Academic journal article The Australian Journal of Politics and History

The Rebirth of Political History

Academic journal article The Australian Journal of Politics and History

The Rebirth of Political History

Article excerpt

The contributors to this special issue of the journal share an interest in political history and its fortunes. Their essays range across the ways that such history has been written and ought to be written. Some are concerned with the relationship of political history and other modes of history, some with the shifting patterns of participation. The result is an instructive account of recent Australian practice.

The first five essays have a thematic character. They are concerned with particular approaches to political history through social, feminist, cultural and linguistic, Indigenous and religious history. From their respective viewpoints they offer an account of Australian historiography that reveals an enlargement of perspective and method as the boundaries of political history were pushed back. Hence Frank Bongiorno relates how from the 1970s social history introduced a new awareness of lived experience, yielding a more inclusive "history from below" that made it possible to produce "a political history from below". Kate Murphy suggests that the concurrent feminist challenge to the exclusion of women opened an awareness of gender with far-reaching consequences for understandings of citizenship; Nick Dyrenfurth provides a similar account of the linguistic turn in the 1980s, and indicates how discursive and cultural approaches have enriched the study of political movements.

Melissa Bellanta employs a different metaphor in her discussion of recent work on the religious dimension of Australian politics: she suggests that it makes a case for "a political history not so much from above or below as from the inside". Bellanta offers a close reading of a group of historians who have provided a "post-secular" account of Australian politics between 1890 and 1915, and her historiographical treatment of the field is accordingly abbreviated. The same holds for Tim Rowse's discussion of Indigenous Australians as political actors. He is concerned with two recent books that are both highly critical of recent experiments with self-determination and reconciliation, and suggests both employ a narrow and ahistorical treatment of political history. To demonstrate their inadequacies, Rowse casts back to the Aboriginal politics of the 1930s, forward to the ambiguous consequences of the 1967 referendum. He cites the historical literature that discloses changing strategies, but makes no claim to comprehend the field of Aboriginal history. These two essays work as case studies rather than surveys, and are less prescriptive in their views of political history than the first three.

The final essays move beyond the disciplinary configurations of political history to work done outside the university. Sean Scalmer is concerned with the memoirs and diaries of politicians, a genre with a long lineage but one that he finds has a shorter Australian manifestation. Few colonial statesmen published memoirs and those who did were discreet. Until the closing decades of the twentieth-century the books written by prime ministers and members of cabinet were sparse and insubstantial, but then came a deluge in an increasingly confessional and outspoken register. As Scalmer indicates, these are a form of contemporary history, marked by the need to be newsworthy--for such books have to earn their publisher's advance and jostle with the ghosted memoirs of sporting heroes and other celebrities; hence the heavy promotion on the electronic media and newspaper serialisation.

Similar pressures operate on the political history that is written by journalists, which forms the subject of Jackie Dickenson's essay. Here too a rapid recent growth is evident, and reasons for it are suggested. The relationship between this form of political history and that produced by academics exercises Dickenson and several other contributors to this collection--and I must accept some responsibility for the suggestion, in my entry on political history in The Oxford Companion to Australian History, that historians vacated the subject to journalists. …

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