Kevin Rudd on History Wars

27 08 2009

Kevin Rudd, the Labor Prime Minister of Australia, has called for an end to that country’s “history wars”.  See here, here, and here. The Australian history wars were between a group of professional historians and educators who wanted to emphasize the negative things in Australian’s past, the so-called “black-arm band” school, and a group of academic and educators whose political sympathies were largely with the political right. The debate centred on Aboriginal history and became wrapped up in the debate over  whether the Australian government should formally apologize to the country’s Aboriginals for past mistreatment. The leader of the second group was Keith Windschuttle, who argued that left-wing historians had essentially fabricated evidence in order to depict Australia’s first white settlers in the worst possible light. Windschuttle’s claims led to a fierce argument over whether the demise of Tasmania’s indigenous population could legitimately be called a “genocide”. This debate had obviously political overtones or implications. One of Kevin Rudd’s first acts as Prime Minister was to issue an apology to the country’s Aboriginal population, something John Howard, his centre-right predecessor, had repeatedly refused to do. [Note, John Howard has been quick to reply to Rudd’s statement regarding the history wars].

As a Canadian, I’m interested in the Australian history wars for a number of reasons. First, they have some definite parallels between the Australian history wars and the rather more muted struggles that took place within the Canadian historical profession in the 1990s. [In the 1990s, there was an acrimonious debate between Jack Granatstein, an outspoken historian of Canadian politics, and left-wing social historians. In his book Who Killed Canadian History, Granatstein suggested that the left-wing historians’ emphasis on Canada’s failings (e.g., racism towards Natives and Asian immigrants) had the tendency of undermining the patriotism of students.] Moreover, the issue of an apology also have Canadian overtones, although the preference of Canadians for more consensual modes of politics have meant that the differences between the two major parties on Native policy and related issues of historical interpretation are pretty minor. In Canada, it fell to the Conservative Prime Minister Stephen Harper to issue an apology for the government’s residential school program (which saw Native children snatched from their parents and educated by missionaries). Had the Liberal Party been in office at that time, it probably would have issued basically the same apology.   In Australia, it seems that the two major political parties are much further apart from each other when it comes to Aboriginal policy. This probably contributes to the acrimonious and highly politicized nature of the debate over Aboriginal history in that country.