The washup of Howard’s History Summit
The following was written for the Sydney Morning Herald, with my usual lack of success. The further outcome of the History Summit, which was reflected in The Australian and the NCC journal Newsweekly, puts an even more interesting twist on events.
The right-winger Melleuish was very peeved with John Hirst, who wrote a rather self-satisfied article about the event for The Australian. Melleuish whinged that the summit had not gone as far as he wished towards making conservative narrative history compulsory in schools, and he implied that the event had been hijacked by the “left intellectual establishment”.
Another right-winger, Mark Lopez, the more or less official right-wing opponent of multiculturalism and author of a book on the origins of multiculturalism, took this hijack thesis further in an article in Newsweekly purporting to be an account of the event.
His whinge was that he had gone along to the event to support Melleuish’s version of conservative narrative history and he was not at all amused at what had emerged, which he calls simply postmodernism, although it is really right-wing postmodernism.
Obviously, the whole event was a bit of a damp squib for the right-wing push to turn back the clock on the teaching of Australian history, despite the support for such a project by Howard and the increasingly hysterical Murdoch press.
John Howard’s History Summit was a predictable but rather peculiar event. Stuart McIntyre was invited but wouldn’t go. Bob Gould who has conducted a longstanding polemic in favour of the restoration of narrative history in schools, wasn’t invited. I would certainly have gone. See my piece arguing with Stuart McIntyre about the dumbing down of Australian history teaching.
The historians present were on balance a conservative bunch: Geoffrey Blainey, John Hirst, Gregory Melleuish, Gerard Henderson, etc. Melleuish’s paper was clearly the keynote for the event. It succeeded in discussing World War I with fulsome references to Gallipoli, but made no reference to the defeat of conscription in the two referendums and the driving out of the Labor Party of the conscriptionist Prime Minister Billy Hughes and NSW Premier Holman. (This aspect is rather personal for me. My father was a one-armed survivor of that first imperialist holocaust of the 20th century, who survived Gallipoli and most of the Western Front in one piece until 1918, when he lost his arm to a Big Bertha shell. His war experiences radicalised him considerably. He was proud of his participation in the Australian mutinies on the Western Front in 1917, and that the majority of frontline soldiers voted against conscription in the two referendums. He went on to become active in Labor politics and was a lifelong opponent of conscription. He strongly supported me in my campaigning against the Vietnam War.)
Melleuish’s keynote paper is clearly politically partisan in a rather high-Tory way. It praises free trade and attacks protection in Australian history, and is clearly biased against the so-called Australian Settlement, which included industrial arbitration and relatively high wages for workers. Melleuish’s paper is a conservative polemic against what he perceives to be a pro-Labor bias in Australian history by most historians.
The History Summit was a very curious event. It was presented by Howard as an exercise in re-establishing Australian narrative history. Howard tried to deny the obvious intent of the event, from his point of view, which was to re-establish a conservative narrative. The difficulty with that is obvious. Any kind of serious account of the events in Australian history: conflicts, political, religious, social and cultural wars, Eureka, Aboriginal resistance, convictism, the Irish rebellion at Castle Hill, the agitation against transportation, free selection versus the squatters, the strikes of the 1890s and the foundation of the Australian Labor Party, the Australian Settlement, the conscription dispute, the 1930s depression upheavals and Langism, the conflicts during the World War II over where to send Australian troops, the post-war industrial upheavals, the conflicts during the Vietnam War, etc, clearly refutes a conservative view of Australian history.
Contrary to Melleuish’s expressed view, Australian history is not a history in which very little happened. The problem for the conservative point of view is that most of what happened contained elements of religious and racial conflict and class struggle.
These problems clearly dogged even the polite conservative historians at the summit. It would be fascinating to read a transcript of what was actually said. Will such a transcript be published?
Out pops a conservative postmodernist mouse
After the discussion at the summit, the final decision is the opposite of the one indicated by the Howard Government’s rhetoric about reinstating narrative history. Rather than any straightforward narrative, made accessible to students by recounting interesting events, what emerged was a series of 11 questions loaded in a blatantly conservative way, and the outcome is further stitched up by the fact that the sub-committee to refine the questions will be chaired by the reliably conservative Melbourne historian John Hirst. We’re to get, not narrative history at all, but a kind of conservative postmodernism, with 11 loaded questions to be thrashed out by a conservative sub-committee. What a farce!
The real import of the event was the threat made by Julie Bishop at the end. Unless the state Labor governments roll over for this conservative rewriting of Australian history, their education budgets will be cut.
The Labor state governments would be well advised to call Howard’s bluff. They should make a general commitment to the reinstatement of a standalone history subject in high schools. They should expose Howard’s threats to state educational funding as the mean-spirited, conservative cost-cutting that they are.
The state governments should hold their own national history summit. It is, after all, state governments that are responsible for education. This History Summit should be far broader than Howard’s and involve a wider spectrum of historians, as well as teachers’ unions. In the interim, excellent text books for high school history already exist. These would be the books written for that purpose by Manning Clark, Russell Ward, Kylie Tennant and Robert Murray among others, rather than the god-queen-country historians favoured by Howard.