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Sunday, 12 January 2014

Pyne is motivated by narrow ideological considerations

This is a curious little image for which, as usual, there is no information regarding who made it, based on whose account, and when, but it's hard to imagine that this was exactly how the Aborigines received Captain James Cook when he landed at what he had already named Botany Bay. And if they did receive him in this manner, it's hard to imagine Cook taking it in such a relaxed way. The image says the event occurred in 1770, during which year Cook sailed all the way up the east coast of the continent (there's a town in Queensland named 1770) on his way back to London to report to his employers, HM Government.

For someone, like me, who attended a private school operating in the Anglican sphere during the 60s and 70s, any information received about the Aborigines had to be acquired after matriculation. I have a friend who is a couple of years older than me who went to a public school in Sydney who did study Aboriginal history, and the history of the confluence of the two cultures. For my part, I remember one day during primary school we boys all trooped out onto the sports fields and, using our bodies as markers, we mapped out the shape of the kind of tiny ship Cook used for his voyage of discovery. On another occasion, we visited Kurnell, where Cook landed at Botany Bay, and were kindly encouraged to make drawings; I made a very credible drawing of a flagpole. Later, in high school, I did a project where I recreated an 18th century gentleman's private letter, including orthographic peculiarities that had gone out of fashion. This was as part of our study of the achievements of Governor Macquarie. Christopher Pyne would no doubt heartily approve, were he to be told what I was made to look at during those formative years, and would applaud the educational bent of those days, in that school, in New South Wales.

Unfortunately for Pyne I went to university and learned to think for myself. This habit came in useful later, when I started to read more about the meeting of the two cultures. It has also been useful in critiquing those infamous T-shirts Aldi pulled from its shelves following a perfectly-justifiable outcry, because to say that Australia was founded in 1788 is to ignore the truth: that we are merely an offshoot of a tree of much older origin. As is the United States of America. I feel that Pyne would applaud this statement, just as he would be pleased to know that the Catholic Church was, indeed, instrumental in the emergence of representative democracy in significant and underappreciated ways: the notion of disinterested public service stems from it. The problem is that Pyne's personal understanding of these things is probably pretty rough and uncritical, as are those of the people for whose benefit the man is currently dog-whistling in a fit of ideological fervour.

What the people of Australia should demand at this point is a quiz, prepared by eminent historians in academia, to test Pyne's understanding of what Australia actually represents. What does Australia mean? It certainly does not mean mere pioneer grit. (Another project I made at high school basically stated that British colonisation had a single purpose: to make money; my teachers might have been dismayed at such perspicacity exercised despite their attention to issues of good governance.) It does not just mean administrative expeditiousness: yes, the government's loss in the War of Independence meant that they could no longer send criminals to Georgia, and needed another remote prison to house independent thinkers and petty thieves. And it wasn't just about colonial expansion. It was about all those things and more.

Once the enterprise had been put on a reasonable footing, furthermore, ideas of self-determination could be given an airing. For my case, any information in this locus of study came from further reading: at school we did not go past colonial times, as far as I remember. I wonder what Pyne would make of such seminal thinkers as William Wentworth who, if we're going to talk about Founding Fathers, was our Jefferson if he was anything. What can we say about land-grabbing by the early squatters? What about the relationship between the squatters and the Aborigines? What about calls for the end to Transportation? What about the relationship between the squatters and the city interest? What about organised labour? What about the relationship between European labour and the Chinese? And how did the debates surrounding these things relate to what was happening in London? At what point does London stop being a benign influence and start becoming a brake on independent aspiration? Who are going to be the bad guys in the late 19th century?

If anything can be said to be remarkable in Australia's history it is that we got through the transition without much bloodshed. Other people, in earlier times, did the fighting for us. We got let off. The religious wars, for example, that caused such suffering during the tumultuous 17th century in England, and that laid the groundwork for the establishment, in the colony, of a secular public school system at the end of the 19th century, were fought by the sons of other mothers and of other fathers. (In some families you had the father fighting for the king and the son for Parliament.) Religious war is part of almost every country's history but we dodged the bullet because our Founding Fathers wanted none of it; they wanted an education system that would MINIMISE religious differences between people because they had learned their history. For them, the 17th century was a personal thing, a recent memory, something to avoid at all costs. I think Pyne does not understand this. I think he is merely motivated by narrow ideological considerations to try to "turn back the clock" on what he sees as a pernicious post-WWII progressive project.

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