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Australian history is an endangered species, and it's endangering us all

By Jonathan Swan - posted Friday, 19 August 2011

If at school it wasn't fashionable to be interested in Australian political history, it was even less so at university. In my first year at the University of Sydney, a classmate asked me 'why the hell' I was taking an Australian history unit, when there was 'much sexier stuff' to be studying.

When I asked what the 'much sexier stuff' was, she shrugged and said, "Oh, you know, like American politics."

I won't deny; American politics offers a compelling production. While Canberra makes do with cheap production values and an even cheaper wardrobe department, the US is all explosions and blockbuster special effects. Avatar to our Castle. America also benefits from a cast of the wackiest characters ever seen in political comedy. You've got 'crazy eyes' Michelle Bachmann, 'pray me an economy' Rick Perry and the bear-killing ice queen from Alaskan reality television. The best we can do is a religious speedo-donner and a redhead with a voice that could peel paint off your ceiling.


But in choosing the US over Australia, high budget over just budget, our intellectual focus could be leading us into dangerous territory. Our domestic political debate suffers from a lack of historical perspective, and a certain kind of 'immediate thinking' that prevents us from adequately analysing events. I reckon if more of us read more about Australian political history, we'd have a much healthier debate in this country.

Take, for example, the current Federal Labor Government. How does one explain their unique ability to ratchet up distrust and animosity?

Well, one answer would be the obvious: an Opposition Leader who is a devastating attack dog, and a Prime Minister who got into power through a midnight stabbing, only to reveal the worst communication skills we've ever seen in a public leader.

But those who study Australian political history might offer a more nuanced analysis. They might observe Gillard's cabinet and point out that her most senior insiders are all career politicians – machinists whose entire professional careers can be summed up in ballots and caucuses. Men like Wayne Swan, Chris Bowen and Stephen Smith.

Was this always the case? No. And all one has to do is wind back to Bob Hawke. Hawke's inner circle contained a barrister (John Button), a council clerk (Paul Keating), a teacher of mentally disadvantaged children (John Faulkner), a doctor (Neal Blewett) and other professionals of all stripes. One could argue that this gave Hawke's government a whiff of perspective and legitimacy that Gillard's crew would love to spray on.

I worry that the 'much sexier stuff' attitude is sending too many of our best minds to the United States, leaving behind a domestic intellectual landscape that looks like the Simpson Desert. Wouldn't it be great if the brilliant Michael Fullilove spent just a smidge more of his Lowy Institute time on the analysis of Australian political history?


The 'much sexier stuff' attitude pervades into our political, academic and journalistic discourse, and it's to our loss. Australian history is left to an expatriate (Robert Hughes), a zealot (Keith Windschuttle), a dead guy (Manning Clarke) and a retired journalist (Alan Ramsey.)

It's ironic that Ramsey, a cough-spluttering, journalistic dinosaur, taught me more about modern Australian politics than the hippest commentators working today. Ramsey's secret? Explain the new, by searching through the old.

As we contemplate issues that are far from simple - moral and economic minefields such as climate change, immigration policy, euthanasia and whether to defend Australia's shrinking arable land – we need, more than ever, an appreciation of the 'old.'

How much richer would our asylum seeker debate be, for example, if Australians learnt the history of refugee policy in this country, and discovered that the earliest boats to arrive on Christmas Island were met with food and community support instead of barbed wire fences? How much healthier would our debate be if Australians recalled that the term 'refugee' was formalised by the United Nations in the wake of World War Two, to enable countries to care for the millions of displaced human beings who managed to escape Nazi Germany?

The teaching of Australian history has become more than a 'nice to have'; it's now an urgent necessity. Historical context has become an endangered species in this country, and if we are to have any hope of lifting our public debate above its current risible standards, we'll need to put on our memory caps and open some books.

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About the Author

Jonathan Swan is a journalist and speechwriter.

Creative Commons LicenseThis work is licensed under a Creative Commons License.

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