taken a sidestep. It's not actually very lively’. So I said, ‘It'd be good if we could do something about it’. He said, ‘Look, I'm about to become Vice Chancellor at Griffith University. It might be possible to do something’. So, when he took on that role, he commissioned me to do a research project, to have a look at where the gaps were and what we might fill. Where the gaps were, writers were very much confined to writing what they were commissioned to write. When they're a novelist, that's it, there's no other place for them to participate. Journalists were being squeezed and squeezed, less and less space, and academics were very much in a publish or perish space where what they published in their disciplinary journals counted and nothing else did.

So, all three sources were being denuded, and so we came up with the idea of doing a journal, which would be accessible to the public, would be national in scope, would have a Queensland accent. It would be designed for those well-educated or interested people who wanted to know more about particular topics, and organised thematically, so you didn't have to buy every edition, but if you're interested in climate, you could buy an issue on climate, if you're interested in mining, you'd buy an issue on mining. The idea was to try and occupy the whole brain. So it wasn't just about analysis, but it was about analysis. It was about feeling, it was about fiction. It was about memoir, when we were publishing early memoir.

So that was the idea. No one else was doing anything much like it. I mean, Overland had been going for a very short period, but at that stage, it was very male. It was very Melbourne. It was very analytical, and it was quite predictable in terms of the topics that they were then approaching. So that was not in a great space. Overland was struggling a bit and the other journals had got caught up in very much the academic metrics. So, this was genuinely decided to be a crossover public interest journal where people could write longer, where things would be explored thematically, and we would hopefully find a national audience, which we did.

ASTRID: You did indeed. Now, I have a final question for you, and it might be not answerable, but you were there at the beginning of Griffith Review and for many years throughout. You've just published a very impressive, huge idea book. Where do you think the literary sector, not just journals, but including all of it, where do you think we are right now?

JULIANNE: Look, I think there's an enormous amount of fantastic work being done. I think there's an extraordinary number of talented writers who are established and emerging doing writing, which would once never have been possible. I think there's great richness and great resources. I think the whole rise of the writers festivals and all the other forums where people can go and talk about books is fantastic. That's a real strength.

I think that the problems are of how you cut through, how you get out of that world where people are interested to a world which is broader. That's what needs to be done and there are real impediments in that. I mean, you look at The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald, for instance, which used to, every week, publish 12 reviews. They wouldn't be the same reviews, because there was a different literary editor in The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald, and there was a different literary editor at the Canberra Times and the Newcastle Herald and the Wollongong Mercury, and they would all publish book reviews. The Age and The Sydney Morning Herald now publish one substantial review a week, and it's the same one in both newspapers. So, while we've got more books being published, more writers, more public engagement at a really active level, the spaces for which that can reach a mass audience are contracting and that's a real problem. I mean, it's not to take away from the richness that comes from podcasts like this and all the other things that are happening, but without a big, shared platform, it's very difficult.

I was involved with the ABC series Books That Made Us last year, and that was an interesting and wonderful experience, but it was very striking three hours of television. You can't do much and you're trying to cover a whole vast sea of how you get to a handful of books with authors that we can talk to that can tell stories. Now, audiences loved it. I mean, the ratings were fantastic. It was really embraced. One of the things that was not on our expectations in making the series was the impact it had in bookshops. So, bookshops were selling out of the books that were mentioned on the TV show. Publishers were having to get extra stop printed of some of the books that were being described and talked about, so there's clearly a huge hunger for it. But it's about not just people dealing in depth, but the mainstream media or what remains of it, finding ways to actually connect up with that audience who is hungry to hear these stories and to think about stuff and to learn.

ASTRID: You got us to a positive note. I am so very impressed, Julianne. Thank you so much for speaking with me today.

JULIANNE: Thank you so much. I hope it was useful.