Tag Archives: John Hirst

Responses to Noel Pearson

As I’m sure I’ve said before, one of the best things about Black Inc’s Quarterly Essay is that substantial responses to each issue are published in the next one. I’ll write about Guy Rundle’s essay on Clive Palmer in QE 56 some time soon. For now I just want to draw your attention to the Correspondence section.

There’s a plan for a referendum in 2017 on changing the Australian Constitution to recognise Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders. This referendum has been postponed a number of times, at least partly because the subject doesn’t seem to be hitting any kind of nerve with most Australians, and partly because there’s no agreement on what proposal should be put to us.

You might think you know enough now to know how you’ll vote. Well, maybe you’re wrong about that. You really should read Noel Pearson’s Quarterly Essay 55, A Rightful Place and then you should read the responses in No 56. (If you’re pressed for time you could skip John Hirst, who has said elsewhere that Aboriginal matters are out of his comfort zone and demonstrates the truth of that here by creating and then dismissing as unpersuasive a breathtakingly simplistic summary of Pearson’s argument. You might also skip Paul Kelly – definitely not the songwriter – who seems intent on offering advice to Tony Abbott rather than talking to you and me.)

Here are some snippets.

From Megan Davis, professor of law at University of NSW:

Even before the Quarterly Essay went on sale, Pearson’s potentially complementary proposal was dismissed as ‘grandstanding’ and ‘unhelpful’. Having served on the prime minister’s expert panel on constitutional recognition alongside Pearson, I found this an exasperating reminder that although black leaders regularly chant ‘leaders are readers’ to our young mob, Australia’s political leaders are in fact, on the whole, not readers.

From Rachel Perkins, filmmaker and activist:

Noel’s notion of tethering cultural survival to constitutional reform is intriguing. When I grasped the potential of his idea, I realised it may be our best hope – in the short term – of attracting national interest on this issue. It lit a spark for me and gave me hope, for we have only to look back on our history to understand the trajectory we are on. The question is: will our people be able to put their differences aside and unite, as they did in 1967, towards this possibility?

From Celeste Liddle, Arrente woman and trade union organiser:

As a trade unionist, I support a hearty process of negotiation between parties wishing to work together to achieve outcomes. There has never been a negotiated agreement between First Peoples and the government in this country and I feel that it is integral to achieve this before we look at amending the constitution to include Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people.

From Henry Reynolds, historian:

Noel Pearson’s powerful advocacy notwithstanding, Australia has regressed on indigenous matters– a generation ago the question of a treaty was seriously discussed, as was the status of traditional law. And this leaves us far behind comparable societies such as New Zealand, Canada, the United States and the Scandinavian countries. Noel argues that we cannot expect any more because, unlike the Maoris, indigenous Australians are only a very small minority. But this carefully avoids comparison with the much higher status of the Native Americans in North America and the Sami in Scandinavia.

From Robert Manne:

During the 1990s, under Paul Keating and Patrick Dodson, there existed an atmosphere of intense hopefulness about the role reconciliation might play in the creation of a better nation. In May 2000, at its climax, hundreds of thousands of Australians walked across the bridges of Australia in support of a reconciliation ceremony at the centenary of federation, an idea which, unforgivably, the Howard government quickly killed. The mood of hope was still not altogether extinguished, as the passions stirred by Kevin Rudd’s February 2008 apology to the stolen generations demonstrated. However, in recent years that atmosphere has faded. Somehow, if the referendum is to succeed it will now have to be rediscovered. Pearson it probably right to believe that unless the movement for indigenous constitutional recognition is led by a rock-solid conservative it is unlikely to succeed. The problem is that a rock-solid conservative is the least likely kind of political leader capable of reigniting the social-justice passions of Australians.

From Fred Chaney:

It is helpful to read this essay alongside a viewing of Noel’s address at Garma this year, published on YouTube. There you get the force of presentation as well as intellect. Following reference to the destruction of Tasmanian Aboriginal people, he posed the question ‘we are still grappling with today’: ‘will European settlement of Australia enable a different people with a different heritage to have space in it?’ He poses it as a question still unresolved. He says that in the 1820s in Tasmania we answered the question by our actions. Then in stark terms he suggests, ‘If we don’t come to a just answer to that question today, that same answer will come about for benign reasons.’ If he is correct in this, and I think he is, it is a matter of great seriousness for all of us.

Really, I recommend you to read the whole thing.

The Book Group and John Hirst’s Australian History in 7 Questions

John Hirst, Australian History in 7 Questions (Black Inc 2014)

9781863956703Before the Book group meeting: ‘I know that many people find Australian history dull and predictable,’ John Hirst starts his introduction to this book. Invited to lecture on this potentially deadly topic at a branch of the University of the Third Age, he had the thought that if he framed the lectures as puzzling over genuine questions, they would cease to be predictable. I don’t know about the lectures, but this book is lively and has quite a few surprises.

Hirst’s seven questions, and severely truncated version of his answers, are:

  1. Why did Aborigines not become farmers? The real question is why did other hunter-gatherer peoples ever make the transition to farming, when it’s advantages are far from obvious? (He relies on Jared Diamond’s Guns, Germs and Steel a fair bit. It’s not part of his story that Aboriginal people did become farmers, but were ruthlessly driven off their land by the colonisers in the nineteenth and early twentieth century – as in Heather Goodall’s From Invasion to Embassy.)
  2. How did a penal colony change peacefully to a democracy? This question is based on a misapprehension: New South Wales was never a penal colony. It began as a colony of convicts: from the beginning the work of the colony was overseen by other convicts, and convicts had substantial rights. The penal reform movement in England led to a failed attempt to turn it into a penal colony in the 1820s and 1830s.
  3. Why was Australia so prosperous so early? The most interesting aspect of Hirst’s answer is that the colony was run by government employees. That is, the people in charge weren’t there to make profit for themselves or their company, but were public servants, and had the resources of the British government behind them.
  4. Why did the Australian colonies federate? This chapter is mainly a rebuttal of two common replies: that Federation happened because of business interests or because of racism. Business in fact opposed Federation until the eleventh hour, and while racism was big and ugly it wasn’t the motivator. You have to ignore the vast amount of bad poetry being published in late 19th century Australia not to realise that the move to Federation was driven by a deep yearning for independence, a powerful nationalistic sentiment.
  5. What effect did convict origins have on national character? Relying on a 1969 essay by Henry Reynolds, Hirst rebuts Russell Ward’s well-established story that our convict origins made us an irreverent lot, free-spirited and suspicious of authority. On the contrary, the ‘convict stain’ meant Australians felt the need to prove themselves among nations by, for example, sending off lots of young men to die in England’s wars. The need to transcend the ‘impure origins’ of the nation may have lain behind the racism of the White Australia policy – Australia would be ‘racially pure’.
  6. Why was the postwar migration program a success? Hirst points to the way the colonies dealt with cultural differences well before the 1950s. The conflicts that were left behind in Britain and Ireland were savage, and though prejudice and mutual unpleasantness continued, there was a general consensus that the old conflicts should not be imported into the new country.
  7. Why is Australia not a republic? The Australian colonies were too far away from England to feel safe if they cut ties, and much more recently John Howard played on people’s distrust of politicians to secure a defeat in the 1999 referendum.

That gives some idea of the book’s arguments. Of course, the story you tell depends on what questions you start from. Ask any Australian historian to come up with 7 questions, and you’ll get a different book. It’s hard to imagine an Aboriginal historian such as Vicki Grieves choosing Hirst’s first, even without the questionable term ‘Aborigines’, or James Boyce, author of Van Diemen’s Land, being so focussed on Sydney and Melbourne. I don’t remember any mention of the Chinese on the goldfields, or of the substantial non-Anglo immigrant communities that flourished before the Second World War – Germans in South Australia, and Southern Europeans in north Queensland, say.

I’m not a historian myself, but I enjoy reading history, and plan to keep my ears open for the discussion this book generates. Hirst has stuck a number of spanners in the well-oiled works of received versions of Australian history, and that can’t be bad.

The meeting: This was our last meeting for the year and was even more convivial than usual. The business of the evening began with ceremonial distribution of  books each of us had chosen from our shelves and wrapped in bright paper. I scored The Atlantic Ocean, a collection of essays by Andrew O’Hagan.

The book turned out to be a fabulous choice for the group. There was a lot of interesting discussion, which included quite a bit of holding personal histories up against Hirst’s generalisations. We are all white, almost all of Anglo heritage, but quite a few of us had our own experiences or those of people we’re close to that resonated with Hirst’s notion of conflicts being left in their place of origin, not dwelt on here. One guy started out saying that he didn’t care for the book much because the writing is pedestrian, giving information but no pleasure – but by the end of the evening, he said he had been converted. We laughed a lot, but I don’t remember what about.

End of Year Lists

The Art Student proposed that I post about my best five books, best five movies and worst three movies for 2010. And hers. Being an obliging fellow, and at the risk of exposing myself as a philistine, here they are. Do nominate your own favourites in the comments.

The five movies most enjoyed in 2010 (in no particular order):

By me:

Animal Kingdom, David Michôd’s first feature, so human and yet so vile. (When Jacqui Weaver was being made much of in the US for this performance, Michôd reportedly said to himself, ‘About time.’ To which I cry Amen!)

Made in Dagenham, directed by Nigel Cole, what some people would undoubtedly see as a fundamentalist left feminist feelgood movie – and what’s wrong with getting to feel good about a victory?

Peepli [Live], directed by Anusha Rizvi & Mahmood Farooqui, a wonderfully ebullient satire on the way the media in India, just like here, makes spectacle out of misery – a comic commentary on P Sainath’s Everyone Loves a Good Drought.

Temple Grandin, made for TV by Mick Jackson, starring Clare Danes as Temple Grandin, the woman with Asperger’s Syndrome who revolutionised the treatment of cattle in US slaughterhouses.

In the Loop, exuberantly enraged, foul mouthed satire directed by Armando Iannucci and starring Peter Capaldi, which I found cathartic.

By the Art Student:

City Island, a genial comedy directed by Raymond De Felitta, starring Andy Garcia, and Julianna Margulies playing a very different character from Alicia in The Good Wife on TV.

The Yes Men Fix the World, featuring culture jammers Andy Bichlbaum and Mike Bonanno, and any number of corporation representatives being taken for a ride.

Me and Orson Welles, directed by Richard Linklater.

Peepli [Live]. At last we agree on one.

Fair Game, the pic about Valerie Plame, directed by Doug Liman.

The film that most cried out for a thumbs down from both of us

Rob Marshall’s Nine. At least they had the good taste to wait until Fellini was dead before defiling his work in this way. The fault lines in our unanimity of taste showed when the Art Student had trouble choosing between this, Inception and Scott Pilgrim vs the World, both of which I enjoyed.

Five favourite books read in 2010

By me:

I listed 121 books in my Reading and Watching blog during 2010. I didn’t finish all of them, but picking five favourites is necessarily pretty arbitrary because so many of them delighted and enlightened me. However, here goes.

China Miéville, The City and the City. Science fictional policier, marvellously taut and convincing us to believe in an impossible world.

Charles Happell, The Bone Man of Kokoda. Written by an Australian, this tells the story of a Japanese man who fought against and killed Australians in the jungles of New Guinea, and his resolve to honour his comrades who died there.

Amy Wilentz, The Rainy Season. I read this in the aftermath of the terrible earthquake in Haiti. It is a very rich introduction to the culture and recent history of the nation created by the first successful black slave revolt of modern times.

Jennifer Maiden, Pirate Rain. This may not be the best book of poetry published this year. Many people would probably give precedence to Les Murray’s Taller When Prone or Seamus Heaney’s Human Chain. But Jennifer Maiden gets my gong.

Marilynne Robinson, Home. If I ever convert to stern Presbyterian Protestantism, it will be because of this book and its predecessor, Gilead. I love the characters’ unrelenting quest to love with integrity.

By the Art Student, in her own words:
While I have read quite a bit of fiction that I enjoyed, the books that stand out are all non fiction.

Reza Aslan, How to win a cosmic war. I heard him speak at the Sydney Writers’ Festival this year. The book is a clear and compelling account of the past and current drivers of religious fundamentalism – Islamic, Jewish and Christian. It shows the common threads in religious fundamentalism while focusing on Islamic fundamentalist terrorism. What is interesting is Aslan’s description of the difference between Islamic nationalist groups (which the West should learn to love) and internationalist jihadism. By fighting the former, Aslan argues, we are pushing alienated young western-born Middle Eastern  Muslims into joining the latter and terrorism.

Carol Duncan,  Civilizing Rituals, Inside Public Art Museums. This includes a fascinating account of the development of public art museums after the French Revolution liberated the Louvre. It mainly focuses on the development of public galleries in the USA and England, but links these developments to a popular movement to have art galleries in all major western cities (including Sydney). But most interesting are the struggles about what galleries were and are for, how they should be funded and what they should show. In the USA, private philanthropists were the driving force in establishing galleries, allowing them to build spacious monuments to benefactors. The down side was that those benefactors wanted control beyond death, so that many galleries are filled with replicas of ballrooms and indifferent art that are never to be changed. Duncan’s final chapters critique current public galleries’ approaches to their art and audiences, making it clear why many people find the experience of visiting galleries unsatisfying and alienating.

John Hirst, Sentimental Nation, the Making of the Australian Commonwealth. Federation? Surely the dullest topic in Australian history. But to my surprise this book was a wonderful read about the decades-long fight for federation. Depressingly familiar in some respects (the Murray–Darling debate, immigration, taxes, mining, Commonwealth–state power sharing) it was also a wonderfully inspiring account of democratic processes that gave Australia a constitution. There were three Constitutional Conventions, with 60 men voted from  the colonies to draft, debate and redraft the constitution over 12 weeks each time. Once agreed on, the constitution was subject to two referenda before being passed. Town hall meetings were held in every suburb and town in the country, each meeting often taking four hours while every section of the draft was read aloud,  explained and debated. Hirst makes the back and forth of politics come alive with a contemporary feel.

Patricia Hill, Alice Neel. Alice Neel (1900 to 1984) was a US artist who painted mainly portraits of ordinary working people over from the 1920’s until her death. She was a socialist and worked as part of the Federal Art Project (a New Deal initiative) during the Depression. She only received recognition of her work in the 1970s, partly because portraiture was out of fashion in Modernist American art circles,  partly because of her left-wing views and partly because of her gender. I love her work. Her portraits are often distorted yet capture absolutely a sense of the person and their context. She saw herself as painting ‘definitive pictures with the feel of the era’, pointing to her portrait of her son in a business suit, ‘Richard in the Era of the Corporation’, as a good example.The book is largely Neel’s own words taken from interviews conducted by Hill. An inspiring read for someone at the very beginning of an art career as she approaches 60.

Do tell us your bests of 2010 in the comments

Quarterly Essays

[This post first appeared on my old blog on 2 October 2005. I’m making it public in this one in September 2021 because I want to link to it.]

John Hirst, Kangaroo Court’: Family Law in Australia (Quarterly Essay 17)
Gail Bell, The Worried Well: The Depression Epidemic and the Medicalisation of our Sorrows (Quarterly Essay 18)
Judith Brett, Relaxed & Comfortable: The Liberal Party’s Australia (Quarterly Essay 19)

Let me sing the praises of the Quarterly Essay. Published by Black Inc in Melbourne, it’s a series of substantial papers on matters of public interest, generally thoughtful, often polemical and, of the ones I’ve read, always readable. The last three have been historian John Hirst on the Family Law Court, writer and pharmacist Gail Bell on depression and pharmaceuticals, and political historian Judith Brett on the political success of John Howard and the Liberal Party. In a time when public discussion so often consists of sound bites or prolonged slanging matches (culture wars, history wars, poetry wars, not to mention the Latham diaries and the recent political and nearly personal destruction of John Brogden), this series stands out like a beacon.

Not only does each issue present a sustained piece of argument, it also includes correspondence on previous issues. So there have been replies from the people most fiercely criticised by John Hirst, as well as thoughtful additions and contextualisations of his argument; and responses to Gail Bell’s piece that range from defences of Big Pharma to two pieces that argue she didn’t go far enough in her critique.

The Art Student reckons that Judith Brett’s essay is the best thing she’s ever read about Australian political history, and that it should be made into a film or a comic book so as to have the widest possible readership. And QE20, due out in December, can reasonably be expected to have the very best that anyone can come up with by way of rebuttal, expansion, derision. I don’t suppose we’ll hear from John Howard himself, but I’m confident there’ll be something other than the lurid rantings of columnists like Andrew Bolt or Miranda Divine.

It gives one hope for something like a civil society.