Politicians Using History

Article excerpt

Six months after coming to office in 1996, Prime Minister John Howard gave the annual Sir Robert Menzies Lecture. He used the occasion to call for a public reappraisal of the Liberal Party's legacy and to reclaim Australian history from its "political opponents". Howard argued that Labor's revisionist perspective unfairly dismissed the proud heritage of the Liberal Party and it insinuated "Australian history since 1788 has been little more than a disgraceful story of imperialism, exploitation, racism, sexism and other forms of discrimination". "I take a very different view", he countered. "I believe that the balance sheet of our history is one of heroic achievement and that we have achieved much more as a nation of which we can be proud than of which we should be ashamed." (1)

Politicians use history in many ways. They make history, as actors; they often write history, as diarists and in memoirs; some even read and study history, and their claims to scholarly expertise on the subject give a degree of intellectual authority and respect. Politicians use the past to demonstrate their own historical significance and their fidelity to national traditions. Yet this clawing back of Australian history by Howard was more than big-noting or dilettantish engagement. Here was a politician doing history, remaking what he saw as a narrative betrayed.

Other papers in this collection trace a trajectory of change in political history. In particular, they examine the challenges that new social movements as well as postmodern and postcolonial theory have presented for the discipline since the 1960s. While these new readings and approaches profoundly influenced the way political history is practised by historians, this paper examines how history is practised in Australian politics itself--and it notices an increasingly strategic use of the past by politicians in recent years.

Political opportunism is nothing new, and the political potency of national history has been understood for generations: nation-states, and their concomitant threads of nationalism, require coherent narratives for citizens to imagine their shared identity. (2) But there has been an unquestionable surge in history's political influence over the last twenty or thirty years as the various "history wars" that have broken out around the world attest. (3) Australia has been no exception. Disputes over its national memorials, museums, history syllabuses and texts continue to generate considerable controversy in the media, in public debate and in politics itself. Yet it raises a vital question: how has this politicisation of the past affected Australian political history in the present? Prevailing narratives of Australian history swing significantly according to government elections (both state and federal), and the use of history has undoubtedly become an effective political strategy in Australia. But where does this leave the discipline itself Because the debate continues to frame Australian political history as partisan and polarised, the role of historians and the place of historical complexity in such discussions have become increasingly problematic.

I. Politicians and the Past

John Howard's Menzies Lecture was hardly the first time an Australian politician has ventured into the realm of history, but it was remarkable for its political acuity. Politicians' memoirs and collected speeches have been popular and often vivid accounts of the past, and they are valuable contributions to political history. Rather than employing history for political traction and power in office, however, they tend to conform to a conventional, retrospective historical narrative. While Gough Whitlam's account of the 1975 Dismissal and Robert Menzies' The Measure of the Years come from very different political perspectives, as history they have much in common. (4) Politicians' collected speeches, broadcasts and essays are similar historical sources for the ways they contribute to the discipline, as well as our understanding of the context and motivations of these influential political actors. …