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A better way of looking at our past

By Gregory Melleuish - posted Wednesday, 1 February 2006

In his Australia Day address, Prime Minister John Howard made some important statements about the nature of Australian culture and the teaching of Australian history. He argued for striking a balance between Australia's indigenous heritage and the traditions that were brought here by settlers, initially from Britain and subsequently from all parts of Europe and the world.

In particular he invoked broad influences that have moulded Australian culture: "Judeo-Christian ethics, the progressive spirit of the Enlightenment and the institutions and values of British political culture."

In its broad sweep this is reminiscent of the vision that Manning Clark enunciated at the beginning of volume one of his History of Australia.


Much of the response to the Prime Minister's comments has failed to engage with his vision. Instead, historians, spokesmen for teachers' organisations and many journalists have reduced it to their level by prattling on about the teaching of British history in schools and the rote learning of dates.

This is a shame as there is much they could learn through a judicious appreciation of what Howard actually said. It is the case, for example, that all three influences he mentioned arrived in Australia with the First Fleet and subsequently developed in a uniquely Australian way in this country.

It is also true that the only way to understand that development is through narrative, and that to appreciate narrative it is necessary to know some facts. To downgrade facts in history is a bit like saying one can study science without doing the experiments that provide the data on which theories can be postulated. Without facts, students are at the mercy of the dogmatic views of an ideologically driven teacher.

Narrative is also an indispensable tool for the study of history because there are sequences in history and it is impossible to understand historical events without knowing what came before.

For example, Federation was not simply an issue of the 1890s. It cannot be understood without an appreciation of the sorts of political structures that had been set up in the colonies as "responsible government" from the 1850s onwards. And these, in turn, cannot be understood without reference to the British system of government and the "British constitution" from which they were derived.

What then of the three broad influences to which the Prime Minister referred? It is true to say that Australia's political and religious history have been in decline during the past 30 years. Largely this has been a consequence of the influence of postmodernism and a residual Marxism among historians.


Former Marxists such as Stuart Macintyre have attempted to write religion out of Australian history. Postmodernists influenced by Michel Foucault see power and politics everywhere and have no time for the institutions of democracy.

The result has been that Australian history has moved in often bizarre directions: directions that do not allow us to understand the often churchgoing and civic-engaged Australians of our past.

It is highly significant that Howard used the term Enlightenment twice in his address and again in his interview on The 7.30 Report. In his speech he also appealed to the "enduring heritage of Western civilisation". The Enlightenment is a crucial part of that heritage.

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First published in The Australian on January 30, 2006.

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About the Author

Gregory Melleuish is associate professor of history and politics at University of Wollongong.

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