November 2009


The history wars

By Robert Manne
Illustration by Jeff Fisher.

Paul Keating and John Howard were early players in what Australians have come to call the History Wars, whose main field of battle is the bitter and still unresolved cultural struggle over the nature of the Indigenous dispossession and the place it should assume in Australian self-understanding. In his Redfern speech of December 1992, Keating spoke with eloquence about the crimes committed against Aborigines throughout Australia’s history. “We took the traditional lands and smashed the original way of life. We brought the diseases. The alcohol. We committed the murders. We took the children from their mothers.” During his prime ministership, John Howard did all he could to muddy the waters on the matters raised at Redfern. In a speech delivered in October 2006 on Quadrant’s fiftieth anniversary, Howard made this clear: “Of the causes that Quadrant has taken up that are close to my heart, none is more important than the role it has played as counterforce to the black-armband view of Australian history.” In saying this, Howard was praising those who had led the campaign to deny both the Aboriginal child removal and the reality of frontier violence and brutality.

In his magnificent address to parliament in February 2008, it seemed as though Kevin Rudd had not merely parted company with Howard on the question of the Stolen Generations, but had sided with Keating in the History Wars. As it has turned out, the latter part of this impression was somewhat misleading.

On 27 August this year, Kevin Rudd launched the first volume of Thomas Keneally’s history of Australia. He used the occasion to deliver his own verdict on the subject. His argument went like this. From the moral point of view, Australian history is complicated. There are in it elements of both “glory” and “shame”. For this reason, Rudd said he favours a history that “unapologetically celebrates the good” but that also “unapologetically exposes the bad”. Despite this complexity, Rudd suggested that a final moral judgement on the history of Australia is possible. Rudd had borrowed from Geoffrey Blainey the idea that our history can be assessed with the assistance of an accountancy tool – the balance sheet. Most of his speech consisted of conventional encomia to Australian achievement, which made it clear that he believes that the Australian historical balance sheet is definitely positive.

In this speech, Rudd turned his attention from history to the History Wars. He told us that he has no sympathy at all for those who have “refused to confront some hard truths about our past, as if our forebears were all men and women of absolute nobility, without spot or blemish”. Clearly, then, he is no Quadrant-style denialist. But he told us that he also has no sympathy for those who think we should only celebrate “renegades”, “reformers” and “revolutionaries”, while “neglecting” or even “deriding” the “explorers”, “pioneers” and “entrepreneurs”. Rudd here echoed, although in a far more moderate tone, Howard’s claim about the Left’s reduction of Australian history to a sorry tale of “racism, sexism and class warfare”. In speaking about the neglect or derision accorded the explorers, pioneers and entrepreneurs, Rudd deliberately distanced himself in historico-symbolic terms from Manning Clark, the Australian historian whom – according to popular wisdom – Paul Keating most admired. But the implications of what Rudd said on this occasion went further still. Rudd drew attention to one particular passage in the apology to the Stolen Generations: “In my address to parliament last year on the national apology, I expressed my belief that a people ‘must become fully reconciled to their past if they are to go forward with confidence to embrace their future’.” Then, for the first time, Rudd explained what he had meant. In the apology, he had dealt with “the unfinished business of our reconciliation with the First Australians”. After the apology, he implied, symbolic reconciliation had become finished business. Because of this, Rudd now believed that the time had arrived for Australians “to move beyond the arid intellectual debates of the history wars and the culture wars of recent years” and “to leave behind … the polarisation that began to infect every discussion of our nation’s past”.

Of course, by saying all of these things, Rudd was placing himself ‘above the battle’ of the History Wars – distancing himself from his predecessors, Paul Keating and John Howard, and implicitly pronouncing a plague on both sides of the debate. But he was doing even more than this. There is a lazy but very common belief that in any intellectual dispute truth is to be discovered somewhere between the extremes. To understand its falsity, one need only think about climate change. Rudd was appealing here to this belief. On the most fundamental question of the History Wars – the meaning of the Indigenous dispossession – he was actually clearing for himself, and for those many Australians who think and feel as he does, a more comfortable moral–conceptual middle ground, located somewhere between the path-breaking, eye-opening histories of Henry Reynolds and the denialist apologetics of Keith Windschuttle. In this process, one thing at least became clear: Rudd had neither followed the debates in the History Wars with attention, nor internalised the work of the historians of the dispossession. In his speech, Rudd claimed that the denialists were those who held the black-armband view. This was a telling blunder. Even more revealingly, he twice argued that a nation’s history could be interesting even if no blood had been shed on its soil. This was how Australians thought about their history 50 years ago. The 20,000 or so Aborigines and the 2000 or so British settlers who had died in the frontier battles between 1788 and 1928 – events which historians had struggled to bring to national attention – had somehow slipped Rudd’s mind. Is it conceivable that an American president would even temporarily forget the slavery of the South?

It was the great anthropologist WEH Stanner who first noted that the story of how the Aborigines had been defeated and dispossessed had gradually been erased from both the national memory and the conventional histories of Australia. Stanner also, accordingly, first identified the oddness of the Australian yearning for an unblemished history in which no crimes had been committed and no innocent blood shed. He famously christened this act of national forgetfulness – this deliberate and successful smothering of moral conscience – “the Great Australian Silence”. Rightly, he believed that the silence would not last. At the time Stanner alerted the nation to the strangest and most revealing dimension of its identity, Charles Rowley was writing the first systematic history of the dispossession, The Destruction of Aboriginal Society. In the years following, hundreds of further studies were written. As in all such endeavours, these were of unequal quality. Eventually, with Henry Reynolds, a truly first-rate historian of the dispossession emerged. By the 1980s, there was good reason to believe that the nation was in the process of coming to terms with its past and that this process had progressed so far as to be irreversible. This judgement was premature.

From the mid-1980s, a counter-revolution concerning the interpretation of the dispossession was mounted. Initially driven mainly by miners fearful of national land-rights legislation and expressed most sharply in the speeches of the head of Western Mining, Hugh Morgan, it began not with historical revisionism, but with plainly racist denigration of traditional Aboriginal culture of a kind not heard in Australia for decades. It continued into the early 1990s, at the time of the Mabo judgement and the Native Title Act, with attacks on the un-Australian treachery of the High Court judges and the prime minister, Paul Keating. During the Howard years, the counter-revolution was translated into the full-blown History Wars by the campaign led by Quadrant against Bringing Them Home – the 1997 report of the inquiry into Aboriginal child removal – and by the publication in 2002 of Keith Windschuttle’s The Fabrication of Aboriginal History.

The Quadrant-led campaign against the report on the Stolen Generations argued that the “half-caste” children had been “rescued” rather than stolen, that those who removed the children had acted out of good intentions, and that the Aboriginal witnesses who appeared at the inquiry were unreliable at best and suffering from “false memory syndrome” at worst. For its part, Windschuttle’s Fabrication argued that the story of the brutality of the British settlers was the concoction of self-hating, left-wing historians; that the law-abiding Christian gentlemen who colonised Australia were incapable of savage deeds; and that, in the infamous case of Tasmania, Indigenous society was destroyed by a combination of disease, the deep dysfunctionality of a social system that had survived by luck for 35,000 years, the willingness of Indigenous men to sell their womenfolk to whites, and the wave of murderous criminality the Indigenous people foolishly unleashed against the well-meaning and peaceful British colonists, who had rightfully settled on lands to which the Indigenous nomads had no particular attachment of a sentimental or spiritual kind.

By themselves, neither the Quadrant campaign against Bringing Them Home nor Windschuttle’s preposterous Fabrication would have provoked the History Wars. They did so mainly because of the steady covert support offered by the Howard government and the enthusiastic overt support offered by the Murdoch press, in particular by its flagship, the Australian. Yet, even more than this needs to be said. If the Great Australian Silence had not been a potent ingredient in our political culture for a century or more, and if there had not existed in Australian society a deep yearning for a history in which no serious crimes against the Aborigines had been committed – both during the settlement of the land and in the period after the forcible dispossession was complete – the counter-revolution of the mid-1980s could not have been mounted and the full-blown History War that followed the Quadrant-led campaign and the publication of Fabrication could not have broken out. For a cultural fire to ignite, combustible material must exist.

On the question of the History Wars, then, the prime minister is wrong. The battles were not rooted in arid scholarly disputes and easily avoidable polarities. They were rooted, rather, in the as-yet-unresolved fact that – even after 40 years of scholarship – there is still a deep desire among many Australians to avert their gaze from the history of what happened during the long dispossession and to think of their country as largely innocent of wrongdoing. For this reason, the History Wars have not ended, despite the prime minister’s wonderful apology to the Stolen Generations. They will not end, even though the Howard government is history and the Australian has lost interest in their prosecution. In his Redfern speech, Paul Keating spoke simply and truthfully about the injuries that were done and the crimes that were committed in the founding of this country. From these truths very many people flinched. They still do. Because of this, to move with Rudd towards a safer place, situated between the warring camps, represents not prudence and sober judgement but regression and evasion. Only when the overwhelming majority of Australians no longer flinch from the uncomfortable truths about their nation’s history – of the kind found in Tony Roberts’ extraordinary article, which we publish in this issue – will we be able to declare the History Wars over.

Robert Manne

Robert Manne is emeritus professor of politics and vice-chancellor’s fellow at La Trobe University. His most recent books are The Mind of the Islamic State and On Borrowed Time.

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