When John Hirst accepted the challenge of writing a history of Federation of scholarly quality but fit for a broad popular readership, he may have felt himself on a hiding to nothing. Previous historians have succeeded in convincing Australians that the story of the making of the Australian Commonweal this at best dull. Who wants to know about a collection of hirsute, largely overweight and overdressed middle-class politicians arguing about the nexus between the Senate and the House of Representatives?
Unlike the Americans, we did not begin with a ringing declaration of independence from Mother England. Unlike the French Revolution, we offer no images of impassioned crowds storming Pentridge. ‘Advance Australia Fair’ is no substitute for the Marseillaise. Unlike the old Soviet Union, our constitution contains no mission statement of community values and aspirations, and some, such as Don Watson, argue that we are the poorer for it.
Traditional academic festschrifts often lack coherence and consistency, especially when the honorand’s former students and colleagues, as more or less duty-bound contributors, share little in common beyond that association ...
Geoffrey Bolton has written a fine biography of one of Australia’s eminent sons, one not well recognised or widely remembered. Paul Meernaa Caedwalla Hasluck was born in Western Australia in 1905 and rose to become an accomplished journalist, a historian, public servant and diplomat, a minister of Parliament in the Menzies era, contender and possibly logical succe ...
The trouble about identifying great mistakes in Australian history is that most of them seemed like good ideas at the time. When, for instance, a recent IPA Review identified as one of Australia’s major errors the rejection in 1905 of George Reid’s free-trade federal government in favour of Alfred Deakin’s tariff protectionists, it indulged in anachronistic hindsight. However suited globalisation may be to the geopolitics and technology of the present day, things were different a hundred years ago. Every nation except Great Britain and Turkey used the tariff to protect local capitalists and employees. A whole anthology of ‘great mistakes’ risks deteriorating into a facile exercise in ancestor-bashing.
More revisionism, I sighed, viewing the title of this book. First it’s the extent of frontier warfare between Indigenous Australians and settlers, now it’s the 1930s Depression. Doubtless in the next year or two we shall have a history demonstrating that the trauma of Gallipoli has been much exaggerated, since most of those who took part survived and some lived to ripe old ages. I was too hasty. David Potts has produced a subtler and more nuanced study than might be expected from the book’s title and advance publicity. Some of his findings are open to debate, but he underpins his arguments with evidence based on many years of oral history research with his undergraduates in the splendidly creative school of history at La Trobe University. It is this use of oral history that makes for controversy.
When John Hirst accepted the challenge of writing a history of Federation of scholarly quality but fit for a broad popular readership, he may have felt himself on a hiding to nothing. Previous historians have succeeded in convincing Australians that the story of the making of the Australian Commonwealth is at best dull.
Somebody recently told me that Geoffrey Blainey wrote much of the text of this history of Victoria while travelling in aircraft. If true, Blainey has an enviable knack of finding seats with elbow room, but otherwise there’s no reason to complain. Sir Charles Oman, the great military historian of the Napoleonic wars, was said to have drafted one book during a summer spent waiting for connecting trains at French railway stations. Those fortunate enough to possess a lot of intellectual capital should make the most of it. In the central four chapters of social history, perhaps the most satisfactory part of this book, Blainey cites his evidence as ‘the accumulation of years of casual reading of old newspapers, looking at historic sites and talking with old people’. Disarmingly, he adds: ‘Most of the explanations of why change came are probably my own’.