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  • Writer's pictureAndrew McIlroy

An artist’s view of the ‘History Wars’: Middle-ground not the answer to Australia Day race tensions

As artists we are often called upon to depict how we visualise our culture and ourselves, historically and in the present day. This is quite a responsibility, and we are aware that any works of art as a result can themselves long be as polarising as particular historical moments. So it is prudent to approach our task and any contentious issues involving our national identity with caution, at least at first. And on any view, nothing commands our attention as Australians and strikes more at our nation’s psyche than does the issue of race.

And as Australia Day approaches amidst renewed calls to change the date, racial tensions once again are amplified. While Australia Day is seen by many as a day to celebrate the achievements of our country, there are those that view January 26 as a day that divides, rather than unites the nation. This will come as no surprise to most of us. Australians have long been conducting an in-depth and complicated conversation about national identity, about race, and about disadvantage today and its connections with the tragedies of the past.

But Australia now finds itself at a crossroads in race relations – faced with symbolically recognising systemic racism or experiencing racial turmoil of the type that continues to plague America. And here’s why.

Since Governor Arthur Phillip raised the British flag founding the colony of New South Wales on the arrival of the first fleet comprising 11 convict ships at Port Jackson in 1788, January 26 has been marked as Anniversary Day, First Landing Day and Foundation Day – gradually evolving to become ‘Australia Day’, with other states and territories officially adopting the name in 1935.

But for many Indigenous Australians, January 26 is not a day for celebrating. Rather they see it as a day signifying the beginning of dispossession, disease epidemics, frontier violence, destruction of culture, exploitation, abuse, separation of families and subjection to policies of extreme social control. Consequently, some Australians refer to January 26 as Invasion Day, Survival Day and Day of Mourning.

"Australia Day is 26 January, a date whose only significance is to mark the

coming to Australia of the white people in 1788. It’s not a date that is

particularly pleasing for Aborigines (sic).”

Aboriginal activist Michael Mansell

The tension between British and Indigenous heritage lies at the core of our long struggle to both come to terms with our past and define our national identity.

Prime Ministers Paul Keating (1991-1996) and John Howard (1996-2007) framed the political debate that famously became known as the ‘History Wars’, whose main battlefield remains to this day the bitter cultural struggle over the nature of the Indigenous dispossession and the place it should assume in Australian self-understanding.

At Redfern in December 1992, Keating spoke 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.”

Paul Keating speaking at Redfern, 10 December 1992

John Howard was later accused (somewhat unfairly in my view) of muddying the waters on those matters raised by Keating at Redfern. In a speech in October 2006 on Quadrant’s fiftieth anniversary, Howard said:

“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.”

On 27 August 2009, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd (2007-2010, 2013) launched the first volume of Thomas Keneally’s history of Australia. He used the occasion to deliver his own verdict.

"Don't rip up our proud history", John Howard

From the moral point of view, Rudd argued, 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”.

In this speech, Rudd turned his attention to the History Wars. He said that he had 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”.

Rudd went on to tell his audience 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”.

Kevin Rudd embraces members of Australia's Stolen Generation

Rudd here echoed Howard’s claim about the Left’s reduction of Australian history to a sorry tale of “racism, sexism and class warfare”.

Whilst Rudd was clearly not sympathising with the denialists, the implications of what he said on this occasion went somewhat further. Rudd drew attention to one particular passage in his apology to the Stolen Generations on 13 February 2008: “In my address to Parliament … 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’.”

Emotions run high outside the Parliament listening to Kevin Rudd's speech, 13 Feb 2008

At the Keneally launch Rudd for the first time 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”.

The tragedy of historical systemic dispossession

Reviewing Rudd’s speech, eminent historian Robert Manne argues that not only by saying all of these things was Rudd placing himself ‘above the battle’ of the History Wars and distancing himself from his predecessors, Paul Keating and John Howard, he was also doing much more. [1]

There is a lazy but common belief that in any intellectual dispute, truth is to be discovered somewhere in the middle of two extremes, Manne argues.

On the most fundamental question of the History Wars – the meaning of the Indigenous dispossession – Rudd was actually clearing for himself, and for those many Australians who think and feel as he does, a more comfortable moral middle ground.

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.

Even more revealingly, he twice argued that a nation’s history could be interesting even though 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.

It seems that the Australian desire for an unblemished history in which no crimes had been committed or innocent blood shed had gradually erased the story of how the Aborigines had been defeated and dispossessed from both the national memory and the conventional histories of Australia.

In his 1968 Boyer Lecture, the Australian anthropologist WEH Stanner famously christened this act of national forgetfulness – this deliberate and successful smothering of moral conscience – “the Great Australian Silence”.

In the years that followed many more dispossession studies were written including Charles Rowley’s, The Destruction of Aboriginal Society. 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 Manne argues was premature.

WEH Stanner (1968)

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, it began not with historical revisionism, but with plainly racist denigration of traditional Aboriginal culture argues Manne persuasively.

It continued into the early 1990s, at the time of the Mabo judgement and the Native Title Act, with attacks on the ‘betrayal’ of the High Court judges and the Prime Minister, Paul Keating.

During the Howard years, Manne says the counter-revolution was translated into the full-blown History Wars by the campaign 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.

Controversial historian Keith Windschuttle and The Fabrication of Aboriginal History

The 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. [2]

With the support of some sympathetic media, the History Wars were born.

Emeritus Professor, Robert Manne Photo: The Sydney Morning Herald

Manne declares therefore that “Rudd was 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. 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 will we be able to declare the History Wars over. [3]

In my mind, this long and tortuous debate will justly continue to fuel the fire. Changing the day upon which Australia Day is celebrated will not bring the History Wars any closer to an end. Taking steps to resolve the race tensions entrenched in our society is a more urgent quarry.

From here the artist's task of fixing our society's gaze begins.


[1][2][3] Robert Manne, 'The history wars', The Monthly, Schwartz Media, 9 November 2009

Andrew McIlroy is a visual artist, living and working in Melbourne, Australia

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