Dumping down Australian history

As before, when confronted with the failure of millennial expectations, the left retreated into a nostalgic idealisation of national traditions.

Dumping down Australian history



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teach students about all the complexities of the Australian saga, in an interesting, quirky and sympathetic way, of course they will be bored by Australian history and won't tackle it.

If you present it to them in the bland and boring way that Macintyre tends to do, you will actually accelerate the process of decline in scholastic interest in Australian history. I believe strongly that the way to revive Australian history as a discipline is to include a colourful and entertaining description and celebration of past conflicts and diversity, and an intelligent observation of the contradictory and complex present, to allow a colourful and interesting future history the possibility to unfold.

What strikes me about Macintyre's approach, both in the book, and summarised in the paragraph at the end of the acknowledgements, is how old-fashioned his approach is. It is the kind of historical approach that prevailed in Australian history teaching until about the middle 1960s, and his Concise History could easily have been written by a modern day version of Stephen Roberts.

My interest in Australian history grew out of an encounter with the clandestine Catholic and Marxist versions of Australian and world history that challenged the bland, triumphalist Anglo-British, Stephen Roberts version of Australia of the 1950s, and if we have to commence again teaching history in that slightly clandestine way, that's the way the cookie crumbles, and a new generation will have to learn how to effectively challenge the powerful big guys like Stuart Macintyre.

The self-confident and agressive way Stuart Macintyre feels he can present his conservative Concise History as the basis for a new orthodoxy in Australian historiography actually presents both a challenge and an opportunity.

Those who wish for a more truthful, populist, Marxist, Catholic and radical Australian history to expand and develop, and to be taught to the young at all levels, ought to grasp this opportunity with both hands. We should broaden out the uncompleted, debate on class of the 1970s into a fuller and broader debate on Australian history, challenging the outlook of Macintyre, John Howard, Michael Duffy, Miriam Dixson and their like.

In such a proper debate, conducted in a sensible way among civilised writers and consumers of history, both old and young, my money is on the clandestine and radical Australian historical tradition, which I celebrate in this article, to prevail.

A further comment, based on letters I solicited, criticising my document, from Stuart Macintyre and Bob Gollan.

I have corrected, in this version, certain errors of spelling, formulation and fact raised in letters kindly sent to me by the above, commenting on my piece.

I have left unchanged several points to which they objected because their objections seemed to me to not be soundly based. For instance, Stuart Macintyre says:

I do not attribute the fall of the Lang government to a split in the Labor Party. Nor do I treat the Hawke government with reverence. The question of reverence for the Hawke government is a matter of opinion.

In my view, after rereading the last section of the book, this reverence still seems clear to me. The point about Lang is quite explicit. On page 177, Macintyre writes:

Similar splits brought down State Labor governments in New South Wales, Victoria and South Australia.

It could hardly be clearer than that: the Lang government was the only state Labor government in NSW in the period he is discussing. Bob Gollan and Stuart Macintyre both criticise my piece for highlighting the question of Macintyre's presence on the Government curriculum committee. (I initially confused the Curriculum Committee with its subordinate body, the Curriculum Corporation, and I have corrected this after Stuart Macintyre brought this confusion to my attention)

I am not opposed, in principle, to Macintyre or anybody else accepting an appointment on Kemp's committee. If I was offered a place on Kemp's committee, which is unlikely, I would probably accept the appointment on condition that I could fight vigorously on that committee for the views that I hold, which is, of course, the reason that I'd be unlikely to be appointed, although stranger things have happened.

I underline the fact that Stuart Macintyre holds these various positions because it seems relevant in the context of the views that he appears to now hold, and that having these views he may well be a further force for conservatism in these areas of his extended influence, which is sad.

Bob Gollan responds on the question of sectarianism and the significance of the Irish Catholics, which is to me one of the most important issues in dispute between me and Macintyre. He says:

But I am reminded that my old colleague Jim Griffin, who first rang the church bells about this book, has a fixation on the Catholic Church and community.

He also says:

I do find it difficult to enter a discussion in which Manning Clark, Russel Ward, Brian Fitzpatrick, Ian Turner and Eris O'Brien are put in the same basket. For example, one of the most intemperate critics of Brian Fitzpatrick was Manning Clark.

My juxtaposition of the above historians, as in retrospect clearly representing a populist, democratic school of Australian historiography, is quite deliberate. Whatever the differences that existed between them, they all eventually came to a relative commonality of interests and preoccupations on many questions.

Among the key questions that confronted them all eventually were the development of class and the emergence of a labour movement, the discordant and oppositional role of the Irish Catholics in relation to the British establishment in Australia, the enormous question of race and genocide involved in the dispossession of the original Aboriginal nation inhabiting the continent, and the question of racism, the White Australia Policy, and migration in general.

Most of these historians began their inquiry by confronting the bitter sectarian division that existed in Australian society from the time of white settlement between the Irish Catholics and the British ruling class (from whose ranks most of these historians themselves originated).

Manning Clark, given his establishment Anglican background, being a direct descendent of Samuel Marsden, is obviously fascinated by these questions.

Russel Ward, in his autobiography (he had a similar Protestant establishment background to Clark) points out that these cultural conflicts dominated his early social and personal evolution. (Ward's autobiography includes a moving vignette describing a visit to Australia by R. H. Tawney, the notable English Christian socialist who wrote the ground-breaking Religion and the Rise of Capitalism, and the interesting and useful cross-fertilisation that took place between himself, Manning Clark, Eris O'Brien, R. H. Tawney and other historians during that visit. That vignette seems to me to symbolise the drawing together of the left democratic school in Australian historiography in that generation)

Rodney Hall's biography of John Manifold describes Manifold's inquiry into the Irish origins of the ballads and a painful and confronting element stemming from his Victorian Western District establishment background.

The story is similar with Rupert Lockwood, also of Victorian Western District establishment background. Lockwood's encounter with the oppositional role of Irish Catholics was clearly a significant part of his development, along with his involvement with the Communist Party. It's not accidental that both these Communists, who came from the Anglo ruling class of the Western District, and were converted to Communism in the upheavals of the 1930s, were fascinated by the interface between Irish Catholic Australians, the labour movement and socialism.

The Western District of Victoria had a much higher concentration of Irish Catholic settlers than most other parts of Victoria. In the early years of the labour movement, culminating in the conscription upheavals, these Irish Catholics were in an extremely radical frame of mind. They elected the Labor candidate, the Scottish socialist and poet John McDougall, as the first federal member for Wannon, later Malcolm Fraser's stronghold, in the first election after Federation.

Largely because of Irish Catholics, and sharpened by the conscription struggle, the Western District remained a Labor stronghold until the disastrous Labor Split of 1955, when many Labor supporters of Irish Catholics descent shifted over electorally to the DLP, and eventually to the Nationals.

During the White Guard paramilitary mobilisation during the Depression, the White Guard in the Western District was preparing to occupy all the Catholic churches and schools as well as trade union headquarters to prevent revolution. This is all described at length in a useful article in Labor History 10 years ago, and it's also studied from another direction, in Paul Adams' recent study of the Communist novelist, Frank Hardy, who was of working-class Catholic background and came from Bacchus Marsh, in the Western District.

Nothing in life and society is ever lost, and the seat of Mildura, in north-western Victoria has recently come back into play, being lost by the Nationals to one of the three independents who just put the Bracks Labor government into power in Victoria.

Macintyre's historiography, which neglects the complex and varied impact of the Irish Catholics on Australian history and the labour movement, is very poverty-striken and narrow.

The significance of the Irish Catholics in Australian life is also described in Ber

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