February 2008



By John Hirst
Australian Government poster - "Australia: land of Tomorrow", by Joe Greenberg, 21 September 1949, National Archives of Australia
Australian Government poster - "Australia: land of Tomorrow", by Joe Greenberg, 21 September 1949, National Archives of Australia
The official history

To my surprise I became the author of the official history of Australia, the one that the Howard government distributed to migrants so that they could prepare for the new citizenship test. The draft I wrote disappeared into the offices of the immigration minister and the prime minister. At some stages it looked like it would not survive or that a few sentences would be incorporated into an altogether different version. But finally it emerged more or less as I had written it - with some additions and deletions that I will detail below. Its survival is surprising because in its organisation it defied the policy of the government that commissioned it - for it is arranged thematically and not as a continuous narrative. John Howard made narrative the touchstone of good history. He called a History Summit to get a commitment to narrative from the history professionals; he ended his TV election debate with Kevin Rudd with a promise that if he were re-elected, a narrative history of Australia would be part of the school curriculum. But a continuous narrative is not what migrants get to read - and I believe their understanding of their new homeland will be the better for it.

Howard adopted narrative history as part of his political program in a speech on Australia Day 2006, when he attacked the current practice of history teaching in schools. He wanted students to be offered a "structured narrative" instead of "a fragmented stew of themes and issues", and for Australia's "objective record of achievement" to be acknowledged instead of being questioned and repudiated.

I was sympathetic to much of his critique. A thematic treatment does not have to lead to fragmentation and incoherence, but as practised by teachers it frequently does. Except in New South Wales, the curriculum documents that are to guide teachers do not closely prescribe content. Their emphasis is much more on the development of historical skills. So students are expected to assess evidence and come to understand that there can be a variety of interpretations of an historical event. Well and good. Students are presented with one event for special study, say Australia's involvement in the Vietnam War, but they learn nothing of Australia's part in the two World Wars. Or they examine the role of women in World War II and learn nothing of Hitler and Stalin or Tobruk or the Kokoda Track. Teachers are not worried by these lacunae because the students have had a good learning experience as they grapple with an issue in some depth. It is true that students learn better if they have had a chance to explore an issue for themselves, but it cannot be said that students under these methods are gaining a general understanding of the course of Australian history.

Howard was also correct in referring to the undervaluing of the Australian achievement. It is sadly true that in schools and universities Australian society of the past is frequently examined by the categories of class, race and gender and by today's standards shown to be unjust. This is history not as an effort to think our way into a society whose assumptions were different from our own, but as a species of consciousness-raising. The history that results does deserve the label that Howard gave it, "black armband", a term that he borrowed from Geoffrey Blainey.

Howard's mistake was to think that narrative would necessarily give him the history that he wanted. He assumes that if historians record events chronologically, they will not intrude their own values and the true story will unfold itself. But a narrative chooses its events (from the infinite number available) and its themes. In his Australia Day address Howard said he wanted a history that included Australia's debt to the "great and enduring heritage of Western civilisation" and especially to the Enlightenment. But the standard textbook narratives of Australia that progress through Aborigines, convicts, squatters, gold and wheat to federation constitute the Australian nation without any reference to its cultural and intellectual origins in Europe. And "black armband" history can be rendered in narrative. Watch:

British settlers, greedy, arrogant and aggressive, spread across the land, pushing its indigenous inhabitants aside and killing them when they got in the way. They told themselves they were "developing the resources of the country". In fact they were destroying the country and the people who had successfully inhabited it for thousands of years.

In his opening address to the History Summit, Howard repeated his call for a coherent narrative. By the invitation of the Department of Education, I was chairing the session in which this group of academics and a few teachers was to lay down its elements. I suggested, and the summit accepted, that we take a different approach. We would work with questions-to-be-explored, which is what the teachers preferred, but the questions would be designed to produce coherence and general understanding. So students could not just study the Vietnam War. The question to be explored would be: Why did Australia become involved in wars? That would oblige students to study at least the Boer War, two World Wars, Korea, as well as Vietnam. They could study one in more depth, but the study of one war would benefit by comparison with the rest and the whole project would introduce students to a good deal of twentieth-century Australian history. We framed about dozen of these open-ended questions, some referring to the nineteenth century (Why did the colonies become so prosperous?), some the twentieth (Who could be an Australian?), and some to the whole course of our human history, Aboriginal and European (How have people interacted with the land?). Students had to study only a limited number of questions. But whatever questions they chose, they would be obliged to traverse and re-traverse the whole course of our history. That would cement general understanding, to assist in which we stipulated that students should know a limited number of landmark events - or dates, to use the discredited term.

The Department of Education gave the recommendations of the summit to Professor Tony Taylor, a professor of education at Monash University, to develop into a more elaborate curriculum. He had played a crucial part at the summit in warning that the subject had to be do-able and not a drag for students and teachers. He was sympathetic to the summit's approach and the open-ended questions were incorporated in his draft. This was accepted by the minister, Julie Bishop, and her department, but not by the prime minister's office. A new group of four people was appointed to revise the draft. Howard produced the result of their labours just before the election campaign began. The open-ended questions, which were to enliven and direct the study, had disappeared; the curriculum was a crowded list of events and developments; some 20 dates had grown to 70. Tony Taylor declared it unteachable.

Since the government was bent on undermining the approach I had urged on the History Summit, I was surprised to be asked by Kevin Andrews, the immigration minister, to look over the booklet that was to be issued to migrants so that they could prepare themselves for the new citizenship test. I was given to understand that the cabinet, after considering the booklet, had left the matter in his and the prime minister's hands. I was handed the document on a Friday afternoon and asked to report as soon as possible. I said I would report on Monday.

I thought the civics section of the document was fair quality; the history section was appallingly bad. The author or authors had taken no cognisance of the limitations of a 5000-word history; all the standard events and developments were present in chronological order but so severely compacted that they were often no more than a list. There was little space for causes, consequences and significance. You could read right through it and have no sense of the particular characteristics of Australian society; you would simply be overwhelmed by disconnected information. This did not deserve the name "narrative"; it was no more than a chronicle.

The questions that might be asked were included; they looked for highly particular information, not understanding. You had to know how many Australians had been killed in both World Wars. There were many questions about dates, often of events which had not been explained in the text. So you had to know when the Snowy Mountains Scheme was built, on which the text was vague, simply listing it as part of postwar development. Perhaps the answer "After World War II" would be good enough, in which case you could pass this portion of the test without knowing what the Snowy Mountains Scheme was designed to do, for in the text there was no more than the three words of its name. Quite strangely, for a booklet for newcomers, it frequently assumed a knowledge of the subjects it treated - or rather mentioned.

I emailed the minister's office on Saturday morning, reporting my criticisms and making what I thought a very telling point: that cabinet ministers would not know the answers to most of the questions. I offered to write a new version which would be thematic, with less information and more sense, and conceived as a guide to the country. The minister soon rang me, obviously wary of a thematic approach, but to his credit invited me to submit a draft for consideration.

My commitment to thematic treatments is not absolute. Certainly I was trained to be suspicious of narrative - mere narrative, it was called - because it was skating along the surface, mistaking events for causes, which were actually to be discovered in society's deep structures, usually economic structures. Historians have now rediscovered and defended narrative; narrative does embody an explanation, and the order in which things happen, not to speak of coincidences and chances, can be determining. Obviously there are good narratives which include analysis as well as storytelling, but narratives are a standing temptation to evasion - you can construct a story without facing the questions: What sort of institution or nation or life is this? How is it cast? What is the controlling dynamic? What is the habitual response? Increasingly I have been attracted to the historical sociologists - particularly Ernest Gellner and his school - who know history is important but who tell only the history that matters, that is, what explains the current configurations of society, politics, and culture.

I was conscious that I was not writing this history to embody my own views. I needed at the least not to offend the Liberal Party and the Labor Party. Or, to speak positively, the history should be fair-minded and balanced, terms which Howard might have used to define the history he wanted, rather than thinking that narrative of itself would deliver this. Where there was historical controversy that had become a part of current politics (as in Aboriginal affairs) I decided that I should signal this and report the position of the two sides. So the views of Keith Windschuttle and Henry Reynolds, Andrew Bolt and Robert Manne should appear, even if very briefly. Since the purpose of this history was to introduce new citizens to Australia, I thought it should attempt to capture what Australians of today knew and valued and celebrated in their history. That is, I should be the recorder of myth and memory and not simply the critical historian. (My detractors might allege that this is close to my normal practice!)

On Monday morning I sent off what I claimed was "a more lively, human and comprehensible account". It was organised into these sections:

Convict Settlers

A Harsh Country


Economy and Politics



Aboriginal People 

Each section covered the whole period of our history. So the convict section dealt with how the convict system was run; the fondness for Governor Macquarie in historical memory because he favoured the convicts and ex-convicts; the long period when Australians were ashamed of their convict origins; the modern pride in convict origins and what it signifies. The section on economy and politics explained why Australians achieved the highest living standard in the world by the late nineteenth century, and detailed the effects of the collapse of high expectations in the 1890s with depression and failed strikes. Governmental bodies were created to prevent strikes and preserve high living standards. These interventions in the economy were followed by others as everyone sought protection for their profits and living standards, a system which lasted until recent times, when the neo-liberal philosophy strong in both parties led to the dropping of the protective devices and the freeing up of the economy. The section on diggers opens with the announcement of one of our oddities: "Except for small-scale battles between settlers and Aboriginal people, Australia has been a remarkably peaceful country. There have been no civil wars or revolutions. It is strange, then, that it has a very strong military tradition and that the ordinary soldier, the digger, is the national hero." The section then treats the digger from Gallipoli to modern peacekeeping.

The minister's office never told me that they preferred my version or that they planned to use it. It appeared to find favour with them because they were soon discussing suggestions for omissions and new material. I was always treated very well by this office but I came to understand that they could not make a commitment to my work, given the number of departmental, ministerial and prime-ministerial players who were involved in creating and approving this history, about whose disposition I received only the vaguest hints.

Like publishers, government departments want things in a hurry and then you hear nothing for weeks or months. I was worried that my history was being chopped around and becoming part of a work that I could not endorse. If the government's history came under attack, my words would be traced back to me and I would be in the firing line. I was particularly worried that my stark account of European-Aboriginal relations would be dropped or rendered anodyne. The news, when it came, was at first a relief: another "narrative" history had come into favour which carried only two sentences from my version. If this was accepted, there was no danger of my becoming the focus of public attention. But soon an author's amour-propre kicked in: I did not want my labour to be in vain and it was in the public interest that migrants get my history rather than this inferior version.

I sent a protest to the prime minister's office. I had been involved in two history projects - the summit and the history for migrants - in which matters were settled at departmental level and then came unstuck in the prime minister's office. I said that this level of interference did not help the government's own cause and gave a handle to its critics who claimed that it was John Howard's history that the government wanted. I was told that it was quite normal for matters to be settled between departments and the prime minister's office. I replied that the production of a history of the nation for general use should not be treated as if it were part of the normal business of government. The government should choose its historian, and if at all possible accept what he or she wrote rather than altering in-house. That gives the government distance and may bring it credit. Or if there are to be alterations, the historian should be consulted. To this I got a reassuring answer: of course I would be consulted. Soon I was dealing with a few suggestions for additions and omissions from the prime minister's office and I took it that my "narrative" rival had been ditched.

The requests for new material gave me no problems. The minister's office wanted the Eureka rebellion to be treated (which by my own standards was a grave omission, since it is part of popular memory) and a whole section on sport instead of two paragraphs. To my section on sport they added far too many names of sportspeople, which I did not contest. The prime minister's office wanted some treatment of the Irish (with whom I linked the Scots) and of the commercial world in which Australia prospered. Some omissions were proposed because my critics thought I had become too detailed. Some of these I agreed with; others I accepted reluctantly.

Perhaps it was sensitivity to our allies which led to the removal of a brief mention of the rumours concerning Phar Lap's death in America and to a whole paragraph on the bodyline cricket series with England in 1932-33.

The most extensive alterations concerned Aboriginal history. I was surprised at the omission of a paragraph on the Aboriginal cricketers of 1868, the first to tour England. My section on Aboriginal People, placed last, opened with "The success of Australia was built on lands taken from Aboriginal people." This survived, though it emerges less boldly now since it follows material on Aboriginal culture added by writers unknown and does not even commence a paragraph. My treatment of frontier conflict, which was not close to the Windschuttle school, survived, so that migrants now learn of governors occasionally sanctioning punitive expeditions and the operation of the native police in Queensland. My few lines on the historical controversies over Aboriginal deaths on the frontier and the removal of Aboriginal children both disappeared, though the signal that these were matters of controversy survived. The passage on frontier deaths read as follows, with words omitted shown in italics:

There has been great debate about how many Aborigines were killed in the frontier battles. Many more Aborigines than settlers were killed. A ratio often used is ten Aborigines for every one settler. Working from this, historians have estimated that 20,000 Aborigines were killed overall. Others argue that this is much too high and that killings should not be assumed without good evidence. Everyone agrees that the greatest killer of Aboriginal people was disease. The fall in population was immense, and where white settlement was dense, catastrophic. In Victoria an original population of 10,000 in the 1830s was reduced to a mere 1907 in 1853.

The passage on the loss of Aboriginal civil rights read as follows (and again omissions are in italics):

In the years around 1900 the colonial and state governments moved to a policy of firmly confining Aborigines on their reserves or ensuring that they disappeared into the wider society. To manage this process they took away their civil rights. Aborigines could be told where to live, had to seek permission to marry, and could have their children taken from them. There has been a great debate too on the intent of these policies, particularly over the forcible removal of children from their parents. Were mixed-blood children taken from parents so that they would marry white and hence colour would be bred out (which is how some administrators talked) or was this taking children from rough camps and giving them a chance in life?

I was told of the first omission; the second took place at the last without my approval and was described as one of several minor changes.

The conclusion of the Aboriginal People section, which is the last word of the history, was written before the government's intervention in the Northern Territory. I support that intervention as a great improvement on previous approaches, but it is still not clear that traditional Aborigines want full-time jobs and a neat house with only a nuclear family in it. My version expressed this doubt:

The High Court in its 1992 Mabo decision restored unsold land to Aborigines if they had maintained their traditional ties to it. As a result Aborigines have become owners of vast areas of outback Australia. Here aspects of traditional society do survive. Aboriginal art and dance flourish and are widely admired in the broader community. But many of the Aboriginal people in these remote locations do not live well. The lands, even if well managed, would not support them; they have become dependent on welfare. Their health is poor. Too many children skip school.

In the wider society Aborigines now go to university and hold professional jobs. They inter-marry at a high rate with non-Aborigines. They are no longer all outcasts. But these successes are undermined by the plight of the traditional people on their own lands. Here in the last 30 years things have got worse not better. There is now general agreement that welfare must stop; Aborigines must have real jobs; their children must be well educated. But if this happens can traditional culture survive? Will traditional people accept these new invitations to join the wider society?

This is the greatest dilemma facing Australian society.  

The material in italics was dropped. The government preferred to be more optimistic. Its conclusion reads: "This is a great dilemma facing Australian society. Australia faces an ongoing challenge to ensure that the Aboriginal people fully share in the life and prosperity of the nation."

There was a final revision of the document after it had been made public and submissions received. Without reference to me more details were included without being integrated into my text. The names of the first female MPs appear before the paragraph that deals with the granting of woman's suffrage.

Overall, as a historian writing for a client, I have little ground for complaint. I very much regret what happened to the History Summit's curriculum in John Howard's office, but in the case of the guide for migrants that office finally signed off on a history which was not John Howard's and was organised contrary to his declared preference for narrative.

During the recent election campaign the education minister, Julie Bishop, held up the History Summit as a model of how a national curriculum could be developed. Certainly it developed a new, comprehensive curriculum quickly, which elicited general support from the states and the teachers, who were gearing up before the summit to oppose Howard's history plans. That support disappeared when the revised version emerged from the prime minister's committee of four. That part of the process is not worthy of imitation.

Howard's critics have said that a prime minister or indeed any government minister should not attempt to determine the offerings of schools, museums and the national broadcaster. But the formula that the professionals should be left in charge does not work if the institutions do not contain and reflect a range of outlooks and opinions. The prime minister was well entitled to say that the cultural offerings of public institutions had become so mean and negative about Australia that they were damaging national self-esteem. So my criticism of John Howard is not that he intervened, but that having intervened he did not know when to stop.

John Hirst

John Hirst is a historian, social commentator and emiritus scholar in the history program at La Trobe University. His books include The Australians: Insiders and outsiders on the national character since 1770, Freedom on the Fatal Shore: Australia’s first colony and The Shortest History of Europe.

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