EJANZH: Sean Brawley on John Howard and the Battle for History

The First Phase – February 1992 to March 1996

by Sean Brawley (1).

History teaches us where we have been and teaches us to learn from our mistakes. History can also be selectively quoted to suit a particular agenda and accurate history can be twisted by those who attempt to rewrite it to suit their own purpose. Pauline Hanson (2).

The history of a country is not the prerogative of one particular group who draw curtains to hide those bits they did not like. Even if a nation could pick and choose its history (and the concept is absurd), any confident nation guards jealously its history and traditions. From the good we gain pride; from the bad we learn; and from the totality of our past we gain our identity. Jeff Kennett (3).

On the evening of Monday 18 November 1996 the Hon. John Winston Howard MHR, Prime Minister of Australia, delivered the annual Sir Robert Menzies Lecture in Melbourne. The title of his paper was ‘The Liberal Tradition: The Beliefs and Values Which Guide the Federal Government’. Howard used the occasion to honour the memory of ‘a great Australian leader’ and ‘the founder of modern Australian Liberalism’ – Robert Gordon Menzies. In recognising the achievements of the Menzies era the Prime Minister also claimed victory in a political battle which had raged for over four years and come to be known as the ‘Battle of History’. During that period, Howard alleged, the ‘highest levels’ of the former Labor Government had attempted to ‘establish a form of historical correctness as a particular offshoot of political correctness’ so its ‘own partisan political cause would be advanced’. This ‘assault without substance, without honour and without success’, however, had ‘failed because it was seen by the vast majority of Australians for the divisive, irrelevant and prejudiced attack that it was’ (4).

Writing about the state of historical writing in 1995 John A. Moses debated the centrality of history to Australian national life. While convinced that ‘history’s importance is more often proclaimed as an article of faith than argued convincingly’ he was aware that the meaning of the past in Australian national life was ‘more contested than ever before’ and that ‘All of a sudden history seems very political'(5). With the events of 1996 only adding further weight it is hard to imagine that any historian in Australia is not now aware of the political implications and potency of their craft. Perhaps more importantly for the community, so too are the nation’s ‘ahistorical’ politicians (6). The ‘Battle of History’ in Australia has, to borrow Joshua Foa Dienstag’s words, ‘exposed the subterranean connections between history and politics which had existed unseen, like the system of wires and pipes beneath a great city’ (7).

This political struggle over the past is neither isolated or unique to Australia. The world over politicians (usually with some input from historians) have been contesting the past with new found vigour since the late 1980s. In Israel it has been the work of the ‘New Historians’ and their alternative approaches to the formation of the Jewish state which has been the focus of much debate (8). In Hungary it was the so-called Pozsgay Affair concerning the interpretation of the events of 1956 as a ‘people’s uprising’ (9). In Mexico it has been the struggle between rival politcal parties to claim the mantle of the true custodians of the nation’s revolutionary past (10). In Germany it has been the ‘Historikerstreit’ and the legacy of that nation’s Nazi past (11). In Japan it has been the prolonged ‘textbook’ controversy and legacies of the Pacific War such as the Rape of Nanjing and Comfort Women (12). New Zealand plans for a national history museum sparked debate as have the ongoing deliberations of the Waitangi Tribunal (13). A final, and perhaps the most important example for this study, is the American battle which simmered through the late 1980s before exploding in a series of incidents starting with the 1492 Columbus quincentenary celebration debates of 1991/92 (which were also replayed in a number of Latin American countries) and followed by the intervention of 400 historians in the abortion case Webster vs Reproductive Services, the History Standards saga of 1994, and the Smithsonian Hiroshima/Nagasaki exhibition and Martin Luther King Memorial controversies(14). All these cases opposing political beliefs have been in contest. Suddenly, dare one say finally, politicians have come to realise that one of the most important keys to their political future is the past.

This paper then is a report from the Australian theatre of this international conflagration. My aims as a correspondent are modest. I offer an account of the ‘Battle of History’ – to highlight what I have seen as the course this debate has taken in Australia and offer some tentative analysis. I do this with all the failings of a war correspondent – my judgement impaired by being too close to the action in time and place, let alone the question of bias. Regardless of these limitations I believe a report from the front is required. With some notable exceptions, historians have not had enough to say on a struggle in which they have always been implicated – now more so than ever.

The focus of this report centres around the public pronouncements of one of the Battles most central and passionate characters – John Howard. That Ian Hancock’s 1995 suggestion that the ‘Liberals are not historically minded'(15) seems inconceivable in 1997 is almost entirely due to the efforts of Howard. With the help of the Conservative intelligentsia he was the first Coalition politician to see the Battle as more than a diversion and he was the first Liberal leader to actively use history to demonstrate his party’s relevance and platform. On a personal level, he also used history to help secure his own political rehabilitation. These developments occurred during what we might care to label the First Phase of the Battle – the period from February 1992 to March 1996.

The first shots in what has since become known as the ‘Battle of History’ were fired by Paul Keating in late February 1992. They had followed the uproar in Britain which had accompanied the then Prime Minister’s handling of the Queen of Australia during a Royal visit earlier that month. When the Federal Opposition, led by Dr John Hewson, attempted to use the public outcry in Britain to chide the Prime Minister he struck back with a few lessons from his understanding of Australian history – demonstrating what Geoffrey Bolton identified as a ‘readiness uncommon in recent prime ministers to take note of recent trends in historiography and to use them in the service of promoting a particular myth of nationalism'(16). The Opposition, Keating claimed, were relics of the past, ‘xenophobes’ who remained British to their bootstraps despite that nation’s decision not to help Australia defend itself against the Japanese advance in 1942 (17).

From the Opposition Front Bench, John Howard saw Keating’s attack as ‘an orgy of Pom-bashing’ based on a ‘somewhat infamous and (almost predicably) historically wrong accusation'(18). Like the rest of the Opposition front bench, however, he had not seen Keating’s use of history as particularly significant in itself. The issue was not history but the Republic and the ALP were simply attempting to fuel a public discussion it hoped would distract Australians from Labor’s poor economic management and the nation’s economic salvation – Fightback! (19).

Such a view, however, was not shared by the nation’s conservative intellectuals who saw a far more sinister threat in the Prime Minister’s use of history. The ‘intellectual indulgence’ of Keating and his supporters was part of an ‘attempt to impose on us all a view of history'(20). which would work to the detriment of that section of the community which opposed Labor’s vision for Australia’s future. Keating’s usurpation of the past had to be stopped at all costs.

These conservative partisans attacked Keating’s use of history on two fronts. Firstly, the Prime Minister’s use of history as a political weapon was dangerous because it was divisive. As Patrick Morgan noted, Keating threatened ‘national cohesion’ and Australia’s future depended on ‘forgetting these antique and unimportant divisions’ (21). Such views tapped into a dominant theme in conservative intellectual thinking – a fear that minority left wing interest groups had captured the public agenda in Australia to the detriment of the ‘mainstream’. Secondly and more fundamentally Keating was simply wrong in his historical interpretations – in part because he was a victim of what Gerard Henderson labelled the ‘prevailing left wing interpretation of Australian history'(22). and its obsession with highlighting the negataive aspects of Australia’s past to the exclusion of the overwhelming achievements.

Such concerns were exacerbated only a few months after the Battle of History began when the High Court of Australia made its monumental judgement concerning the question of native title in Australia. To the conservatives, the Mabo decision was seen to be based on an ‘extraordinary re-writing of history by the Court'(23). The judgement, like the Republican debate, was riddled with the prevailing left wing interpretation of Australian history. Justices Dean and Gaudron had even gone so far as to state that they were indebted to the likes of Professor Henry Reynolds(24).

While conservative intellectuals warned of the dangers, the Coalition leadership did not publicly enter the historiographical debate in any sustained or significant manner. Economics remained their main concern and strategy. Labor’s ‘victory for the True Believers’ at the 13 March 1993 Poll, however, forced the Coalition to engage in much soul searching as to how they had lost the unlosable election. This preoccupation with matters economic dominated much of the debate within the Liberal Party in the wake of the defeat. Assertions were made that as the Liberal Party approached its 50th year it had become an irrelevancy in late 20th century Australia and was indeed on the brink of oblivion.

Within a number of critiques of the Liberal Party’s future mention was made of the important lessons held in its past. Raking over the coals Malcolm Fraser noted how the ‘Labor Party nurtures its past’ and that the answers to the Party’s problems lay ‘in its legacy’ (25). Former Victorian State President Michael Kroger agreed: ‘The answer to the future lies in an understanding of the past’ (26). The problem, however, according to then Labor MHR Graeme Campbell was that the Liberals lacked ‘an historical sense'(27).

This deficiency in the Liberal Party had long exercised the mind of former shadow frontbencher Chris Puplick. The ’93 defeat gave Puplick the chance to once again mount his hobby horse. It had been a lack of historical sense which allowed the Party to move so disastrously to the right (he being one of the victims) and become preoccupied with economic outcomes. In an address to Henderson’s Sydney Institute, shortly after the election, Puplick reasserted that history was the key to the Party’s recent failures and its salvation. The Liberal Party had alienated many within the Australian community because it had been ‘so anxious to disown our own past’ and thus ‘forfeited the chance to turn our record into a plus and instead allowed them to become our negatives’. In looking to the future Puplick saw that the key to Liberal Party rejuvenation was ‘a clear assertion of our past record of achievement’ (28).

Puplick’s views were implicitly supported from a controversial source – left-wing La Trobe University political scientist Judith Brett. In a number of public commentaries, but most importantly her book RobertMenzies’ Forgotten People , Brett gave credence to the notion that some of the answers to the Liberal Party’s problems lay in examining its past (29). While Brett was labelled by new Liberal Deputy Leader, Peter Costello, as ‘one of those anti-Liberals who has taken to commentating on what the Liberal Party should do’ (30), and Puplick was seen as a renegade, the senior echelons of the Party were becoming increasingly aware of the importance of history to the party’s viability. In the same article in the Australian Quarterly which attacked Judith Brett, Peter Costello used the history of Australian voting patterns in the 1950s in his discussion of the Party’s future.

In the wake of the 1993 loss and the subsequent debate about the Liberal Party’s past and future, it appears that John Howard became increasingly convinced that Paul Keating’s use of history posed a very real threat. While he accepted the arguments of the likes of Puplick, the danger was far more complicated than simply a failure by Liberals to champion past achievements and take guidance from them. One of the reasons Liberals were not championing their past achievements was because Labor was sabotaging them with a deliberate and sinister campaign orchestrated by the Prime Minister himself. By manipulating Australian history Paul Keating was trying to make the Liberal Party an irrelevancy in late twentieth century Australia.

Howard aired his fears in an address to the Samuel Griffith Society – the organisation formed by the likes of Sir Harry Gibbs and former National Party senator John Stone to defend the Constitution against the Republican onslaught – in November 1993. In a paper titled ‘Mr Keating’s Mirage on the Hill: How the Republic, Like the Cheshire Cat, Came and Went’, Howard warned his audience:

The Prime Minister is engaged in a major exercise of re-writing Australian history, and of changing the way in which we see ourselves and how we reflect on where we have been and what we have achieved. He knows the power of historical illusions. He seeks frequently the unashamed use of his version of history to promote a modern day political argument. Paul Keating is also intent on marginalising the liberal/conservative contribution to Australian history and the Australian achievement. He has embraced the essentially negative view of our history and seeks in the context of Australia’s necessary involvement in the burgeoning economics of the Asian/Pacific region to impose a wholly unnecessary choice between our past and our future (31).

In an address to Henderson’s Sydney Institute in mid-1994 titled ‘Australian Liberalism: Grappling with the 1990s’, Howard reiterated his warning:

In my opinion very few Liberals fully understand just how committed Paul Keating and many in the Labor Party are to the quite ruthless use of history, or more particularly their version of it, as a political weapon. Not only do they want to reinterpret Australian history to promote their contemporary political objectives but they also wish to marginalise the contribution of the Liberal/conservative side of Australian politics and entrench the Australian Labor Party as the only true product of Australia’s political soil. It is an audacious task, but there are some signs it is succeeding (32).

Howard’s counter attacks in the ‘Battle of History’ were the first efforts by a conservative politician which did more than simply dismiss Keating’s position. His strategy was two pronged and relied heavily on ideas expounded by conservative intellectuals, most notably the historian of the Liberal Party, Gerard Henderson. The Liberal past would be defended (as Puplick had also argued) at the same time the Labor past would be subjected to attack. With regard to defence the site chosen was the Menzies era. Howard was already on the public record for his strong defence of the Menzies era; for example at the 18th Young Liberal National Convention in January 1986 he claimed that ‘history shows that the Menzies policies worked'(33). Without question Labor and its supporters had succeeded in denigrating the Menzies legacy but history could rehabilitate as well as destroy. Menzies could be rehabilitated by the Liberals just as Ben Chifley and Gough Whitlam had been by Labor. With regard to attack, what Gerard Henderson had earlier identified as the ‘”Gough is great” school of (misguided) Australian historicism’ was quickly identified as the prime target (34).

Given the influence of Henderson, it was perhaps fitting that Howard launched his two-pronged strategy during his Sydney Institute address. ‘Despite the later day writing of history to the detriment of much of the Menzies period’ he reasserted that the Menzies era could be defended. For example was it not the Menzies Government’s funding arrangement for non-government schools which helped end sectarianism in Australia? On the second front he claimed that ‘Labor’s success in re-writing history has reached its zenith in the rehabilitation of Gough Whitlam, whose three years as Prime Minister were typified by chaos, economic decline and political disarray’ (35).

While two major Liberal milestones in 1994 – the 50th anniversary of the Party’s formation and the centenary of Menzies birth – helped Howard, many Liberals still approached the celebration of the Menzian past and its use as a political weapon with some circumspection. A good example is former New South Wales Premier Nick Greiner’s ‘Centenary Oration’ to the Menzies Foundation in October 1994. Challenged with the task of distilling ‘the essence of Menzies success in the context of its relevance to the next century of both the Liberal Party and the nation’, Greiner felt compelled to address Menzies ‘occasional failures’ as well as his ‘manifest successes’. With the ‘Liberal Party under Menzies … on balance more negative than positive in its electoral campaigning and more conservative than liberal in its policies’, Greiner’s best defence was that Menzies’ ‘philosophy and later actions were absolutely appropriate and useful to his times’. Rebutting Howard’s desires for the Menzian past, Greiner concluded: ‘Not only our position but our language and symbols must, as Menzies did, be redolent of the present not the past’ (36). Even Liberal Party elder, Sir Paul Hasluck, implied caution in this area when he remarked: ‘Personally I can scarcely recognise in Australia today many of those characteristics which I thought were native to Australia in 1950’ (37). Many Liberals seemed to accept (though not necessarily agree with) Geoffrey Bolton’s thesis that ‘Keating is by no means alone in seeing the high summer of Robert Menzies as the heyday of a mediocre consumer society, obsessed with the royal family and the British connections …’ (38).

While many in the Liberal Party accepted the wisdom of debunking Labor’s claims for the past, the rest of the leadership did not appear publicly concerned about a Labor usurpation of history. Howard’s ability to warn against this danger, however, improved markedly when ‘Lazarus with the triple bypass’ regained the Party leadership in January 1995. Perhaps ironically, however, Howard’s return gave Labor a tactical advantage which compelled him to revise his strategy.

With Howard’s elevation Paul Keating saw a golden opportunity for a major tactical victory in the Battle of History. While Alexander Downer’s pedigree (son of a Menzies minister) and associations (such as the Adelaide Club) had allowed some opportunity to link him back to a Menzian past, Howard was much more easily labelled by Keating as a man of the past wanting to take Australia back ‘down the time tunnel’ to the 1950s. Keating’s success on this front and Howard’s preoccupation with the challenges of leadership saw the Liberals on the back foot in 1995. Keating’s ability to paint Howard as ‘yesterday’s man’ only reinforced the concern that too close a connection with the Menzian past could have negative political consequences. A new strategy was called for.

In seeking a new strategy Howard was aware that if the Liberals did not defend the Menzian past the claim that Labor and Gough Whitlam had laid the foundation stones of the Australian national edifice in the late 20th century would be further reinforced. As Howard had already warned, too many Australians already seemed to think that Australian history began in 1972 (39). The answer to the problem, however, was Harold Holt. Even the left-wing interpreters of Australian history had conceded that while Menzies was in their opinion ‘unrepresentative of native traditions and aspirations’ the ‘sporty’, ‘matey’, ‘vigorous’ and ‘youthful’ Holt was ‘self-consciously Australian'(40). It had been Holt and his successors Gorton and McMahon, not Whitlam, who had laid the foundation stones for Australia in the late twentieth century and the current leadership of the Liberal Party were the direct descendants of these great achievers. The memory of Menzies was notable for its absence in the Liberal election campaign (41).

This readjustment of Liberal sights in the public debate also helped to overcome the burden of the past which Howard himself carried. One of the major concerns about John Howard’s return to the leadership of the Liberal Party was the baggage he still carried from his public comments in 1988 concerning levels of Asian migration to Australia. It is recalled that in April 1988 Geoffrey Blainey had recaptured the public spotlight with claims that the level of Asian immigration to Australia posed a threat to the nation’s future. These comments were followed shortly after by the public release of a Government commissioned report into immigration headed by former Ambassador to China and academic Stephen Fitzgerald. The report was interpreted in some quarters as a further criticism of the level of Asian migration and seeing a possible window of political opportunity Howard in late July began to speak in media interviews of a possible reduction in Asian migration under a Coalition Government, although he was ‘not in favour of going back to a White Australia Policy’ (42).

Rather than helping to secure political victory Howard’s comments only hastened his political demise as leader of the Opposition – an irony given the fact it had been the first round of the Blainey Debate in 1984 which had helped weaken Andrew Peacock’s position as Liberal Party Leader and deliver the crown to Howard. Of the political fallout from the Opposition’s latest dalliance with Asian migration it was widely noted that by his actions Howard had ensured that Asian Australians would continue to vote en masse for the ALP as their political party despite the fact in terms of outlook on issues such as small business and the family the Asian community was the natural constituency of the Liberal Party.

To many Liberals another reason why the Asian community should be the natural constituency of the Liberal Party was the fact Harold Holt had abolished the White Australia Policy in 1966. Unfortunately for the Liberal Party, however, the ‘prevailing left wing interpretation’ of Australian history awarded this achievement to Gough Whitlam.

Within federal politics the orthodoxy had long held that both the ALP and the Liberal/National Coalition shared the laurels for securing the end of the White Australia Policy. This position reflected the bi-partisanship which had characterised immigration policy in the postwar period. Behind closed doors, however, ALP members firmly believed that it had been Gough Whitlam and Al Grassby (at the cost of his seat) who had ended White Australia.

In 1984 the public debate triggered by the comments of Professor Blainey saw the bi-partisan view of White Australia’s demise crumble. Initially both sides of politics maintained the bi-partisan interpretation. In the house Special Minister of State Mick Young observed that ‘it was a bi-partisan attitude back in the 1960s that eradicated the White Australia Policy’. Former Fraser Government Immigration Minister Ian McPhee agreed: ‘One of the outstanding characteristics of this country has been that the immigration program went through a phase when it was racist and bi-partisanly so; then it got to the stage during Harold Holt’s term onwards where it gradually became not only overtly non-racist, but in very practical terms non-racist …’ (43).

The Coalition’s decision to attempt to exploit the so-called ‘Blainey Debate’ for political advantage, however, saw allegations that bi-partisanship was over in immigration policy and this was extended to the history of White Australia’s demise. With the gloves off the ALP began to air the opinion its members had always privately held – that the Coalition had been dragged kicking and screaming to a non-discriminatory policy.

It was Gerard Henderson, then John Howard’s Chief of Staff, who saw the danger of such an interpretation of the past and prepared Howard to resist it. In a forceful rebuttal to a mistimed attack on the Coalition by Foreign Affairs Minister Bill Hayden, Howard, in pleading for a return to bi-partisanship, also stoutly defended the Liberal role in White Australia’s demise and even went further, deriding the Whitlam Government’s record and concluding that the ALP had no moral authority over the Coalition on the issue (44). By this speech Howard, with Henderson’s help, visited a policy issue and adopted a strategy which would be repeated ten years later during the’Battle of History’.

While Howard’s speech of 1984 helped see bi-partisanship return to the historical interpretation of the White Australia Policy’s decline, the second round of the Blainey debate in mid-1988 once again saw a breakdown in consensus. Interestingly it was not the product of an ALP assault on bi-partisanship but a Liberal re-interpretation.

During the 1988 debate the ALP saw advantage in maintaining the public pretence of historical bi-partisanship. Firstly it was decided that Howard could be marginalised by claiming the Opposition leader was breaking from the bi-partisan past. Secondly by showing that the Opposition was complicit in White Australia’s demise it was hoped that any advantage the Coalition might have gained in more intolerant quarters of Australian society would be checked. In the House Prime Minister Bob Hawke accused John Howard of breaking ‘one of the great and rare distinctions of political leadership in the last generation’, namely ‘the bi-partisan rejection of race as a factor in immigration policy’. Howard was ‘the inheritor of the role but not the mantle of Holt, Gorton, McMahon and Malcolm Fraser’ (45).

In his zeal to paint Howard as a traitor to the past, Hawke even put aside conventional ALP wisdom to claim that Harold Holt to his ‘everlasting credit and honour abolished the White Australia Policy’ (46). Such statements, however backfired on the Government. In defending his position as non-racist, Howard and the Coalition pointed to the Coalition’s record – a record which the ALP itself had magnified to the exclusion of itself. Howard had the legitimate right to raise the immigration issue because ‘We are the party that swept aside the White Australia Policy’. Even Ian McPhee who crossed the floor to vote with the Government during the subsequent debate noted that non-discrimination remained ‘fundamental to the Coalition’s policy’ and had done so ‘since the days of the Holt- McEwan Government’ (47).

In the wake of the debate and Howard’s political demise, the issue of credit for White Australia’s abolition faded but it had reinforced for Liberals and their supporters a conviction that they alone had ended the White Australia Policy.

The issue remained dormant until just after the ‘Battle of History’ had began. On the evening of Sunday 31 March 1992 the ABC’s True Stories program aired a documentary on the history of the White Australia Policy titled Admission Impossible. The program supported the notion that the Whitlam Government abolished the White Australia Policy in 1973. To the likes of Gerard Henderson this documentary was another well timed ‘historical distortion’ which saw another significant national achievement of the postwar era being awarded to the wrong side of politics – another contribution to the ‘Gough is great school’. In his regular weekly column in the Sydney Morning Herald Henderson wrote a piece entitled ‘Bollocks to the myth of Gough ending White Australia Policy’. In speaking of the ’emerging legend’ he noted how the ‘”Whitlam abolished White Australia” cause had received a huge boost …’ despite the that fact the ‘historical evidence clearly pointed’ to 1966 as the year the policy was ‘junked’. With this defence he then counter attacked – discrediting the Whitlam thesis through reference to Whitlam’s tardy response to the issue of Vietnamese refugees (48). This, of course, was the strategy Howard would adopt in the ‘Battle of History’.

While Henderson’s comments drew some debate, the issue quickly faded until the soul searching following the 1993 defeat. In his plea for the recognition of history’s role as a political tool Puplick noted: ‘No party has a better record on immigration (be it abolition of the White Australia Policy, the provision of multicultural services or the promotion of racial tolerance …’ (49) In attempting to repair the links with the Asian community which were damaged by the events of 1988 Peter Costello used the Party’s historical regard to claim that Howard’s One Australia Policy was simply ‘a passing policy’ (50).

On Howard’s return to the leadership, however, the issue remained a sensitive one which could be exploited by the Government. The solution to the problem was history. The past could be used to rehabilitate John Howard. As well as admitting that his plans of 1988 had been poorly conceived and misunderstood, Howard in the lead up to the election of 1996 spent much time within Asian communities giving them the Liberal interpretation of White Australia’s demise. Thus by using the past Howard had some success in putting the past behind him. His comments of 1988 had been an aberration and he had now returned to the proud tradition of racial non-discrimination which had characterised Coalition immigration policy since Harold Holt had abolished the White Australia Policy in 1966. Reference to his own past as a senior Fraser Government minister and that Government’s outstanding achievements in Indochinese refugee policy helped to reinforce such notions.

Perhaps the most interesting aspect of this tussle over White Australia’s demise was the fact that little had been written about the end of the policy and both sides of politics relied on their own internal traditions. By 1995, however, Howard could dip into an emerging body of work which supported his statement. Not surprisingly Gerard Henderson’s 50 year history of the Liberal Party, Menzies Child and another book of his examining the Howard Coalition claimed that White Australia had been ‘junked’ or ‘effectively demolished’ in 1966 though, in something of a departure from earlier statements, Henderson now claimed it was neither Holt nor Whitlam but Malcolm Fraser who oversaw the ‘final dismantling of all vestiges of the White Australia Policy’ (51). Further support for Howard’s 1966 Holt thesis came from Geoffrey Blainey’s Shorter History of Australia (published in 1994) and Sandra Tweedie’s Trading Partners : Australia and Asia, 1790 – 1993 (also published in 1994 ) (52).

More generally Howard and shadow immigration minister Jim Short used the Holt 1966 thesis as a historical underpinning for the Coalition immigration and multicultural election platform. Both made repeated references in public engagements to the Holt Government’s abolition of White Australia. In his address to the 1995 Australian Council of Social Service Congress which had the appropriate themes of ‘Social Justice: Fact, Fiction and the Future’ Howard delivered a paper in which he defended the Coalitions’ ‘proud record of achievement’ in social policy by noting amongst other historical evidence that it was a ‘Liberal National government that ended the White Australia Policy’ (53). A similar statement was included in the Coalition’s published policy documents on immigration, and multicultural affairs and settlement policy (54).

That the Liberal Party was finally fighting back with some effectiveness was revealed by events in the Senate in November 1995. With their claims for Holt and the end of White Australia the historical bi-partsianship on immigration was finally over and the ALP once again moved to publicly air the opinions that had always been privately held. The Coalition was simply ‘running around the electorate spreading disinformation’. The Liberal guns had to be spiked and in this regard Labor had the support of the first detailed examinations of the policy’s demise which supported the Party’s own thesis that Whitlam and Grassby ended the White Australia Policy (55). More generally the ‘prevailing left wing’ interpreters as exampled by Grimshaw, Lake, McGrath and Quartley’s 1994 book Creating A Nation supported the Whitlam thesis (56).

On the morning of 23 November Labor began its attack with a dorothy dixer to Immigration and Ethnic Affairs Minister Nick Bolkus asking when did the White Australia Policy end. Noting that the Policy was abolished by the Whitlam Government in 1973 he noted that Holt’s changes of 1966 were ‘minor and the evidence that Holt was not seeking to end the policy was “quite damning” ‘. Bolkus concluded that ‘Any historian will tell you that Al Grassby and Gough Whitlam changed the white Australia policy. Any historian will tell you that what Senator Short and Mr Howard are about is dissembling the facts’ (57) Senator Short later counter attacked noting that the ‘essential’, the ‘watershed’ decisions were taken in 1966. In this he was joined by Queensland National Party Senator Bill O’Chee who adopted the Howard policy of defence and attack. The Holt Government had abolished White Australia but as important:

The people on the other side inherited the most racist political party in this country. They should hang their heads in shame. The suggestion that the Labor Party abolished the WAP and was the friend of the Asian Community in this country is quite clearly disgraceful, dishonest and dastardly. I believe all Australians should condemn the Government for the way in which it has so wistfully misled the people and the Senate today (58).

Short concluded his attack with the claim that he and Australians of all backgrounds were ‘absolutely sick to death of the continual revisionist attempts by this government to rewrite the migration history of this nation, particularly the abolition of the white Australia policy’ (59).

The battle of the Senate saw no outright victory though Labor pursued the issue and associated themes. Immigration Minister Senator Nick Bolkus used Howard’s December ‘Headland’ speech to argue that the Leader of the Opposition was ‘firmly rooted in the monocultural Australia of the 1950s’ and that ‘his version of history is coloured by a rosy nostalgia which dismisses the racism of the early and mid-20th century’ (60). Such efforts, however, did not stop the Liberal juggernaut. Through December, January and February the Party continued to air its interpretation of White Australia’s demise. On the Sunday program on the Nine Network the week before the election Deputy Opposition Leader Tim Fischer took time to insist that Harold Holt (and John McEwan) ended the White Australia Policy and that it was a travesty of justice that the ALP claimed otherwise (61).

History did play a role in John Howard’s election strategy and was not confined to immigration matters. Two other policy areas where the Coaltion dabbled in history were foreign affairs and indigenous affairs both of which became more important in the wake of the election. Prior to the election the ALP dominated the political battle over the Australian past. Thanks to Howard’s effort in first alerting his colleagues to the dangers of this fact and then implementing strategies to resist, he did dent Labor’s sense of imperviousness in matters historical. The ALP was forced to strenuously defend its interpretation of the past for the first time. Whether it also succeeded in rehabilitating John Howard is more difficult to say but it certainly helped to ensure the legacy of 1988 had no perceptible impact on the campaign. This said, on the issue of White Australia, an article published in the Sydney Morning Herald on the day of the election claimed that Labor could continue to rely on the ‘Asian vote’ despite the Coalition’s efforts and that many Asian voters had not been convinced that Howard’s statements of 1988 were an aberration (62).

If Keating’s aim in the Battle of History was, as Howard alleged, to make the Liberal Party an irrelevancy in Australian national life in the late twentieth century, their victory at the 2 March 1996 poll was a catastrophic defeat for the ALP in more ways than one. Howard, however, was not prepared to claim victory in the ‘Battle of History’. A huge struggle still awaited if the Liberal/National Government was to fulfil the Orwellian dictum and although the Conservatives would have the advantages of government which Labor had enjoyed in waging the fight, the ALP in opposition could still rely on its fellow travellers – the ‘prevailing left-wing historians’. As Greg Pemberton warned in the aftermath of the poll: ‘So you thought the battle over Australian history ended with Paul Keating’s departure from Canberra in March. Well think again’ (63). A new phase of the Battle awaited.

(1) An earlier version of this paper was presented at the 1996 Australian Historical Association Biennial Conference at the University of Melbourne and was titled ‘When Did the White Australia Policy End?’. My thanks to Chris Dixon and Susan Shaw for their comments.

(2). Pauline Hanson, Letter to the Editor, Queensland Times, 10 April 1996.

(3). Jeff Kennett, ‘The Crown and the States’ in Upholding the Australian Constitution, Volume Two, Proceedings of the Second Conference of the Samuel Griffith Society, Melbourne, 30 July – 1 August 1993, Samuel Griffith Society, Melbourne, 1993, pix.

(4). John Howard, ‘The Liberal Tradition: The Beliefs and Values which Guide the Federal Government’, Sir Robert Menzies Lecture, 18 November 1996, http://www.nla.gov.au/pmc/pressrel/menzies.html

(5). John A. Moses, Introduction, Australian Journal of Politics and History, Special Issue: Historical Disciplines in Australia, Volume 41, 1995, pi.

(6). Jeffrey Gray, ‘Confrontation: Then and Now’, Sydney Papers, Winter, 1996, p113.

(7). Joshua Foa Dienstag, ”The Pozsgay Affair”: Historical Memory and Political Legitimacy, History and Memory, Vol 8, No 1, Spring 1996, pp. 51-65.

(8). See for example Anita Shapira, ‘Politics and Collective Memory: The Debate over the “New Historians” in Israel’, History and Memory Special Issue Israeli Historiography Revisited, Vol 7. No 1, Spring/Summer, 1995, pp. 9-40.

(9). Dienstag, “The Pozsgay Affair’.

(10). James H. McDonald, ‘Whose History? Whose Voice? Myth and Resistance in the Rise of the New Left in Mexico’, Cultural Anthropology, Vol 8, No 1, 1992, pp96-116.

(11). See for example Martin Travers, ‘History Writing and the Politics of Historiography: The German Historikerstreit‘, Australian Journal of Politics and History, Vol 37, No 2, 1990, pp246-261.

(12). See for example Ian Baruma, The Wages of Guilt: Memories of War in Germany and Japan, New York, 1994.

(13). See for example Jock Phillips “Our History, Our Selves. The Historians and National Identity’, New Zealand Journal of History, Vol 30, No 2, October 1996, pp107-123.

(14). See for example Stephen Robinson, ‘1992 and All That’, The Spectator, 9 November 1991, pp16-18; Richard Ryan, ‘1492 and All That’, Commentary, Vol 93, No 5, May 1992, pp41-46; Steve J. Stern, ‘Paradigms of Conquest: History, Historiography and Politics’, Journal of Latin American Studies, Vol 24, Supplementary, 1992, pp1-34; Ramesh Ponnuru, ‘Historians in Court: Aborting History’, National Review, Vol 47, No 20, 23 October 1995, pp29-32.; Robert Cohen, ‘Moving Beyond Name Games: The Conservative Attack on the U.S. History Standards’, Point of View, January 1996, pp49-54; Anon, ‘Search for Consensus’, The cq Researcher, Vol 5, No 36, 28 September 1995, p869-70; Peter J Kuznicj, Vday Mohan, Akihiko Kimijima ‘Facing Our Histories’ Economic and Political Weekly, 15 April 1995, pp799-800; Ronald Smothers, ‘Issue Behind King Memorial: Who Owns History?’, New York Times, 16 January 1995.

(15). Ian Hancock, ‘The Liberal’s neglected past’, Quadrant, October 1995, Vol 39, No 10, p49.

(16). Geoffrey Bolton, ‘Beating Up Keating: British Media and the Republic’, in D. Grant and G. Seal (eds) Australia in the World: Perceptions and Possibilities, Black Swan Press, Perth, 1994, p149.

(17). Geoffrey Bolton, ‘Two Pauline Versions’, in S. Prosser, J.R. Nethercote and J. Warhurst (eds) The Menzies Era: A Reappraisal of Government and Policy, Hale and Iremonger, 1995, pp33-34. Of course in this regard Keating was ably assisted by his speech writer, historian Don Watson, and with regard to the specific issue of British betrayal, David Day’s revisionist accounts of Anglo-Australian relations during World War II set against a more general backdrop offered by Manning Clark. Keating’s regard for Clark was reciprocated. See Peter Ryan, ‘Manning Clark’, Quadrant, September 1993, p18. See also David Day, The Great Betrayal: Britain, Australia and the Onset of the Pacific War, 1939-42, Angus and Robertson, Sydney, 1988.

(18). John Howard, ‘Mr Keating’s Mirage on the Hill: How the Republic, Like the Cheshire Cat, came and Went’, Upholding the Australian Constitution, Volume Three, Proceedings of the Third Conference of Samuel Griffith Society, Fremantle, 5-6 November 1993, Samuel Griffith Society, Melbourne, 1994, p115.

(19). Of course history was important to the Republican debate. As James Warden has noted with acknowledgment to Machiavelli, history is ‘the great device of [republican] ideological legitimisation’. See James Warden, ‘The Fettered Republic: The Anglo-American Commonwealth and the Traditions of Australian Political Thought’, Australian Journal of Political Science, Special Issue, Vol 28, 1993, p89;

(20). Bruce Knox, ‘Fantasies and Furphies: The Australian Republican Agenda’ in Upholding the Constitution: Proceedings of The Samuel Griffith Society Inaugural Conference, Melbourne, July 24-26 1992, Samuel Griffith Society, Melbourne, 1994, p210.

(21). Patrick Morgan, ‘Rethinking the Australian Dream’, IPR Review, Vol 46, No 3, 1993, p38.

(22). Gerard Henderson, ‘Bollocks to myth of Gough Ending White Australia’, Sydney Morning Herald, 31 March 1992, p11. This contest between positive and negative interpretations of Australia’s past had found voice during the 1988 Bicentenary. See Raymond Evans, ‘Blood Dries Quickly: Conflict Study and Australian Historiography’, Australian Journal of Politics and History, vol 41, Special Issue, 1995. See also Robert Murray, ‘Seven Myths about Australia’, Quadrant, May 1992, pp40-44. A review of the American literature cited earlier shows an uncanny similarity in the argument and vocabulary used by conservative intellectuals in both countries.

(23). Peter Connolly, ‘Should the Courts Determine Social Policy?’, Upholding the Constitution, Volume Two, p83.

(24). Geoffrey Partington would later write that Reynolds made a significant contribution to ‘the High Court of Australia’s conscious rejection of Australia’s history’. While not singling out himself Reynolds had noted that the History Department at James Cook University had ‘played a fundamental role in the fundamental reinterpretation of Australia’s past which found expression in the Mabo decision’. Geoffrey Partington, ‘The Aetiology of Mabo’, Upholding the Australian Constitution, Volume Three, p1; Henry Reynolds, ‘Introduction’ in Reynolds (Ed) Introduction to Race Relations in North Queensland, James Cook University, Townsville, 1993, p.3.

(25). Malcolm Fraser in ‘The Future of the Liberal Party – A Forum’, Quadrant, May 1993, p13.

(26). Michael Kroger, ‘The Future of the Liberal Party, Quadrant, June 1993, pp20-21.

(27). Graeme Campbell in ‘The Future of the Liberal Party – A Forum’, p21.

(28). Chris Puplick, ‘The Party’s Over? The Future of the Liberals’, Sydney Papers, Spring 1993, Vol 5, No 4, pp109, 118. Puplick had been airing this view for some time. In an address to the 18th Young Liberal National Convention on 9 January 1986 he stated: ‘But you may ask why hark back to an era which started before most of us were born? … In the first place because in harking back to our origins we can be made more aware of the purposes for which we came into being as a Party representing all and serving all Australians. Secondly because those policies and principles were accepted by the electorate and given support and approval’. Chris Puplick, ‘The Responsibilities of Liberalism’, Address to the 18th Young Liberal National Convention, www.vicnet.net.au/(tm)victorp/vcontent.htm#Part14.

(29). Judith Brett, Robert Menzies’ Forgotten People, Sun Books, 1992 . Brett contributed more specifically to the discussion in the wake of the defeat in articles such as ‘Liberal Philosophy from Menzies to Hewson’, Australian Quarterly, Spring, 1993, Vol 63, No3, pp45-56.

(30). Peter Costello, ‘The Liberal Party and its Future’, Australian Quarterly, Vol 65, No3, Spring 1993, p21.

(31). Howard, ‘Mr Keating’s Mirage on the Hill’. With regard to Howard’s reference to the ‘essentially negative view of our history’ the positive/negative dichotomy had seen two recent contributions from conservative intellectuals. The first was Geoffrey Blainey’s ‘Drawing Up a Balance Sheet of Our History’, Quadrant, July-August 1993, pp10-15, which labelled the two poles as the ‘Three Cheers’ view verse the ‘Black Armband’ view, and Peter Ryan’s ‘long overdue axe’ of ‘tall poppy’ Manning Clark which noted that Australian history was never ‘as black as Clark so wickedly paints it’. See Ryan, ‘Manning Clark’, p22.

(32). John Howard, ‘Australian Liberalism’, Sydney Papers, Vol 6, Summer 1994, p37.

(33). Puplick, ‘The Responsibilities of Liberalism’.

(34). Henderson, ‘Bollocks to myth of Gough ending White Australia Policy’.

(35). Howard, ‘Australian Liberalism’, p32. This view had already been expressed by Melbourne Communists in 1988 when they published a pamphlet which attacked the ‘Whitlam myth’ and the ‘Fabian dreaming of the lost land of Gough’. They spoke of the ‘Whitlam industry’ which ‘continues to perpetuate the ‘Whitlam legend’. Committee to Reconstruct the Communist Party, ‘The Whitlam Myth’, Melbourne, April, 1988, p1.

(36). Nick Greiner, ‘Menzies and the Liberal – Into the Next Century’, Menzies Foundation, Melbourne, 1994, pp14, 19, 25.

(37). Hasluck made the remark in an address launching the first volume of Upholding the Constitution. See Upholding the Constitution, Volume Three, Appendix 1, p155.

(38). Geoffrey Bolton, Who Owns Australia’s Past?,: Inaugural Lecture delivered at the University of Queensland, 18 March 1992, University of Queensland, St Lucia, 1993, p3. The academic investigation of the Menzies Era continued with a vigour hitherto unseen. See for example Prosser, Nethercote and Warhurst, The Menzies Era; Nicholas Brown, Governing Prosperity: Social Change and Social Analysis in Australia in the 1950s, Cambridge University Press, Melbourne, 1995; Paul Smythe, Australian Social Policy: The Keynesian Chapter, UNSW Press, Sydney, 1994; and Mark Rolfe ‘The Fordist Highway to Australia Unlimited: Americanisation and development of Australia during the Menzies Era’, PhD, School of Political Science, University of NSW, 1995. .

(39). Howard, ‘Australian Liberalism’, p37.

(40). Robin Gerster and Jan Basset, Seizures of Youth: The Sixties and Australia, Hyland House, Melbourne, 1991, pp10-11.

(41). Howard’s most substantial public reference to the Menzies legacy during the campaign was his address to the Menzies Research Centre on 6 June 1995. Titled ‘The Role of Government: A Modern Liberal Approach’, his reference to Menzies was subdued and confined to his opening remarks.

(42). P. Kelly, The End of Certainty: The story of the 1980s, Allen and Unwin, Sydney, 1992, p420.

(43). Commonwealth Parliamentary Debates, House of Representatives, 5 April 1984, pp2018-2020.

(44). Kelly, The End of Certainty, p133.

(45). CPD, H of R, 25 August 1988, pp402-405.

(46). Ibid.

(47). Ibid.

(48). Henderson, ‘Bollocks to myth’.

(49). Puplick, ‘The Party’s Over’, p118.

(50). Costello, ‘The Liberal Party’, p17.

(51). Gerard Henderson, Menzies Child: The Liberal Party of Australia, 1944-1994, Allen and Unwin, Sydney, 1994, pp148,192, 259; Henderson, A Howard Government?: Inside the Coalition, Harper Collins, Sydney 1995, p99.

(52). Geoffrey Blainey, A Shorter History of Australia, William Heinemann, Melbourne, 1994, p218; Sandra Tweedie, Trading Partners: Australia and Asia, 1790 – 1993, UNSW Press, Sydney, 1994, p200.

(53). John Howard, ‘Fair Australia: Address to the Australian Council of Social Service’, Sydney 13 October 1995, http//www.adfa.oz.au/(tm)adm/lib/STATEMENTS/Fair_Aust.html.

(54). Liberal and National Party Coalition, ‘Immigration Policy’ Australian Liberal Party, Melbourne, 1995; Liberal and National Party Coalition, ‘Multicultural Affairs & Settlement Policy’, Australian Liberal Party, Melbourne, 9 February 1995.

(55). Nancy Viviani (Ed), The Abolition of the White Australia Policy: The Immigration Reform Movement Revisited, Centre for the Study of Australia-Asia Relations, Nathan, 1992; Sean Brawley, ‘”Long Hairs and Ratbags: The ALP and the abolition of the White Australia Policy’, in Gough Whitlam et al, A Century of Social Change, Pluto Press, Sydney, 1992, p202-219; Sean Brawley, The White Peril: Foreign Relations and Asian Immigration to North America and Australasia, 1919-1978, UNSW Press, Sydney, 1995; Neville Meaney, ‘White Australia and Australia’s Changing Perceptions of Asia, 1945-1990’, Australian Journal of International Affairs, Vol 46, No2, November 1995, pp171-190.

(56). Patricia Grimshaw, Marilyn Lake, Ann McGrath and Marian Quartly, Creating a Nation, 1788-1990, McPhee Gribble, Ringwood, 1994, p304.

(57). Commonwealth Parliamentary Debates, Senate, 23 November 1995, p3831.

(58). Ibid, p3843.

(59). Ibid, p3842.

(60). Press Release, Senator Nick Bolkus, Department of Immigration, B147/95, 14 December 1995.

(61).Tim Fischer interviewed on the Sunday Program, Nine Network, 25 February 1996.

(62). Sydney Morning Herald, 2 March 1996.

(63). Geoffrey Pemberton, ‘Into the Fray of Partisan History, Australian, 12 June 1996, p13.