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Portrayals of Australian History

Paper Type: Free Essay Subject: Cultural Studies
Wordcount: 2406 words Published: 13th Jul 2021

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Invasion Day and the Australian History Wars

The Australian History Wars can be directly related to how politicians make use of historian’s interpretation of Australian history for their political debate. More importantly, politicians need historian’s validation for their arguments. Often the topic of debate is how Australian history is presented in museums and which version of Australian history should be taught in school curriculums (Macintyre & Clark 2006, p. 243). Historians are ‘under fire’ (Macintyre & Clark, 2004, p. 50) when they question the national story and consequently are accused of being disloyal (Macintyre, 2003, p. 83). Interpretation of Australian history has become a greater part of political debate since the election of Liberal- National coalition government in 1996. Former prime ministers, John Howard and Paul Keating were significant participants in the Australian history wars. John Howard had accused Paul Keating of portraying post British settlement Australia in an ‘unduly negative light’ (Macintyre & Clark 2004, p. 50) while Paul Keating drove the Modern Labor government away from the likes of White Australia Policy (eds. Peterson & Sanders, 1998, p. 21).

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Australia’s national history had solely been based on British settlement and thereafter. This version of Australian history has often been portrayed as a ‘peaceful act of discovery and settlement’ (eds. Foster & Attwood, 2003, p. 11) which shows the ‘courage, hardship, suffering and battles’ (Attwood, 2005, p. 15), that the British settlers went through. It can best be described as the following;

It told a heroic tale of the British as discoverers, explorers and pioneers of the country, of how these white men came to settle a strange country and transform it by their science and technology, capital and labor, thus creating civilization out of a wilderness (Atwood, 2005, p. 14).

It tells a story of the convicts being taken away from their families and native land and how the pioneers struggled in their new environment, implying that the British settlers were victims (Attwood, 2005, p. 15) and reason for ‘settler innocence’ remaining influential in Australian society (eds. Foster & Atwood, 2003, p. 187). Indigenous Australians were barely mentioned in this version of Australian history and as they were, it was highly insulting, often referring to them as ‘savages’ and as a ‘doomed’ race. This version of Australian history shows that there was no place for Indigenous Australians in Modern Australia (Attwood, 2005, p. 15).

In time, historians, archeologists, anthropologists began to question the national story (Attwood, 2005, p. 17). In 1954, the late historian, Professor Manning Clark stated, ‘belief in a radical tradition distorts and warps our writing of Australian history’ (Macintyre & Clark 2004, p. 52). It is clear that Clark’s outlook differs from the conservative means of history and politics and has therefore caused controversy with was it is now referred to as the ‘black arm band’ view of Australian history. John Howard is one who has expressed his distaste by stating that he has ‘a less than rapturous view of the Manning Clark view of Australian history’ with the accusation that Clark caused ‘pessimism about Australia’ through his ‘black armband view’ (Macintyre & Clark 2004, p. 50). However, Macintyre and Clark (2004, p. 50) maintain that Clark’s view on Australian history did not have partisan support or aim to defame the nation’s history (Macintyre & Clark, 2004, p. 50).

During the mid 20th century, W.E.H Stanner, a prominent Anthropologist, came up with the phrase ‘the great Australian silence’ to describe Australia’s settler history and the lack thereof Indigenous people. (Attwood, 2005, p. 17). Stanner observed that it possibly started with an act of ‘simple forgetting’ and ‘over time it turned into something like a cult of forgetfulness practiced on a national scale’ (Attwood, 2005, p. 17). Unfortunately, this kind of ‘forgetfulness’ is still an occurrence in Australian politics and society to the present day. Stanner too noticed that Indigenous Australians ‘were “out” of history for a century and a half and now they were making their way back “in” (Atwood, 2005, p. 17). Partly since in the recent years, archeologists, anthropologist and historians had been considering Aboriginal history; additionally, Indigenous Australians had been begun telling their stories and demanding their rights (Atwood, 2005, p. 17).

The most common version of Australian history had begun with Captain Arthur Phillip raising the Union Jack in Sydney Cove on January 26, 1788 and was often deemed a ‘peaceful act of discovery’ (eds. Foster & Attwood, 2003, p. 11). However, research on Aboriginal history and testimonials from Indigenous Australians challenged this description of Australian history (eds. Foster & Attwood, 2003, p.185). Research found that Indigenous Australians had occupied the land for at least 60,000 years prior to January 26, 1788 and soon after the arrival of the British settlers, ‘Indigenous Australians lost their sovereign rights to land, their rights to practice their culture, language and beliefs;’ (Calma, 2015, p. 10) thus, British settlement was considered rather an act of invasion, that resulted in violence, racial discrimination and the dispossession of Indigenous Australians (eds Foster & Attwood, 2003, p. 11). As a result of Indigenous voices finally being somewhat heard, the 1988 Bicentennial Commemoration transformed from a ‘celebration to reconsideration of white settlement’ (eds. Foster & Attwood, 2003, p.185). Several years later, ‘Aboriginal history was embedded into two legal decisions concerning native title; Mabo decision of 1992 and the Wik of 1996 decision’ (eds. Foster & Attwood, 2003, p.185).

In 1983, the Bob Hawkes Commonwealth Labor government drove the government away from the likes of White Australia Policy; with the introduction of the immigration policy where it took in refugees and accepted applicants from Asian countries (Macintyre & Clark, 2004, p. 74). The Hawke government made several positive steps forward concerning Indigenous Australians; introducing uniform national land rights and the Aboriginal Employment Development policy. Additionally, the establishment of the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission and Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation (eds. Peterson & Sanders, 1998, p. 21). In 1984, the Australian historian, Geoffrey Blainey raised uncertainties about the then current immigration policy. However, he did not expect his comments to cause such controversy. Blainey had suggested that ‘an increasing number of Australians seemed to be ‘resentful’ of South East Asian settlers, who through no fault of their own, were unable to find work and lived here at the taxpayer’s expense’ (Macintyre & Clark, 2004, p. 73). Blainey’s comments received criticism from representatives of immigrant and ethnic organisations and members of the government had condemned his statement. Blainey believed that he had spoken for a ‘wide body of opinion’ in other words, White Australian opinion; and he believed that the immigration policy should be up for debate. Blainey moved onto other controversial topics such as Aboriginal Land rights and the ‘Black Armband’ history. (Macintyre & Clark 2004, p. 75). It is important to understand Blainey’s position because politicians like John Howard and Pauline Hanson turn to Blainey to validate their arguments and these politicians, who are most concerned with race. 

The Wik decision of 1996, resulted in Native title co-existing with pastoral rights on pastoral leases. This meant that Indigenous Australians native title could not be extinguished in pastoral areas where Indigenous Australians lived and as a result, they were able to conserve their connection to their country (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander, 1997). It was one positive step forward to recoginsing Native title. But in June 1997, Howard government developed the Ten Point Plan in response to the Wik decision (Manne, 2004, p. 124). The Ten Point Plan essentially upgraded pastoralists’ and miners’ rights directly at expense of the Native title rights of Indigenous Australians. States and Territories could extinguish native title on pastoral leases for the benefit of other land holding interests. Additionally, it left Native Title holders unable to negotiate and benefit from any economic development on their traditional lands (Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander, 1997).

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In 1997, the Bringing them home report was constructed by the former Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission’s after investigation into the dispossession of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Children from their families (Aiatsis, n.d.). The report contained 54 recommendations to compensate for the forced removal of Aboriginal children. Just one recommendation was the importance of officially acknowledging and apologising for, the forced removal of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families, homes and communities (Aiatsis, n.d.). Unfortunately, by 1997 John Howard was Prime Minister and he responded to the report by claiming the present generations of Australians should not have to accept guilt or blame for past injustices because they had no control over it. John Howard refused to give an official apology to Indigenous Australians, or even acknowledge the forced removal of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their families (ed Manne, 2004, pp. 128- 129). Contrast to Paul Keating, in his famous Redfern speech of 1992, where he blatantly came to terms with the unfair treatment with Indigenous Australians;

And, as I say, the starting point might be to recognise that the problem starts with us non-Aboriginal Australians. It begins, I think, with that act of recognition. Recognition that it was we who did the dispossessing. We took the traditional lands and smashed the traditional way of life. We brought the diseases. The alcohol. We committed the murders. We took the children from their mothers. We practiced discrimination and exclusion. It was our ignorance and our prejudice. And our failure to imagine these things being done to us (Antar n.d.).

For once, we had a Prime minister that didn’t see Indigenous Australians as the problem.

The National Museum of Australia was officially opened in March 2001 by Prime Minister John Howard. Upon the opening of the National museum of Australia, depiction of Captain Arthur Phillips arrival to establish British territory was as follows; ‘terra nullius’ the lie of the land and quotes Captain James Cook, from 1770; ‘We see this country in the pure state of Nature, the Industry of Man has had nothing to do with any part of it’ (ed Manne, 2004, pp. 137). It then explains that because there were no recognisable towns or fields, Aboriginal people did not own the land hence ‘terra nullius’ justified European colonisation. Interestingly, it noted that; in ‘1992 the High Court of Australia ‘rejected the idea of terra nullius as unjust and discriminatory’. After the opening of the National Mueseum of Australia, there were negative reviews about how the arrival Captain James Cook was presented. Professor John Carroll commented that it; ‘risks insinuation of the subtext that European arrival was a disaster of the continent’ and concluded that ‘this is an inappropriate opening message in the Horizons Gallery’ (ed Manne, 2004, p. 138). It is likely that John Howard played part in such a negative review because Howard did not like to ‘confront the truth’ in regard to British settlement (ed Manne, 2004, p. 138).

Australia’s settler history has remained a disputed argument. An argument over ‘historical accuracy’ and politicians ‘denying the past’ (Macintyre & Clark 2004, p. 242). Indigenous Australians have challenged the existing Australian history of British colonisation by ‘emphasising their prior occupation, direct experiences of invasion and racism, and their ongoing struggle for recognition, inclusion, acceptance and equality in Australian society’ (Calma, 2015, p. 11). The argument over what occurred following British settlement is ‘essentially an argument over white Australians conscience’ (Macintyre & Clark 2004, p. 241). The Howard government at best, divided Indigenous Australians and non- Indigenous Australians with his conservative values, believing that it was in best interest of mainstream Australian society. Howard thought by recognising Indigenous rights it would damage social cohesion in Australian society (ed, Manne, 2004, p 121). Australian history of British settlement, where the settler is seen as the victim; fails to deliver genuine acknowledgement and understanding of our colonial past, and ‘informs and inflames white racial discourse’ (eds. Foster & Attwood, 2003, p. 188).


  • Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission 1997, The Ten point plan on Wik & Native title: issues for indigenous peoples, Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Commission, [Canberra]
  • Aiatsis n.d., Bringing the home, Aiatsi, viewed 23 October 2018, https://aiatsis.gov.au/explore/articles/bringing-them-home
  • Antar n.d., Transcript Redfern speech, Antar, viewed 24 October 2018, https://antar.org.au/sites/default/files/paul_keating_speech_transcript.pdf
  • Attwood, B 2005, Telling the truth about aboriginal history, Allen & Unwin Pty., Limited.
  • Calma, T 2015, Australia survival day. AQ – Australian Quarterly86(1), 10–11.
  • Foster, SG & Attwood, B (eds.) 2003, Frontier conflict: the Australian experience. Canberra: National Museum of Australia.
  • Macintyre, S & Albrechtsen, J, 2003 The history wars [Collection of two addresses to The Sydney Institute on Tuesday 16 Sept 2003.]. Sydney Papers. 15 (3-4), pp. 76–83.
  • Manne, R, (ed) 2004, The Howard years. Melbourne., Victoria: Black Inc. Agenda.
  • Peterson, N & Sanders, W, 1998, Citizenship and indigenous Australians: changing conceptions and possibilities. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.


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