Bob Gould, 2006

The Tory war on objective narrative history
John Howard’s history summit

Source: Ozleft, August 20-September 6, 2006
Proofreading, editing, mark-up: Steve Painter

On August 17-18 in Canberra there will be a much ballyhooed history summit organised by the federal government led by Prime Minister John Howard. This event is being presented as an attempt to press Labor state governments to reinstate narrative history in secondary school curricula in place of the confusing, rather postmodern curricula that absorb history as part of a kind of social studies in seven of the eight states and territories governed by Labor.

The exception is NSW, where the recently retired Labor premier Bob Carr was instrumental in reinstating narrative history as a separate subject in high schools. Carr is a delegate to the history summit, but the other participants are a carefully selected mix of what one might call high school history technicians and extremely right-wing Tory supporting historians, well known for their conservative views. These people are a distinct minority among Australian historians.

A couple of token practitioners of high theory are thrown in for good measure.

One of the history technicians has produced a long paper suggesting in detail how narrative history might be restored in the syllabus in the seven states and territories governed by Labor, and his technical paper isn’t an unreasonable overview of the teaching problems involved. The devil is, of course, as in all things that are so loaded ideologically, in the detail.

The detail in this case is a lengthy paper by Greg Melleuish, a right-wing history academic at Wollongong University who is a frequent contributor to Paddy McGuinness’s Quadrant. Melleuish’s paper is clearly the keynote publication for the conference. It’s shrewdly constructed.

Melleuish avoids taking up the crudest positions of his fellow Quadrant contributor, Keith Windschuttle, about Aboriginal history. The Menzies thinktank, which has played a big role in organising the conference, has carefully not invited Windschuttle. Melluish’s paper won’t please Windschuttle too much, because Melleuish wisely asserts that Australian history has to start with Aboriginal society and a narrative about Aboriginal dispossession.

Melleuish uses this concession to genuine narrative Australian history to bolster his main preoccupation. His desire to rewrite Australian narrative history lies in other, more directly political, directions. His narrative would celebrate Anzac and the military aspects of World War I, which he claims are neglected, but he would ignore the mass mobilisation that defeated the conscription referenda in 1916 and 1917. He would also ignore the NSW general strike of 1917 and the social upheavals that followed World War I. He asserts in passing that not much happened in Australian history, unlike, he says, the US Revolution or the French Revolution, and the that the real characteristic of Australian society as it developed was its stability.

Melleuish can only uphold this position by playing down all the colourful and contradictory developments in Australian society, particularly aspects of history that relate to class struggle and to major religious conflicts. In this Tory narrative of Australian history, Melleuish is not really arguing with the postmodernists. He is trying to replace the more robust narratives which, among other things, celebrate class struggle, written by historians such as Manning Clark, Russel Ward and even Robert Murray.

Towards the end of his paper Melleuish is quite explicit about this, and he indicts the history taught in schools as too pro-Labor in its concentration on the Vietnam period and Labor governments.

Over the past few years I’ve conducted a fairly determined polemic against the dumbing down of Australian history, which reached its culmination in Stuart Macintyre’s Concise History of Australia. It’s actually this dumbing down that has opened the possibility for the conservatives, Howard and company, to use Melleuish’s High Tory history of Australia as a kind of battering ram to try to force state Labor governments to make concessions to the Tory version of Australian history in revisions of the syllabus.

A striking feature of Melleuish’s paper is an attack on the emphasis on multiculturalism in most state school syllabuses. It’s hardly accidental that one of the conservative delegates to this gathering is one Mark Lopez, the conservative historian whose book The Origins of Multiculturalism in Australian Politics (MUP 2000) is the bible of intellectual opponents of multiculturalism, and its teaching in schools in a historical framework.

In my view, Labor state ministers of education should be very cautious in the face of this push by the conservatives to restore god-queen-country Tory history in schools. Narrative history as a standalone subject should be restored in the curricula of the seven states and territories, but no concessions at all should be made to the outdated Tory historical narrative expressed in Melleuish’s paper.

The Labor state ministers of education should not allow themselves to be stampeded, and should hold a history summit of their own, with a wide variety of historical views represented and input from history teachers at secondary and tertiary levels, and their unions. Bob Carr would be well advised at this history summit to put this kind of view to those present, and he should be very careful not to allow himself to be converted into a kind of Labor or left face for the restoration of the essentially Tory god-queen-country narrative desired by Howard, Melleuish, Lopez and others.

This is particularly important in current conditions, as the political logjam begins to break and the Liberals everywhere are in strife because of the bankruptcy of their political approach. The state ministers for education would be well advised to consider an updated version of the late Russel Ward’s Concise History of Australia as a basic text in a restored history curriculum. My more rounded views on Australian narrative history are available in my polemic against Stuart Macintyre.

The mountain trembled and brought forth a postmodernist Tory mouse

Ozleft, September 6, 2006

The following was written for the Sydney Morning Herald, with my usual lack of success. An even more interesting twist is reflected in the coverage of the history summit by The Australian and the right-wing National Civil Council’s journal, Newsweekly.

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 semi-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 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.

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 of most historians of Australia.

The 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 big 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 story 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.