Different Perspectives on Black Armband History

Research Paper 5 1997-98

Dr Mark McKenna
Politics and Public Administration Group
10 November 1997


Major Issues Summary


The Origins of Black Armband History

The Use of Black Armbands by Aboriginal Australians

1988: The Debate Begins

Paul Keating and Australian History

The Black Armband Debate 1996 and 1997: Different Perspectives

Prime Minister Howard and Australian History

The Wider Debate Responses to John Howard




Major Issues Summary

The wearing of black armbands is a custom which originated in Ancient Egypt and came to the West through Republican Rome.

The expression 'black armband view of history' has been used to describe a brand of Australian history which its critics argue 'represents a swing of the pendulum from a position that had been too favourable, too self congratulatory', to an opposite extreme that is even more unreal and decidedly jaundiced. Not only, it is said, does the black armband view belittle past achievements, it also encourages a 'guilt industry' and impedes rational thinking on current problems. From this perspective, the black armband view of history is a strand of 'political correctness'-the dominant but erroneous view of how we see ourselves and what we see as worthwhile in our culture.

For others, the term is inherently political and a misrepresentation of the work of many serious historians. It is an attempt to appropriate an established symbol of genuine grieving, loss and injustice by those who do not accept, or do not want to accept, that past wrongs must be fully recognised before present problems can be resolved.

Both sides accuse each other of attempting to distort history and of taking an extreme view.

Since the Bicentenary in 1988, and with greater intensity since the High Court's decisions in Mabo and Wik, competing attempts to explain Australia's past have been swept up in the rhetoric of Australian politics.

Contrary to popular perception, this is a debate which has close parallels overseas. In many respects Australia is only now addressing issues related to its national identity which have surfaced in most post industrial societies.

In Australia, the debate over how we see our past, has unsurprisingly centred on the past treatment of the Aboriginal people. In an earlier period, the black armband was a symbol of both black protest and grieving. From 1993 ownership of the term has been contested reflecting a parallel contest over 'historical truth'. The use of the term by Prime Minister John Howard has given the debate an added dimension and greater import.

What has emerged is a degree of incoherence in public discourse. Leading historians such as the late Professor Manning Clark and Professor Geoffrey Blainey have become strongly identified with the partisan politics of the liberal left and the radical right respectively. The writings of those two and other historians have been drawn on by the political protagonists, so it is useful to know what those commentators have said, how they have influenced the language of politics, and, just as importantly, when they have not.

One of the striking features of the debate is the degree to which the protagonists at times misrepresent the claims of their opponents. Presently, we seem to have a situation in which one side alleges that the other has no pride in Australia's history, and the other alleges that its opponents want to censor Australian history and deny the truth about the history of Aboriginal dispossession and the White Australia policy. Yet a close reading of the arguments presented, suggests that neither side is saying precisely what its opponents claim that it is saying.

On balance, the statements of the Prime Minister, although critical of a perceived 'black armband view', have been more consistent and closer to the middle ground than the more recent remarks of some like-minded commentators.

A close reading of the arguments outlined in this paper indicates that neither side is saying what the other side claims it is saying. John Howard and Geoffrey Blainey are not seeking to whitewash Australian history, just as Don Watson and Manning Clark were not seeking to denigrate Australian achievement. The argument is not about content-it is about emphasis. It is not so much concerned with the nature of history as it is with the use of history. As a people, we are trying to come to terms with the fact that 'Australian' history is no longer written purely from the perspective of the majority.

In a spirit of reconciliation, some Aboriginal leaders such as Noel Pearson have also sought to find common ground by emphasising 'the complexity of the past' and the value of some transplanted colonial institutions such as (perhaps somewhat pointedly) the common law.



Since the occasion of the Bicentenary in 1988, Australian history has gained increasing prominence in public debate. At a time when the traditional discipline of history is in decline in schools and universities, parliaments and media outlets have elevated history to an issue of national importance. Some historians have even become national figures. Particular views concerning Australian history have also played a pivotal role in the formulation of the political philosophies of all parties over the last decade. At issue is the use and representation of our nation's past.

In 1993, Professor Geoffrey Blainey was the first to refer to the 'black armband view of history' as one which represented the 'swing of the pendulum from a position that had been too favourable to an opposite extreme that is decidedly jaundiced' and 'gloomy'. Blainey's interpretation has been influential in determining the position of the Howard government on Australian history-just as Manning Clark's reading had previously guided the Keating government's initiative to recast Australian identity.

For Australians, it is important to remember that the political debate which circles the black armband label is not a uniquely domestic phenomenon. Similar patterns of debate can be discerned in Britain, the United States and Western Europe since the 1980s. An important feature of the popular appeal of both Margaret Thatcher and Ronald Reagan was their ability to conscript a particular view of history to foster pride in national identity, and the subsequent identification of this pride with their respective political parties.(1) 'Witness for example Margaret Thatcher speaking in 1979, in a manner not dissimilar to some of the rhetoric to be found in our own debate:

We are witnessing a deliberate attack on our values, a deliberate attack on those who wish to promote merit and excellence, a deliberate attack on our heritage and our past. And there are those who gnaw away at our national self-respect, rewriting [our] history as centuries of unrelieved doom, oppression and failure-as days of hopelessness, not days of hope'.(2)

Although comparative analysis lies outside the scope of this paper, it is worth keeping in mind that Australian history has been subject to pressures and trends found in other post-industrial societies. The so called 'crisis in history'-a fragmentation of the grand narrative, and the sudden priority given to history in political rhetoric, is directly related to the emergence of the new 'critical' histories. These histories are the histories which emerged in the 1970s and 1980s- the histories of indigenous peoples which have documented the dispossession, exclusion and marginalisation of the American Indians, Australian Aborigines, and of all colonised peoples. In addition, there are the histories which have underwritten the new social movements-women's history, environmental history and ethnic histories. The writing of 'critical history' has had a political impact in many liberal democratic societies.

In Australia, the 'critical history' which has had the greatest impact is the new approach to Aboriginal history. Writing in 1959, J. A. La Nauze observed that Aboriginal Australians had appeared in Australian history only as a 'melancholy anthropological footnote'.(3) Forty years or so after La Nauze's survey of historiography in Australia, the footnote has been elevated to a chapter but the melancholy remains. The work of W. E. H. Stanner, C. D. Rowley, Bernard Smith, John Mulvaney, H. C. Coombs, Henry Reynolds, Andrew Markus, Anne McGrath and Bain Attwood among others, has produced a fundamental shift in the way in which Australian history has been 'contested' over the last decade.(4) The new emphasis on the dispossession and decimation of Aboriginal society, is perceived by some to have threatened the moral legitimacy of the nation state. This is especially so since the handing down of the High Court's Mabo and Wik decisions, both of which made use of recent historical scholarship on contact history.(5) In addition, Aboriginal protest movements which rely heavily on the acknowledgment of past injustice as an impetus for their own political program, have had their message carried through the mass media. In a manner not dissimilar to the ongoing debates in Germany and Japan, the issues of 'guilt', 'responsibility' and the 'Great Forgetting', today permeate much of the public discussion surrounding Australian history.(6) But although this focus is novel in its degree of emphasis, it is not an entirely new theme in our history. As far back as 1888 Henry Parkes quipped in the NSW Parliament that the government should not organise centenary celebrations for the Aborigines because it would only remind them that they had been robbed.(7)

While there has been much discussion of 'black armband history' since the change of government in March 1996, there is still no comprehensive coverage of the debate, nor is there any substantial research published on the origins of the term 'black armband'. This paper attempts to redress the imbalance-primarily by concentrating on assembling the arguments associated with the debate. It makes no attempt to provide analysis of this sensitive issue. This approach will hopefully help readers to draw their own conclusions.

The paper is divided into three broad categories-the formulation of each category being guided by a question. First, what is the origin of the phrase 'black armband' history? Does the sense of the term predate Professor Blainey's use in 1993? In this section of the paper, I will detail the use of black armbands in the Aboriginal protest movement as far back as 1970. I will then discuss the debate over Australian history which characterised the years immediately preceding the Bicentenary in 1988. Finally, I will present the Keating government's statements pertaining to the representation of Australian history.

Second, in the period following the change of government in 1996, who are the main players in the debate, what have they said, and in what context has it been said? Here, I will collect the relevant statements of three groups-historians, politicians, and public intellectuals.

Finally, the paper will conclude with a brief overview which attempts to identify the broad themes and recurring elements in the debate as well as the common ground which exists between the protagonists. I should emphasise that my intention in this paper is to present evidence in an impartial manner. The paper also includes substantial notes and a bibliography which will hopefully encourage further reading. My aim is to provide Senators and Members with a valuable and useful resource which will assist in producing a more informed debate.

The Origins of Black Armband History

The wearing of black armbands, a custom which originated in Ancient Egypt and came to the West through Republican Rome, bears obvious connotation. In the public display of the black arm band there is mourning, grief, and irretrievable loss. Applied to history, it paints a bleak view of the past-a history without light and hope. A history of lamentation and even despair. Professor Geoffrey Blainey was the first to coin the phrase 'the black armband view of history' in his 1993 Latham lecture. The centrepiece of his argument was as follows.

To some extent my generation was reared on the Three Cheers view of history. This patriotic view of our past had a long run. It saw Australian history as largely a success. While the convict era was a source of shame or unease, nearly everything that came after was believed to be pretty good. There is a rival view, which I call the Black Armband view of history. In recent years it has assailed the optimistic view of history. The black armbands were quietly worn in official circles in 1988. The multicultural folk busily preached their message that until they arrived much of Australian history was a disgrace. The past treatment of Aborigines, of Chinese, of Kanakas, of non-British migrants, of women, the very old, the very young, and the poor was singled out, sometimes legitimately, sometimes not. My friend and undergraduate teacher Manning Clark, who was almost the official historian in 1988, had done much to spread the gloomy view and also the compassionate view with his powerful prose and Old Testament phrases. The Black Armband view of history might well represent the swing of the pendulum from a position that had been too favourable, too self congratulatory, to an opposite extreme that is even more unreal and decidedly jaundiced'.(8)

Although Geoffrey Blainey may have invented the phrase 'black armband history', he was not the first to apply the black armband image in the context of Australian history-this was done by Aboriginal Australians.

The Use of Black Armbands by Aboriginal Australians

A spirit of mourning has been an important feature in the politics of Aboriginal resistance in twentieth century Australia, most notably at times of national celebration for White Australians. At the one hundred and fifty year celebrations in 1938, members of the Aboriginal Progressive Association wore formal black dress when they met at Sydney Town Hall on January 26 to declare Australia Day a day of mourning.(9) In their petition to King George VI, they stated:

To the Aborigines who are proud of their heritage it is indeed a day of mourning; we mourn the death of the many thousands of Aborigines who were brutally murdered; we mourn the loss of our land and the rape of our women by the white invaders.(10)

On the bicentenary of Captain James Cook's landing at Kurnell on April 29 1970, the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aborigines and Torres Strait Islanders, led by Kath Walker, marked the occasion as a day of mourning. 'We intend a silent, dignified vigil of protest', said Walker. 'Those who cannot afford to wear black clothes will be asked to wear black armbands or bows'.(11) In Hobart, on the day of the bicentenary celebrations, students wearing black armbands demonstrated against the Tasmanian government's refusal to grant Truganini's last wish to be buried at sea.(12) In Melbourne, more than 150 people marched from Captain Cook's Cottage in the Treasury gardens denouncing Cook as an invader and calling for Aboriginal land rights.(13) In Sydney and Canberra the wearing of black dress and black armbands was a common feature of vigils and protests. In the words of Kath Walker, the wearing of black dress symbolised both the genocide committed against Aborigines since the white man arrived and the present plight of Aborigines.(14)

In the years immediately preceding the Bicentenary, Aboriginal protesters and white sympathisers continued to employ the phrase 'black armband' to describe the post-1788 history of Aboriginal Australia.

In 1986, a poster designed by the Treaty 88 committee in Alice Springs, a committee which Geoffrey Blainey had himself been asked to join, called on Australians to 'wear a Black Armband' for the 'Aboriginal year of mourning'.(15) In Canberra, on the following Australia Day in 1987, 200 Aborigines and supporters gathered in front of the Australian War Memorial to mourn 'invasion day'. The Canberra Times reported that 'many in the crowd wore black armbands'. At noon, wreaths were laid on a stone inscribed with the words 'Their names shall live forevermore' and 'two minutes silence commemorated the Aborigines who died since white settlement'.(16) On Australia Day 1988, this same language of protest was incorporated into the Aboriginal demonstration against the bicentennial celebration. Again, protesters wore black armbands and marched under 'Invasion Day' banners.(17) Even those crew members who sailed under the Coca-Cola flag of the first fleet re-enactment wore black armbands to demonstrate their sympathy with Aboriginals.(18)

1988: The Debate Begins

The fact that the most public manifestation of the black armband view of history occurred around the celebrations in 1988 is significant in understanding the current debate. By the late 1980's, there was already a degree of similarity between the rhetoric in Geoffrey Blainey's public speeches and that in John Howard's political statements. Blainey's views on multiculturalism, immigration and history enunciated in the early 1980s bore a striking resemblance to Howard's 1988 initiative Future Directions. In 1985 Blainey delivered a public lecture at the Mt. Eliza Uniting Church in Victoria. In this lecture, he spoke of the 'vocal, richly subsidised multicultural lobby' and of the need for Australia to be 'one nation' rather than 'a nation of many nations'. Blainey alleged that the Labor Party was the captive of the 'multi-cultural industry' which had 'little respect for the history of Australia'. Together with the 'socialist' elements in the Hawke government, the ABC, and schools and universities, elite groups were spreading the view that Australia's history was 'largely the story of violence exploitation, repression, racism, sexism, capitalism, colonialism and a few other isms'.(19)

In Future Directions, John Howard claimed that he wanted to see 'one Australia' proud of its heritage-'not an Australia of individual groups'.(20) He also stated the importance of history to Coalition policy. Looking back on the first years of the Hawke government, Future Directions claimed:

Even people's confidence in their nation's past came under attack as the professional purveyors of guilt attacked Australia's heritage and people were told they should apologise for pride in their culture, traditions, institutions and history. Taught to be ashamed of their past, apprehensive about their future, pessimistic about their ability to control their own lives let alone their ability to shape the character of the nation as a whole, many came to see change as being in control of them instead of them being in control of change. With it, hope and confidence in the future were transformed into concern and despair.(21)

Naturally, John Howard and Geoffrey Blainey were not alone in their views. In 1988, prominent intellectuals warned of the new tendency of historians to focus solely on the dark side of history. John Hirst wrote in the IPA Review, concerned about what he referred to as the 'black school' of Australian history, while Robert Manne appeared in Quadrant commenting on the 'sombre Bicentenary mood of intellectuals'.(22) Malcolm Fraser criticised the views expressed by Professor Manning Clark and reminded Australians that they had no need to feel guilty over the sins of the past-after all these were matters over which they had no control.(23) Prominent businessman Hugh Morgan also spoke out against the 'guilt industry' which he believed to be responsible for an 'Orwellian reconstruction' of the past.(24) There was no clearer evidence needed to demonstrate just how charged the debate over Australian history had become than the events of 21 January 1988. On this day, Aboriginal protesters hurled a copy of Professor John Molony's Bicentennial History of Australia into the waters of Sydney Harbour. They were unhappy with the book's treatment of Tasmanian Aborigines and the insufficient attention devoted to Aboriginal history.(25)

Yet throughout the 1980s, it was the public figure of Manning Clark which was instrumental in shaping the political debate around Australian history. The importance of Manning Clark and his public embrace of the Labor Party after the dismissal of the Whitlam government in 1975 (when he asked 'Are we a nation of bastards'(26)) cannot be underestimated. Long before the bicentenary, Clark had made no secret of his political allegiance-Clark's depiction of the ALP as the party of national vision and social reform did not endear him to the coalition parties. At times, his rhetoric was extremely partisan. In 1977 for example, Clark referred to Australian conservatives as 'clock back putters', 'money changers', and the guarantors of 'the greed and titillation lifestyle'.(27) Controversy surrounded Clark's delivery of the 1976 Boyer lectures, allegations were made that Clark was not sufficiently impartial and therefore did not deserve the honour of delivering the lectures.(28)

By the 1980s, a decade in which the Labor Party held power in Canberra and the States to an unprecedented degree, Manning Clark was not only Australia's most notable historian, but also one of the nation's most prominent public figures. The media turned frequently to Clark for prophecy and enlightenment on the subject of Australia's future.(29) The fact that Labor governments were in power only added to Clark's ascendancy. In 1988, Manning Clark published an article in Time Australia on January 25 entitled 'The Beginning of Wisdom'. Clark wrote:

Now we are beginning to take the blinkers off our eyes. Now we are ready to face the truth about our past, to acknowledge that the coming of the British was the occasion of three great evils: the violence against the original inhabitants of the country, the Aborigines; the violence against the first European Labor force in Australia, the convicts; and the violence done to the land itself. The rewriting of our past has begun. In radical literature the white man has replaced the capitalist as the chief villain in human history. Our history is in danger of degenerating into yet another variation of oversimplification-a division of humanity into goodies and baddies.(30)

Clark went on to speak of the misguided attempt of British 'Civilisation' to rescue Aborigines from 'barbarism'. Ironically, Clark's warning concerning the descent of history into black and white stereotypes alluded to the very sin which his detractors accused him of committing-that of denouncing Australia's British heritage and portraying the radical labour inheritance as the sole purveyor of Australian nationalism.

After Clark's death on May 23 1991, tributes were paid in the House of Representatives. The response of the leading spokespersons on both sides of the House gave some indication of Clark's importance in stimulating interest in Australian history and the increasing interest of political leaders in participating in the related public debate. Paul Keating, then Treasurer in the Hawke government, rose to tell the House that Clark was a strong supporter of the Australian Labor Party. He believed, said Keating, that 'Australia had a choice between two paths: the path of the straighteners and the path of the enlargers of life'. Paul Keating would later employ these same categories to differentiate the Labor Party from its opponents during the 1993 election campaign.(31)

From the other side of the house there came quite different sentiments. David Kemp reminded members that Clark had often used his craft to promote a 'highly personal and political agenda'. As a historian, said Kemp, Clark had 'rejected the British heritage and that vein of Western society which had most profoundly shaped civilisation in modern times-the liberal tradition and its institutions'.(32) These different interpretations of Clark's legacy were influential in determining the framework of much of the debate around black armband history in the 1990s.

Paul Keating and Australian History

It is not possible to appreciate the position of the Howard government on the representation of Australian history before first understanding the stance of the preceding Labor government. Paul Keating came to the prime ministership in 1991, the year of Clark's death, and immediately employed one of Clark's devotees, historian Don Watson, as his major speech writer. The link between Watson and Clark is particularly strong when it comes to the representation of Australia's British past. Inspired by Clark, one of the most prominent features of the Keating government's determination to re-cast Australian identity was the call for Australia to break free from its British-centred past.(33) In one way, this was an extremely convenient position given that the Labor Party had itself been among the most vigorous champions of the White Australia Policy and loyalty to Empire throughout the twentieth century. The push for a republic, based on a rejection of the 'dead' British past, à la Clark, could be read as a useful means of transferring responsibility for the evils of colonisation from Australia to Britain. It also appeared to laden Menzies' Australia with sole responsibility for excessive imperial loyalty and the White Australia policy. Keating's description of the Liberal Party's contribution to Australia as 'good little Horatios' who had 'held the bridge against national progress' in his 1993 Evatt Lecture, was but one example of his government's stereotyping of pre-Whitlam Australia as a 'gloomy cave' ruled by a 'semi-hereditary elite'.(34)

As John Howard pointed out in Howard's Menzies lecture of 1996, Keating attempted to paint Menzies' Australia as an 'industrial museum'. Labor were Manning Clark's 'enlargers of life'-the party with reform initiative, whereas the conservatives were 'straighteners'-mere agents of 'resistance'.(35) In this description of Keating's use of history, Howard is undoubtedly correct, and perhaps he has claims in one other area-the perceived denigration of Australia's British heritage. Don Watson recently gave an example of Manning Clark's 1988 rhetoric when he addressed a seminar on Black Armband History in Melbourne on 12 March 1997.

I do not know a serious historian who believes that a credible history of this place could be written without acknowledging that the country was part of the British Empire; exploited human and natural resources; and practised racism and other forms of discrimination.(36)

There are two features of this representation worth noting. First, it could be seen as one dimensional-the British Empire might be construed to have acted only in a mean-spirited manner. Second, it contains an unfortunate bracketing of words. Following the words British Empire, the words 'exploit', 'racism' and 'discrimination' immediately follow. Once again, it is difficult to discern exactly where British responsibility ends and Australian responsibility begins. A paragraph of qualification which emphasised the complexity, nuances and difficulties of attributing blame may have allowed Watson to escape this criticism. But it is this arrangement of words in the Watson-Clark rhetoric which understandably attracts the ire of conservatives protective of British heritage. These feelings were only reinforced in February 1992 when Paul Keating accused Britain of having deserted Australia at the time of the fall of Singapore in 1942. Keating went on to allege that the opposition parties were a 'British bootstraps' coalition. Said Keating, 'the Liberal and National parties are the same old fogies who doffed their lids and tugged the forelock to the British establishment'.(37) Significantly, the most vocal critic of these statements was the then shadow minister for industrial relations, John Howard. Howard claimed that Keating was denigrating Australia's British heritage and indulging in 'pommy bashing for political purposes'.(38) In this light, it is possible to understand the background to the Howard government's current position on Australian history. To some extent, it is a direct response to the agenda of the Keating government.

It is also important to remember that together with Don Watson, Paul Keating was responsible for the Redfern Park speech in 1992. At the heart of this speech was an apology to Australia's indigenous people. 'We took the traditional lands-We brought the diseases, We committed the murders, We took the children from their mothers-it was our ignorance and our prejudice'.(39) Keating's words attempted to acknowledge the dark aspects of Australia's past, but they also went much further than any previous or subsequent public statement from an Australian Prime Minister. The use of the word 'We' implied that present day Australians should bear responsibility-at least partially, in atoning for the wrongs committed by past generations.

By 1992, the acknowledgment of past injustice to Aboriginal Australians had moved beyond the historical profession and the Federal parliament to the High Court of Australia. One statement in particular would draw criticism from the likes of Professor Geoffrey Blainey. In Mabo (no. 2) 1992, Justices Deane and Gaudron referred to 'a national legacy of unutterable shame'.(40) While the Court's use of history in Mabo and Wik raises important questions concerning the legal acceptance of historical interpretation, particularly in respect to Justice Kirby, Toohey and Gaudron's reliance upon the despatches (pertaining to pastoral leases) of Colonial Secretary Earl Grey in the 1840s in the Wik judgement, it is interesting that the conservative focus on Mabo and Wik has tended to concentrate primarily on the Court's acknowledgment of Aboriginal 'dispossession' and the 'shame' of white Australians.(41) Suggestions of shame or guilt appear to have motivated much of the black armband rhetoric of both Geoffrey Blainey and John Howard.

The Black Armband Debate 1996 and 1997: Different Perspectives

I profoundly reject the black armband view of Australian history. I believe the balance sheet of Australian history is a very generous and benign one. I believe that, like any other nation, we have black marks upon our history but amongst the nations of the world we have a remarkably positive history. I think there is a yearning in the Australian community right across the political divide for its leader to enunciate more pride and sense of achievement in what has gone before us. I think we have been too apologetic about our history in the past. I believe it is tremendously important, particularly as we approach the centenary of the Federation of Australia, that the Australia achievement has been a heroic one, a courageous one and a humanitarian one.(42)

Prime Minister John Howard, October 30 1996.

Since the election of the Coalition government in March 1996, John Howard and Geoffrey Blainey-motivated by the preceding Labor government's alleged cave-in to the lobby groups of the new social movements, the Keating-Watson attempt to distort Australian history, and some High Court judges recognition of 'unutterable shame' regarding Aboriginal dispossession, have together advanced a new and powerful label in Australian political language. In a debate which is at times highly emotional, the Queensland Premier has referred to the High Court as a 'pack of historical dills', while Pauline Hanson has declared that 'if White Australians are to feel guilty about settling Australia then Aborigines should apologise to the relatives and descendants of the Chinese they cannibalised in North Queensland in the 1890s'.(43)

Prime Minister Howard has accused some school curricula of teaching Australian students that they have 'a racist and bigoted past'.(44) Finally, Minister for Foreign Affairs, Alexander Downer has declined to present the Georgetown University library with a collection of Manning Clark's six volume history of Australia while on a trade mission to the United States. Instead, Downer decided to present the Americans with a biography of Sir John Monash.(45) History has become politicised in a manner not seen before in Australian political life.

Prime Minister Howard and Australian History

John Howard has been by far the most important figure in the public debate on Australian history since his election in March 1996. As Prime Minister, he has placed the issue of the representation of Australia's history at the core of his government's position on national identity and Australia's self image. This focus was prefigured in Howard's fourth Headland speech as Opposition leader in December 1995. In this speech, he referred to Paul Keating's attempts to distort Australia's past. Australians, said Howard, should not have to 'choose between our history and our geography'-they did not have to 'disown their past' in a bid for acceptance in the South East Asian region.(46)

During John Howard's Prime Ministership, the first inkling of these views surfaced on 5 July 1996 when Howard delivered the Sir Thomas Playford lecture at Adelaide Town Hall. Here, Howard spoke of his predecessor's desire 'to rewrite Australian history' and 'stifle voices of dissent.' Howard implied that the task of the historian was not to view history from the perspective of one particular group. History was a national story:

The fact is that the history of our nation is the story of all our people and it is a story for all our people. It is owned by no-one. It is not the story of some general conspiracy or manipulation: it is a history which has its flaws-certainly-but which broadly constitutes a scale of heroic and unique achievement against great odds.(47)

In between the time of John Howard's Playford lecture in July 1996 and his delivery of the Sir Robert Menzies' lecture in November, Pauline Hanson delivered her maiden speech in the House of Representatives on September 10, in which she attacked the level of funding for Aboriginal Australians as well as the level of Asian immigration.(48) A nation-wide debate on the race issue ensued. As the debate gathered momentum, the Prime Minister appeared on the John Laws program on 24 October 1996. One of the issues explored during the program was the reason behind the popularity of Pauline Hanson. It was while discussing this issue that John Howard made the following remarks:

You don't want to turn people into martyrs and you don't want to create a situation where people attract unnecessary levels of attention. Now I understand the sense of unease and insecurity that a lot of people feel about their jobs, about the future of Australia. I think we've had too much ... we talk too negatively about our past. I sympathise fundamentally with Australians who are insulted when they are told that we have a racist bigoted past. And Australians are told that quite regularly. Our children are taught that. Some of the school curricula go close to teaching children that we have a racist bigoted past. Now of course we treated Aborigines very, very badly in the past ... but to tell children who themselves have been no part of it, that we're all part of a racist bigoted history is something that Australians reject.(49)

These comments suggested that Mr. Howard saw the spread of an overly negative view of Australian history as one of the contributing factors to the electoral appeal of Pauline Hanson's populist nationalism.(50) The comments were also consistent with the Prime Minister's statement two weeks earlier, that he had 'some reservations about the practical and material benefits to be derived from the inquiry into the removal of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander children from their parents'.(51) The emphasis should not be on past wrongs but on present disadvantage. The media pounced on the comments made in the interview with John Laws, and sought responses from leading historians. Professor Henry Reynolds accused the Prime Minister of attempting to censor history-'we have to face the reality of our past to say as he does that Australia does not have a racist past suggests to me that John Howard does not know his history'.(52) Some church leaders, Aboriginal spokespersons, the Federal Opposition, and the Australian Democrats also condemned the Prime Minister's remarks.(53)

Three weeks after his appearance on the John Laws program, Mr Howard delivered the Sir Robert Menzies lecture on 18 November 1996. In this lecture, which was reported widely in the media, he rejected the Keating government's 'sustained, personalised, and vindictive assault on the Menzies' legacy'. In doing so, he returned again to the theme of black armband history:

I have spoken tonight of the need to guard against the re-writing of Australian political history and, in particular, to ensure that the contribution of Robert Menzies and the Liberal tradition are accorded their proper place in it. There is, of course, a related and broader challenge involved. And that is to ensure that our history as a nation is not written definitively by those who take the view that we should apologise for most of it. This black armband view of our past reflects a belief that most Australian history since 1788 has been little more than a disgraceful story of imperialism, exploitation, racism, sexism and other forms of discrimination. I take a very different view. I believe that the balance sheet of our history is one of heroic achievement and that we have achieved much more as a nation of which we can be proud than of which we should be ashamed. In saying that I do not exclude or ignore specific aspects of our past where we are rightly held to account. Injustices were done in Australia and no-one should obscure or minimise them. But in understanding these realities our priority should not be to apportion blame and guilt for historic wrongs but to commit to a practical program of action that will remove the enduring legacies of disadvantage.(54)

Academics contacted by the Sydney Morning Herald criticised the Prime Minister for seeking to exclude certain views from Australian history. Professor Henry Reynolds claimed that Howard was trying to restore a 'white picket fence view of history that minimises women, Aborigines and other minority groups'. Professor Anne Curthoys saw Howard's speech as nothing to do with history but every thing to do with 'an appeal to a political constituency.' Professor Elaine Thompson alleged that the Prime Minister was attempting to 'rewrite history to counter-balance Keating'.(55)

By the end of Mr Howard's first nine months as Prime Minister, it was clear that the desire to project a largely proud, heroic and benign version of Australian history was at the heart of his government's political philosophy and possibly its electoral strategy. This became even more obvious in 1997 when the Prime Minister repeated his assertions regarding black armband history in the context of his government's response to the Stolen Generations report and the debate surrounding the Wik legislation. Speaking at the Reconciliation Convention in Melbourne in May this year, he reminded those in attendance that while he felt personal sorrow in regard to the injustices committed by previous generations of Australians against indigenous people, he was unwilling to accept any suggestion that Australian history was 'little more than a disgraceful record of imperialism, exploitation and racism'. Contemporary Australians could not be held responsible for the sins of past generations.(56) Thus the Howard government's refusal to formally apologise to Aboriginal Australians on behalf of the Australian people appears to be entirely consistent with John Howard's stated views on Australian history.

The Wider Debate Responses to John Howard

Before embarking on a survey of the various responses to the Prime Minister's arguments, it is important to point out that Professor Geoffrey Blainey has made one further contribution to the black armband debate. This occurred shortly after the handing down of the High Court's Wik decision. In an article published in the Bulletin in April 1997, Blainey launched a sustained attack on the High Court and increased the stridency of his language. Blainey's article is especially significant, given the previously similarity between the rhetoric of John Howard and Blainey's 1993 Latham lecture. After the Wik decision, Blainey's views departed from those articulated by Mr Howard, becoming more emotive and sensational. Blainey's most recent foray is quoted below.

In the past two decades a tidal wave of opinion has swept across a big section of educated Australia. It has challenged and changed the way people think about the nation's past, and especially about the Aborigines. This view of history is increasingly called the black armband view. It often laments Australia's abuse of the natural environment, attitudes to women and minorities, and above all the treatment of the Aborigines. In its view the minuses virtually wipe out the pluses. In my mind the swing, useful in pointing to past wrongs, has run wild the black armband view, while pretending to be anti-racist, is intent on permanently dividing Australians on the basis of race. Many historians preach a black armband view, but the view is more emphatic outside than inside the history books. It is noticeable on the TV news, ABC radio, and the high brow dailies. It is vigorous in the Canberra based media, whose members mostly cheered aloud when the goal of black armband ideology, the Native Title Bill, was bulldozed through federal parliament by the Keating Government which, it now transpires, did not know what the Bill portended partly because that black armband tribunal, the High Court, was still in the process of discovering the law. So long as the black armband view is influential-so long as it insists that the treatment of Aborigines was so disgraceful that no reparations might be adequate, that no reconciliation can be certain of success, and that black racism is justified-then Australia's future as a legitimate nation is in doubt.(57)

Blainey's attack on the High Court was more in keeping with some of the more spirited criticisms emanating from tropical Australia after the Wik decision. But it is significant because many of the comments made in response to the anti black armband crusade have appeared in the context of not only John Howard's remarks, but also those of Geoffrey Blainey. The distinction between the two is not often made.

If we turn to the historical profession for a response, the most conspicuous critic of the Howard-Blainey assault has been Don Watson-the former Keating speech writer. In March 1997, Watson addressed a seminar at the University of Melbourne, devoted entirely to the black armband issue. His main target was John Howard.

The employment of this black armbands charge is probably quite dangerous. It will be a very sad thing if it begins to affect school curricula. It's pernicious because the puerility of it has been cleverly attached to the national mood. We have to presume that is why John Howard took up the cry. None of us believes there is a single serious Australian historian whose work fits Mr Howard's description. It is difficult to believe that the motives of the black armband school are not political, if only because their reading of history and their understanding of how it is written could be so wrong headed without being wilful they might be in denial.(58)

In a much longer essay in the Australian's Review of Books, in July 1997, Watson described the black armband school as those who wanted to leave out 'the grisly and sad bits' from the national story and 'tell a story with only light.' Of all 'the inherent absurdities', said Watson, 'the greatest is to imagine that history cannot accommodate the whole story'.(59) His comments differed from those of Noel Pearson, former chair of the Cape York Land Council, who, when responding to the Prime Minister's Menzies lecture in November 1996, pointed out that John Howard was not seeking to deny 'the depredations against Aboriginal people that are illuminated by the new Australian history'. Pearson stressed that the Prime Minister had publicly acknowledged that 'injustices were done in Australia and no-one should obscure or minimise them'.(60) The debate therefore was not about the facts of history, rather, it was a debate about the way in which Australians should respond to the past.

Other historians not traditionally aligned with the Labor side of politics, such as Professor Patrick O'Farrell, tend to agree with John Howard that the 'guilt school of Australian history has gone too far'. According to Professor O'Farrell, as reported by Mark Uhlmann, 'there should be no apologising for murder or mistreatment, but even in such cases a historian has an obligation, using the tools and intellectual rigour of his trade, to understand why things happened. An individual or society who does one bad thing, is not usually wholly bad. A historian must also look for the redemptive features'.(61) Professor O'Farrell emphasised that it was the duty of the historian not to apportion blame or guilt but to develop 'empathy with historical figures' and look at the past with compassion. The historian was not the judge of human error but the person who bore a social responsibility to explore the stories of human endeavour-in all their various shades and colours.

Intellectuals outside the historical profession, such as Stephen Muecke, Professor of Cultural Studies at the University of Technology of Sydney, have approached the history debate from an entirely different perspective. Muecke has argued that 'the most memorable national historical events are black armband events. They are associated with loss of life, grief on a national scale, and rituals that bring people together in common remembrance.' Anzac day is but one example. The critics of the black armband view therefore want 'to be selective about whose dead should be honoured in this kind of way.' Muecke implies that the motivation of the black armband critics is their desire to own the national symbols and events which remember those who have sacrificed their lives for the nation. For example, the erection of a monument in Canberra, in commemoration of all those Aboriginal Australians who have died defending their land since 1788, as proposed by Professor Henry Reynolds, is unlikely to be endorsed by the Howard government if we accept Muecke's position.(62)

Other prominent intellectuals who have offered a critique of the black armband categorisation have focused their attention on Professor Geoffrey Blainey. Dr Gerard Henderson, Fairfax columnist and executive director of the Sydney Institute, has criticised Blainey for failing to name the historians responsible for the black armband view. Referring to Blainey's 1993 Latham lecture, Henderson noted that Blainey named only two individuals-Bob Hawke and Manning Clark. In Blainey's Bulletin article in 1993, he mentioned only Don Watson. The other guilty parties were not historians but High Court judges. In Henderson's words, this lack of hard evidence makes Blainey's claims of a black armband school of thought 'vague' and a 'bit thin'.(63) Henderson's observations are perhaps a thinly veiled criticism of John Howard, given that the Prime Minister has named fewer historians than Geoffrey Blainey.

As a concluding remark, it is worth pointing out that perhaps the more remarkable aspect of the responses to Blainey and Howard is that there has been so few. Don Watson has chastised the members of his own profession for failing to speak out.(64) History is indeed the subject of public and political discussion-but there are few historians willing to become embroiled in controversy by risking their detached position. Perhaps their silence also reflects the fact, that unlike Don Watson, who for personal reasons is undoubtedly keen to defend his reputation as a historian, other historians do not perceive the black armband debate as an assault on the historical profession.


This paper has attempted to provide readers with the background to the current debate on black armband history and a concise map of the most significant arguments involved. Some patterns in the debate are now discernible.

First, the debate over the issues associated with the black armband label predates Professor Geoffrey Blainey's use of the term in his 1993 Latham lecture by more than a decade. Second, Aboriginal Australians have employed the black armband as a symbol of their historical dispossession since at least 1970. Third, Prime Minister John Howard appears to have relied heavily on Blainey's 1993 Latham lecture in the formulation of his own argument on Australian history. This indicates that Professor Blainey's role is not entirely dissimilar to the role played by Manning Clark during the Hawke-Keating era. However, it could be argued that John Howard's views have remained reasonably consistent over the last four years whereas Professor Blainey's views are expressed in more virulent terms-especially since the High Court's Wik decision. Another significant difference is that Professor Blainey does not appear to occupy the same status in the national psyche as Manning Clark did in the 1980s.

One of the more striking features of the arguments presented in this paper is the degree to which the protagonists misrepresent the claims of their opponents. Presently, we seem to have a situation where one side alleges that the other has no pride in Australia's history, emphasises only the dark aspects of our past, encourages feelings of national guilt and shame, and denies the legitimacy of European culture. The other side responds in a predictable fashion. It rejects all of these claims and alleges that its opponents want to censor Australian history and deny the truth about the history of Aboriginal dispossession and the White Australia policy.

A close reading of the arguments outlined in this paper indicates that neither side is saying what the other side claims it is saying. John Howard and Geoffrey Blainey are not seeking to whitewash Australian history, just as Don Watson and Manning Clark were not seeking to denigrate Australian achievement. The argument is not about content-it is about emphasis. It is not so much concerned with the nature of history as it is with the use of history. As a people, we are trying to come to terms with the fact that 'Australian' history is no longer written purely from the perspective of the majority. Historians now ask different questions. History can be heroic or bleak-depending on who is telling the story. For much of our past women, non anglo migrants, and indigenous Australians did not have a public space in which their stories could be heard. Political leaders are now grappling with the fact that there is more than one national story to be told. They are trying to understand how it is possible for Australians to 'listen' to different histories and accept the legitimacy of 'different' perspectives, while also retaining a shared history which can act as a binding force in the national community. This is the underlying tension in the black armband debate.

The common ground shared by all participants in the debate is that they perceive history to be of enormous importance. For all parties, history is the bridge to a national community founded on shared experience. For political leaders especially, there is a need to project a positive view of national traditions, heritage and identity. Yet this requirement need not mean that history be sanitised or simplified in the interests of political expedience. The most terrible events in the past can be used as a source of positive affirmation if they are addressed in an honest and open manner. All history is useful. Notions of guilt or denial are less helpful. In an effort to show that there is a shared national history in Australia which can indeed be a source of inspiration, I will leave the last word to Noel Pearson.

We need to appreciate the complexity of the past and not reduce history to a shallow field of point scoring. I believe that there is much that is worth preserving in the cultural heritage of our dispossessors as a nation, the Australian community has a collective consciousness that encompasses a responsibility for the present and future, and the past. To say that ordinary Australians who are part of the national community today do not have any connection with the shameful aspects of our past is at odds with our exhortations that they have connections to the prideful bits. If there is one thing about the colonial heritage of Australia that indigenous Australians might celebrate along with John Howard it must surely be the fact that upon the shoulders of the English settlers or invaders-call them what you will, came the common law of England and with it the civilised institution of native title. What more redemptive prospect can be painted about our country's colonial past?(65)


  1. H. G. Kaye, Why do Ruling Classes Fear History?, New York; St Martins Press, 1996, pp. 20-21 and J. J. Kaye, The Powers of the Past, pp. 95-119, and G. Lipsitz, Time Passages Collective Memory and American Popular Culture, University of Minnesota Press, Minneapolis, 1990, pp. 32 and 33.

    For an examination of the use of history under Helmut Kohl's Christian Democrats in Germany and the push for a 'normalisation' of the past see J. Habermas, The New Conservatism: Cultural Criticism and the Historians' debate, Massachusetts: MIT Press, 1989.

  2. Quoted in Kaye, The Powers of the Past, p. 95.
  3. J. A. La Nauze, 'The Study of Australian History 1929-1959, Historical Studies, vol. IX, no. 33, November 1959, p. 11.
  4. See Markus and McGrath in D. H. Borchardt, (ed.) Australians a Guide to Sources, Fairfax, Syme and Weldon, 1987, pp. 117-30, for the most comprehensive discussion of this work.
  5. R. Hunter, Aboriginal histories, Australian histories, and the law, in B. Attwood, (ed.) In the Age of Mabo, pp. 1 and 16. Attwood's book is attacked in Pauline Hanson The Truth. Ipswich 1997, p. 118. Also see the assault on Reynolds, p. 121.
  6. This discussion can also be found in fiction and poetry see e.g. G. Page, and Pooaraar The Great Forgetting, Aboriginal Studies Press, 1996.
  7. A. W. Martin, Henry Parkes. A Biography, MUP 1980, p. 3469.
  8. G. A. Blainey, Balance Sheet On Our History, Quadrant, July 1993, pp. 10-15.
  9. Aborigines Petition the King-1937. Churinga, May 1970, p. 27.
  10. ibid.
  11. Australian, 7 February 1970.
  12. Australian, 30 April 1970.
  13. Age, 29 April 1970, Some wore red head bands to symbolise the spilt blood of Aboriginal Australians.
  14. Australian, 7 February 1970 and Age, 11 February 1970. Also see Australian editorial, 30 April 1970, which is not dissimilar to Keating's Redfern Park Speech.
  15. Treaty 88 poster. Held in poster collection of Institute of Aboriginal Studies ANU (POS0136). Also J. Patten and W. Ferguson, Aborigines Claim Citizen rights! The Publicist, Sydney, 1938.
  16. Canberra Times, 27 January 1987.
  17. See e.g., photographs of Aboriginal protesters in C. Healey, From the Ruins of Colonialism, CUP, 1997, pp. 2 and 43.
  18. Jonathan King. Sailing into history, Sydney Morning Herald, 13 May 1997.
  19. G. Blainey, Eye on Australia, p. 46 and 51.
  20. Future Directions, Liberal Party of Australia, December, 1988, pp. 92-93. Also P. Kelly, The End of Certainty, Allen and Unwin, 1992, pp. 422 and 423.
  21. ibid., p. 7. Also see Hanson's maiden speech in Pauline Hanson. The Truth, especially pp. 2 and 3.
  22. J. Hirst, The Blackening of our Past, IPA Review, December-February 1988-89, pp. 49-54. Also R. Manne, Bicentennial Guilt, Quadrant, vol. 33, no. 3, March 1989.
  23. Sydney Morning Herald, 23 January 1988.
  24. Sydney Morning Herald, 25 January 1985.
  25. Sydney Morning Herald, 22 January 1988.
  26. C. M. H. Clark, Occasional Writings and Speeches, Fontana Collins, 1980, p. 209.
  27. The Australian, 26 December 1977.
  28. See for example The Age, 23 September 1976.
  29. See for example The West Australian, 20 January 1991.
  30. C. M. H. Clark, The Beginning of Wisdom, Time Australia, 25 January 1988, p. 12.
  31. House of Representatives, Votes and Proceedings, no. 69, 28 May 1991.
  32. ibid.
  33. See P. J. Keating, Speech at Corowa Shire Council Centenary Dinner, 31 July 1993.
  34. P. J. Keating, H V Evatt lecture, Sydney, 28 April 1993.
  35. J. Howard, 1996 Sir Robert Menzies Lecture, 18 November 1996.
  36. D. Watson, Teach it all, good and bad. Australian, 13 March 1997.
  37. Daily Telegraph Mirror, 28 February 1992 and The Age, 28 February 1992.
  38. ibid.
  39. Age, 11 December 1992.
  40. G. Blainey, Black future. The Bulletin, 8 April 1997, p. 22.
  41. F. (S. J.) Brennan, The Wik Judgment. Paper deliver to Social and Political Theory Group Seminar, RSSS, ANU, 26 March 1997.
  42. Weekly House Hansard, 30 October 1996, p. 4.
  43. Pauline Hanson. The Truth. Ipswich, Queensland 1997, p. 132. Borbidge comment on ABC TV News, March 1997.
  44. Interview with John Laws, 2UE, 24 October 1996; See also, Canberra Times, 25 October 1996, and Sydney Morning Herald, 25-26 October 1996.
  45. Australian, 12 June 1996, (Greg Pemberton).
  46. J. Howard, Headland Speech no. 4, Grand Hyatt Hotel, Melbourne, 13 December 1995.
  47. J. Howard, Sir Thomas Playford Lecture, 5 July 1996, pp. 1 and 2.
  48. P. Hanson, The Truth.
  49. Transcript of John Laws program, 24 October 1996, p. 19.
  50. See also John Howard's address to the Australia-Asia Society in Sydney, 8 May 1997. Edited version in The Australian, 9 May 1997.
  51. Canberra Times, 7 October 1996.
  52. ibid., 25 October 1996.
  53. Sydney Morning Herald, 25-26 October 1996, also Weekend Australian, 26-27 October 1996.
  54. J. Howard, Sir Robert Menzies Lecture, 18 November 1996, p. 9.
  55. Sydney Morning Herald, 20 November 1996.
  56. The Australian, 25 May 1997, Also see Sydney Morning Herald, 27 January 1997.
  57. The Bulletin, 8 April 1997 p. 21-23.
  58. The Australian, 13 March 1997.
  59. The Australian's Review of Books, July 1997 p. 6-9.
  60. The Australian, 22 November 1996.
  61. Canberra Times, 11 March 1997.
  62. The Financial Review, 11 April 1997.
  63. The Sydney Morning Herald, 8 April 1997.
  64. The Australian, 13 March 1996.
  65. The Australian, 22 November 1996.


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