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Some of the most eloquent advocates of Australian Federation in the 1890s imagined that there was nothing more natural than ‘a nation for a continent and a continent for a nation’, as the first prime minister, Edmund Barton put it. The reality was more complicated, as the difficult process of achieving Federation revealed. Differences between colonies, and then states, really mattered.

There was a gulf between north and south, east and west, that was economic, political, physical and psychological. Above all, the settler ideal of a White Australia ignored Indigenous belonging and was made meaningful only through exclusion of Asian and Pacific peoples.

This lecture will explore recent transformation of the nation imagined by Barton into something that would likely have dismayed him and fellow Federation founders. The pandemic reminded Australians that soft state borders could quickly turn hard, that differences between states still mattered, and that state and territory government was embedded in everyday life in ways Australians had overlooked or underestimated.

Meanwhile, the resurgence of Indigenous Australia offered a different kind of challenge to conventional understandings of settler sovereignty and national space. Australians, settler and Indigenous, have received a crash course in a new political geography inhabited by dozens of First Nations peoples, each increasingly recognised by name and Country, and each with culture, language and stories it proudly calls its own.

This event is part of the Menzies Australia Institute 40th Anniversary Celebrations.

This event is in-person. There will be a drinks reception prior to the lecture from 6.30pm, with the lecture starting at 7pm, and a reception afterwards.



Frank Bongiorno

Frank Bongiorno is Professor of History at the Australian National University and Distinguished Fellow of the Whitlam Institute, Western Sydney University. He was formerly Senior Lecturer at King’s College London and was Smuts Visiting Fellow in Commonwealth Studies at the University of Cambridge in 1997-98.

His books include The Sex Lives of Australians: A History (2012), The Eighties: The Decade That Transformed Australia (2015) and, most recently, Dreamers and Schemers: A Political History of Australia (2022). He is a Fellow of the Royal Historical Society, the Academy of the Social Sciences in Australia and Australian Academy of the Humanities and is a Member of the Order of Australia. He is currently President of the Australian Historical Association which this year celebrates its 50th anniversary.


Frank Bongiorno

Event details

Nash Lecture Theatre (K2.31)
Strand Campus
Strand, London, WC2R 2LS