The Oxford Companion to Australian History


A critical comment

Bob Gould

The Oxford Companion to Australian History, edited by Graeme Davison, John Hirst and Stuart Macintyre

This impressive-looking 710-page book was published in 1998 with a lot of hype as the definitive companion to Australian history. The three named editors are high-powered academic figures in the Melbourne historical establishment, all professors at major universities, one of whom, Hirst, is on the right, Macintyre the left and Davison is kind of in the centre.

Well, in my view, this book may be useful in the way the Encyclopaedia Britannica often is, as a largely unused prestigious presence on your bookshelves, but a useful companion to Australian history it is not, and I’ll try to explain why.

A useful companion should be a comprehensive coverage of the field, in an accessable, user-friendly mode. At the very minimum, such a volume should have a comprehensive index or at least a comprehensive name index.

The other Oxford companions to various Australian disciplines that I have seen have general indexes or name indexes, or both. This book has neither. As a substitute, it has something called a subject index at the end, a very summary and confusing index, with only a handful of headings.

The nearest thing you get to a name index is a list of historians in the subject index, and a list of contributors to the volume itself at the front of the book. Many, many significant historians or historical figures who are mentioned in the book make it neither into the list of contributors nor the name index.

If a historical figure or a historian that the three prestigious editors consider minor (maybe this classification is in relation to themselves) don’t make it into the book itself with their own entry, there is no direct way of locating any reference to them, even if it exists in the book.

To make matters worse in this respect, there are two categories of citizenship in relation to books mentioned in the Companion. Contributors, and the major historians mentioned in the historians entry in the subject index are in large bold type if they are mentioned in an entry in the book. Lesser mortals, particularly lesser historians, are mentioned in plain type.

If you wish to find out whether Judith Keen is mentioned, you have to have the brainwave of thinking: “Ah, Spanish Civil War.” Well, yes, she is there in that entry, but you could easily miss her in the small type. And again, the notable Sydney historian Shirley Fitzgerald, Australia’s most important urban historian. She is not a contributor. She is not in the list of historians, but: “Ah, maybe urban history”, and there she is, if you read the small type.

The same for Ross Fitzgerald, the important Queensland historian. There are many extremely important historians who don’t make it into the list of historians or contributors, and are therefore only present, if at all, in an entry about their specialty, if you can have a flash as to what that specialty would be called, but always in the small type.

There are a couple of hundred historians mentioned in the book in subject entries, who are in no way accessable by any index. What a pompous, academic, elitist, self-serving way to organise something called a Companion to Australian History. The problem would be easily solved by the presence of a general name index, of course, but that would take the focus off the big guys.

A small sample of hundreds of Oxford small-print historians, or historians not mentioned in the volume at all, would be: Shirley Fitzgerald, Judith Keen, Ross Fitzgerald, Bob Connell, Ray Markey, Jan Kociumbas, Jock Collins, Colm Kiernan, Jim Andrighetti, Barry York, Bob Murray, J.N. Rawling, Lynette Silver, Eddie Penzig, Malcolm Campbell, Sandy Yarwood, Susanna Short, Tom O’Lincolin, Susanna De Vries, Anne Henderson, Gerard Henderson, Roger Milliss, Mary Dickenson, Alleyn Best, Allan Barcan, Rosemany Broomham, Richard Raxworthy, Sue Rosen, Lenore Coltheart, R.D. Walshe, John Bach, Portia Robinson, Robert Travers, Siobhan McHugh, Henry Mayer, Joan Rydon, R.N. Spann, Helen Nelson, Michael Hogan, Jack Hutson, Peter Edwards, Rupert Lockwood, Greg Pemberton, Edward Duyker, Bruce Muirden, Edmund Campion, Bill Hornadge, Lorna McDonald, Jim Miller, Bobbie Hardie, Noel Loos, David Marr, John Meredith, Ray Evans, John Harris, Paul Carter, Neil Gunson, Anna Haebich, James E. Calder, Bruce Elder, Pamela Lukin Watson, Geoffrey Blomfield, Neville Green, John Pilger, P.D. Gardner, Hudson Fysh, Nancy Cato, Bill Rosser, L.E. Skinner, Gordon Reid, Hector Holthouse, Keith Willey, Mary Durack, Peter Taylor, Judy MacKinolty, Graham Jenkin, Ian Clark, David Lowe, Luise Hercus, Douglas Lockwood, Alistair Davidson, David Headon, Judith Wright, William Joy, Bradley Bowden, Clem Lloyd, Ken Buckley, Stewart Svenssen, Tim Flannery, James G. Murtagh, Jim Hagan, Ken Turner, T. Suttor, Margo Beasley, Frank Farrell, Dick Hall, Audrey Johnson, Izzy Wyner, Braden Ellem, E.W. Campbell, Jerzy Zubricki, Kay Daniels, Don Watson, Fr. Patrick Ford, Delia Birchley, A.G. Evans, D.W.A. Baker, Oliver McDonagh, Tony Laffin, Winifred Mitchell, Hall Greenland, Nial Brennan, Jim Griffin, Paul Ormonde, Tom Truman, Alan Grocott, Malcolm Prentiss, Tony Cahill, E.J. Docker, Kylie Tennant, Tom Keneally, John O’Brien, Patrick Travers, Jakelin Troy, Bob Reece, Marianne Wilkinson, Michael Blakeney, Edgar Ross, Graeme Osborne, Warren Fahey, Sylvia Lawson, Robert Cooksey, Dennis Murphey, Dennis Cryle, Gerhardt Fischer, Colleen Burke, Zoe O’Leary, Pamela Rajkowski, John Manifold, Max Brown, Hugh Anderson, Terry Burstall, Bill Beatty, Keith Dunstan, Bob Birrell, Charles Rowley, Keith Windschuttle, C.Y. Choi, C.F. Yong, Jan Roberts, Peter Corris, Julia Blackburn, R.L. Kirk, Peter White, James F. O’Connell, Sean Brawley, Katharine Betts, Lloyd Ross, Andrew Moore, and even Andrew Wells, Macintyre’s initial collaborator on the history of the Australian Communist Party, and so on.

The discrete entry on Herbert Vere Evatt in the book does not even mention his major and important books of history: Rum Rebellion, William Holman and the Australian Labour Movement, and The King and His Dominion Governors.

The list of historians given in the rather rudimentary subject index at the back just has the surname of the historian without given names or initials, which, in the case of common names, makes it very hard to work out who is intended, and is an aristocratic form that is a formidable obstacle to utility.

One feature of the book seems to be that the further away from Melbourne a historian or subject gets, the less recognition they get in the book. Another feature is that non-university academic historians, popular historians and public historians get very little mention or recognition in this book.

By way of comparison, the Oxford Companion to British History in the same series, published a year earlier, and very similar in format and layout, is about 300 pages longer. It has one editor, John Cannon, and no research assistants are mentioned. It has a simple arrangement for all contributions. They all, including Cannon’s, have standard initials. Less elitist, no large bold type for favoured historians or historical subjects. This book also has a subject index at the end, with, however, no subject entry for historians. Cannon’s book is more down-to-earth all round, and less academically snobbish. In my view, both books would benefit from a general index as well.

It gets worse. Most of the actual work on the book was obviously done by the two “research assistants”, Helen Doyle and Kim Torney, although it is also clear from the book that the prodigiously energetic Stuart Macintyre also did a lot of the work. This presents a bit of a problem in terms of big guys’ academic protocol in relation to attribution.

This problem is overcome in what seems to me an exceedingly snobbish way. The historian contributors who only make the occasional contribution are generally attributed with their full name. Two of the three editors, the two with the smaller number of contributions, Hirst and Davison, are mainly attributed with their full name, but occasionally with initials. The energetic Macintyre presents a problem. If you used his name all the time, he would dominate the book, which might put the other two editors’ noses out of joint, so he is attributed by name about a third of the time, and he gets initials for the rest.

This ostensible humility still leaves his imprint all over the book, but with a certain discrete bashfulness. The poor old research assistants, who produce workmanlike, intelligent and knowledgeable entry after entry, only rate initials. If ever a book was produced to look like a useful tool without being nearly as useful as it looks, but to also embody academic snobbery, it is this bizarre title.

An accommodation between the left and the right of the Melbourne historical establishment

The Companion has a curious editorial slant. It is obviously an accommodation between the leftist liberal views of Macintyre, and the rightist views of Hirst, and what emerges is a kind of two-strand establishment, corporate liberalism as the dominant view. Macintyre is the expert on the labour movement, culture and ideology, and this area is dominated by his personal preoccupations and biases. He has a certain reverence for radical things in the past, but this is shot through with a hostility to all populism. He’s rather down on Jack Lang, and so on.

He manages to write an entry on the history of the Labor Party without mentioning Lang, Eddie Ward, Jack Beasley, or Laurie Short. In fact, Eddie Ward isn’t mentioned anywhere in the book.

Macintyre manages to mention the ALP-DLP split, without reference to Bob Murray’s seminal work on the subject, The Split. He showcases at length such things as the “new left”, and his version of class, and elevates, rather out of proportion to their real significance, academic arguments about matters in which he was involved.

Carl Bridge is the author of the entry on Manning Clark, and he savages Clark with all the conventional critical points, several of which in my view, are mostly wrong. But this all fits in with downgrading the significance of past historians who gave great weight to matters such as class, the labour movement and the clash of the Irish and the British in Australian history.

The person who does the entry on the Catholic Church, Catherine Massam, dismisses in a rather ahistorical way the Tridentine Irish Catholic populism of the 19th century, and so on. One Mark Lyons, who contributes the essay on sectarianism (religious, presumably), quotes his own postgraduate thesis, the core of which seems to be the rather eccentric and unpleasant but widely held, essentially Anglophile, view that the hierarchy of the Catholic Church was mainly responsible for the religious sectarianism of the 19th century.

A kind of political correctness, from the viewpoint of a bland corporate liberalism on major questions, dominates the book from start to finish.

A feature of this book that has infuriated the radical conservative clique around the magazine Quadrant is its lengthy and thorough attention to all aspects of Aboriginal history. In my view, this lengthy and thorough attention to Aboriginal history is the best feature of the book. The comical huffing and puffing of the current Quadrant bunch about this matter underlines how far removed they are from a civilised approach to the real world.

On the right, in Hirst’s territory, so to speak, ruthless corporate liberalism also prevails in the basic ideology of the book. If you can find Black Jack McEwan, for instance, which is difficult (a mental test for any reader who has a copy of the book: try to imagine what entry he is under in the small print) you find that the tariff/wage-increase trade-off over which he presided for a number of years was a very bad thing.

Again, there is even an entry for the Northern Myth, by Graeme Davison. He asserts quite forcefully that any idea of populating the northern part of Australia is total rubbish. There is a quite pronounced bias in the book against matters such as irrigation, and the entries relating to agriculture and also to the environment, are shot through with a mild animosity towards the agricultural sector of Australian society. Even the entry on multiculturalism tells us that multiculturalism is now a bad thing.

A striking example of the historical narrowmindedness and Melbourne-centric nature of this book is its virtual abolition from Australian history of Henry Mayer and his colleagues in the Sydney University Department of Government. From the 1950s to the 1990s this department’s empirical school of Australian political history and study was a major force in political history, through its monographs, the journal edited by Mayer, Politics, and the seven editions of the Reader edited by Mayer, which influenced tens of thousands of Australian undergraduates.

There is no potted history of Australian art, only an entry about art history. I couldn’t find any reference anywhere in the book to Albert Tucker, Sidney Nolan, Ken Done, Noel Counihan or Brett Whiteley. Very strange.

In sum, this appears to be a book in which assorted versions of what, in these postmodern times is looseley designated theory, has triumphed almost completely over what Karl Marx used to say: “history is whole cloth”.

That’s a great pity, really. The many entries under the initials of the two research assistants are very good indeed, and in fact they display an often quirky and much broader historical approach than that of the three editors. It’s a great pity they did not have even greater control over the book. Who knows, they may even have modifield or removed the corporate liberal ideological bias. And I bet if they had been in control they would have insisted on an index and name index to make it the useful research tool that it might have been.

August 1, 1999


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