History Isn't A Balance Sheet


As Australia Day approaches, some old questions resurface about the nature of our national history.

No country with self-respecting historians can boast a simple national history replete with goodies (us) and baddies (them). It’s particularly difficult in societies that have suffered civil wars or occupations, as well as in post-colonial countries. With respect to the latter, it is hard to satisfy the desire for a good news story of the past in the face of the obvious fact that the nation and its wealth have been founded on dispossession.

In an Australian context, too often during the "History Wars" and since, positions have been reduced to a simplistic dichotomy: apparently one can either wear a "black armband" and reduce our history to a litany of evils, or don a "white blindfold" and imagine our past to have been a haven of egalitarianism and enlightenment. The reality is more complicated — our shared past has instances of tremendous achievement as well as deep shame.

Faced with this mixture, there is a temptation to find a balance. As former Prime Minister John Howard famously stated in 1996:

"I profoundly reject the black armband view of Australian history. I believe the balance sheet of Australian history is a very generous and benign one. I believe that, like any other nation, we have black marks upon our history but amongst the nations of the world we have a remarkably positive history."

Here, the metaphor of the balance sheet was used to suggest that the past can be added up, and its rights and wrongs calculated and resolved.

Recent years have seen a great deal of discussion about the concept of balance in journalism and, in particular, whether the desire for such equilibrium (resulting in what is often known as he-said-she-said journalism) can lead to misleading reporting of issues on which the two sides are emphatically not equal — such as debates about the existence of climate change or the merits of President Barack Obama’s birth certificate.

The idea of balance is sometimes also applied to history, as in Howard’s quotation above, and in his successor Kevin Rudd’s 2009 declaration that it was time to "leave behind … the polarisation that began to infect every discussion of our nation’s past".

For Robert Manne, Rudd’s statement appealed to the "lazy but very common belief that in any intellectual dispute truth is to be discovered somewhere between the extremes". 

This is not to argue that we cannot present both laudatory and negative aspects of our past — all good history textbooks will do so. Where the idea of balance becomes problematic is in the desire to smooth over unpalatable truths and to answer the nagging yet vacuous question of whether we are a good or a bad country.

In his 1976 book The Process of Economic Development in Australia, economic historian William Angus Sinclair wrote:

"There is little to be said for attempting to pass some sort of judgment on whether the economic development of Australia is a matter for approval or disapproval. The tapping of Australia’s natural resources has meant the virtual destruction of one society in existence before settlement began, and the creation of a new one consistent with the aspirations of a group of white people …

There is no calculus which permits the demoralisation of the black inhabitants of Australia to be set off against the opportunities for betterment which Australian economic development gave to many whites."

The language used by Sinclair would not be employed today — there is now awareness that there are many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander societies, rather than one homogenous one, and that to speak of their destruction silences their survival. Sinclair was correct, though, to note the folly of attempting to balance the creation of a new society with the demoralisation of the continent’s prior owners.

Some things simply cannot be measured, notwithstanding the distress such unquantifiability might cause economists and other lovers of spreadsheets and graphs. There is both good and bad in our national history, and it is not as simple as adding these elements up, dividing them by two and then deciding to feel good about ourselves.

Similar issues are ventilated in the United Kingdom. As British academic David Anderson wrote recently:

"[s]quaring up to the seamier side of our empire is long overdue. However benevolent empires aim to be, they are invariably built on political, economic and military domination. Empires are by their very nature exploitative, the authority of imperial rule often established and sustained through violence and coercion. In all of this, Britain’s empire was no different than any other."

Such conclusions are often not palatable; activist and blogger Richard Seymour argues that the "invariant tone" of the nationalist revival of the 1990s and 2000s in Britain, and of "the empire peddling that came with it" was: "yes, there is much to regret, but overall we should be proud of Britain’s past and awed by its imperial accomplishments".

There were benefits as well as losses inherent in imperialism; in his recent book Why Marx Was Right, English academic Terry Eagleton asks rhetorically: "How could such a formidably complex phenomenon as colonialism, stretching out as it did over regions and centuries, have produced not a single positive effect?"

The good does not erase the bad, however, and would be idle to attempt to measure whether they balance, canceling each other out. In particular, it would also be intellectually dishonest for those who have gained immeasurably from colonialism purporting to assess, in a dispassionate fashion, whether it was worth it.

Concepts like recognition can be fairly empty, as when state and federal governments earnestly acknowledge traditional owners at public events, while tirelessly opposing their native title claims in the courts. Acknowledging the complexity of the past does not necessarily require some sort of awkward tokenism or regretful footnote, though.

It could be something wider and deeper, something more akin to Paul Keating’s statement in the Redfern Speech that "there is nothing to fear or to lose in the recognition of historical truth, or the extension of social justice, or the deepening of Australian social democracy to include indigenous Australians … There is everything to gain".

Guilt, Keating noted, "is not a very constructive emotion". Neither is denial. In Ann Hunter’s recent book A Different Kind of "Subject", she quoted one Robert Lyon calling on his fellow colonists, in what was to become the state of Western Australia, to "Reflect you have seized upon a land that is not yours". Lyon spoke as long ago as 1831, but the truth he told and its ongoing ramifications still make many non-Indigenous Australians uneasy today.

Our history isn’t a simple or a comfortable one, but we’re hardly alone there. We need to be able to look at its complexities together without reflexively grasping for a positive every time we encounter a negative, or seeking a set of scales capable of weighing us as a country.

Manne suggests that the History Wars will be over only when "the overwhelming majority of Australians no longer flinch from the uncomfortable truths about their nation’s history". We’re not there yet, but each new year offers us the chance to get a bit closer.

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.