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.

Thursday, 20 November 2014

Shaping a historiography: beginning a ‘history war’

The only way to discover who people actually are is through their expressions, through their symbolic systems…ethnography takes an historian to the systematic and public expression of who people are – their rituals, their myths, their symbolic environments.[1]

In The Death of William Gooch Greg Dening addressed a paradox that in order to discovering who people actually are, we must explore their symbolic systems, we must find who they are through their myths. In the 1990s, Australian history has been preoccupied with defining the nation’s past and its identity in controversies surrounding the work and opinions of prominent historians and struggles over the disputed facts of indigenous history particularly over the extent of frontier violence and dispossession. Macintyre and Clark’s The History Wars is an account of these politicised histories. Plotting the debate, Macintyre and Clark’s narrative shades into the terrain of myth, as they follow where history has been summoned to serve the symbolic needs of Australian national discourse.

Macintyre and Clark note that Prime Minister Paul Keating and his speechwriter, the historian Don Watson, relied inspirationally on Manning Clark.[2] An outspoken public figure in his later years, Clark’s History of Australia was vilified by his own publisher, Peter Ryan, following Clark’s death in 1991, as factually-inaccurate propaganda. Clark, Ryan concluded, was a victim of his own myth. It was an ‘epic’ myth of a tragic Australia, struggling for independence from its British origins that Clark offered his readers: an epic that Watson and Keating embraced.[3] Clark helped Watson and Keating conceive a symbolic environment, a moral space that Labor politics could occupy and to expand the moral space of Australian public life through an emotionally charged invocation of significant stories or myths from the past. Watson was presented with an unprecedented opportunity to employ the historian’s craft in national politics and invest Keating’s speeches with the resonance of myth, invoking the Australian legend to commemorate the sacrifices of two world wars and the symbolically-charged fate of the Unknown Soldier.[4]

History could also be summoned to destroy what Clark might have described as the ‘comforting’ myths with which white Europeans had obscured their treatment of the indigenous. ‘We committed the murders’, Keating bluntly reminded white Australians in his Redfern Park speech, as he stood before a stunned and largely indigenous audience.[5] ‘We practiced discrimination and exclusion.’ The High Court of Australia’s 1992 Mabo judgement[6] that recognised native title and the historic connection of Australia’s indigenous people to the land would form the basis of ‘righting an historic wrong.’[7] Historians had also played a vital role in rethinking the nation’s relationship with its indigenous peoples and laying the intellectual framework for the Mabo Judgement and the Keating Government’s response. Rowley and Stanner’s work began the task of revision in both historiography and in wider public discourse.[8] Henry Reynold’s path-breaking The Other Side of the Frontier established that Aboriginal tribes resisted the European invasion of their lands, and estimated that up to 20,000 aborigines had died in frontier violence while his The Law of the Land documented the legal and political denial of indigenous land rights.[9] Reynold’s work was cited in the High Court judgement in support of the claims made by Eddie Mabo on behalf of the Murray Island people. Attwood expressed concern about the role historians should play in redefining national identity in the wake of Mabo; historians had to retain a critical distance from a tendency to ‘essentialise’ Aboriginal claims about the past, propagating a ‘delusion’ that the past can be repossessed as ‘it really was’. A ‘new history’ could

…examine the moments when the ideals and values of both settler Australians and Aborigines have been upheld such that all peoples have benefited, and so genuine human progress can be said to be achieved.[10]


[1] Dening, Greg, The Death of William Gooch, (Melbourne University Press), 1995, p. 157.

[2] Macintyre, Stuart and Clark, Anna, The History Wars, (Melbourne University Press), 2004, p. 242; see also pp. 123-125.

[3] Ryan, Peter, Lines of Fire: Manning Clark & Other Writings, (Clarion Editions), 1997, pp. 177-234, Craven, Peter, ‘The Ryan Affair’ in Bridge, Carl, (ed.), Manning Clark, Essays on his Place in History, (Melbourne University Press), 1994, pp. 165-187.

[4] Ryan, Mark, (ed.), Advancing Australia, The Speeches of Paul Keating, Prime Minister, (Big Picture Publications), 1995, pp. 279, 285, 287.

[5] On 10 December 1992, Keating gave a speech, written by Don Watson, on Aboriginal reconciliation addressing issues faced by indigenous Australians such as their land and children being taken away. This speech became known as ‘The Redfern Address’ and was given in Redfern Park to a crowd of predominantly indigenous people, and although it was not given a lot of media attention at the time it is now regarded by many to be one the greatest Australian speeches. Keating was the first Australian Prime minister publicly to acknowledge to Indigenous Australians that European settlers were responsible for the difficulties Australian Aboriginal communities continued to face: ‘We committed the murders. We took the children from their mothers. We practiced discrimination and exclusion. It was our ignorance and our prejudice’.

[6] The judgments of the High Court in the Mabo case inserted the legal doctrine of native title into Australian law. In recognising the traditional rights of the Meriam people to their islands in the eastern Torres Strait, the Court also held that native title existed for all Indigenous people in Australia prior to Cook’s Instructions and the establishment of the British Colony of New South Wales in 1788. This decision altered the foundation of land law in Australia. The new doctrine of native title replaced a 17th century doctrine of terra nullius (no-one’s land) on which British claims to possession of Australia were based. The Mabo decision thus solved the problem posed by the Gove Land Rights Case in 1971, which followed the ‘legal fiction’ of terra nullius. In recognising that indigenous people in Australia had a prior title to land taken by the Crown since Cook’s declaration of possession in 1770, the Court held that this title exists today in any portion of land where it has not legally been extinguished. On 20th May 1982, Eddie Koiki Mabo, Sam Passi, David Passi, Celuia Mapo Salee and James Rice began their legal claim for ownership of their lands on the island of Mer in the Torres Strait between Australia and Papua New Guinea. The High Court required the Supreme Court of Queensland to determine the facts on which the case was based but while the case was with the Queensland Court, the State Parliament passed the Torres Strait Islands Coastal Islands Act which stated ‘Any rights that Torres Strait Islanders had to land after the claim of sovereignty in 1879 is hereby extinguished without compensation’.

The challenge to this legislation was taken to the High Court and the decision in this case, known as Mabo No. 1, was that the Act was in conflict with the Commonwealth Racial Discrimination Act of 1975 and was thus invalid. It was not until 3 June 1992 that Mabo No. 2 was decided. By then, 10 years after the case opened, both Celuia Mapo Salee and Eddie Mabo had died. Six of the judges agreed that the Meriam people did have traditional ownership of their land, with Justice Dawson dissenting from the majority judgment. The judges held that British possession had not eliminated their title and that ‘the Meriam people are entitled as against the whole world to possession, occupation, use and enjoyment of the lands of the Murray Islands’. Following the High Court decision in Mabo No. 2, the Commonwealth Parliament passed the Native Title Act in 1993, enabling indigenous people throughout Australia to claim traditional rights to unalienated land.

[7] Ibid, Ryan, Mark, (ed.), Advancing Australia, The Speeches of Paul Keating, Prime Minister, pp. 227, 232; Watson, Don, Recollections of a Bleeding Heart, A Portrait of Paul Keating PM, (Random House Australia), 2002, pp. 288-291.

[8] Rowley, C.D., The Destruction of Aboriginal Society, (Australian National University Press), 1970; Stanner, W.E.H., After the Dreaming: black and white Australians--an anthropologist's view, (Australian Broadcasting Corporation), 1969.

[9] Reynolds, Henry, The Other Side of the Frontier: Aboriginal Resistance to the European Invasion of Australia, (Penguin Books), 1981; The Law of the Land, (Penguin Books), 1987.

[10] Attwood, Bain, ‘The past as future: Aborigines, Australia and the (dis)course of History’, in Attwood, Bain, (ed.), In the Age of Mabo, (Allen and Unwin), 1996, pp. xxxvii-xxxviii.

Friday, 14 November 2014

Are we a nation of amnesiacs?

How much do we know or want to know about our pasts?  For the past half century, there has been a widespread discourse about western societies ignoring their collective pasts and their citizens not knowing their national history.  This view is often legitimised in surveys showing that people fail to identify famous events and politicians and is also linked with concerns about the perils facing the nation and questions of citizenship. What is seen as woeful ignorance is used to justify educational reforms in which the state imposes its view of the past through a national curriculum that has less to do with the past than with current political concerns. 



Who is this?

However, there are other ways to look at peoples’ perception of the past particularly discourse on historical ignorance can, itself, be considered a site of memory. The site is an intangible monument carefully constructed, erected for political purposes, widely visited, and dedicated to a particular relationship between peoples and their national pasts. In the ignorance of history discourse, ignorance generally means one thing: the incapacity to answer correctly factual questions about history. In Canada, for instance, The Dominion Institute was created in 1997 to improve Canadians’ knowledge of their national history. In 1997, the Institute published its first annual history survey, which tested general knowledge. The discovery that only 54 per cent of Canadians polled could name Sir John A. Macdonald as Canada’s first Prime Minister and only 36 per cent knew that Confederation took place in 1867. Since then, the Institute’s polls have filtered into the national discourse, quoted in more than 2,000 media stories and routinely incorporated into political speeches.  By the late 1990s it had become conventional wisdom that Canadians did not know their history, in large part because their schools did not teach it or did not teach it properly.  Similar conclusions were reached at the turn of the millennium in Australia—leading in part to the ‘History Wars’ and in the United Kingdom, though here the debate went back to the 1960s.  Ignorance, it seems, was a combination of poor teaching, an un-prescribed curriculum and the triumph of skills over knowledge and by erecting what is in essence a false dichotomy provided justification for intervention by the state not simply in what was taught but its pedagogical character.



What battle is this?

Discourse on ignorance of history is easily digestible because it is built on common sense evidence showing a lack of historical facts that ‘everyone should know’. Implicitly in those facts, there is a normative framework oriented toward a specific and increasingly politicised definition of a nation’s history which, to different degrees in different countries changes when governments change.  Ignorance of history discourse has become bureaucratised and self-fulfilling.   Since 1997, The Dominion Institute repeated its 1997 survey in 2001 and 2009 and found that Canadians have a persistent difficulty with identifying Sir John A. Macdonald. In Quebec, La Coalition pour l’histoire commissioned a similar survey in 2012 to support changes in the history curriculum. In that poll, it was found that 94 per cent of those surveyed were unable to identify Pierre-Joseph-Olivier Chauveau, the first Prime Minister of Quebec.  In 2002, historian Desmond Morton declared, ‘Canadian ignorance of our history is commonplace, and not just among professors. Politicians and business leaders repeat the mantra’ .

What is most problematic about the evidence is that it documents only ignorance and excludes investigation of what people actually know about the past. Many researchers have contested the validity of the discourse on historical ignorance arguing for surveys that include no factual questions, but open ones, such as: ‘How important is the past of Britain to you?’  Results of these more nuanced surveys add much greater complexity and diversity to the notion of historical amnesia.  The problem is that little attention has been given by the media or politicians to surveys like this largely perhaps because they call into  question their vested interest in government spending and educational reforms.  What history is, how it is defined, how it is taught and how it is received by its different audiences must be set against the widespread popularity of history as a leisure activity—whether as family history or in the audiences for the History Channel.  Historical amnesia, it appears, is a matter of elite rather than populist perceptions.   


Thursday, 13 November 2014

Shaping a historiography: gendering the Australian legend

Humphrey McQueen’s A New Britannia rejected Ward’s ‘mateship’ myth and the labour movement’s contribution to nation building. Succumbing to the ‘siren entreaties of bourgeois culture’ Labor betrayed the working-class in parliament; the unions timidly resorted to state-sponsored compulsory arbitration instead of pursuing revolutionary action. Embracing White Australia, the labour movement ensured that racism became ‘the most important single component in Australian nationalism’, in a culture that reverently clung to its imperial ties.[1] A New Britannia was a shrill expression of the New Left challenge to established Australian historiography, clearing the ground for a reconsideration of Australian historiography and an interrogation of national myths. Connell and Irving’s Class Structure in Australian History (1980) and Rowse’s Australian Liberalism and National Character (1978) provided two of the most coherent New Left critiques of Australian nationalism; the tone of ‘Old Left’ romanticism was replaced with a critique of class structure, the ‘hegemony’ of the industrial ruling class and prevailing liberal ideology.[2]

Dixson’s The Real Matilda provided a sharper analysis of Australian ‘mateship’ culture that had treated women with ‘contempt’ and ‘brutality’ and had excluded them from the workplace and public life and hence from the national story. Dixson’s critique of Ward’s myth of the typical Australian exposed its ‘womanlessness’ and a ‘peculiarly limited style of masculinity’ of Australian national identity.[3] Like her New Left contemporaries, Dixson’s work had an explicitly political ambition: to challenge the prevailing organisation of Australia’s power structures and institutions, to create ‘a less fiercely competitive society’. Significantly, this project required not only reformed institutions but a new language: The Real Matilda included ‘a kind of glossary’ to clarify a new understanding of ‘women and identity’, including ‘androgyny’, ‘machismo’ ‘patriarchal society’ and ‘role model’.[4] Written in 1976, The Real Matilda appeared as the Whitlam Labor government was cast from office, ushering in seven years of conservative rule. Although the denial of equal pay to women, a wage policy established in the first years of the Commonwealth, was overturned in the mid-1970s, signalling a gradual reversal in the policies and cultural practices that had denied the citizenship of women, the achievement of a less fiercely competitive society remained unfulfilled.

Despite the assaults from McQueen and Dixson, several important studies of Australian national identity returned to Ward’s work and the noble bush worker, indicating the legend’s enduring hold on the popular imagination and the narrative strategies of historians considering Australian national identity. In Inventing Australia, Richard White argued that Ward had stressed the nationalist element of the bush worker myth while marginalising its significance as a tool for ‘romanticising imperial expansion’, and as ‘a symbol of escape from urban, industrial civilisation’.[5] Anticipating the thesis advanced in Benedict Anderson’s influential Imagined Communities, White asserted that ‘[t]here is no real Australia waiting to be uncovered. A national identity is an invention.’ The historian must look to the inventors of the various forms of national identity cultivated since white settlement, and ask ‘what their function is, whose creation they are, and whose interest they serve.’[6] The writers and artists of the 1890s had propagated the bush legend as an escape from Australia’s rapidly urbanising culture; Palmer and Ward tried to revive this cause fifty years later. By that time, the experience of the Second World War and disastrous Nazi fantasies of a master race had ‘helped discredit the whole idea of a national type.’ The ‘quiet’ post-war replacement of White Australia with the notion of a multicultural Australia, built on successive waves of post-war immigration, had created a more mature, nuanced and restrained sense of national identity.[7]

White wrote at a time of relative optimism about the possibilities of a multicultural Australia, when the potential disturbances of globalising capital were not fully apparent. However, by the late 1990s these pressures were increasingly evident and unemployment, family pressures, crime and drugs caused growing civic fragmentation that threatened global society.[8] In The Imaginary Australian, Miriam Dixson argued that the rejection of Ward’s Australian legend had gone too far especially in fomenting an ‘unwarranted’ self-loathing of ‘Anglo-Celtic Australia’. She took up the international debate on nationalism and argued that a more realistic and assured sense of national identity had to be drawn from Australian history, to find a way between the past quest for homogeneous ethnic integrity and the emptiness of internationalism.[9] Where The New Matilda stressed the marginalisation of women in the national story, The Imaginary Australian interrogated the ‘complex and ambiguous’ and indeed ‘collusive’ role of women, symbolised in the feminised idealisation of the nation.[10] The Australian Legend and Its Discontents explored the legend’s diverse meanings especially in Linzi Murrie’s contribution that made explicit the masculine codes implicit and unexamined in much of the previous historiography of Australian ‘mateship’ and intensified the focus on the ‘peculiarly limited style of masculinity’ observed by Dixson in The Real Matilda. The Bushman masculinity is distinguished by the centrality of the homo-social as a masculine value. The heroic individualism, so important in representations of other frontier masculinities, is absent here. In its place is the egalitarianism of ‘mateship’ that functions as a strategy of legitimation within the male homo-social group. The ‘typical Australian’ must not deviate too much from his mates.’[11] Like all good legends it proved adaptable: the bush ‘mateship’, of the 1890s could be recast for the needs of binding the digger to the requirements of war. Murrie concluded:

The Australian legend has been a powerful fiction for constructing and legitimating dominant meanings of “masculine” and “Australian” in Australian culture, forged through the mythology of mateship.[12]

In 1997, Marilyn Lake declared that ‘feminists today are among the most creative interpreters of citizenship.’[13] Since the early 1970s, the New Left’s call for a more penetrating and analytical history inspired a range of important revisions in the fields of cultural history, class, convict history and race relations. Yet none were vitally significant as the sustained revision of gender relations not only to clarify the treatment of women and recognise their contribution to Australian national life, but to demonstrate the fundamentally gendered nature of Australian history and national identity. Few studies have as powerfully analysed the burden of the ‘ideal of femininity’ placed on Australian women as Matthews’ Good and Mad Women

…a history of the lives of individual women who have been confronted by the maze of gender imperatives’, and who struggled to live up to ‘the demand that they be “good women”.[14]

Lake has been at the forefront of the reconsideration of national identity, stressing the relationship between the categories of gender, race and class and the need to explore the expression of these inter-related categories in the development of nationalist consciousness.[15] Privileging masculine conceptions of the nation required categorisation of those excluded. Lake claims the Harvester judgement of 1907 that established the concept of fair and reasonable wage for male breadwinners and marginalised women in the workforce also ‘empowered white manhood’, by entrenching legal discriminations against indigenous and non-white workers.[16] Being forced from the workforce into motherhood roles did not, however, drive women from participation in the nation. As one of the authors of Creating a Nation, the first general history of Australia to assert ‘the agency and creativity of women’, Lake and her collaborators, as Dixson observes, ‘accorded women a central role...[as mothers] women were not alienated from, but central to nation building.’[17] Creating a Nation followed the intervention of women in the private and public spheres of Australian life and revealed how the concerns and needs of women and children helped shape public policy.

Realising the interconnections between class, race and gender, it is no coincidence that feminist historians such as Lake and Anne Curthoys have been at the forefront of looking out from the imagined boundaries of the nation. Lake has argued that the development of Australian national identity in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries must be seen as part of a ‘trans-national discourse of nation and race.’ She seeks to locate the development of the idea of the ‘white man’ both as a ‘territorial’ phenomena in Australia, and also in its global context, part of a wider discourse of white identity, particularly with racial ideas circulating in the United States, an exchange stimulated by anxiety about ‘…the white man, a figure produced in the relations of colonial rule,’ and the dilemmas of a multi-racial state.[18]

Engaging with the recent trans-national debates on the nation and its identities, Curthoys has acknowledged the insularity of Australian history and has argued that to understand the nation we must explore the forms of identity constructed around it such as the notion of diaspora, an enduring sense of identity and cultural links, transported through migration from one nation to another. Exploring the diaspora of the various immigrant groups to Australia charts the relationship between the nation and the wider world and may return the Australian historian to an interest in ‘British identities and connections.’[19] Looking inward remains instructive: Alan Atkinson has reconsidered the history of European settlement in Australia to argue that Australia exhibited a remarkably original political culture from the beginning. Despite its multi-volume scale, Atkinson’s study employs a creative and forensic analysis of ‘talk’ and ‘writing’ to offer a positive interpretation of Australian identity that does not perpetuate the traditional marginalisation of women and the indigenous and that is sensitive to the trans-national context of the development of Australian political language.[20]

The focus of Lake’s and Atkinson’s recent works suggests that interrogating the nature of national identity requires finely-honed studies as well as the sweep of the big picture. Dale Blair’s Dinkum Diggers investigates the national myth at a discrete level of the experiences of the men who served in the First Battalion of the Australian Imperial Force in World War One. Dinkum Diggers does not present a heroic portrait in the style of Bean, but a picture of predominantly working-class men trying to cope with their extraordinary circumstances and suffering as best they could, and sometimes rather baffled by the exaggerated reports of their battlefield conduct. Blair could not find evidence of Ward’s idea that the diggers conformed to an idealised, ‘mateship’ notion of how they should behave.[21]


[1] McQueen, Humphrey, A New Britannia, (Penguin Books), 1970, pp. 42, 51, 220 and 233-236.

[2] Rowse, Tim, Australian Liberalism and National Character, (Kibble Books), 1978 and Connell, R.W. and Irving, T.H., Class Structure in Australian History, (Longman Cheshire), 1980.

[3] Dixson, Miriam, The Real Matilda: woman and identity in Australia, 1788 to the present, (Penguin Books), 1976, pp. 12, 24.

[4] Ibid, Dixson, Miriam, The Real Matilda, pp. 230, 233.

[5] White, Richard, Inventing Australia, (George Allen and Unwin), 1981, p. 103.

[6] Ibid, White, Richard, Inventing Australia: images and identity, 1688-1980, p. viii; Anderson, Benedict, Imagined Communities: reflections on the origin and spread of nationalism, (Verso), 1983.

[7] Ibid, White, Richard, Inventing Australia, pp. 157, 169-170.

[8] Ibid, White, Richard, Inventing Australia, p. 171.

[9] Dixson, Miriam, The Imaginary Australian: Anglo-Celts and identity, 1788 to the present, (University of New South Wales Press), 1999, pp. 2-3, 128-161.

[10] Ibid, Dixson, Miriam, The Imaginary Australian, pp. 56-62.

[11] Murrie, Linzi, ‘The Australian Legend and Australian Men’, in Nile, Richard, (ed.), The Australian Legend and Its Discontents, (University of Queensland Press, St. Lucia), 2000, p. 90.

[12] Ibid, Murrie, Linzi, ‘The Australian Legend and Australian Men’, pp. 91-92.

[13] Lake, Marilyn, ‘Feminists creating citizens’, in Hudson, Wayne, and Bolton, Geoffrey, (eds.), Creating Australia, (Allen and Unwin), 1997, p. 97.

[14] Matthews, Jill Julius, Good and Mad Women, The Historical Construction of Femininity in Twentieth Century Australia, (George Allen & Unwin), 1984, p. 8.

[15] Lake, Marilyn, ‘Mission Impossible: How Men Gave Birth to the Australian Nation: Nationalism, Gender and Other Seminal Acts’, Gender & History, Vol. 4, (1992), pp. 305-322.

[16] Lake, Marilyn, ‘On being a white man, Australia, circa 1900’, in Teo, Hsu-Ming and White, Richard, (eds.), Cultural History in Australia, (University of New South Wales Press), 2003, p. 109.

[17] Ibid, Dixson, Miriam, The Imaginary Australian, p. 59; Grimshaw, Patricia, Lake, Marilyn, McGrath, Ann and Quartly, Marian, Creating a Nation, (Penguin Books), 1996.

[18] Lake, Marilyn, ‘White Man’s Country, the Trans-National History of a National Project’, Australian Historical Studies, number 122, (October 2003), pp. 354, 360; see also, Lake Marilyn and Reynolds, Henry, (eds.), Drawing the global colour line: white men’s countries and the international challenge of racial equality, (Cambridge University Press), 2008.

[19] Curthoys, Anne, ‘We’ve Just Started Making National Histories, and You Want Us to Stop Already?’ in Burton, Antoinette, (ed.), After the Imperial Turn, Thinking With and Through the Nation, (Duke University Press), 2003, pp. 85-86.

[20] Atkinson, Alan, The Europeans in Australia, 2 Vols. (Oxford University Press), 1997, 2004 and The Commonwealth of Speech, An Argument about Australia’s Past, Present and Future, (Australian Scholarly Publishing), 2002.

[21] Blair, Dale, Dinkum Diggers: an Australian battalion at war, (Melbourne University Press), 2001, pp. 192-193.

Saturday, 8 November 2014

Devolution, fragmentation and the end of the United Kingdom!

‘We’re all in this together’, the mantra expounded by George Osborne relentlessly over the past five years…though aimed at justifying the reduction of the deficit and the government’s austerity measures, it can also be seen as the Westminster view of the United Kingdom.  The reality, however, is far more complex than this simplistic view.  The development of the United Kingdom took centuries—the unification of the Anglo-Saxon kingdoms in the tenth century, the conquest of Wales in the thirteenth century, the Act of Union of 1707 and finally Act of Union  that finally brought Ireland under the centralised control of Westminster.  Yet it has taken less than two decades—since 1998 in reality—to unravel this constitutional settlement.  By giving devolution to Wales and Scotland and then to Northern Ireland (the rump of the 1801 legislation), the government created a constitutional momentum that led to the narrowly lost Scottish referendum in September and the precipitous statement by David Cameron about resolving the ‘English question’ in tandem with further devolution for Scotland.  This, combined with Britain’s increasingly fractious and tenuous membership of the EU, reinforces the concerns of many that we are going back to a ‘little England’ scenario, a fragmentation of the United Kingdom which though constitutionally still ‘together’ is increasingly splitting apart and that the usual approach of muddling through or tinkering with things won’t do.
Yet that, it appears is precisely what Westminster intends to do.  Scotland will get more devolved powers—too little I suspect for those calling for independence and too much for many in England who argue that they do not have the same freedoms.  There will be a movement of power from Westminster to the English ‘regions’, something already presaged in proposals to give the bigger cities their own mayors.  The West Lothian question will be ducked yet again as the Labour Party has a vested interest and future governmental necessity of keeping Scottish MPs voting rights.  The House of Lords will not be abolished.  The question of the EU will be fudged with the Prime Minister, if he wins the 2015 election (something many people think unlikely), like Chamberlain bringing back a ‘piece of paper’ from Brussels offering repatriation of powers but no solution to the unfettered immigration from the EU.  If he loses then Labour are not offering a referendum anyway.  This might have worked a decade ago…even five years ago…but it won’t now. Tinkering is no longer something that the public will countenance.  There is a constitutional momentum building across the United Kingdom that favours something more radical, more fundamental.
Do nothing and things will simply implode.  Scotland will gain its independence in a decade after a second successful referendum.  Northern Ireland and Wales will in effect be given Home Rule.  England will become even more fragmented as Westminster fails to curb regional aspirations in, for instance, the North and Cornwall, while its regional policies devolve more and more power to the new mayoral regions.  UKIP will gain in power and MPs and the government will be compelled to give the in-out referendum people want and it will lose.  What we will have is a fragmented, disunited kingdom; in effect a failing state of no global influence or significance especially when we lose our permanent place on the UN Security Council.  Preventing this, as I see this now inevitable process, requires rapid constitutional change and a written British Constitution.  It means the creation of a federal structure with a unicameral English Parliament in Birmingham, something that will inevitably lead to a diminution in the powers of the Westminster Parliament so we can get rid of the House of Lords, elected on the same terms as those in Scotland and Wales combining first-past-the-post and proportional representation.  We are better together than apart but cosmetic change to maintain the status quo no longer cuts it.

Wednesday, 5 November 2014

Shaping a historiography: Challenging mythologies

Melleuish observes that the radical nationalists Vance and Nettie Palmer influenced Hancock’s Australia, helping him to frame ‘a picture of the failure of suburban Australia to generate a vital, living culture.’[1] Where Hancock crafted a tough and realistic assessment of the national culture, Vance Palmer’s The Legend of the Nineties sought to revive the transformative power of myth. Palmer worked to reinvigorate a radical and nationalist interpretation of Australian experience, by focusing on the writers who had celebrated the struggles of convicts, gold miners and bush workers for economic justice and political rights.

The significance of this dream-time was that it turned the eyes of Australians inward and impelled them to discover themselves and their own country.[2]

Palmer acknowledged that ‘myth-making’ played a crucial role in any revival of a radical and nationalist consciousness.

It has been said that men cannot feel really at home in any environment until they have transformed the natural shapes around them by infusing them with myth.[3]

Since Scott, Australian historians had recognised the importance of the writers and artists of the late nineteenth century in helping to define the national character in its native environment. Crawford had observed that the writers of the 1890s ‘made room for the inspiration of Australian life’.[4] The Legend of the Nineties wanted to exploit the legend to inspire a new and distinctively Australian form of cultural vitality in the reactionary Cold War climate of the mid-1950s and at a time when consumerism seemed to diminish the strength of the radical heritage.

Brian Fitzpatrick had already provided radical nationalism with analytical depth in his studies of Australian economic and working life and critical examination of relations with empire. By focusing on the class relations and forms of structural injustice that Crawford and Hancock had tended to downplay, Fitzgerald argued that Australians were not quite masters of their own lives. It has been said that the ‘old left’ historians whose work came to prominence in the post-Second World War years ‘discovered that cultural tradition as young men in uniform.’[5] An idiosyncratic Marxist and journalist who was unable to secure an academic position because of his politics and his drinking problems, Fitzpatrick provided texts that clarified the radical tradition, pouring out a range of books across the war years that influenced subsequent generations of economic and labour historians and was the first historian to place the working-class at the centre of the national story. [6]

There was a touch of romanticism in Fitzpatrick’s analysis. In The Australian Commonwealth, he described how the working-class contributed its laconic traits to national life: an aversion to unnecessary conversation as most subjects are ‘hardly worth talking about’[7] and a reluctance to make heroes

The Australian people made heroes of none, and raised no idols, except perhaps an outlaw, Ned Kelly, and Carbine, a horse.[8]

Accounting for White Australia, Fitzpatrick also resorted to irony rather than confront the nature of working-class and labour movement enthusiasm for immigration restriction.[9] Robin Gollan was among those who acknowledged Fitzpatrick’s influence.[10] His Radical and Working Class Politics took up the theme of the labour movement’s intervention in national life and Labor’s emergence as ‘the party of Australian nationalism’, turning away from socialist internationalism to embrace White Australia through immigration restriction and a defence policy within the British Empire.[11] Manning Clark also recognised Fitzpatrick’s pioneering work.[12] Yet in 1954, he described Fitzpatrick as a ‘disappointed radical’ lamenting the collapse of Labor party from a pure force ‘working for the regeneration of mankind’ in the 1890s into a machine concerned only with the capture of political power. Clark scoffed, ‘this makes most of the histories of Labor read rather like the stories of fallen women.’ A history at once more coolly rigorous and understanding of human nature was required.[13]

In the same year that Palmer published The Legend of the Nineties, Manning Clark[14] challenged the assumptions on which it was based. In a lecture at the Australian National University, Clark declared that Australian history needed to be rewritten, a task specifically required to address ‘the problems and aspiration of this generation.’[15] Clark had been a student of Crawford’s at the University of Melbourne and had won a scholarship to Oxford. However, unlike Crawford and Hancock, he was demoralised by the experience of class-ridden pre-war Britain. A brief experience of the darkness of Nazi Germany in 1938 intensified his pessimism. In 1946, Crawford invited Clark to begin teaching Australian history at Melbourne, the first serious attempt to stimulate its study at a major Australian university and a spirit of high seriousness pervaded Clark’s efforts to rewrite the national story.[16]

Between 1946 and 1954, Clark clarified the research domain of Australian history and the parameters of his own project by editing several volumes of primary source documents.[17] This process of exploration and reconsideration resulted in a lecture that displayed the intellectual sophistication that Clark brought to his task. ‘Rewriting Australian History’ also set out many of the rhetorical and symbolic devices that Clark would employ in his A History of Australia, devices that turned from tools of creative revision to totems of his own myth over the course of the six volumes published between 1962 and 1987. Clark not only wished to explain the story of the Australian people. He was troubled about what Australian historiography was for: he declared the liberal ideal ‘bankrupt’ and accused the universities of producing its most persistent defenders.[18] Like Ivan Karamazov, Clark wanted ‘to be there when everyone suddenly understands what it has all been for.’ A disappointed idealist, Clark seemed unsure of a new path, reaching back to the 1890s for a metaphor of contemporary disillusion that he found in a sermon by Cardinal Patrick Moran: ‘in many respects it is an age of ruins’.[19]

Despite seeking consolation in history, Clark declared that in order to address the problems of the new generation historians needed to abandon ‘the comforters of the past’.[20] They had to jettison Hancock’s ridicule of Australian mediocrity and belief in Europe as ‘the creative centre.’ Historians had to explore the tension between ‘the Catholic and Protestant view of the world’, as revealed in Australian history. They had to abandon Wood’s liberal romanticism of the convicts, the ‘great majority’ of whom were professional criminals: ‘let us rather examine the habits and values of the criminals’, anticipating not only his own work but the rich field of convict history that would develop in subsequent decades.[21] Clark exposed the weakness of the radical nationalist interpretation: historians had to move beyond an unthinking embrace of ‘the ideal of mateship’ and locate it as a phenomena of a specific set of historical circumstances of nineteenth century bush life and recognise that ‘the conditions to which belief in mateship was a response have almost entirely disappeared.’ Mateship had also helped produce the White Australia policy and an insular nationalism. To address the problems of a new generation Australian history had to be written by ‘someone who had something to say about human nature’ and who could strike on ‘some great theme to lighten our darkness.’ [22]

Clark’s analysis initiated a ‘counter-revolution in Australian historiography’ and he certainly cast himself in a prophetic role.[23] Unlike previously published single volume short histories, the scale of Clark’s work asserted that Australian history was worthy of epic enquiry. No-one had previously thought, as Clark did in the first volume, to consider Australian history by posing epigrams from Nietzsche and Dostoevsky to examine the clash of Catholicism and Protestantism in a new land, in turn faced with the Enlightenment’s challenge to faith, and to follow these tensions at work in the dilemmas of individual and collective experience.[24] These themes set his history on a different level from what had come before and the work of his contemporaries. The national story Clark told seemed for a time to represent something more than the nation, elevating both its history and the Australian experience.

Discussing the historiography of Australian nationalism, Michael Roe observed that in 1954 Clark indicated his challenge to the ‘mateship’ stories of radical nationalism that found their most coherent and persuasive statement in Russel Ward’s The Australian Legend; yet by the end of his History Clark had seemed to agree with Ward, embracing nationalism and republicanism in the wake of the 1975 dismissal of the Whitlam Labor Government by the Governor-General.[25] Published in 1958, The Australian Legend traced the development of the nineteenth century bush worker from its convict origins. Ward conceded that he cultivated a myth, but one that he argued expressed the actual experience of Australians and a myth that held values that should endure. According to the myth the ‘typical Australian’ is a practical man, rough and ready in his manners and quick to decry pretentiousness in others.

He is a great improvisor, ever willing to have a go at anything...He is a fiercely independent person who hates officiousness and authority, especially when these qualities are embodied in military officers and policemen. Yet he is very hospitable and above all, will stick to his mates through thick and thin, even if he thinks they may be in the wrong.[26]

This echoed Bean’s celebration of the digger and the social levelling that Hancock identified in ‘mateship’. Inglis has observed that ‘historians have put mateship at the centre of national experience.’[27] Ward reasserted the value of a myth for a changing Australian nation: ‘though some shearers are now said to drive to their work in wireless-equipped motor-cars, the influence of the “noble bushman” on Australian life and literature is still strong’.[28] Ward’s reassertion was largely accepted on its own terms. Despite the occasional note of scepticism, by the 1960s there had been no serious interrogation of the meaning of ‘mateship’ as a form of either masculine or national identity.


[1] Ibid, Melleuish, Gregory, Cultural Liberalism in Australia, p. 117.

[2] Palmer, Vance, The Legend of the Nineties, (Cambridge University Press), 1954, p. 52.

[3] Ibid, Palmer, Vance, The Legend of the Nineties, p. 172.

[4] Ibid, Crawford, R.M., Australia, p. 148.

[5] Macintyre, Stuart, ‘Old Left’ in ibid, Davison, Graeme, (ed.), The Oxford Companion to Australian History, p. 482.

[6] See, Fitzpatrick, Brian, British Imperialism and Australia, 1783-1833, (Sydney University Press), 1939, A Short History of the Australian Labor Movement, (Rawson’s Bookshop), 1940, The British Empire in Australia, 1834-1939, (Melbourne University Press), 1941 and The Australian People, 1788-1945, (Melbourne University Press), 1946. For Fitzpatrick and the development of Australian Labour History see, Garton, Stephen, ‘What Have We Done? Labour History, Social History, Cultural History’, in Irving, Terry, (ed.), Challenges to Labour History, (University of New South Wales Press), 1994.

[7] Fitzpatrick, Brian, The Australian Commonwealth, (F.W. Cheshire), 1956, p. 28.

[8] Ibid, Fitzpatrick, Brian, The Australian Commonwealth, p. 209.

[9] Ibid, Fitzpatrick, Brian, The Australian Commonwealth, pp. 158-164.

[10] Gollan, Robin, Revolutionaries and Reformists, (George Allen and Unwin), 1975, pp. 190-191.

[11] Gollan, Robin, Radical and Working Class Politics, (Melbourne University Press), 1960, p. 196.

[12] Clark, Manning, The Quest for Grace, (Viking Books), 1990, pp. 176-177.

[13] Clark, Manning, ‘Rewriting Australian History’, in Clark, Manning, Occasional Writings and Speeches, Fontana Books, 1980, pp. 14-15.

[14] Holt, Stephen, A Short History of Manning Clark, (Allen and Unwin), 1999 and Matthews, Brian, Manning Clark: A Life, (Allen and Unwin), 2008 provide contrasting biographical studies. See also, Russell, Rosalyn, (ed.), Ever, Manning: Selected Letters of Manning Clark, 1938-1991, (Allen and Unwin), 2008.

[15] Ibid, Clark, Manning, ‘Rewriting Australian History’, p. 4.

[16] Crawford, R.M., Clark, Manning and Blainey, Geoffrey, (eds.), Making History, (McPhee Gribble/Penguin Books), 1985, pp. 57-58, 61.

[17] Clark, C.M.H., Select Documents in Australian History, Vol. 1: 1788-1850, (Angus and Robertson), 1950 and Select Documents in Australian History, Vol. 2: 1851-1900, (Angus and Robertson), 1955.

[18] Ibid, Clark, Manning, ‘Rewriting Australian History’, pp. 18-19.

[19] Ibid, Clark, Manning, ‘Rewriting Australian History’, p. 7.

[20] Ibid, Clark, Manning, ‘Rewriting Australian History’, p. 4.

[21] Ibid, Clark, Manning, ‘Rewriting Australian History’, p. 10; see Quartly, Marian, ‘Convict History’, in ibid, Davison, Graeme, (ed.), The Oxford Companion to Australian History, p. 154.

[22] Ibid, Clark, Manning, ‘Rewriting Australian History’, pp. 15-17, 19.

[23] Coleman, Peter, ‘Introduction: The New Australia’, in Coleman, Peter, (ed.), Australian Civilisation, Cheshire Melbourne, 1962, p. 6.

[24] Clark, C.M.H., A History of Australia, Vol. 1, From the Earliest Times to the Age of Macquarie, (Melbourne University Press), 1962.

[25] Roe, Michael, ‘Nationalism’, in ibid, Davison, Graeme, (ed.), The Oxford Companion to Australian History, p. 463.

[26] Ward, Russel, The Australian Legend, (Oxford University Press), 1958, p. 2.

[27] Inglis, Ken, ‘Mateship’, in ibid, Davison, Graeme, (ed.), The Oxford Companion to Australian History, p. 420.

[28] Ibid, Ward, Russel, The Australian Legend, p. 13.