Australian History at the Crossroads

6 May 2014
Australian History at the Crossroads - Featured image

This article from the May 2014 edition of the IPA Review is by Research Fellow with the IPA, Richard Allsop.

If you have not had some sort of contact with a humanities department of a university in the past quarter of a century you may not have encountered post-structuralism, or heard of linguistic or cultural turns.

Thus, you may be blissfully unaware that, as one young historian described his experience around the year 2000, in “tutorials and seminars at the University of Melbourne, the vocabulary of post-structuralism was everywhere in the undergraduate curriculum”. He explained that so strong was this influence that by the start of the twenty-first century “cultural and linguistic turns had transformed the writing of history”.

Post-structuralism, and its mate post-modernism, assert that there can never be a historical truth, because the words we use to describe the past inherently bias our understanding of it. We can ditch one proponents of the linguistic turn theorise that there is no such thing as historical objectivity, and that the past does not actually exist beyond our own textual representations of it. In practice, the various turns have meant the decline of writing history with narrative and also of the study of traditional parts of the discipline such as political and economic history.

However, it needs to be appreciated that having the opinion that post-structuralism is obvious nonsense does not necessarily make you a conservative fogey. Australia’s best-known contemporary left-wing historian, Henry Reynolds, has argued that post-modernism contributed to leaving historians defenceless in the ideological battles of the History Wars, while another prominent historian of the Left, Humphrey McQueen, has been described as remaining ‘grandly and effectively independent of the lunatic and transitory intellectual fashion of postmodernism’.

McQueen has a particular significance in Australian historiography as he is responsible for the tearing down of the previous Old Left paradigm of Australian history which glorified the Australian worker and presented the Australian story as one of progress being delivered by unions and the Labor Party. McQueen and his comrades ushered in an era of New Left dominance from the 1970s onwards, which argued that race and gender were other crucial factors that needed to be added  tothe study of history.

Without being too simplistic, it is possible to identify periods since the Second World War of Old Left, New Left and post-structural dominance of Australian history Did not follow this sentence. However, with the last of these having lost its grip, the question has to be asked whether history has entered a new identifiable stage.

To help this assessment, the history academy’s finest have produced two new works – the large two volume Cambridge History of Australia, and the slimmer single volume Australian History Now. The latter volume is specifically designed for historians to navel gaze, while the former only has one chapter specifically dedicated to this purpose, the final one, written by Mark McKenna and entitled ‘The History Anxiety’.

McKenna points out that opposition to post-structuralism is not the only thing that Reynolds and McQueen have in common. They have both acknowledged that in writing history they were being “necessarily biased”. Reynolds has commented that his aim in writing history was not just to document past abuse, for “the purpose of intellectual endeavour is not just to understand the world but to change it”. Would that all their colleagues in the history profession were so honest! One of the most striking aspects of the Left’s involvement in the History Wars has been their mantra that they were innocent victims of a pre-emptive strike from the Right.

Their position is encapsulated in Tony Birch’s chapter in ‘Australian History Now’, where he argues that ‘it did not matter how conscientiously I and other scholars applied ourselves to our research, how ‘balanced’ we attempted to be … we had not realised that the history war was a dirty war, a guerrilla war, with no rules and no respect for convention … the historians were ‘too polite’ to win such debates’. More reasonably, the co-editor of the book, Anna Clark, makes the point that both sides could be pushed towards hyperbole by newspaper opinion editors looking for strongly argued pieces rather than balanced ones.. However, McKenna is satisfied that ‘the bulk of the profession refrained from such open declarations’ of their political stances and ‘sobriety, objectivity, factual accuracy and distance were the watchwords that defined their disciplinary practice’.

Yet this ’disciplinary practice’ clearly had an ideological base. Marilyn Lake acknowledges that from the 1960s onwards, ‘generations of radical historians have critiqued the nation for its history of class oppression, racism, sexism and complicity with colonialism and genocide’. Quite a rap sheet! And as for the rise in status of oral history in the 1970s and 1980s, Alistair Thompson explains that it was driven by ‘political aspirations’, as young historians were motivated by ‘concerns about inequality and oppression and sought to make a difference’.

Likewise, the relatively new field of environmental history began with a ‘moral purpose’. Its proponents were determined to see nature ‘join the hallowed trio of race, class and gender as recognised determinants of human consciousness and social behaviour’. We learn from Tom Griffths that environmental history ‘challenges the anthropocentric, nationalistic and documentary biases of the craft of history’. Oddly, one might have thought that history appealed to its practitioners because it was anthropocentric, whereas those who wanted to study the natural world might want to study geology or botany.

Both volumes of the ‘Cambridge History’ have chapters on the environment and unsurprisingly they are written by those of a dark green hue. For instance, we learn that

‘though the history of Australia is often understood in terms of economic growth, environmental failures are object lessons in the limits of growth, including extinction, the decline of populations of native species, crop failures, livestock losses, biological invasions and declining water quality.’

No alternative views are presented to this sweeping statement.

More open for debate is the topic of the extent to which Indigenous Australians altered the landscape, in matters such as the demise of magafauna, or the impact of fire-stick farming. There appears to be a sliding scale of virtue which places the environment at the good end, white capitalist colonisers at the other, with the Indigenous population somewhere between the two.

The extra focus on the environment does throw up some amusing ironies. While traditionally the Left has been on the side of the land reformers against the squatters in the great nineteenth century battle over land, they now have to acknowledge that the squatters were actually better for the environment.

As one might expect there is a very strong emphasis on Indigenous dispossession in the ‘Cambridge History’. One reviewer of the work claimed that Aboriginal people were “by no means central to the story” on the basis that only three of the 47 chapters across the two volumes were specifically about them. In fact, the authors of every chapter in the first volume include aspects of Indigenous experience. There is a very strong legalistic approach to the treatment of dispossession climaxing in the Mabo and Wik decisions which are unquestioningly considered as correct and good. In contrast, the Howard Government’s 2007 Intervention is bad, although, at least here, the alternative views of Noel Pearson and Marcia Langton are noted.

Given the amount of focus on dispossession there is surprisingly little focus on the examples of pure racism which emerged more strongly in the late nineteenth century. A typical example was whether Aboriginal children could access that proud boast of late colonial society – free, compulsory and secular education. By the 1890s, New South Wales had a policy that Aboriginal children could only go to school if ‘clean, clad and courteous’, a policy which was replaced in 1902 by one which allowed an Aboriginal child to be excluded if just one white parent objected to his or her presence.

In contrast, on the frontier pastoralists had a strong economic incentive to use people from any ethnic group to get the work done, organised labour tended to view anyone other than white males as a threat. As early as 1878 the crews of the Australasian Steam Navigation went on strike against the company’s employment of Chinese seamen. Unions were key drivers of the implementation of the White Australia Policy and their great champion, Henry Bournes Higgins, regarded protecting white men’s wages as the reason why a minimum wage was required. Even feminist historian, Ann Curthoys recalls in Australian History Now how shocked she was ‘to discover that those most interested in eugenics in the 1910s and 1920s were not from the extreme right’ but from the Left, including many prominent feminists.

This racism grew at the same time as demands increased for a more active economic state and strikingly, ‘the legislative experimentation that took place in the late 1890s … was also directed at re-establishing separate spheres between the sexes’. Wowserism increased at the same time with hotels and libraries forced to close on Sundays and public transport on the Sabbath being restricted to ferrying people to and from church.

The ‘Cambridge History’ does not join these dots, perhaps in part because of its slightly disjointed format. The two volumes are both structured with a section of chronological chapters (e.g. Expansion 1820-1850 or The Menzies Era 1950-66), followed by thematic ones (e.g. Education or Religion). While the rationale for this approach is understandable it does create problems. Issues are often covered in both sections and sometimes in more than one of the thematic chapters. A bit more cross editing may have helped to prevent something like a full explanation of what actually happened at Myall Creek coming later in the volume than other references where that knowledge is assumed. As well as repetition there is occasional contradiction. For instance, one chapter says the Gold Coast replaced Newcastle as Australia’s sixth biggest city in “the early 80s”, while another claims this happened in 2007.

It is interesting the type of issues where historical debate is acknowledged. There are several archaeological ones, such as whether stone tools were an imported or home-grown concept, and of course there is the perennial of Australian historiography, the Settlement debate, which divides historians between those who thinks colonisation in 1788 was driven solely by convicts, or whether economic factors such as the acquisition of flax and pine also played a part.

Pleasingly, there are several places which demonstrate that some more nuanced treatment of previously accepted aspects of the nation’s history is appearing. A good example is Penny Russell’s chapter on ‘Gender and colonial society’ which takes issue with two previous generations of Australian historians, represented by Russel Ward and Beverley Kingston, who drew a sharp distinction between English free settlers who still yearned for ‘home’ and the convicts, native-born, Irish and the working class who were Australian nationalists. Yet, as Russell explains, more recent research has shown that correspondence from convicts and the Irish exhibited as strong a sentimental attachment to ‘home’ as did that of their middle class English counterparts.

Another area which has seen historical reinterpretation is the 1950s. Judith Brett describes how the first wave of historians writing about the fifties was ‘driven by the Left’s desire to explain Menzies’ electoral dominance over Labor and to show the limiting effects of anti-communism’. More balanced recent scholarship has presented the decade’s suburban idyll ‘not as the result of an anxious retreat into private worlds but as the expression of positive values and a shared sense of citizenship’.

Without being cynical, it is hard not to see that reinterpretation of the 1950s in the light of contemporary debates about ‘neoliberalism’, and the modern left’s argument that before the economic reforms of the 1980s Australians were more community focused and less interested on materialism and consumerism. Where the Menzies era was once damned as an era of selfishness and paranoia, it is now a lost golden age of shared values. Either way, the political significance of historical interpretation is clear.

Another positive aspect of the Cambridge History is that it contains chapters which place Australia within broader geographic and international context, such as one on the British Empire and Asia-Pacific in volume one, and an excellent chapter called “Travel and Connections” in volume two. The move to consider this sort of history is described as a “transnational turn”, which perhaps indicates that if you turn often enough you end up back near where you started, when the likes of eminent Australian historian, Keith Hancock, was writing about the Commonwealth in the 1930s and 1940s.

The Cambridge History is at its best when it is showing these differing and broader interpretations but, in other places, there is a clear removal of alternative voices. The list of general histories in the bibliography fails to include Geoffrey Blainey’s ‘A Shorter History of Australia’, while including the work of Manning Clark and a selection of other historians with a degree of homogeneity of outlook. That is not to say that Blainey has been excluded altogether. He gets appropriate recognition in specialist areas such as mining history but his ‘Triumph of the Nomads’, surely the work that did the most to alter mainstream Australian attitudes towards pre-colonisation Aboriginal society, does not receive the attention it deserves.

One of the striking features of the Cambridge History is the absence of traditional social history. One learns little about what people wore, what they ate and how they were entertained. The Australian colonies, Victoria in particular, were world leaders in the rise of spectator sport in the later nineteenth century, but the reader learns nothing about this in the first volume. In the post-Federation volume, writers such as Frank Bongiorno and Paul Strangio do better at addressing these sorts of areas. Strangio is one of the few contributors to the Cambridge History not based in a History Department (he is a political scientist). Fortunately, the editors of ‘Australian History Now’ broadened their horizons beyond the academy, as some of the best points in the book are made by a school teacher and a museum curator. The teacher, Paul Kiem, made the insightful point that:


Nowadays educationalists are fond of disparaging the didactic teaching and rote learning that are said to have prevailed at the time. Paradoxically, out of this educational dark age large numbers of baby boomers were inspired to go to university to study history.


As community curator in the south-western New South Wales town of Hay, Martha Sear observed how, compared to an earlier period when both professional and amateur historians operated in proximity to each other, ‘since the 1970s, a curious gap has opened up between scholarly historians and their community counterparts’. In her experience, the progressives of the academy seemed to sneer at outsiders:


It seems a terrible irony that the era that produced social history, ‘history from below’ and history of oppressed or marginalised groups, and that fostered theories of pluralism, difference and inclusion, has generated the sharpest critique of the history-making of the majority of Australians.


The Cambridge History will probably not do much to close the gap between the scholars and the rest. Just to handle it in the bookshop required getting a staff member to unlock the cabinet where it was secured out of the reach of the hoi polloi, presumably because of its pretentious price tag of $325. Clearly the publishers are not pitching their work towards the average educated Australian.

Yet, while in one sense the inaccessibility of the book to the public symbolises how the Australian story is told by the history profession, in another it is a shame that more people will not get to read it. It contains quite a lot of evidence that there has been a small move to a more nuanced approach since the nadir of the post-structural turns of the late twentieth century. And perhaps reflective of this is that some of the aging baby boomer contributors in ‘Australian History Now’ seemed resigned to the fact that the revolution is not coming in their lifetime.

Maybe the trend will continue, or maybe there will be other turns. However, I certainly would not yet be holding your breath if you are waiting for a liberal or conservative turn.

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