Friday, 13 April 2018

Taking UNREST to Australia – Agonism and Australia’s First Nations

In this post, UNREST project leader Professor Stefan Berger discusses his recent trip to Australia, where he was a guest of the Australian Centre for Public History at University of Technology Sydney.


I have just spent the month of March on a Distinguished Visiting Fellowship at University of Technology Sydney – with the Centre for Public History, courtesy of Anna Clark. I used some of my time there looking at how Australian public history is dealing with the issue of Australian first nations (1). This issue was at the heart of the Australian history wars of the 1980s and 1990s (2).

When Captain Cook landed in Botany Bay in 1770, and when the first British fleet arrived 18 years later, the white invaders encountered the first nations of Australia. Despite some early efforts at intercultural mediation, it was to be a disastrous encounter for the first nations. Not only did many of their members die of diseases unknown to them and brought by the invaders, the latter also at times waged a genocidal war against the first nations, and their history books were soon to put forward the claim that Australia was a terra nullius, a land that had not been inhabited before it was ‘settled’ by white people. Hence invasion and war were re-invented as peaceful settlement, and the first nations were pushed to the margins of society, discriminated against in every possible way and forgotten as much as possible.

Children of Aboriginal families were torn from their homes until the late 1960s in an attempt to make them into white Australians (3),  in other words to ‘civilise’ them and ‘free’ them from the status of ‘savages’ ascribed to them by the racist viewpoints of a white majority culture that also implemented a ‘white Australia’ policy restricting any immigration to white people and banning, as far as possible, any migration from Asia (4). Despite its geographic location close to the Asian continent, Australia effectively defined itself as an Anglo-Celtic culture with roots in Britain and, especially post-1945 a close relationship with the USA, another allegedly Anglo-Saxon culture.

Many Australian histories in the late nineteenth century did ascribe a certain ‘Australianness’ in their promotion of federation and they also emphasized a certain distinctness from Britain. They were in fact echoing the strong link between nation-building and history writing that could also be found across Europe at the time (5). Nevertheless, so strong was the Britishness of Australia before 1914 that no Australian history was taught in Australia’s schools and universities – only British history and the history of the British empire (6). Only after the Federation of the different Australian territories in 1901 did a nation-building process come under way which culminated in the First World War, which became the key foundational event for Australia until today, most visible and tangible in the Canberra war memorial (7).

The destruction and marginalisation of Aboriginal communities was critically reviewed from the 1970s onwards. It went alongside a significant move of Australian academic culture to the left, with a strong influence of new left thinking in particular. In this context, more and more research focussed on the racism that was at the heart of Australia’s policies towards its first nations. Soon it turned into a broad research stream at Australia’s universities. And the debates on this research did not take place in the ivory tower. They were prominently picked up by politics. The Labor Prime Minister Paul Keating publicly acknowledged white guilt to Australia’s First nations in his powerful Redfern speech of 1992: ‘We committed the murders. We took the children from their mothers. We practiced discrimination and exclusion. It was our ignorance and our prejudice.’ He sought to redress some of the issues plaguing aboriginal communities in the 1990s. He also sought to overcome the legacies of the ‘white Australia’ policy by anchoring Australia more firmly within Asia.

Australia’s Liberal Party (which is really more closely related ideologically to the British Conservatives) under John Howard sensed that many white Australians were not comfortable with such a re-orientation towards Asia nor were they entirely happy with the self-critical approach towards the white ‘settlement’ of Australia. Hence he launched a broad public historical counterattack and accused mainstream Australian historiography of denigrating Australian achievements of the past. They allegedly promoted a ‘black armband history’ that did not do justice to the historical record of white Australia.

In seeking historical support for this, he could only muster the voices of two historians, who really were outsiders to the historical profession in Australia, Geoffrey Blainey and Keith Windschuttle. Their access to the Murdoch-owned Australian media ensured them an influential voice in the public debate, and however much the academy was, in its vast majority, fighting against their accusations of a ‘black armband’ history, they were simply dismissed in the media as Marxist or Marxisant and unpatriotic.

The political debate became extremely polarized between the vast majority of the academia that lined up behind the Labor Party, where Kevin Rudd, as Labor Prime Minister, made an official apology to the stolen generations on 13 February 2008. And the Liberals had their icons in Blainey and Windschuttle who portrayed themselves as victims of a left-wing academic cabal. In a way this is where Australia’s history politics vis-à-vis its first nations still stands today. A vast amount of scholarship has gone into filling in many of the blank spots of first nation history and the history of the relationship between the first nations and the white invaders from the eighteenth century to the present day.

Even when visiting places, such as the Botanical Gardens in Sydney, one cannot escape an acknowledgment of white guilt, and the language of invasion. Some scholars with Aboriginal roots are nowadays filling important posts for Aboriginal history and their histories that have increasingly been researched is also nowadays taught in schools across the nation. Every public event that takes place in Australia today starts with a routine acknowledgement that it takes place on first nation land.

So, despite the Liberals’ history politics and regardless of Blainey’s and Windschuttle’s writings, the public history of Australia today is almost dominated by a cosmopolitan consensus around the need to integrate the history of  first nation Australia into the mainstream. Has the left then won the Australian history wars? I doubt it very much.

As I learned during a seminar with one of the foremost historians of Aboriginal Australia, Heidi Norman, during my stay at UTS, the overwhelming advances of historical research have not placated a sense within Aboriginal communities that their histories are still being distorted. The 2017 ‘Uluru Statement from the Heart’ by Aboriginal leaders is demanding the setting up of a commission that would supervise agreements between the white government and the first nation, and, importantly, also supervise ‘truth-telling about our history’.

There is then, a clear sense at the heart of the Aboriginal community that the truth is still not being told. Mark McKenna, in an article for the Australian journal The Quarterly Essay has recently argued that the agendas in terms of justified Aboriginal rights and demands has not moved forward from the debates of the 1990s: ‘Australians still struggle to include Indigenous people in our vision of the nation.’ Two histories, one Aboriginal and one white, McKenna argues, ‘have yet to find a way to meet […] At a fundamental level, we [the whites, SB] have failed to see, failed to listen, failed even to hear.’

McKenna acknowledges change in Australian historical consciousness: ‘The cultures and histories of Indigenous Australia … have moved from the periphery of Australia’s national imagination to its centre, where they rightly belong.’ And he calls this ‘the most significant shift in Australia’s historical consciousness since European settlement began.’ Yet he admits that it did not have the impact on wider society that it deserves. His remedy seems rather conventional: reconciliation through truth-telling – a classic cosmopolitan means of coming to terms with the past, and one that has already failed in so many places that one can only wonder why it is still so often referred to as a remedy for past injustice.

The dominant cosmopolitanism, which McKenna ultimately also appeals to, has been powerless in bringing about real change and has in fact become a ritualistic exercise of Australian political correctness on the part of those who feel better in acknowledging the wrongs of the past without being able to do something in the present and without changing the minds of possibly still a majority of Australians who feel proud of their white history. The school teaching of Aboriginal history is also often done so poorly and in such a circumscribed and politically-correct way that it will be, for many, if not most school children, a rather off-putting experience, as was confirmed to me in discussions with Paul Kiem who is Professional Officer of the History Teachers’ Association of New South Wales.

Having looked at some of the historical sites and history museums in Sydney, there is the same sense of acknowledging first nations history but in a ritualistic sense that does not really manage to engage visitors. It stands aside, almost as one story among others. Travelling, during my stay, to the spiritual heart of Aboriginal Australia, to Uluru, I found a resort that has an Aboriginal artist in residence programme and a cultural centre where tourists can learn about Aboriginal culture, customs, history and their present-day situation, but all of this feels entirely marginal to the real business of the resort of Uluru, which is about the touristic and entirely commodified experience of Australia’s desert and its magnificent landscape.

In Alice Springs the galleries are full of Aboriginal art, but the many gallerists I met were all white. Even in the local museum, most people you actually see are white. The Aborigines in Alice seem to live a world apart – and their looks, when they met my white face, were mistrustful and hostile. They knew who the invader was and is. Even here, in their alleged heartland, they do not seem to belong. Or perhaps it is their way of showing us, i.e. the non-Aboriginal people, that we do not belong. In any case, they do not seem to have found a way of having their stories heard, which is why I think they are still calling for truthful history.

Now, the truth has, of course, become unfashionable in historical theory. But if we look for a moment at the theoretical framework we are adopting for our UNREST project, then we see that there are certain striking parallels to the Australian story I have been telling here. Representations of war in Europe had been strongly antagonistic until 1945, as had been the representation of the ‘war’ between Australia’s first nations and the white invaders until the 1970s. Under the strong influence of the European Union, this antagonistic framework for the representation of war has given way to a cosmopolitan framework, in which common victimhood and common opposition to war is emphasized. In Australia, the emergence of a cosmopolitan framework of memory from the 1970s onwards had to do with a recognition of past injustice on behalf of the whites and the search for action that might in some way, shape or form remedy centuries of genocidal policies, discrimination and exclusion.

In both cases, it would appear, these cosmopolitan memory frameworks do not seem to work. In Europe they have been powerless in preventing the rise of vernacular nationalisms since the end of the Cold War, that are directed directly against the cosmopolitan memory framework of the EU. And in Australia, cosmopolitanism has not yet found a way of truly engaging the majority of the white population with first nation history in such a way as to problematize the comfort zone of the dominant national storyline. Consequently, a sense of exclusion remains on the side of the first nations, while wide sections of white Australia have a sense of not wanting to be confronted with a black armband history – regardless of the majority opinion within the Academy.

Just as UNREST is asking in relation to a European history of war whether a more agonistic approach might be better able to contain vernacular nationalisms, so one could also ask whether in Australia a more agonistic approach might actually produce a breakthrough in the apparent stalemate between those wanting to celebrate the achievements of white settlement since the eighteenth century and those reminding white Australians that those successes have been achieved against a background of genocide, discrimination and exclusion.

Such agonism in both cases would have to be based on a proper contextualisation of histories with a focus on victims, perpetrators and bystanders alike, which is what the leaders of the Australian first nations might have in mind when the talk about truthful histories. It would also mean abandoning moral absolutes which lead to normative posturing rather than fruitful debate. It would also mean the beginning of an open-ended dialogic exchange, where multiple voices and multi-vocality are accepted as expressions of different political interests within a democratic sphere of government.

And it would mean mobilising the passions of solidarity, in this case with Australia’s first nations, in seeking to speak on behalf of those positions that currently get marginalised. Agonism is not a value-neutral tool. It is a means of a left, currently emasculated by decades of neoliberal dominance, to get back into the discussion (8). In Australia it could mobilise what seems a rather tired and directionless left to seek active ways out of the stalemate over the Australian history wars. In Europe it could mobilise (and has done so since the financial crisis of 2007) a left to re-establish a more politicised view on politics, not only but also relating to the memory of war.


(1) I am grateful to the members of the Centre for Public History at UTS, and in particular to Anna Clark, for discussing these issues with me during my stay at UTS in March 2018.

(2) Stuart Macintyre and Anna Clark, The History Wars, Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, new edn, 2004 [first published 2003].

(3) Peter Read, The Stolen Generations: The Removal of Aboriginal Children in New South Wales, 1883 – 1969, Sydney: NSW Department of Aboriginal Affairs, 2006 [first published 1981].

(4) Jane Carey and Claire McLisky (eds), Creating White Australia, Sydney: Sydney University Press, 2009.

(5) Stefan Berger with Christoph Conrad, The Past as History: National Identity and Historical Consciousness in Modern Europe, Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2015.

(6) Mark Hearn, ‘Writing the Nation in Australia: Australian Historians and Narrative Myths of Nations’, in: Stefan Berger (ed.), Writing the Nation: a Global Perspective, Basingstoke: Palgrave MacMillan, 2007, pp. 103 – 125.

(7) Alistair Thomson, Anzac Memories: Living with the Legend, new edn, Clayton: Monash University Press, 2013 [first published by Oxford University Press, 1994].

(8) Chantal Mouffe, Agonistics. Thinking the World Politically, London: Verso, 2013; see also the attempt to relate Mouffe’s theory to memory studies by Anna Cento Bull and Hans Lauge Hansen, ‘On Agonistic Memory’, Memory Studies 9:4 (2016), pp. 390–404.

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