Review note: a ‘non-khaki’ view of Australia

‘A “non-khaki view” of Australia: “defining moments” matched against Honest History themes’, Honest History, 7 October 2014 updated


The National Museum of Australia has put together 100 ‘defining moments’ in Australian history. The aim is ‘to stimulate a public discussion about the events that have been of profound significance to the Australian people’. NMA staff consulted distinguished Australian historians Judith Brett, Rae Frances, Bill Gammage, John Hirst, Jackie Huggins, Marilyn Lake and John Maynard. The public has been asked to suggest other defining moments.

Countless moments make up the Australian story – most pass unremarked and unremembered [says the NMA]. But occasionally, something happens to change our story, to move us in a different direction, or to transform the way we think about ourselves.

Starting with a list of 100, the Museum invites Australians to consider and debate these moments, as well as suggest others they think significant. The list will grow and change over the life of the project.

This approach, emphasising multiple influences, resonates loudly with the Honest History initiative. In the beginning, we seized upon Chris Masters’s view that every year makes us who we are and Thomas Keneally’s prefatory remarks about the conflicting themes of our history. Given our commitment to a multi-themed, many-stranded view of Australian history we decided, 12 months and more later, to match up the NMA’s defining moments list against our own categorisation of ‘Australia’s war history’ and ‘Strands of Australian history’ (seven sub-themes). The NMA’s 100 against our eight.

28974692_e95e409e2d_zDefining moment no. 29: Wattamolla, Royal National Park, Sydney, 2005 (Flickr Commons/Margie James)

Of course, there were some caveats: moments are different from themes; moments may be relevant to more than one theme (just as the bibliographical items on the Honest History website mostly appear under more than one theme). That having been said, we decided to try to match each of the Museum’s moments to no more than two of our themes and see what happened. The arbitrariness of the process is recognised; the results are still illuminating.

Key: Honest History’s themes of Australian history

These themes are explained here.

A. Australia’s war history

B. The land we live in

C. People like us

D. Ruling ourselves

E. The sweat of our brows

F. Learning and improving

G. Expressing ourselves

H. Getting on with the world.

The seven themes B-D are grouped on the Honest History website as ‘Strands of Australian history’. On the site, A. above, ‘Australia’s war history’ actually has four themes beneath it, including ‘Anzac analysed’, but, for reasons which will become clear in a moment, we did not need to go down to that level in this exercise.

6817411306_2019a11440_zNo. 45: Sir Douglas Mawson, pictured in 1919 with Antarctic exploration equipment (Flickr Commons/State Library of South Australia)

The NMA’s defining moments matched against Honest History’s themes

  1. at least 52,000 years ago: Archaeological evidence of first peoples on the Australian continent (Honest History themes B, C)
  2. about 28,000 years ago: Earliest known Australian rock art engraved and painted (C, G)
  3. about 20,000 years ago: Earliest evidence of the boomerang in Australia (C, F)
  4. about 12,000 years ago: Sea level rises, separating Tasmania from mainland (B, C)
  5. about 5000 years ago: Arrival of the dingo, Australia’s first domesticated species (B, C)
  6. 1606: Dutch explorer Willem Janssen becomes first European to map parts of the Australian coast (B, H)
  7. about 1700: Makasar from Sulawesi visit northern Australia and trade with Aboriginal people (B, E)
  8. 1770: Lieutenant James Cook claims east coast of Australia for Britain (B, D)
  9. 1788: Captain Arthur Phillip establishes convict settlement at Sydney Cove (C, D)
  10. 1792: Aboriginal warrior Pemulwuy leads resistance against Sydney colonists (A, D)
  11. 1797: Introduction and improvement of merino sheep (E, F)
  12. 1802–03: Matthew Flinders circumnavigates continent, which he names ‘Australia’ (B, H)
  13. 1813: Blaxland, Lawson and Wentworth cross Blue Mountains (B, E)
  14. 1830: The ‘Black Line’ — settler force attempts to corral Aboriginal people on the Tasman Peninsula (A, D)
  15. 1836: Governor Richard Bourke funds Protestant and Catholic churches in New South Wales on equal basis (D, F)
  16. 1838: Myall Creek massacre, New South Wales (A, D)
  17. 1851: Gold rushes in New South Wales and Victoria begin (C, E)
  18. 1854: Rebellion of goldminers at Eureka Stockade, Ballarat, Victoria (C, D)
  19. 1854: Australia’s first railway line opens in Victoria (E, F)
  20. 1856: Secret ballot introduced and all adult men given the vote, South Australia (C, D)
  21. 1856: Melbourne building workers win an eight-hour day (D, E)
  22. 1858: First organised game of Australian Rules football (C, G)
  23. 1859: Rabbits successfully introduced into Australia (E, F)
  24. 1861: First Melbourne Cup horse race (C, G)
  25. 1868: Convict transportation to Australia ends (C, E)
  26. 1868: Aboriginal cricket team tours England (C, G)
  27. 1872: Free, compulsory and secular education introduced, Victoria (C, F)
  28. 1872: Completion of the Overland Telegraph from Darwin to Port Augusta, South Australia (E, F)
  29. 1879: Australia’s first national park created — (now Royal) National Park, Sydney (F, G)
  30. 1880: The Bulletin established (C, G)
  31. 1880: Ned Kelly’s last stand at Glenrowan, Victoria (C, D)
  32. 1885: Victorian Employers’ Union formed (D, E)
  33. 1885: BHP begins mining silver, zinc and lead at Broken Hill, New South Wales (E, F)
  34. 1887: Chaffey brothers introduce irrigation on Murray River (E, F)
  35. 1889: 9 by 5 Impression Exhibition shows paintings by Tom Roberts, Arthur Streeton and Charles Conder, Melbourne (C, G)
  36. 1890–91: Depression and strikes; formation of the Labor Party (D, E)
  37. 1894: Legislation introducing women’s suffrage, South Australia (C, D)
  38. 1901: Inauguration of the Commonwealth of Australia (D, H)
  39. 1901: White Australia policy enshrined in law (D, H)
  40. 1902: Commonwealth Franchise Act gives women the vote in federal elections (C, D)
  41. 1903: William Farrer begins distribution of ‘Federation’ wheat (E, F)
  42. 1906: Australia takes control of Papua as an ‘external territory’ (D, H)
  43. 1907: Justice HB Higgins hands down ‘Harvester Judgement’ (D, E)
  44. 1908: Legislation introducing national age and invalid pensions (C, E)
  45. 1911: Douglas Mawson leads Australasian expedition to Antarctica (B, F)
  46. 1912: Australian Government introduces a maternity allowance (C, E)
  47. 1913: Foundation of Canberra as national capital (C, D)
  48. 1915: New South Wales Government gains unfettered power to remove Aboriginal children from their families (C, D)
  49. 1915: Australian troops land at Gallipoli (A, H)
  50. 1916: Federal–state agreement for Soldier Settlement (A, E)
  51. 1916–17: Conscription for military service overseas defeated in two referendums (A, D)
  52. 1917: Completion of Trans-Australian Railway linking Western Australia and the eastern states (E, F)
  53. 1920: Country Party founded at national level (D, E)
  54. 1920: Qantas established (B, H)
  55. 1924: Australian Aboriginal Progressive Association formed (C, D)
  56. 1932: Height of the Great Depression, with 32 per cent unemployment (C, E)
  57. 1932: Foundation of the Australian Broadcasting Commission (C, G)
  58. 1932–33: England cricket team in Australia on ‘Bodyline’ Ashes tour (G, H)
  59. 1936: Tasmania’s thylacine becomes extinct (B, E)
  60. 1938: Sydney celebrates 150th anniversary of British settlement; Aboriginal leaders hold Day of Mourning (C, D)
  61. 1942: Japanese bomb Darwin but are halted on Kokoda Track (A, H)
  62. 1943: First women elected to Australian federal parliament (C, D)
  63. 1944: Formation of Liberal Party of Australia (D, E)
  64. 1945: Florey, Fleming and Chain win Nobel Prize for developing penicillin (C, F)
  65. 1945: National introduction of unemployment and sickness benefits (C, E)
  66. 1945: Australia plays a leading role in founding United Nations (D, H)
  67. 1945: Australian Government announces post-war migration drive (C, H)
  68. 1948: Australia’s first locally made car, the Holden 48-215, launched (C, E)
  69. 1949: Chifley government begins Snowy Mountains Hydro-Electric Scheme (E, F)
  70. 1949: Election of the Menzies government — the longest serving in Australian history (C, D)
  71. 1951: Australia signs ANZUS treaty with New Zealand and the United States (A, H)
  72. 1954: Visit of Queen Elizabeth II, the first by a reigning monarch (D, H)
  73. 1955: Split within Australian Labor Party; formation of the Democratic Labor Party (D, G)
  74. 1956: Television introduced in time for Australia’s first Olympic Games, Melbourne (C, G)
  75. 1960: Australian Government lifts restrictions on export of iron ore (E, H)
  76. 1961: Introduction of the oral contraceptive pill (C, G)
  77. 1966: Holt government effectively dismantles White Australia Policy (C, H)
  78. 1966: Gurindji strike (or Wave Hill walk-off) led by Vincent Lingiari (C, E)
  79. 1967: Australians vote overwhelmingly to alter the Constitution, allowing Aboriginal people to be counted in the Census and subject to Commonwealth laws (C, D)
  80. 1970: Moratorium to protest Australian involvement in Vietnam War (A, H)
  81. 1972: Aboriginal tent embassy established in front of Parliament House, Canberra (C, D)
  82. 1972: Conciliation and Arbitration Commission grants equal pay for men and women (D, E)
  83. 1973: Sydney Opera House opens (C, G)
  84. 1974: Cyclone Tracy hits Darwin (B, C)
  85. 1975: Governor-General dismisses Whitlam government (D, H)
  86. 1976: Australian Government passes Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act (C, D)
  87. 1978: First Gay Mardi Gras march, Sydney (C, G)
  88. 1978: Special Broadcasting Service (SBS) established (C, G)
  89. 1983: Floating of the Australian dollar (E, H)
  90. 1983: Protests against Franklin Dam in Tasmania lead to formation of the Greens (B, D)
  91. 1984: Australian parliament passes Sex Discrimination Act (C, G)
  92. 1991: Port Hedland immigration detention centre opens (D, H)
  93. 1992: High Court decision in Mabo case establishes native title (C, D)
  94. 1996: Port Arthur massacre leads to tighter gun laws (C, D)
  95. 2000: Walk for Reconciliation across Sydney Harbour Bridge (C, D)
  96. 2001: Australian troops take control of Tampa carrying rescued asylum-seekers (D, H)
  97. 2002: Bali bombing kills 88 Australians (A, H)
  98. 2004: Australia signs Free Trade Agreement with the United States (E, H)
  99. 2008: National Apology to the Stolen Generations (C, D)
  100. 2009: ‘Black Saturday’ bushfires kill 173 people in Victoria (B, C)

ShowImageNo. 62: Dorothy Tangney, first female Senator, 1943 (photo 1956) (National Archives of Australia, A1200, 11198425)

The tally: number of defining moments against each theme

A. Australia’s war history: 10
B. The land we live in: 14
C. People like us: 50
D. Ruling ourselves: 42
E. The sweat of our brows: 31
F. Learning and improving: 15
G. Expressing ourselves: 16
H. Getting on with the world: 22

Comment by David Stephens

The NMA’s ‘defining moments’ exercise gives a very different view of Australia from one which emphasises tropes about Australia ‘being born’ or ‘our character being forged’ at Gallipoli or about ‘the Anzac spirit’ being a model for Australians today. There was, indeed, no point in Honest History trying to match the list of defining moments against our second level themes of ‘Anzac analysed’, ‘Reality of war’, ‘Home front’ and ‘Aftermath’; using the overarching theme of ‘Australia’s war history’ gave sufficient granularity.

The defining moments exercise, like Honest History’s themes or ‘strands’ categorisation, indicates the many different elements in our national make-up. It does not attempt to weight moments, though. One could argue that the war history moments, like Pemulwuy’s resistance and the landing at Gallipoli, had disproportionate importance. Yet a ‘score’ of one in twenty for war-related moments (or one in ten if we simply measure the war-related moments against the basic list of one hundred) is still very light on.

Then, a simple listing of ‘moments’, no matter how long the list, does not measure lasting influences. Yet in this regard the list discounts the influence of, say, the arts – the paintings of Streeton, the poetry of Lawson, the songs of AC/DC or The Wiggles – just as much as it discounts the impact of battles and the damage they do to the men who fight them.

Turning to other methodological issues, one could suggest that our ‘People like us’ (scoring 50) category is a catch-all, in the sense that many things impact on our social history. ‘Ruling ourselves’ (scoring 42) also scores heavily because we have a number of levels of government and we are subject to the rule of law. But, regardless of such questions, the exercise suggests that warlike exploits are a relatively minor part of our history:

  • Only ten moments in the list of 100 are about our war history.
  • There is no Boer War, no Fromelles, no Pozieres, no Passchendaele, no Beersheba, no Hamel, no Alamein, no Tobruk, no Fall of Singapore, no Battle for Australia, no Battle of the Coral Sea, no Burma Railway, no Milne Bay, no Sandakan Death March, no Kapyong, no Malayan Emergency, no Confrontation, no Long Tan, no Gulf, no Iraq, no Afghanistan, no East Timor.
  • Three out of the ten war-related moments are about White Australia’s dealing with Indigenous Australians in the early days.
  • The only mention of the Vietnam War is the protest movement against it.

2436566636_5b0a792e5f_zNo. 99: Children at a West Australian school on the day of the National Apology to the Stolen Generations, 6 February 2008 (Flickr Commons/Butupa)

To sum up, during the centenary of World War I, the centenary of Anzac, the defining moments exercise presents a distinctly ‘non-khaki’ view of our national story. It reinforces the multi-stranded approach taken by Honest History. There is no doubt that it affirms our mantra of ‘not only Anzac, but also’.

The first tranche of public responses discloses proposed defining moments similar to the list compiled by the NMA staff and their consulting historians. It will be interesting to see if this trend continues.

If the trend does continue, it might suggest that the effort being put into the centenary of Anzac by various Australian governments and institutions does not accurately reflect public demand or that some of the demand that exists is a response to a promotional effort rather than genuine feeling. The remark of the musician and commentator, Michael Stipe, that ‘[m]ore and more, what we “feel” about collective history seems like something manufactured, and kind of pumped into us, rather than a real emotion’, deserves to be noted.

Update: Paul Daley discusses the exhibition in Guardian Australia.

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