People's History


As John Howard approaches his 10th anniversary as Prime Minister (and who predicted that?), his political genius has become obvious to even the most recalcitrant.

We can, if we like, bemoan this in the manner of secret agent Maxwell Smart wishing that Howard had used ‘his powers for goodness instead of evil’. Or we can try to understand how Howard has managed this feat, and start thinking about ways of challenging him. Ways that, unlike everything else we have tried in the past 10 years, might actually work. No more mockery, no more rage, no more critique: now is the time for politics.

Thanks to Fiona Katauskas.

I am prompted to this thought by two things. One is that, in preparing an article on what the Australian Right got right, I have been reading neo-liberal websites, policy papers and opinion pieces. The other is that I have been reading John Howard’s Australia Day speech. The first was just plain unpleasant, and rather depressing. The second was a more interesting experience altogether.

I have to say upfront that I don’t think it was a bad speech. I didn’t agree with it, but I do think it was well written, with a strong and appealing theme, and is likely to have struck just the right note with its intended audiences. For ‘middle Australia’, its emphasis on balance and moderation will seem like simple common sense (very much Howard’s strong suit). For Left intellectuals, it will have struck not so much the right note as the right nerves, provoking noisy outrage, which will serve to make him look all the more reasonable to the moderate middle.

As Judith Brett has argued in her Quarterly Essay, ‘Relaxed and Comfortable’, one of the most important pieces of political analysis published in recent years, and excerpted in New Matilda (link here) Howard’s strength and standing comes from the fact that he speaks from the centre. He does so consciously, but effortlessly, genuinely believing as he does that middle Australia is the bedrock of the nation, the source and repository of its virtues.

In wanting to respond to his speech, it would be easy to fall back upon the rhetoric of the history wars, the culture wars, all that tough talk from people, most of whom have never been closer to a war than their TV set. (Check out Christopher Pearson’s alpha-male piece in The Australian on 28 January (link here) to see what I mean.) But it is striking that Howard himself did not use either of the ‘war’ terms in his speech, nor did he (unless it was in the discussion, or in speaking other than from his text) call for a ‘coalition of the willing’ to take back the education system, as Michelle Grattan suggested in The Age (link here). (Could he have been, I remember thinking, my battle-juices starting to flow, stupid enough to link this issue to that disaster, with all its evocation of chaos, misinformation and misery? Alas, not.)

It would be almost as easy to point out the flaws, faults and weaknesses in Howard’s view of the past. Indeed, historians have done so repeatedly over the past decade, at great length and convincingly enough for anyone with an open mind. (See Macintyre and Clark’s The History Wars, and a very nice piece by Martin Crotty, ‘Victors and Vanquished in the History Wars’, Brisbane Institute, March 2005.) All to no avail, if public thinking is what the opinion polls tell us it is.

Which leaves me wondering what to do. Gird our loins and venture into battle again? Ignore Howard’s speech? Publish yet another book?

Or should we take him seriously? (No, wait! Stay with me here.)

What if we took up his argument that history has capitulated to relativism, distorted the past, under-valued our national achievements and that these are the reasons that kids don’t study it? What if we took it up — not in learned journals, or in the opinion pages of the broadsheets, or over the merlot?

What if the history teachers’ associations, the heads of university history departments, the committee that prepared the report on history teaching in 2000 (which, I have to confess, I have no recollection of hearing about at the time and I’m an historian!), what if somebody, anybody, convened a discussion or a series of discussions on what history can and should be taught, and how?

What if they invited practising history teachers and academics, parents and citizens, students who did and didn’t do history at high school and uni and TAFE, those who agree with and those who disagree with Howard’s view? What if they invited Howard?

What if we put his ideas to the test in and with the public?

This would mean giving up all this talk of war in favour of an intellectual guerrilla war. No more set-piece head-to-heads with Howard and his minions. Rather we go out among the people to talk and listen. A conference if we must, but surely we can come up with something a bit less, well, mind-numbingly boring. A road show? A debate? God help me, don’t make me suggest street theatre!

What I am talking about is a history movement, or at least a campaign.

If we want to win the debate with Howard and the Right on Australia’s past, then maybe we need to look to history ourselves. The great cultural shifts of the past 40 years (on gender and sexuality, for example) have rarely been achieved with conference papers and books alone (although these have played their part). They have been won by talking about ideas with real people, people whose views matter to us, or should.

In this, historians have one great advantage over Howard and Co: we see more 20-year-olds in a week than they would see in a year. We teach them. We know what they want, and don’t want. School history teachers will know their parents too. These are invaluable assets if we have the courage and the imagination to use them.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.