Damien Murphy: Attempting to decide what our past is (Australia)

Roundup: Talking About History

When Emeritus Professor W.E.H. "Bill" Stanner coined the phrase the "Great Australian Silence" in his 1968 Boyer Lectures, his reference to the concealment of the place of Aborigines in Australian history after European settlement startled many.

This was hardly surprising. After all, Stanner's Boyer lectures took place only a year after Australians voted in a referendum to end constitutional discrimination against Aborigines. One fifth of West Australians voted against the referendum, so did 14 per cent of South Australians and 11 per cent of Queenslanders. In NSW 8.5 per cent of voters, one in 12 people, opposed recognising Aborigines.

Stanner's was the first shot in the campaign that has become known as the history wars. Battles have raged for nearly four decades over the way the colony was settled and whether or not Aborigines and Islanders were dispossessed or subjected to a form of cultural genocide as academics and politicians sought to impose their views, set the record straight and score points.

The decision yesterday by the Prime Minister, John Howard, to impose the teaching of 150 hours of Australian history on junior secondary students as a condition of federal funding to the states is the latest skirmish in the war.

"It's absolutely fundamental that we do this and I would hope to enlist the support of both sides of politics. I don't want history to be taught in a partisan way. I don't want a Liberal version of history any more than I want a Labor version of history. I just want an accurate version of history. I want us to understand our triumphs as well as understanding our failures …

"You've got to have a better understanding of the forces that brought the colonies together. They're the sort of things that we need, along with all the other great events in Australian history that we need to understand. You need to understand the impact of the Great Depression on Australia, the colossal tragedy of World War I for Australia, the huge change that occurred to Australia after World War II with economic expansion, national development and mass migration from, initially, Europe.

"All of those things are part of a continuity, but you start with the indigenous people and recognising that they are the first people of this country."...

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