The PM’s history summit

The background
Australian Prime Minister John Howard, in what appears a blatant attempt to appeal to the One Nation and conservative voter segment, wants an overhaul of the teaching of Australian history in year 9 and 10 in Australian schools, making it into a “compulsory, stand-alone course about the events that shaped the nation” and focusing on events and influences that make Australia unique. He argues that without an understanding of the past, one can’t understand the present, and denied he was forcing an “authorised version” of history onto young minds. He has complained in the past about “new age” teaching methods which focus on issues and interpretations rather than facts. Labor believes the Government wishes to rewrite history to suit its views. (Link: Herald-Sun report)

To this end, he convened a one-day history summit with eminent journalists, historians and public figures (list and CVs can be found here) with an overtly conservative lean. After it convened, Greg Melleush, one of the participants, and Robert Manne spoke with the ABC’s Lateline program – Melleush believed that with 23 people present it was simply too big and ended up with “a sort of lowest common denominator of Australian history, which will now have to be worked up into something else”. He found it ironic that John Howard had wanted to move away from “issues… to more fact-based narratives” but the historians had ended up with “questions which seem to me to look quite a bit like issues”. Robert Manne, who was not invited to join the panel, believed it was inspired by the American school system and may reflect “a sort of patriotic history, a patriotic story”. Both men agreed it should reflect a world perspective, with Melleush wanting to avoid a nationalist take on things and Manne arguing he’d be more concerned if a student didn’t know about the Second World War or Stalin than about Australian federation.

My thoughts

The haste with which this exercise has been conducted and the favouring of one side in the culture wars is not going to lead to a factual account of Australia’s history, but a selective one that overemphasises things of limited importance while risking the complete omission of others that may have been just as critical. The Eureka stockade, the Aboriginal referendum, the Whitlam reforms which have to some extent shaped our present society and distinguished it from our past, none of these would likely meet with the approval of Howard’s side of politics as critical issues, yet all had far more impact on the development of our nation than a man on a donkey in Turkey (whose grave, I might note, I visited in September 2004).

The question – what is Australian history? – is something I’ve given a lot of thought to. It would be difficult to find two Australians who mean the same thing when they consider Australia. Unlike the US, which was formed then opened up, Australia (like Canada, New Zealand etc) opened up then formed. This is a country which migrants have made, and are still making.

  • Pre-European settlement (Aboriginal history) – Almost impossible to distil into a narrative.
  • Australian settlement – not a consistent event as each state was settled differently and at different times. The histories of Tasmania and Queensland stem from New South Wales, but Victoria was a separate development while Western Australia and South Australia were settled afresh from England by the middle class and upper class respectively.
  • Many of the events considered pivotal to history from 1788 until 1901 did not affect all states – teaching Western Australian children about the rum rebellion or Blaxland and Lawson is very interesting but has no resonance. Possibly the only two which were truly “national” (in a pre-national sense) were those related to the gold rushes, including the Eureka stockade, and the depression in the 1890s. C.Y.O’Connor was absolutely pivotal to WA history yet barely rates a mention outside this state.
  • Federation. Note that federation did not equal independence, it meant merging six colonies (all of which had democratic self government) into one with six parts. Each state’s constitution to this day makes the Queen the head of state with the Governor as their representative.
  • Boer War (1899-02), First World War, Second World War, Korean War, Vietnam War, Gulf War. With the exception of the Second World War, when Japan bombed Broome and Darwin, these were all foreign wars which we went to fight in our role as allies to larger powers (UK 1899-1942; US 1942->). The relationship with the UK as “Mother Country” and the hasty codification of the Statute of Westminster after the fall of Singapore.
  • The Great Depression
  • The Whitlam reforms (1967-1975) – although the first five occurred under Liberal governments, Labor’s Gough Whitlam exerted tremendous pressure and got progressive ideas – the Aboriginal referendum, health and education for all, the end of the White Australia Policy – onto the agenda. The Whitlam dismissal is in and of itself a pivotal moment in Australian history.

Before my trip to Canada I familiarised myself fairly extensively with Canadian history. Unlike ours, theirs wasn’t peaceful or orderly – most early Canadians were in fact refugees from the USA who forged Canada’s strong liberal tradition and links with Europe. This was tested around 8 times in the 19th century by wars, riots, revolutions and separatist groups. Even as recently as 1970, Canada had troubles with sectarian terrorism. In 1995, they had a referendum which very nearly ripped their country in two. In the early parts people were getting into gangs and doing things and getting executed all over the place. Canadians know who they are and what they’re doing (even if half the time it could be argued that they do so by distinguishing themselves from their large neighbour).

New Zealand’s is like ours but for two things – it started later, at a time when Britain had become decidedly more liberal than it was in 1788, and the Maori culture and customs were recognised, preserved and played a considerable part in the development of a New Zealand identity. There were wars with the Maoris, but it was nothing in nature like the massacres that occurred here and far more like a conventional war. Furthermore, while we had the White Australian policy and saw ourselves as part of Britain, New Zealand – while maintaining many of these links, in some cases even more strongly so than Australia – had fairly flexible immigration arrangements with most Pacific states and with Asia. Auckland is literally a multicultural melting pot and New Zealanders know where they stand, and have not been afraid to take strongly divergent stands in the international community – most notably that on nuclear weapons in the 1980s, which still has majority support today.

The contention – what is an Australian identity? Does it exist?

We are more a melting pot of other traditions than one of our own, although we have many things for which we can be proud and thankful. I myself am proud to be Australian, but I do not need to resort to odd justifications based on historical events that happened long before my arrival on Australian soil and had little to no impact on the country and culture I live in to explain that pride. Australians are good people who are broadly tolerant and open-minded, and opposed to ideology of any kind, preferring to debate each issue on its own merits from a relatively principled human stand. Those that take ideological stands are usually looked down upon and called names. That’s I think where these history wars are going to fall over. The issue of identity, or the issue of whether a bunch of mostly older men (and some women) who can’t even agree amongst themselves have anything to offer the young by way of identity and history.

What we should learn from history is, in Melleush’s words, that it is a collection of competing narratives. No one view is correct. Some, based on lies and fabrications, are blatantly incorrect, but even then, people don’t come to a view or believe these things for no reason. We should aim to instil a thoroughly humanitarian and world-aware consciousness in our young and let them make up their own minds or, in techie talk, find their own narratives.

(Apologies for the long post, guys. I had a lot to say. Feel free to contribute your competing narrative in the comments. :))


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