The troglodytes that make news placement decisions at News Corp tabloids accidentally stumbled on a good thing this week: they opened up an honest discourse on Australian history. That certainly wasn’t the intention when the Daily Telegraph and others decided on Wednesday it was time to party like it was 1999 and re-open the culture wars. As Waleed Aly said the Tele’s front page was a longstanding part of the lies Australia tells itself about its history.
I don’t want to go too deeply into the grubby paper (later humorously renamed the Tele Nullius) and its story. The Whitewash headline, picture of Captain James Cook and its contention that the University of New South Wales rewrites the history books to state Cook “invaded” Australia has been widely deconstructed and destroyed elsewhere. The story featured quotes from a right-wing historian, a right-wing lobby group and a right-wing politician. Needless Indigenous people were not represented. It was simply foolish fodder which the paper believes reflects its audience’s view.
There was a similar if more half-hearted effort I saw in the Courier-Mail aimed at Queensland universities and I would imagine the other capital city tabloids also joined in the dog-whistle exposing “political correctness gone mad.” But once the usual suspects of shock jocks, right-wing columnists and radio has-beens finished fulminating at “liberal” universities imposing their dogma, the story brought up many lively considered responses – including Aly’s, which accepted the obvious conclusion that Australia was, indeed, invaded. Even politicians stood up to the nonsense, for once. Queensland Premier Annastacia Palaszczuk said the dispossession and massacre of Aboriginal Australians was part of our history. “It must be taught and appreciated by all Australians,” she said.
Ignorance of that knowledge might have been acceptable 50 years ago when the Indigenous experience was still written out of Australian history. For almost a century, the established story had been of a peaceful settlement of an empty continent. The original settler stories were bowdlerised of all their resistance, violence and guns leaving heroic settlers whose only enemy was the land itself which they “tamed”. Anthropologist Bill Stanner was among the first to question this narrative in his 1968 Boyer Lectures where he questioned the Great Australian Silence about its Indigenous history. It was a structural matter, according to Stanner. “A view from a window which has been carefully placed to exclude a whole quadrant of the landscape,” he said. “What may have begun as a simple forgetting of other possible views turned under habit and over time into something like a cult of forgetfulness practised on a national scale.”
His talk was backed up by a sociologist, Charles Rowley, whose trilogy The Destruction of Aboriginal Society (1970), Outcasts in White Australia (1971) and The Remote Aborigines (1971) was a game changer in a presenting a new view of Aboriginal Australia. Historians were stung into action, led by Henry Reynolds who delved into the Queensland records and looked at first hand testimony in books and newspapers to show how the colony with the largest Indigenous population was invaded and eventually taken over, thanks to a political squatter class who directly benefitted from the takeover with the help of a native police force. Lyndell Ryan did a similar job for Tasmania, as did Heather Goodall in NSW, and gradually a picture built up across Australia of a land violently taken over.
Yet this picture was slow to infiltrate the mainstream and when it did it was fiercely resisted. The cult of forgetfulness was strong. A cosy image of a settler society was comforting and this new history was too confronting. Because it had been outside the official history for so long, many suspected this new narrative and questioned the motivations of the historians. In 1996 new Prime Minister John Howard tapped into those feelings saying (white) Australians deserved to feel “relaxed and comfortable” about their history. But the only way they could do that was to attack the new history (ignoring it was no longer an option). Howard was enthusiastically supported in this culture war by the stormtroopers in the Murdoch empire and for the next decade there was an exhausting and unsatisfying battle of tit-for-tat. But the effect was tangible as the new history was pushed to the sidelines with a preference on glorifying white military history at Gallipoli and elsewhere.
Just as in the “climate science wars” which followed a similar trajectory, few professional historians disputed the new narrative. The main one was the curmudgeonly Keith Windschuttle – the only historian News Corp bothered to contact in this week’s kerfuffle. The title of Windschuttle’s book The Fabrication of Aboriginal History said more about his research than the historians of Tasmanian history he was attempting to debunk. His counter-history of a land of little violence was soundly and rigorously rebuffed many times.
The political history wars gradually disappeared with the exit of Howard in 2007. Kevin Rudd was no Keating and his famous 2008 apology steered clear of an outright admission of invasion and war. But he gave no momentum to the culture war. Even with the return of Tony Abbott in 2013 it never re-gained traction. Abbott had a muddled view of history, his love of British culture occasionally getting him in trouble when it clashed with his obvious interest and empathy in Indigenous affairs. But politically it has not been an issue. Quietly in the background, historians go on with their research gathering overwhelming evidence. The university guidelines so derided by the Murdoch papers are merely an attempt to bring the language up to date. Murdoch will be dead sometime in the next 20 years and the influence of his rags will die with him. But the story of Indigenous Australia is only getting stronger. Like a stone in a shoe it will continue to nag Australia until it deals with the problem as an adult nation: with a foundation treaty between the federal government and its Indigenous people acknowledging 130 years of invasion and war, and another century of dealing with its painful aftermath.