Sorry professor, we still have to win the history wars

The latest edition of the Quarterly Essay is “Moment of Truth: History and Australia’s Future” by Mark McKenna, a University of Sydney academic with a background in Indigenous history and Australian republicanism. You could make the mistake of thinking that this is a work of history – it really isn’t.

Professor McKenna is making a point about the present state of Australian politics in the wake of the Coalition government’s rejection of the “Uluru Statement from the Heart” last year. In his telling, Australia could remake itself as a “reconciled republic” if only it could come to terms with the violent dispossession of the continent’s First Nations and finally break what Bill Stanner dubbed the “great Australian silence”.

There are several things to recommend this essay. Its treatment of the Uluru Statement is exemplary – McKenna cuts through the misinformation in a matter-of-fact way, pointing out that not only are the proposals moderate, but that it sits in a long line of similar petitions to the Australian parliament. Likewise his contention that a minimalist republican victory, which re-founds the Commonwealth of Australia on essentially the same colonial basis without settling the claims of First Nations people, would be a hollow one.

But overall, McKenna’s work drove me to frustration.

There are, of course, lots of niggling complaints. The tired refrain of the academic historian – “Why hasn’t the popular history kept up with us?” – becomes aggravating when the author’s short digression into contemporary culture begins and ends with a discussion of contemporary Australian literature.

When well-meaning intellectuals talk like this it becomes depressingly obvious as to why Keith Windschuttle’s denials are still considered credible in spite of the scholarly consensus.

Likewise, while McKenna’s desire for some form of cultural and political synthesis between the First Nations and the modern Commonwealth may be admirable, it’s hard to take his denials of appropriative intent seriously when he is essentially asking the First Nations to yoke their cause to the shambles that is contemporary republicanism.

He praises the recent mobilisations around January, but doesn’t mention that many of the rally organisers, far from being supporters of the Uluru Statement, are radicals who, with good reason, view the Commonwealth of Australia not as a partner in reconciliation, but an illegitimate colonial occupation.

But the real weakness of the whole text is its curiously apolitical vision of history.

McKenna is advancing the view that our failure to understand the violence of our colonial past is actively preventing progress. Call me a cynic, but this is nonsense. The old axiom “history is written by the victors” acknowledges what McKenna doesn’t – a society’s understanding of history, whether embodied in school curriculums or statues, owes more to its own balance of power than to the present scholarly consensus. That consensus can be challenged only as a result of an effective challenge to those power structures. After all, even the academy, for all its vaunted objectivity, only acknowledged the “great Australian silence” when Australia found itself surrounded by postcolonial nations in the wake of the collapse of the European empires.

The impasse that frustrates McKenna’s optimistic vision of a better Commonwealth to come is not the result of lack of historical comprehension; it’s the fact that it continues to be very much in the interest of the powerful to keep First Nations people in the margins.

The irony is that unlike McKenna, the conservatives seem to understand the stakes – after all, how can the institutions of Australia – the law, property, the government itself – claim moral force while acknowledging that their foundations are built on bones?

If Professor McKenna wants his reconciled republic he’s going to have to think long and hard about why the last round of the history wars left people like him penned up in the academy.

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