I recently attended a history conference in Wellington, New Zealand, which posed the question After the War, What Next? My answer was that we need a transnational approach to telling history, which presents the complexity of global influences that have informed decisions about nation building and which resonates with Australia’s multicultural community.
More study of war was another answer to the question. Some papers alerted us to continuing gaps in World War I studies: the effect of war on those who remained at home as workers or dissenters or, suddenly, enemy aliens. The keynote speaker, Steve Watters, an historian educator, talked about the need for greater attention in schools on New Zealand’s internal wars.
That attention has been sharpened by the actions of a group of Year 12 students, who in 2014 initiated a petition to the New Zealand parliament to officially acknowledge the New Zealand Wars in a national day of commemoration and to introduce study of the conflicts into the school curriculum. The petition gained momentum; it had more than 12,000 signatures by the time the Ōtorohanga College students presented it to parliament in December 2015. In August 2016, the government announced that a national day of commemoration would be established (although not as a statutory holiday). In the final year of the WWI centenary, on 11 March 2018 such a day was held in Kororāreka-Russell to remember the battles that took place there in 1845. Finding a fixed date that suits the country as a whole will, however, be difficult because the different nations within Maori society have different wars to remember.
My paper suggested there is still much work to do to defuse the notion held by many Australians that the diggers went to war in 1915 to defend their country’s values and that their sacrifice marked the actual birth of the nation. Busting those myths to explain that the young men actually volunteered to fight for king and the ‘mother country’, God and empire – not to mention the adventure – has proved very difficult over the last four years. The idea that Australia was also fighting to defend its racial purity and to protect its trade routes did not enter the popular discourse.
For many of the presenters at the Wellington conference, myself included, the events of 15 March in Christchurch influenced the emphasis of our papers. The massacre sharpened my sense that we still have a long way to go to present history in ways that help prevent the xenophobia that has caused so much senseless loss of life and agony. The aftermath of March 15 (the term the New Zealanders have adopted) has prompted constructive discussion about how we confront difficult parts of our history. But will it be enough to recalibrate the official narrative?
I took the 2018 Australian Citizenship Test as the starting point for my paper. It is revealing and depressing to see how the resource book for this test presents Australian history in a way that would be familiar to people who went to school in Australia any time after WWII. Indigenous Australia is acknowledged as existing before colonial settlement. Thereafter it is mentioned in terms of interaction with white Australia but certainly not in terms of internal wars. No Indigenous voice on Australia’s history is presented.
The narrative is chronological: European exploration in the 17th century and Captain Cook; the arrival of the First Fleet on 25 January 1788; free settlement, explorers, squatters; the two world wars. Waves of migration are mentioned. There’s a box on the Snowy Mountains Hydro scheme and one about a successful Chinese migrant, the heart surgeon Victor Chang. The Anzac Legend gets a whole page to itself and 17 mentions in all. The first question on the sample test is about Anzac Day.
While the official story hasn’t changed much, the demography of Australia has. The 2016 Census showed that 49% of Australians were either born overseas or had one or both parents born overseas. England and New Zealand were the next most common countries of birth after Australia but the proportion of people born in China and India has increased since 2011 (from 6% to 8.3%, and 5.6% to 7.4%, respectively). This has clear implications for the way we tell our history. We have to move away from the stereotypes – the ‘Afghan’ cameleers, the Chinese market gardeners and the Aboriginal artists – and find ways to put these people into mainstream history. A multicultural Australia needs a multicultural history.
Although the Anzac myth ignores trade as one of the motivations for Australia joining World War I, the nature of our economy has always entwined us in international commerce, including in pre-colonial times, just as migration has long been a source of skills for Australian industry. Histories of international engagement through trade, travel, war and peacemaking was my answer to the conference’s question ‘what next’ for public history. I argued that by better understanding how we have engaged with the world, including how we have represented ourselves abroad, we might become better equipped to define ourselves as a nation and to include the stories of origin nations in our own. Equally important is to make a much greater effort to avoid ghettoising our history making. Work is already underway in many of these fields but it has yet to make its way into the mainstream.
At the political level there remains a tenacious attachment to the old story. Scott Morrison (member for Cook) announced at the beginning of the year that it was time to revive the greatness of Captain Cook, who he seemed to think not only ‘discovered’ Australia but also circumnavigated the continent. Mr Morrison promised to spend more than $12 million on projects marking the 250th anniversary of Cook’s first voyage to Australia.
Bill Shorten responded by saying he wouldn’t engage with the prime minister’s ‘bizarre Captain Cook fetish’. So instead, Mr Shorten should consider these other ways to spend that $12 million, thus highlighting aspects of our history that speak to contemporary Australia:
- increase the Indigenous voice in history making
- shift the colonial story from the bush to the city (we are, after all, an urban society)
- amplify the long experience of multicultural interactions in Australian history and confront their racist overtones
- explain the global trends that have shaped Australian history
- appoint a chief historian to sit alongside our chief scientist – but preferably not a war historian!
Francesca Beddie is a former diplomat. She edits the Professional Historians Australia (NSW and ACT) blog and is researching the history of various Australian embassies, starting with the building in Moscow.