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The great mistakes of Australian history.



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Perspective

 

Thursday 23 November 2006

Martin Crotty, Deputy Director, Australian Studies Centre, University of Queensland

 

The Great Mistakes of Australian History

In the last fortnight I have published a new book titled The Great Mistakes of Australian History . I and my co-editor, David Andrew Roberts from the University of New England, and the eleven historians who contributed chapters, have found ourselves very much swimming against the tide. The current agenda, emanating from Canberra, and backed by conservative commentators in the press, is to emphasise only the positive, affirming aspects of Australian history. The mistakes, failings and shortcomings of our national past are apparently best forgotten.

There is nothing new about this reluctance to consider the darker sides of Australian history. For many years, Australians refused to openly acknowledge that our original pioneers were transported criminals, that our first settlements were in fact British prisons. And for many years, there was no general acknowledgement that our nation was effectively built on land stolen from its Aboriginal owners.

We are now more open and honest about many of the downsides of our history. Where once we looked to history as a source of triumphant tales and patriotic legends, we are now more circumspect and balanced in our reflections on the past.

But this new, more complex appreciation of our past, has not pleased everyone. Some twenty years ago, Geoffrey Blainey coined the expression "black armband history", and the term is now tossed around freely. Black armband history, supposedly, diminishes national pride and reflects a determination to denigrate Australians and the Australian achievement. It is the indulgence of nay sayers, not nation builders. These arguments are made with great passion, especially when they concern school curricula.

David, I, and all our contributors profoundly disagree with the dismissal of so-called "black armband" history. Rather, we see a contemplation of our national shortcomings and mistakes as vital to a mature consideration of Australian history.

To be sure, there is an enormous amount in the Australian story that we can, and should, be proud of. We are one of the oldest continuous democracies in the world. We live in relative plenty. We have, when required, banded together to fight for our survival, and we have succeeded. We have absorbed waves of immigrants from different parts of the world. By international standards we are a relatively wealthy, peaceful and harmonious society.

Let's remember that Australia has come a long way from its origins as a remote convict outpost - a community of British and Irish rejects, ruled by military autocrats. Generations of Australians have built a formidable and valuable legacy that we, their successors, must build on and improve.

That achievement is worthy of celebration - and receives it, in school and university history courses, in the memorials and statues that dot our cities, in popular history books, in museums and on anniversaries.

But we can not allow the Australian achievement to obscure our mistakes, failings and shortcomings, any more than an individual can use their virtues in one area to excuse their vices in another.

Mistakes are a vital part of our national self-understanding. They are particularly valuable as a counter to hubris and arrogance, because they remind us that we have not always got it right, and never will. Mistakes remind us that we should be humble as well as proud, careful as well as bold.

Mistakes also have lessons for us, lessons that will help us make a better present and a better future. They tell us the paths we should not go down again. As a popular aphorism has it, "the society that knows not its past is doomed to repeat it."

Is it not the case, for example, that our past experiences of environmental mismanagement are valuable in working out how we can deal with challenges ranging from introduced species to land degradation? Are the world wars and Vietnam completely bereft of lessons for Iraq and the War on Terror? Can we not deal better with questions of land rights and Indigenous well-being if we have in mind how and why the notion of terra nullius came to be applied in Australia, and with the example of the stolen generations before us?

A true commitment to national well-being, an honest dedication to ensuring that we live up to our liberal democratic ideals, requires that we are even handed in our approach to the past, and that necessarily requires contemplating the regrettable, the discomfiting, the scarcely palatable, and even the shameful alongside the positive and affirming. To do anything else is to deny our, and future generations, the benefits of experience. To quote Thomas Carlyle again, "the greatest of all faults is to be conscious of none."

Guests

Martin Crotty  

Deputy Director 

Australian Studies Centre 

University of Queensland