History Wars

History Wars

 

The history wars in Australia are an ongoing public debate over the interpretation of the history of the British colonisation of Australia and development of contemporary Australian society (particularly with regard to the impact on Aboriginal Australians and Torres Strait Islanders). It has resemblances to debates in other countries.

 

While no historians or major political leaders in Australia would contend that Australia’s colonial period was undertaken without a degree of violence or dispossession, the Australian debate often concerns the extent to which the history of European colonisation post-1788 and government administration since Federation in 1901 may be characterised as having been:

 

a. marked by relatively minor conflict between European colonists and Indigenous Australians, and generally lacking in events that might be termed ‘invasion’, ‘warfare’, ‘guerrilla warfare’, ‘conquest’ or ‘genocide’, and generally marked instead by humane intent by government authorities, with damage to indigenous people largely attributable to unintended factors (such as the spread of new diseases) rather than to malicious policies;

 

b. or whether the settlement of Australia constituted an invasion marked by violent conflict at the frontier, guerrilla warfare (or other forms of warfare) between Europeans and Aborigines, involving frequent or significant massacres of Aboriginal peoples engaged in defending their traditional tribal lands; a situation which can be said to have developed either nationally, or in certain areas, into something like a war of ‘extermination’ or something which accords with the term genocide as a consequence of British imperialism and colonialism involving continued dispossession, exploitation, ill treatment and cultural genocide.

 

The History Wars also relates to broader themes concerning national identity, as well as methodological questions concerning the historian and the craft of researching and writing history, including issues such as the value and reliability of written records (of the authorities and settlers) and the oral tradition (of the Indigenous Australians), along with the political or similar ideological biases of those who interpret them.

 

Outline

 

In 1968 Professor W. E. H. “Bill” Stanner, an Australian anthropologist, coined the term the “Great Australian Silence” in a Boyer Lecture entitled “After the Dreaming”, where he argued that the writing of Australian history was incomplete. He asserted that Australian national history as documented up to that point had largely been presented in a positive light, but that Indigenous Australians had been virtually ignored. He saw this as a structural and deliberate process to omit “several hundred thousand Aborigines who lived and died between 1788 and 1938… (who were but) … negative facts of history and … were in no way consequential for the modern period”. A new strand of Australian historiography subsequently emerged which gave much greater attention to the negative experiences of Indigenous Australians during the British settlement of Australia.

 

In the 1970s and 1980s, historians such as Manning Clark and Henry Reynolds published work which they saw as correcting a selective historiography that had misrepresented or ignored Indigenous Australian history. The historian Geoffrey Blainey argued in the literary and political journalQuadrant in 1993 that the telling of Australian history had moved from an unduly positive rendition (the “Three Cheers View”) to an unduly negative view (The “‘black armband'”) and Australian commentators and politicians have continued to debate this subject.

 

Interpretations of Aboriginal history became part of the wider political debate sometimes called the ‘culture wars’ during the tenure of the Coalition government from 1996–2007, with the Prime Minister of Australia John Howard publicly championing the views of some of those associated with Quadrant. This debate extended into a controversy over the way history was presented in theNational Museum of Australia and in high school history curricula. It also migrated into the general Australian media, with regular opinion pieces being published in major broadsheets such asThe Australian, The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age. Marcia Langton has referred to much of this wider debate as ‘war porn’and an ‘intellectual dead end’

 

Two Australian Prime Ministers, Paul Keating and John Howard, were major participants in the “wars”. According to the analysis for the Australian Parliamentary Library of Dr Mark McKenna,[9]Paul Keating (1991–1996) was believed by John Howard (1996–2007) to portray Australia pre-Whitlam in an unduly negative light; while Keating sought to distance the modern Labor movement from its historical support for the Monarchy and the White Australia policy by arguing that it was the Conservative Australian Parties who had been barriers to national progress and excessively loyal to the British Empire. He accused Britain of having abandoned Australia during World War II. Keating was a staunch advocate of a symbolic apology to indigenous people for the misdeeds of past governments, and outlined his view of the origins and potential solutions to contemporary Aboriginal disadvantage in his Redfern Park Speech (drafted with the assistance of historian Don Watson).

 

In 1999, following the release of the 1998 Bringing Them Home Report, Howard passed a Parliamentary Motion of Reconciliation describing treatment of Aborigines as the “most blemished chapter” in Australian history, but he did not make a Parliamentary apology. Howard argued that an apology was inappropriate as it would imply “intergeneration guilt” and said that “practical” measures were a better response to contemporary Aboriginal disadvantage. Keating has argued for the eradication of remaining symbols linked to British origins: including deference forANZAC Day, the Australian Flag and the Monarchy in Australia, while Howard was a supporter of these institutions. Unlike fellow Labor leaders and contemporaries, Bob Hawke and Kim Beazley, Keating never traveled to Gallipoli for ANZAC Day ceremonies. In 2008 he described those who gathered there as “misguided”.

 

In 2006, John Howard said in a speech to mark the 50th anniversary of Quadrant that “Political Correctness” was dead in Australia but: “we should not underestimate the degree to which the soft-left still holds sway, even dominance, especially in Australia’s universities”; and in 2006, Sydney Morning Herald Political Editor Peter Hartcher reported that Opposition foreign affairs spokesman Kevin Rudd was entering the philosophical debate by arguing in response that “John Howard, is guilty of perpetrating ‘a fraud’ in his so-called culture wars… designed not to make real change but to mask the damage inflicted by the Government’s economic policies”.

 

The defeat of the Howard government in the Australian Federal election of 2007, and its replacement by the Rudd Labor government has altered the dynamic of the debate. Rudd made an official apology to the Stolen Generation with bi-partisan support. Like Keating, Rudd supports an Australian Republic, but in contrast to Keating, Rudd has declared support for the Australian flagand supports the commemoration of ANZAC Day and expressed admiration for Liberal Party founder Robert Menzies.

 

 

Since the change of government, and the passage, with support from all parties, of a Parliamentary apology to indigenous Australians, Professor of Australian Studies Richard Nile has argued: “the culture and history wars are over and with them should also go the adversarial nature of intellectual debate”,a view contested by others, including conservative commentator Janet Albrechtsen.[18] An intention to reengage in the history wars has been indicated by the Federal Opposition’s Christopher Pyne.

History Wars

The history wars in Australia are an ongoing public debate over the interpretation of the history of the British colonisation of Australia and development of contemporary Australian society (particularly with regard to the impact on Aboriginal Australians and Torres Strait Islanders). It has resemblances to debates in other countries.[1]

While no historians or major political leaders in Australia would contend that Australia’s colonial period was undertaken without a degree of violence or dispossession, the Australian debate often concerns the extent to which the history of European colonisation post-1788 and government administration since Federation in 1901 may be characterised as having been:

a. marked by relatively minor conflict between European colonists and Indigenous Australians, and generally lacking in events that might be termed ‘invasion’, ‘warfare’, ‘guerrilla warfare’, ‘conquest’ or ‘genocide’, and generally marked instead by humane intent by government authorities, with damage to indigenous people largely attributable to unintended factors (such as the spread of new diseases) rather than to malicious policies;

b. or whether the settlement of Australia constituted an invasion marked by violent conflict at the frontier, guerrilla warfare (or other forms of warfare) between Europeans and Aborigines, involving frequent or significant massacres of Aboriginal peoples engaged in defending their traditional tribal lands; a situation which can be said to have developed either nationally, or in certain areas, into something like a war of ‘extermination’ or something which accords with the term genocide as a consequence of British imperialism and colonialism involving continued dispossession, exploitation, ill treatment and cultural genocide.

The History Wars also relates to broader themes concerning national identity, as well as methodological questions concerning the historian and the craft of researching and writing history, including issues such as the value and reliability of written records (of the authorities and settlers) and the oral tradition (of the Indigenous Australians), along with the political or similar ideological biases of those who interpret them.

Outline

In 1968 Professor W. E. H. “Bill” Stanner, an Australian anthropologist, coined the term the “Great Australian Silence” in a Boyer Lecture entitled “After the Dreaming”, where he argued that the writing of Australian history was incomplete. He asserted that Australian national history as documented up to that point had largely been presented in a positive light, but that Indigenous Australians had been virtually ignored. He saw this as a structural and deliberate process to omit “several hundred thousand Aborigines who lived and died between 1788 and 1938… (who were but) … negative facts of history and … were in no way consequential for the modern period”. A new strand of Australian historiography subsequently emerged which gave much greater attention to the negative experiences of Indigenous Australians during the British settlement of Australia. In the 1970s and 1980s, historians such as Manning Clark and Henry Reynolds published work which they saw as correcting a selective historiography that had misrepresented or ignored Indigenous Australian history. The historian Geoffrey Blainey argued in the literary and political journalQuadrant in 1993 that the telling of Australian history had moved from an unduly positive rendition (the “Three Cheers View”) to an unduly negative view (The “‘black armband'”) and Australian commentators and politicians have continued to debate this subject.

Interpretations of Aboriginal history became part of the wider political debate sometimes called the ‘culture wars’ during the tenure of the Coalition government from 1996–2007, with the Prime Minister of Australia John Howard publicly championing the views of some of those associated with Quadrant. This debate extended into a controversy over the way history was presented in theNational Museum of Australia and in high school history curricula. It also migrated into the general Australian media, with regular opinion pieces being published in major broadsheets such asThe Australian, The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age. Marcia Langton has referred to much of this wider debate as ‘war porn’and an ‘intellectual dead end’

Two Australian Prime Ministers, Paul Keating and John Howard, were major participants in the “wars”. According to the analysis for the Australian Parliamentary Library of Dr Mark McKenna,[9]Paul Keating (1991–1996) was believed by John Howard (1996–2007) to portray Australia pre-Whitlam in an unduly negative light; while Keating sought to distance the modern Labor movement from its historical support for the Monarchy and the White Australia policy by arguing that it was the Conservative Australian Parties who had been barriers to national progress and excessively loyal to the British Empire. He accused Britain of having abandoned Australia during World War II. Keating was a staunch advocate of a symbolic apology to indigenous people for the misdeeds of past governments, and outlined his view of the origins and potential solutions to contemporary Aboriginal disadvantage in his Redfern Park Speech (drafted with the assistance of historian Don Watson). In 1999, following the release of the 1998 Bringing Them Home Report, Howard passed a Parliamentary Motion of Reconciliation describing treatment of Aborigines as the “most blemished chapter” in Australian history, but he did not make a Parliamentary apology. Howard argued that an apology was inappropriate as it would imply “intergeneration guilt” and said that “practical” measures were a better response to contemporary Aboriginal disadvantage. Keating has argued for the eradication of remaining symbols linked to British origins: including deference forANZAC Day, the Australian Flag and the Monarchy in Australia, while Howard was a supporter of these institutions. Unlike fellow Labor leaders and contemporaries, Bob Hawke and Kim Beazley, Keating never traveled to Gallipoli for ANZAC Day ceremonies. In 2008 he described those who gathered there as “misguided”.

In 2006, John Howard said in a speech to mark the 50th anniversary of Quadrant that “Political Correctness” was dead in Australia but: “we should not underestimate the degree to which the soft-left still holds sway, even dominance, especially in Australia’s universities”; and in 2006, Sydney Morning Herald Political Editor Peter Hartcher reported that Opposition foreign affairs spokesman Kevin Rudd was entering the philosophical debate by arguing in response that “John Howard, is guilty of perpetrating ‘a fraud’ in his so-called culture wars… designed not to make real change but to mask the damage inflicted by the Government’s economic policies”.

The defeat of the Howard government in the Australian Federal election of 2007, and its replacement by the Rudd Labor government has altered the dynamic of the debate. Rudd made an official apology to the Stolen Generation with bi-partisan support. Like Keating, Rudd supports an Australian Republic, but in contrast to Keating, Rudd has declared support for the Australian flagand supports the commemoration of ANZAC Day and expressed admiration for Liberal Party founder Robert Menzies.

Since the change of government, and the passage, with support from all parties, of a Parliamentary apology to indigenous Australians, Professor of Australian Studies Richard Nile has argued: “the culture and history wars are over and with them should also go the adversarial nature of intellectual debate”,a view contested by others, including conservative commentator Janet Albrechtsen.[18] An intention to reengage in the history wars has been indicated by the Federal Opposition’s Christopher Pyne.

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