Thursday, 27 November 2014

Shaping a historiography: a conservative reaction

The moment of optimism about reconciliation between white and black Australia that might be drawn from shaping a new history after Mabo was soon subdued by a revival of conflict and division, a situation exacerbated by the election of John Howard’s Conservative government in 1996. Shifting or unstable histories led Howard to say in 1996 that Australian history was being ‘rewritten’ and taught ‘as a basis for obsessive and consuming national guilt and shame’. His government insisted on a celebratory historical perspective that told:

…the story of [all] our people...broadly constituting a scale of heroic and unique achievement against the odds…The ‘black armband’ view of our history reflects a belief that most Australian history since 1788 has been little more than a disgraceful story of imperialism, exploitation, racism, sexism and other forms of discrimination. [1]

Not all Australians accepted that the nation owed a debt of land or even an apology to the nation’s indigenous peoples; and historians played a crucial role in defining a symbolic language of resistance to Labor’s proposals and Keating’s reshaping of the national story. In 1993, Geoffrey Blainey lamented the predominating influence of a ‘black armband’ interpretation of Australian historiography that had ‘assailed’ its previously optimistic tone. Australian historians had once patriotically given ‘three cheers’ to a story of progress. Manning Clark ‘had done much to spread the gloomy view’; Multiculturalism, embraced by the Labor Party, preached that ‘...much of Australian history was a disgrace’, as a result of mistreatment of Aborigines, Chinese and Pacific Islanders. Blainey revealed himself as a pessimistic conservative, observing Australia’s once impressive economic achievements and vibrant democracy threatened by a poor work ethic and a low sense of ‘individual responsibility’ in a ‘rights-mad’ society.[2]

Since the 1960s, Blainey had written impressive surveys and analysis of successful Australian enterprise conquering ‘the tyranny of distance’ and charting the relentless expansion of the mining industry.[3] Despite The Triumph of the Nomads, which praised aboriginal Australians for exhibiting a kind of European skill in mastering the land, Blainey’s work was essentially a tale of white liberal progress, particularly celebrating the achievements won outside the cities, in rural towns and on the land.[4] In 1982, The Blainey View, a nationally broadcast television series and accompanying coffee-table book popularised his interpretation.[5] Two years later, Blainey’s cheering turned to dark prophecy. In a speech, in the regional Victorian town of Warrnambool, Blainey warned that Australian culture was threatened by a rising tide of Asian immigration. Blainey’s revival of the old fears of white Australia stirred great controversy and his work faced an intense reaction from revisionist scholarship that at times belligerently challenged his methodology, values and conclusions.[6] Despite controversy, Blainey has continued to publish regularly and is one of the few Australian historians to enjoy an international reputation through influential contributions to the historiography of the causes of war and his sweeping narratives of world history.[7] Blainey’s Black Kettle and Full Moon is a typically richly detailed and thought provoking celebration of daily life in nineteenth century Australia, was a popular best-seller by Australian history standards and he continues to make decisive interventions in the national narrative.[8] Blainey’s black armband is a phrase, like the Australian legend, that has produced its own literature and entered national political discourse, embraced by Prime Minister John Howard in his conservative reading of Australia’s history and his resistance to offering indigenous Australians a formal apology.[9]

Keith Windschuttle made the most decisive impact by an historian on the national narrative since Clark and Henry Reynolds. His The Fabrication of Australian History challenged claims about the extent of frontier violence against aborigines made by Reynolds and other historians. Windschuttle accused a ‘politicised’ academic historiography of misleading the public with an account of ‘wilful genocide resembling the kind the Nazis perpetuated against the Jews.’[10] Analysing the conflicts between white and black Australians in Tasmania between 1803 and 1847, The Fabrication of Australian History found that few aborigines had been killed in direct violence with whites and also disputed Reynold’s claim of 20,000 aborigines killed in frontier violence across Australia.[11] Windschuttle argued that he simply seeks to identify the true facts of Australia’s frontier history, freed from undue political bias.[12] Many historians have rejected Windschuttle’s arguments. Reynolds responded with a searching critique of Windschuttle’s methodology and aims arguing that in ignoring key evidence. Windschuttle presents aborigines with no concept of patriotism or of possessing land; they were criminals engaging in murder and theft, thus provoking a backlash from white settlers. This historical interpretation clears the way, Reynolds suggests, for a highly politicised and sustained assault on the aims of ‘contemporary indigenous politics, land rights, self-determination, reparation, even the need for a prime ministerial apology.’[13]

On 25 January 2006, on the eve of Australia Day, Howard addressed the National Press Gallery. Halfway through his speech, Howard announced that the ‘history wars’, in which he had been prominent from time to time since 1996, were over. The ‘divisive, phoney debate about national identity’, he reported, ‘has been finally laid to rest’. Fewer Australians, Howard contended, were now ‘ashamed of Australia’s past’ than had been the case a decade earlier. Having moved beyond an obsession with diversity, Australians, he asserted ‘are now better able to appreciate the enduring values of the national character that we proudly celebrate and preserve’. Essential features of that character are loyalty, patriotism, egalitarianism, hard work, law abidance, tolerance and a respect for the country’s British heritage.

Howard’s defeat in the 2007 general election and his replacement by the government of Kevin Rudd may mark the end of the dominance of conservative revisionism but the Australian national narrative remains intensely contested.[14] Race and indigenous studies have emerged as the key area of conflict in Australian national identity and historiography. Yet as Anne Curthoys observes,

...in their increased attention to Aboriginal history, however, it seemed that historians paid a high price, losing their earlier ability to provide apparently unifying national narratives. Popular understandings of the place of Aboriginal history in Australian history remain unsettled and deeply divided.[15]

The division is provoked by competing visions of the needs of the present, needs that impel the stories historians choose to tell. Australian historiography has always responded to present political needs and conceptions of the nation. Feminist, indigenous or labour histories seek to find in the past inspiration for the political needs of women, the indigenous or the working-class in contemporary struggles and to understand their historical experience; often a tale of marginalisation or injustice is uncovered. Blainey and Windschuttle maintain a story of predominately white European and liberal progress in Australia and judged by media attention and book sales it is narrative that continues to command considerable appeal in the public imagination. Writing history is an act of moral creativity.[16] If the apparently competing versions of the national narrative contain mythological elements, it is because they have been invested by their authors with symbolic meanings and aspirations to elaborate a moral story that help to develop a shared vision of the nation.


[1] His position can be found in Howard, John, ‘The Liberal Tradition: The Beliefs and Values which Guide the Federal Government’, Sir Robert Menzies Lecture, 18 November 1996.

[2] Blainey, Geoffrey, ‘Drawing up a Balance Sheet of Our History’, Quadrant, July-August 1993 p. 10.

[3] Blainey, Geoffrey, The Rush That Never Ended: a history of Australian mining, (Melbourne University Press), 1964 and The Tyranny of Distance: how distance shaped Australia’s history, (Melbourne University Press), 1966.

[4] Blainey, Geoffrey, The Triumph of the Nomads: a history of aboriginal Australia, (Sun Books), 1975.

[5] Blainey, Geoffrey, The Blainey View, (Macmillan), 1982.

[6] Ibid, Macintyre, Stuart and Clark, Anna, The History Wars, pp. 72-92; Gare, Deborah et al., The Fuss That Never Ended: the life and work of Geoffrey Blainey, (Melbourne University Press), 2003.

[7] See, Blainey, Geoffrey, The Causes of War, (Macmillan), 1973; The Great Seesaw, a new view of the Western World, 1750-2000, (Macmillan), 1988; A Short History of the World, (Viking), 2000.

[8] Blainey, Geoffrey, Black Kettle and Full Moon: daily life in a vanished Australia, (Viking Books), 2003.

[9] Davison, Graeme, The Use and Abuse of Australian History, (Allen and Unwin), 2000, pp. 16-17; ibid, Dixson, Miriam, The Imaginary Australian, p. 13; ibid, Gare, Deborah et al., The Fuss That Never Ended, pp. 104-105; ibid, Macintyre, Stuart and Clark, Anna, The History Wars, pp. 128-132.

[10] Windschuttle, Keith, The Fabrication of Aboriginal History, Vol. 1, Van Diemen’s Land, 1803-1847, (Macleay Press), 2002, p. 2.

[11] Windschuttle, Keith, ‘The myths of frontier massacres in Australian History, Part II: The fabrication of the Aboriginal death toll’, Quadrant, November 2000.

[12] Ibid, Windschuttle, Keith, The Fabrication of Aboriginal History, Vol. 1, Van Diemen’s Land, 1803-1847, p. 402.

[13] Reynolds, Henry, ‘Terra Nullius Reborn’, in Manne, Robert, (ed.), Whitewash, On Keith Windschuttle’s Fabrication of Aboriginal History, (Black Inc.), 2003, pp. 115, 135; see also Ibid, Macintyre, Stuart and Clark, Anna, The History Wars, pp. 161-170.

[14] Lyons, Martyn and Russell, Penny, (eds.), Australia’s History: themes & debates, (University of New South Wales), 2005 provides an important analysis of the issues of concern to Australian historians today.

[15] Curthoys, Anne, ‘Aboriginal History’, in ibid, Davison, Graeme, (ed.), The Oxford Companion to Australian History, p. 5. Haebich, Anna, ‘The battlefields of Aboriginal history’, in ibid, Lyons, Martyn and Russell, Penny, (eds.), Australia’s History: themes & debates, pp. 1-21 is a useful summary of the debates.

[16] Macintyre, Stuart, (ed.), The Historian’s Conscience: Australian historians on the ethics of history, (Melbourne University Press), 2004, an important collection of papers on the notion of moral creativity and the problems it generates.

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