The Prime Minister’s speech launching Thomas Keneally's “Australians: Origins to Eureka” has left historian Dr Greg Melleuish scratching his head. “It is an odd piece,” he writes in “Leave history alone,” The Australian 1 September, 2009. “For example, it includes the statement: ‘The love for history is, I believe, the handmaiden of country.’ I have thought hard about what this means but I still do not have a clue; it is just meaningless sludge.”
He says that the history wars to which Kevin Rudd refers long predated the prime ministership of John Howard. “They came to public prominence because the agenda of the black-armband brigade was taken up by Paul Keating as part of his ‘big picture’. Their willingness to use history for political purposes provided useful ammunition for Keating on matters such as indigenous affairs, the republic and multiculturalism.”
He says the Prime Minister’s approach does not go the history wars; rather he is intent on entrenching it. “He seems to think that historical inquiry consists of a constant cycle of celebration and condemnation. “This, says Dr Melleuish, is not the purpose of studying history.
““Historians seek to understand the past, to gain an appreciation of how and why people acted in the way they did. “Historians who begin with moral presuppositions, whose concerns are primarily with contemporary political issues, will invariably fail in their endeavour. They will lack the empathy to understand the actions of humans who were quite different from them. “The division of the past into good and bad events is futile. Sometimes bad things happen through no one's fault. For example, the British settlers were not responsible for the diseases they carried with them that wreaked havoc in the indigenous population.
“It is not the job of the historian to right the wrongs of the past. They are not prophets, nor will the nation be redeemed if it collectively repents the actions of a past generation. Responsibility for actions in the past lies with the individuals who made them, not with those living decades or centuries after those actions.”