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Launch of first volume of Tom Keneally's 'Australians: Origins to Eureka': speech, Canberra.



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Launch of first volume of Tom Keneally’s 'Australians: Origins to Eureka' National Library Canberra 27 August 2009

I begin by acknowledging the First Australians on whose land we meet, and whose cultures we celebrate as the oldest continuing cultures in human history.

It’s a pleasure to join you here at the National Library today to launch Tom Keneally’s latest book, Australians: Origins to Eureka.

Tom is of course one of our nation’s living national treasures.

Australians love him.

Despite him being a passionate Manly supporter - underlining the fact that we are all capable of human error.

Earlier this year, I asked Tom for a signed copy of his biography of Abraham Lincoln.

I presented it as an official gift to President Obama when I visited the White House in March of this year.

A bold move to give an Abe Lincoln bio to a man sometimes described as Abe Lincoln’s successor.

A doubly bold move when that particular biography (which is less than hagiography) reflects the particular insights of an instinctively rebellious Irish Australian.

There aren’t many people who’d be game to take on the challenge Tom’s set himself with this history.

To write three volumes that span Australia’s entire history.

A history that speaks to all Australians.

And a history that covers old ground, yet breaks new ground as well.

As Australians, we belong to an ancient land with a sprawling, complex and rollicking story.

A story that begins with the most ancient of continuing cultures in human history.

Ours is a story of an extraordinary national achievement: Forging a united, prosperous, democratic nation drawn from the dregs of Empire, from successive generations of people liberated from penal servitude; from Irish famine; from persecution and poverty from practically every land.

And despite this extraordinary admixture, we prevailed.

It’s a story that’s been picked over by some of the world’s finest poets, authors and filmmakers.

A story both of glory and of shame; of courage and sometimes absurdity.

A story that from time to time has ignited great controversy.

A story of things improbable becoming possible, and ultimately through Australian ingenuity, becoming not merely possible but then a reality which is indeed tangible.

So the task of compressing Australia’s national history into three volumes calls for a man of extraordinary talent.

And Tom certainly fits that bill.

Tom is that rare combination -- storyteller, historian, and proud son of Australia.

The kind of a man who gets the dirt under his fingernails as he excavates through the archives and sedimentary layers of our national story.

And who then knocks out the sort of prose that wins you a Booker prize.

And he speaks in a voice that every Australian recognises, because it’s the voice of our country - from a man whose love of this country leaps off every page.

Tom’s great insight is that Australians love a good yarn, especially when it’s about people we can relate to.

So he hasn’t given us a landscape study of our country’s history.

He’s given us a portrait gallery.

A very well-stocked gallery, I might add, and not just the usual suspects.

Yes, there are the ones we all know - like James Cook.

But I don’t remember my history teacher ever mentioning his chronic bowel problems.

Although discretion may have been the better part of valour there, on the part of our history teachers at school.

With teenagers, the mere mention of the word bowel can disrupt an entire afternoon’s work.

But Tom doesn’t hold back.

He makes us visualise James Cook suffering “behind screens of acacia and melaleuca” all the way up the Australian coast.

Tom also gives us sketches of the ordinary people who coped, as we still do today, with the tragedies and triumphs of Australian life.

Tom has this extraordinary eye for the little details that turn a biographical note into a living, breathing life-size character.

Tom’s insight springs from his compassion, his humanity, and his own rich life experience.

Tom is indeed, a deeply caring bloke.

His compassion shines through in his moving accounts of the tough, tragic and very human characters who two hundred years ago lived, loved and died - and helped build our nation.

People like Christopher Magee, an early arrival, who sat in his doorway with a bottle of rum in his hand.

He’d drink one glass, then pour another on to his wife’s freshly dug grave.

Because he said she’d loved it during her life.

Or Sarah Davenport, who came to Australia on the same boat that brought Henry Parkes.

Fourteen days into the voyage she lost her infant son, Albert.

He’d been splashed with boiling gruel through the clumsiness of a fellow passenger.

In her grief, Sarah suffered a miscarriage.

But she rallied, and she survived.

What’s more, she devoted herself to the service of others, acting as the ship’s midwife and caring for her three surviving children.

As Tom says, although most immigrants had better luck, few could exceed Sarah Davenport in ruggedness of soul.

And it was men and women like this - and like my forebears, the cast-offs of imperial Britain and Ireland - who laid the foundations for a nation that in time would become a laboratory of social experimentation, a cohesive society and ultimately one of the world’s most stable and prosperous democracies.

Tom of course has a quintessentially Australian sense of modesty.

He calls himself a ‘cheap drunk’ when it comes to history.

A bloke intoxicated with Australia’s great stories.

A bloke who grasps just how extraordinary our national story is.

Who convincingly shows a great national story doesn’t need wars, revolutions and bloodshed.

To anyone who might think our national story is a dreary one, I’d just say this:

Read this book.

This isn’t dead history.

This is history with a pulse.

History that comes alive, page after page.

History that reflects Tom’s passion to leave for future generations an account of our national story that is both accurate and inspirational.

The book is also a reminder of just how much history matters.

I’m reminded of the insights of John Keane, the Australian author of the definitive biography of the great American revolutionary Thomas Paine, and yes, I’m wading my way through that biography at present.

As Keane says, historical biography is itself, in essence, a form of democracy.

As he says, and I quote him:

“Democracy among the living requires democracy among the dead, in that votes must be extended to the most disenfranchised of all constituencies - our silenced ancestors”.

It’s a remarkable insight that deserves attention.

At its highest, biography writing isn’t “wielding the pen to protect an idol”.

It isn’t muck-raking.

And it’s not just ripping yarns.

In fact, it does have a higher purpose.

Biography is the fulfilment of a duty owed by every generation to those who have gone before us, and able to be claimed against those yet to be born.

A duty to capture, to preserve and to transmit the stories - the legacy of each generation.

Because a human voice - a human life - retains its validity, its power and its relevance beyond its physical demise.

As we build on the work done in our name and on our behalf by our forebears, we honour them best by listening to their voices from the past. Tom’s book does that.

As Keane reminds us, it’s not easy to untangle the complex threads of a human life far removed from the biographer’s lived reality - as he says, “a biography is never straightforward”.

But the great challenge of the biographer is to offer readers the opportunity to ponder the subject themselves, “thereby encouraging them to tinker with their own sense of reality”.

It is two hundred years since the death of Thomas Paine - yet in Keane’s world, Paine today “strikes our times like a trumpet blast from an ancient world”.

His ideas are still debated, and his words are still quoted, by the decision-makers of the present day.

And we are cautioned not to consign him to the shelf of those who are described as “dead white European males”.

Instead, he suggests, Paine can prove to us still that “the dead are sometimes more alive than the living.”

Of course few individuals achieve Tom Paine’s place in history.

But Tom Keneally’s book certainly reminds there is a rich array of lives that have together shaped the character this nation, Australia, just as Paine did for his adopted nation, America.

And as a biographer, I suspect that Tom’s background in literary fiction gives him better insights than most into the workings of the human heart, as he has reflected in these pages on those attributes that together make

up our national character.

The love for history is, I believe, the hand-maiden of country.

Not a blind, unthinking love - a love that refuses to accept that mistakes were made and opportunities lost.

But a history that unapologetically celebrates the good.

A history that equally unapologetically exposes the bad.

And a history that draws upon both to inform our current age.

That I believe is the best approach to the great stories that make up our national story.

It’s not hagiography.

Nor is it futile brow-beating.

Instead, it’s a willingness to embrace the past, warts and all.

To recognise there are competing strands in any nation’s history - of inclusion and exclusion; of hope and of fear; of progress and of stagnation.

And, informed by a genuine engagement with our history, to move forward with absolute optimism and determination for the future.

In my address to Parliament last year on the national apology, I expressed my belief that a people “must become fully reconciled to their past if they are to go forward with confidence to embrace their future”.

On that occasion, I was dealing with the unfinished business of our reconciliation with the First Australians.

More broadly, I believe the time has now come to move beyond the arid intellectual debates of the history wars and the culture wars of recent years.

Time to leave behind us the polarisation that began to infect every discussion of our nation’s past.

To go beyond the so-called “black armband” view that refused to confront some hard truths about our past, as if our forebears were all men and women of absolute nobility, without spot or blemish.

But time, too, to go beyond the view that we should only celebrate the reformers, the renegades and revolutionaries, thus neglecting or even deriding the great stories of our explorers, of our pioneers, and of our entrepreneurs.

Any truthful reflection of our nation’s past is that these are all part of the rich fabric of our remarkable national story.

Too often we underestimate the importance of history in the modern world.

Our history gives us a legitimate sense of being part of a story much bigger than ourselves.

A story that goes beyond our own place and time.

A story when told at its best is capable of liberating us from the arrogance of the present, to recognise with some humility the enormity of the challenges we have faced in the past, and with sober responsibility, the great choices we face for the future.

History is the memory of a nation or a civilisation.

It has been said that a nation without history is like an individual without memory.

Just as it is hard to imagine personality without memory, so too is it hard to imagine national identity without history.

For individuals, memory also informs and shapes behaviour.

And so it does with nations.

The histories they choose to embrace as their collective memory of the past become the foundations upon which they build their futures - sometimes consciously, other times not.

For young nations, this is far more important, as our shared memories (with the exception of the First Australians) are recent and often diffuse.

Some say this is why we need a single, official, received narrative of Australian history.

But as a nation and people, we are far too freedom-loving to believe in any singular account of our history.

I do believe, however, that a core chronology of events is essential for understanding our nation’s history.

We should all agree that a sequence of events took place - and that critical events, people and movements that have shaped our national story.

History can never be only a matter of interpretation.

But it’s time we called a truce to the history wars between a straight narrative history that brooks no contradictions, and an extreme relativism that is only about interpretation and not about events, is in fact unsustainable.

In a liberal democratic society, we can agree that events happened while we agree to differ in how we interpret them.

On this basis, we can all engage in the debates about the complexities of the good, the bad, the ugly and the vast ocean that lies between where most of us all reside.

That’s a healthy and democratic approach to our nation’s story.

Within this framework, it is also worthwhile confronting the view we sometimes hear that Australian history lacks sufficient colour, movement and drama to command the attention of current generations, let alone to inspire those of the future.

Again, I commend everyone to the pages of this new history by Tom Keneally.

That argument assumes that there are no great histories without revolution, without civil war and rivers of blood shed in pursuit of contested wars for our nation’s future.

And that without such traumatic events, history is somehow of a second order.

Like any other Australian nationalist, of course, I’d strongly disagree.

Not just because we’ve never shirked our international responsibilities to engage in the great conflicts that have shaped so much of the history of the world over the last hundred years.

But also because not every great history is a story of revolution and destruction.

Just as not every great film is necessarily an action movie.

We should never underestimate just how far from ordinary and in fact extraordinary our own national story, Australia’s story, is.

Because somehow we - this motley collectivity of souls, drawn from all corners of the earth - could in the space of a few generations cause such an extraordinary national experiment to work.

Building a stable and successful democracy, where matters of great contention are resolved at the ballot box and not through the barrel of a gun, making us one of the oldest continuing democracies in the world.

A people that uniquely has crafted a nation for a continent, and a continent for a nation.

A nation that has carved an economy from an inhospitable earth to build one of the most prosperous on earth - rich in innovation, rich in enterprise.

A nation that has so often led the world in social progress like rights for women and rights for working people, and building one of the most open, most progressive, least class-based societies in the world.

A nation that from its beginnings has etched within its soul, in fact within its DNA, an almost inalienable sense of fairness - what we call in our own vernacular the ‘fair go’.

A nation that time and again has shown itself open to extraordinary adaptation and change - moving in less than a generation from a White Australia Policy to embracing the diversity of the cultures that now contribute to our national identity.

A country and community confident of its place in the region and in the world - straddling uniquely the challenges and complexities of our Indigenous antiquity, our European history and our Asian geography.

Our national story is still very much a work in progress.

We’re a nation still wrestling with our reconciliation with the First Australians whom we seek to embrace afresh today, as brothers and sisters in our common search for a common future.

The challenges of poverty remain with us.

The challenges of intolerance.

The challenges of the devastation being wrought on our environment.

But by any reasonable measure, the achievements of this Australian nation are of an extraordinary, rather than ordinary nature.

As with so many things, the deepest insights into our own condition are often provided by those outside it.

And from those who come from abroad to make their home with us.

Time and again, they remind us just how remarkably successful this Australian experiment has been.

It is something we should embrace and celebrate more ourselves.

To think that in this couple of centuries, the convicts of England, the cast-offs of Empire, the exiled children of Erin’s shore - those whom Churchill reportedly said were of ‘bad stock’ - coupled with successive generations escaping the hell of holocaust, genocide, famine and war throughout the century past - could build a culture and a nation in an inhospitable land the equal of any in the world.

A democratic, prosperous and compassionate nation, blessed with that winsome wisdom of knowing never to take ourselves too seriously.

So for us today, perhaps it’s time also to turn the page.

To embrace a balanced, reflective but positive view of our past that both informs and inspires our future.

I believe we can do this here with a great love of country but without contempt, derision or fear of others.

One does not have to follow from the other.

One is not automatically the obverse of the other.

Perhaps here too we have something unique to offer - given the sorry history of xenophobic nationalisms elsewhere.

Instead, with quiet reflection, reasoned celebration, and the respectful engagement of cultures more ancient than our own, ours can be an unrestrained optimism for our Australian future.

A challenging century lies ahead of us.

A century that for the first time in our settled history may not be dominated by one part of the Anglosphere or another.

One which as the century evolves will take us into genuinely uncharted waters in geopolitics, the global economy and technological change.

And one where the existential threat of climate change could change forever the land that gives us life.

These are the great challenges that lie ahead.

But the task of tackling them is made easier if as a people, a culture and a country, we are fortified afresh by the values and stories of our nation from its earliest times.

So Tom, let’s hope you can inspire more Australians to indulge with you in what you poetically describe as your historical ‘drinking benders’.

At more than five hundred pages, this is something for binge historians.

For my part, so far I’ve only had the time for tipple or two.

But before I close and launch this great book, let me quote a little bit of it to you. And that’s Tom reflections on the Second Fleet, which I found extraordinarily moving. And those who came out on that Second Fleet, and what was the good ship Neptune, but in fact became the bad ship Neptune.

Tom writes of “two young men aboard the Neptune, who would have a large pace in the story of New South Wales.

“One was a young man with a new rank, and a touch bumptious about it. John Macarthur...a little over twenty years of age, and a Lieutenant in the 1023nd Regiment, the newly created New South Wales Corps, a man of handsome features that must have satisfied the broad streak of narcissism in him. He was a devour duellist, because he was a man of

edgy honour”. I like that expression.

The other was: “The other fascinating passenger on board Neptune was a young Irishman, D’Arcy Wentworth, aged about 27, a highwayman-cum-surgeon: a voluntary passenger in one sense; a virtual convict in another.” ...

“Neptune’s Captain Trail, a 44-year-old Orkney Island Scot, at one time master of the Captain Bligh, took over command of the vessel from the

dismissed Captain Gilbert. The Neptune now held over five hundred people....of the thousand convicts to be shipped. Most of them were housed on the orlop deck, the third deck down, with standing room below the beams of the ceiling only 5 feet 7 inches.” ...

“The convicts slept in four rows of sleeping trays, one row on either side of the ship, and two down the middle.” ...

“In port and for much of the journey, each convict was chained by the wrist or by the ankles, in many cases on Neptune two and two together, and indefinitely so. Trail must have known the impact this would have on cleanliness and health”.

...

“The sanitary arrangements were very primitive- on the orlop deck large tubs were provided to ‘ease nature’. These would be knocked over by accident or carelessness or rough seas. Below decks was thus a damp, under-aired overcrowded misery.”

“Among those who came on board the huge Neptune from the hulk Dunkirk was a lusty young man in his mid twenties, Robert Towers...his health had gone down a little on the damp lower decks of Dunkirk, but on the crowded prison deck of Neptune, where he wore slaver shackles around his ankles and wrists, received short-weighted rations and got insufficient air and exercise, he began to feel really poorly. The Neptune, at anchor and at sea, would ultimately finish him, though it would take seven months until they brought his corpse up to deck and committed him to a distant ocean”.

As one contemporary account said, “the slave trade is merciful, compared with what I have seen in this fleet; in that it is in the interest of the slave master to preserve the healths and lives of their captives, they having a joint benefit, with the owners. In this fleet, this second fleet, the more they can withhold from the unhappy wretches, the more provisions they have to dispose of in a foreign market; and the earlier in the voyage they die, the longer they the masters can draw the deceased’s allowance for themselves...if therefore highly concerns the Government, to lodge in

future, a controlling power in each ship over these low-life barbarous masters, to keep them honest”.

That’s something of what occurred when people travelled here. My forbear, Thomas Rudd, was on that vessel. And when I reflect upon this extraordinary convict history, and the extraordinary privations they

suffered, this tome brings alive this great Australian story, to us all.

So Tom, with those remarks, can I say that we are indeed honoured to be here today to celebrate the launch of this great book. It could be a great contribution to the telling of Australia’s national story.

I’m looking forward to the chance to get a really decent read of a lot of it.

And in that spirit, it’s my great pleasure to officially launch ‘Australians: Origins to Eureka’.