If Australia's history brings shame, then let it be uttered


IF "history is an argument", an aphorism plausibly attributed to Bob Carr, the former premier of NSW, then Keith Windschuttle can be relied on to drum up more of it in 2006.

Windschuttle ignited Australia's immensely entertaining history wars with his 2002 book The Fabrication of Aboriginal History: Volume One, Van Diemen's Land. This was a research-based critique of the work of academic historians. It effectively demolished their consensus that 19th-century European settlers launched a bloody war of extermination against Aborigines in Tasmania.

As well as demonstrating that no such war took place, Windschuttle pointed to many errors of fact in the published work of individuals. Some were the result of carelessness. But in significant instances original sources were selectively quoted or misquoted, with a few texts actually rewritten, in order to advance an ideological thesis.

Historians under scrutiny responded with vehement excess that I was not alone in finding rather shocking. Not all ad hominem attacks on Windschuttle were well-aimed. One description, intended to be pejorative, branded him a "freelance" historian.

The Oxford English Dictionary defines "freelance", in contemporary usage, as one who works for himself, not an employer and, "in any department or practice of speculation, follows the method of no particular school".

Windschuttle, the modern freelance, originally intended to write a trilogy. He now believes he has accumulated so much information that it will take at least four books to cover the ground. Volume Two, dealing with historical accounts of events in NSW and southern Queensland, will come out in the next 12 months.

This time around, historians who take offence would do well to remember that Windschuttle is a publisher as well as a writer.

Whitewash, a collection of essays edited by Robert Manne, was their hostile response to Volume One, and it suffered grievous injury at the hands of John Dawson, another freelance whose counterblast, Washout, was published by Windschuttle's Macleay Press.

Getting a bit lost recently, with reviewers in holiday mode, was a new Macleay book, The Invention of Terra Nullius by Michael Connor, whom Windschuttle met while researching Van Diemen's Land and Connor was completing his PhD in Australian colonial history at the University of Tasmania.

The Invention of Terra Nullius is intensely researched and combative.

Connor begins his narrative by quoting Bain Attwood, associate professor of history at Monash University: "The British government determined in 1785 that New Holland was terra nullius, that is, no man's land."

Resuming in his own voice, Connor declares: "No. The decision to make a settlement in New South Wales was taken in 1786, and terra nullius was never mentioned."

The British believed Captain Cook's annexation of Australia in 1770 gave them "sovereignty, real estate and a responsibility to conciliate the Aboriginal inhabitants". Whatever the moral issue, acquisition of sovereignty by conquest or annexation was legally recognised. Modern Europe was shaped on that basis.

Connor traces the first mention of terra nullius in a defining legal context to a 1975 opinion by the International Court of Justice, in relation to part of the Western Sahara colonised by Spain in 1884. The court defined terra nullius as "territory not under any sovereignty". It rejected the interpretation "territory belonging to no one".

In the past 20 years, Connor asserts, Australian historians have used terra nullius as an incantation while attempting to prove that Aboriginal ownership of Australia was contemptuously swept aside by European settlers. Their arguments that Australia was not terra nullius have "laid waste the discipline of history", since terra nullius "was not invoked and wasn't part of contemporary legal theory".

Connor bluntly adds: "In the history of ideas, terra nullius [is] a modern critique of the moral authority of Australia. It [is] a concept which [has] supported the politics and the careers of a middle-class, careerist, intellectual elite."

Does definition of a single Latin phrase demand our attention to a 362-page book devoted to discussing it? You bet.

From terra nullius, as mis-defined by our historians, sprang the egregious and florid comment by the justices William Deane and Mary Gaudron, in their Mabo case opinion, that Australia bore "a national legacy of unutterable shame".

Unutterable shame? To me, as a sort of foreigner, Australia's progress from imperial oubliette to an advanced, productive, democratic society is an epic adventure. Let all attempts at shaming be uttered - and contested.

Another historical error: In The Australian of 23/12/05, Michael Costello claimed I was "active" in the Workers Party, founded by John Singleton in 1974. He is entirely mistaken. I hadn't heard of the Workers Party until Greg Lindsay, executive director of the Centre for Independent Studies, mentioned it in passing when I interviewed him for Policy magazine in 2001. The description, attributed to me by Costello, of Singleton's party as unequivocally libertarian and free market, was spoken, explanatorily, by Lindsay, not me.


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