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Australia’s History Wars

By: Ethan Chan

In our current political climate, I always hear the words ‘woke’ and ‘political correctness’ being thrown about. These phrases, which permeate the right-wing political discourse, always remind me of Australia’s History Wars. The History Wars were a series of arguments that both reflected and propagated drastically different views of Australia’s history and society. The renewal of the right-wing challenge to settled values in the late twentieth century following the end of the Cold War (with the retreat of the left in the Reagan-Thatcher years) was cast on an ideological conflict in Australia. The History Wars saw race relations as a central aspect of the character of the Australian nation, with particular interest paid to the treatment and history of Australia's Indigenous populations. The Australian History Wars revolved around a wide variety of issues; however, this week’s blog will focus on the interpretation of Aboriginal history and Indigenous rights and redress.

The resurgent conservative view or the ‘Three Cheers’ history sought to protect Australia’s past as a series of achievements and emphasizes events from history that Australians should apparently be proud of. Opposing this view, the political left argued that Australia’s national identity was linked to its treatment of Indigenous people and advocated making amends for past injustices on moral grounds. So it was that the conservative view of Australian history was formed in reaction to the perceived criticism of Australia's past and thus Australia itself. In response, the political right argued that the left was exaggerating the harm done to Australia's Indigenous peoples and rejected any link between the treatment of those Indigenous peoples and Australia's national identity. They continued to assert that the stories of the abuse suffered by Indigenous peoples undermined the coherency and strength of Australia's national identity. The side of the political left in this debate became known as the 'black armband' view of history while the position of political right was described as the 'white blindfold' view of history. Conservative critics believed that the black armbands belittled Australia’s achievements, encouraging a ‘guilt industry’ and impeding rational thinking on current problems. From this view, black armband history was a strand of political correctness. The response to the critics saw the term as inherently political and a misrepresentation of the work of many serious historians. Real black armband history was an attempt to establish a symbol that expressed the genuine grieving and sense of loss of those who acknowledged the injustice within Australian history. It is an acknowledgement that past wrongs must be recognized before the problems of the present can be resolved.

Although there is much more to discuss and reveal, Australia’s History Wars exemplifies the framework we have talked about in previous weeks. The History Wars serves as an example of both the cultural appropriation of history and of the attempts to decolonize it.The view of history through the white blindfold worn by the political right resulted in Indigenous voices being both undervalued and ignored, while those on the left who wore a black armband sought to create an inclusive atmosphere. The political left attempted to decolonize the conversation about Australia's history and national identity through the construction of a national identity that was less derivative and more distinctive than one based primarily on a triumphant British version of the past. By acknowledging the wrongs inflicted on Indigenous peoples, the Australian History Wars embraced the issues of republicanism, multiculturalism, reconciliation, and above all decolonization through the focus on introducing a perspective of Australian history that was distinct from the British perspective.

Works Cited

MUNRO, DOUG. “The Australian History Wars.” In History Wars: The Peter Ryan – Manning

Clark Controversy, 1st ed., 17–26. ANU Press, 2021.

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