A few years back there was an ad campaign based on people’s ignorance of Australian history. According to the ad, everyone knew George Washington was the first US president but no one could name Australia’s First Prime Minister. The ad itself ensured the name of Edmund Barton, if not his legacy, was at least temporarily remembered.
What the ad was trying to do was to encourage more interest in Australian history, but therein lies a problem and a likely clue as to why no-one knew his name in the first place – it is a contested space and full of cobwebs many want to remain undisturbed. One of Barton’s first acts as Prime Minister was to introduce the White Australia Policy. He told the new national parliament in 1901 Melanesian Kanakas were inferior to Europeans and they (the white parliamentarians) were guarding the last part of the world where “the higher races can live and increase freely for the higher civilisation”. Barton’s point of view was shared by most white Australians in 1901, but these days is inconvenient for anyone wishing to laud the positives of Australia’s past.
This is Kevin Donnelly’s problem when he speaks about the Australian education system. The curriculum should be impartial and disinterested, he said, and should be based on the search for wisdom, understanding and the truth. This is motherhood stuff and what he is really complaining about comes when he bemoans the lack of focus on western civilisation and Judeo-Christian teaching in Australian history. Donnelly’s complaint is codswallop, as religion and western civilisation pervade all aspects of our educational system. But given his focus on Australian history and his concern those values are being “airbrushed” from the education system, Donnelly might not like it, if the truth was really told.
How would you apply western civilisation and Judeo-Christian values to why the Europeans came to Australia in the first place, uninvited and with a self-given mandate to take over? How much was western civilisation and Christian values at fault when those that did come to Australia felt superior to those that lived here before, unwilling or unable to recognise Aboriginal culture when they didn’t see cities, councils, cathedrals or crops? How might civilisation and culture explain why the Europeans destroyed what went before, treating Indigenous people like either vermin to be killed off, animals to be tamed, or children to be educated in white ways? Or why those that came in the name of religion at missions and churches treated natives like slaves and their children like souls to be bartered off to the highest bidder?
Why was it a Barton-led nation at Federation determined Australia would be for whites only, preferably British, and the Aboriginals were no better than flora and fauna? Would that religion explain our nation’s fetish for war – as long as they weren’t ones that took place on native soil? Would the “Judeo” bit explain Australian anti-semitism and the refusal to take in refugees from Nazi Germany? And why did the various branches of the “Christian” bit hate each other so much and leave a legacy of bitterness and bigotry that spanned generations?
Maybe Donnelly might tell us which aspect of western civilisation and Judeo-Christian heritage explains why in 2014 we are such a pack of bastards when it comes to letting others into the country and then washing our dirty immigration laundry in other people’s sinks. Never mind complaining about the new $8000 media visa into Nauru, why not examine the circumstances by how we permit this vile charade to happen?
Maybe too, Donnelly might have a quiet word with the marketing managers at Aldi and tell them why t-shirts with “Australia Est 1788” mixing snappy corporate branding with unfunny, inaccurate history is not such a good idea.
But Donnelly will do none of those things, being more keen to wallow in the reflected glory of western civilisation and religion celebrated than explore the murky shadows of their massive blind spots. The common point in these questions is what we choose to remember. Donnelly wants us to ignore the elements that make us feel uncomfortable and bask in those that make us feel good. His views are a proxy for those who want to paint a clean veneer of white-picket fence philosophy onto the messy and complex canvas of modern Australia.
Kevin Donnelly is doing the donkey work for more powerful actors. This pandering to Anzacs and Gallipoli is leftover secret men’s business from the days of the Howard government with many of the same players in the same positions of power to finish off the agenda. This is not education, this is cultural indoctrination.