Bongiorno, Frank: Is Australian history still possible? Australia and the global Eighties: Inaugural Professorial Lecture, Australian National University, 10 May 2017

Frank Bongiorno

Is Australian history still possible? Australia and the global Eighties: Inaugural Professorial Lecture, Australian National University, 10 May 2017‘, Honest History, 15 May 2017

This lecture canvasses some of the themes and subject matter in the author’s prize-winning book, The Eighties: The Decade that Transformed Australia, but ranges further. It covers: Hawke and Reagan compared as charismatic national leaders; the failure of history to come to an end in 1989 (despite Francis Fukuyama); Australian new nationalism in the 1960s and 1970s – and a golden age for Australian history writing; Manning Clark as prophet and Paul Kelly (the author, not the singer nor the footballer) as chronicler; further international comparisons (Thatcher, Reagan, Mitterrand-Chirac, Deng Xiaoping); VCRs and Julian Assange’s Commodore 64; Rupert Murdoch; cultural exports, including Crocodile Dundee and Neighbours; economic rationalism and how it affected the outer suburbs; the politics of memory, particularly how we forget the unpleasant bits; Geoffrey Blainey, EP Thompson, and Tracey Matthies from Leongatha on Australia Day 1988.

Some key paragraphs:

‘Australia’ is the product not only of a local political settlement but also of global and transnational forces such as imperial conquest and decolonisation, industrialisation, migration, the expansion of capital, the development of trade, and exchanges of information, knowledge, ideas and culture. The best national histories treat the nation-state as embedded in global networks shaped by these forces …

My own approach to Australia’s 1980s treats the Hawke Labor Government as also very much a response to the economic, political and cultural challenges of the 1980s. Bob Hawke’s election policy speech in February 1983 gave few signs of the dramatic changes that would mark the Labor government’s thirteen years in office, especially in the direction of what contemporaries called ‘economic rationalism’ and which is now more commonly known as ‘neoliberalism’ …

In my reading, the 1980s becomes a turning point in the history of Australian national identity, the moment when, as Ghassan Hage has so vividly put it, the appearance of ‘Third World Looking People’ in Australian streets began to raise more fundamental questions about national selfhood than those suggested by the liquidation of the British Empire in the 1960s …

[A]mong the most fundamental responsibilities of the national historian is to seek to influence public consciousness with stories that are both true and engaging, and yet sometimes uncomfortable and unsettling. For those who look to the past for a vindication of their own selfhood or past behaviour, the work of historians committed to honest and painstaking historical enquiry can be threatening. To conservative nationalists, such work can look like a dubious form of self-indulgence on the part of over-educated and taxpayer-funded idiots and, even worse, as a threat to Team Australia. We hear this sentiment being expressed every April in complaints about academic historians who challenge this or that aspect of the Anzac legend. Yet, notwithstanding the complications added by claims concerning Anzac’s sacredness, the familiar complaints about disloyal academic assaults on Anzackery are really just a special example of a familiar attitude: the idea that histories of the national past should be patriotic, tidy and usable.

Frank Bongiorno is Professor of History at ANU, President of the Honest History association, and the author of a chapter in The Honest History Book. This book tries to be ‘uncomfortable and unsettling’.

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