John Hirst

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.

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Five poems have been shortlisted in the 2016 Peter Porter Poetry Prize. The poets are Dan Disney, Anne Elvey, Amanda Joy, Lisa Gluskin Stonestreet, and Campbell Thomson; their poems can be read here. The judges on this occasion were Luke Davies, Lisa Gorton, and Kate Middleton.

Join us at our studio in Boyd Community Hub on Wednesday, 9 March (6 pm), when the poets will introduce and read their works, followed by the announcement of the overall winner, who will receive $5,000 and an Arthur Boyd print. This is a free event, but reservations are essential.

These ceremonies always commence with a series of readings of poems written by Peter Porter (1929–2010). This year our readers – Judith Bishop (winner in 2006 and 2011), Morag Fraser, Lisa Gorton, and Peter Rose among them – may choose to dip into the new collection of late Porter poems: Chorale at the Crossing (Picador, $24.99 pb).

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Henry Reynolds is the pre-eminent historian of Aboriginal–settler relations in Australia, and with this theme he begins his history of Tasmania. He eschews the obligatory set piece description of Aboriginal society before the Europeans arrived, with which so many books now awkwardly commence ...

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John Howard and Tony Blair both came to the prime ministership in landslides, Howard in 1996, Blair in 1997. They were on opposite sides of the traditional political divide, Howard leading a Liberal Party opposed to Australian Labor and Blair leading the British Labour Party ...

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John Hirst is a distinctive figure in Australian intellectual life. As an academic, he has had a distinguished career at La Trobe University in teaching, supervision, and research. He developed new subjects and methodologies with which to teach them. In addition to those concerning Australian history, there was his pioneering subject designed to inform students about Australia’s European cultural heritage, with some of the lectures recently published as The Shortest History of Europe (2009).

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This is not so much a history of Sydney as a tour with a sensitive and alert guide who knows her history. The site is modern Sydney. Although Sydney was only just beginning to develop suburbs when the book ends – in the 1820s – Karskens tours the whole of the Cumberland Plain, the area that metropolitan Sydney now covers.   For the modern suburbs, as everywhere else, Karskens describes the land and how it was used when occupied by the Aborigines and the first Europeans. She points to what remains from earlier times in the routes of roads, remnant vegetation, the built environment and place names.

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Back in 1981, Richard White, in his seminal study Inventing Australia, dubbed the Australian concern with defining national identity ‘a national obsession’. It was a time when ‘the new nationalism’ associated with John Gorton and Gough Whitlam had reignited debate about anthems, flags and the paraphernalia of nationhood. The converse of this fixation has been the recurrent fear that the ‘cultural cringe’ has still not been laid to rest.

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Manning Clark rescued Australian history from blandness and predictability by making Australia a cockpit in which the great faiths of Europe continued their battle, with results that were distinctive. He concentrated on the great characters who were bearers of one of the faiths: Protestantism, Catholicism, or the Enlightenment.

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Australia’s Democracy by John Hirst & The Citizens’ Bargain edited by James Walter and Margaret Macleod

by
December 2002-January 2003, no. 247

John Hirst faced a challenging task when he set out to write Australia’s Democracy: A short history. In a single monograph, he has traced the story of political rights and practices of citizenship, assessed within a context of social change. Not only does such writing place considerable demands on a historian’s range, but any prominent historian who attempts a short history attracts the sharp attention of all stakeholders. In Hirst’s case, his position as chair of the Commonwealth Government’s Civics Education Group has contributed further to his high profile in recent discussion on the need for citizenship training. Australia’s Democracy was funded by the Department of Education, Science and Training, and made available to schools for the ‘Discovering Democracy’ programme. Few historians write while carrying so much responsibility towards their prospective readership.

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When did Australia grow up? Australian historians have accepted, almost as an obligation of their trade, that they must declare the moment when the child reached mature adulthood. Was it, as Justice Murphy proclaimed in splendid isolation on the High Court bench, at the moment of the adoption of the Commonwealth Constitution in 1901? He was, admittedly, an amateur historian. Was it with the passage of the Statute of Westminster in 1931, when the Dominions were given the right to have their own defence and foreign policies? Or in 1942, when Prime Minister Curtin looked to the United States ‘free of any pangs as to our traditional links and kinship with the United Kingdom’? Or with the signing of the ANZUS Treaty in 1951? Or is the safest thing to stick with the election of the Whitlam government in 1972?

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