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Cahill, Rowan: Future of history

Cahill, Rowan

The future of history‘, Overland, 29 October 2014

Considers former prime minister John Howard’s book on former prime minister Robert Menzies (The Menzies Era) and moves on to remarks about current politics. Cahill says the book is ‘an overblown fan letter about a conservative Australian icon’ and ‘an inflated undergraduate essay hugely reliant on secondary sources, hitching Howard to the coat-tails of Menzies the “statesman” and reflecting on the “genius” of a conservative era of government’.

Cahill briefly puts an alternative view of Menzies and goes on:

Now, as Australia becomes involved in yet another ill-advised US imperial feat of arms, in Iraq (and maybe later in Syria) courtesy of the conservative government of PM Tony Abbott, the Australian parliament intensifies domestic powers of surveillance and control. For those who can look back on the past, much is familiar: the disrespect for history, the refusal to learn from the disastrous military past and the blinkered vision that has characterised Australia’s decisions to follow the US since the 1950s.

If the current manipulation of the fear of terrorism by the government seems familiar, along with the hysterical journalism about the “terrorist threat”, well, it is – a re-run of the Cold War, with “communism” replaced by “terrorism”. And why not? The Abbott government is one that thinks like Howard does, regarding the Menzies era as the golden age of conservative rule.

Cahill concludes by alleging archival practices are changing in a way that will lead to what historian, Gregory Pemberton, has called ‘a partial lobotomy of the Australian mind’.

It seems to me [says Cahill] that the officially encouraged approach to history for some time to come will be that of the amnesic kind. In this era of extraordinary coercive “national security” legislation, which has cleared the way for criminalising some forms of journalism, and enabled long prison sentences for transgressing journalists, it is not fanciful to imagine that at some time in the foreseeable future, some historians and some forms of critical history, might also be outlawed.

The piece also considers aspects of Australia’s entry, during Howard’s prime ministership, into the First Iraq War.