Robert Manne


In 1968, the anthropologist W. E. H. Stanner delivered what turned out to be perhaps the most consequential lecture ever broadcast on the ABC. Stanner called his lecture 'The Great Australian Silence'. The point he was making has often been misunderstood. Stanner did not mean that scholars and others had failed to show an interest in traditional Aboriginal society. As he understood better than most, anthropology was probably the most distinguished and developed of the social science disciplines in Australia. What Stanner meant was that both scholars and citizens had, thus far, failed to integrate the story of the Aboriginal dispossession and its aftermath into their understanding of the course of Australian history, reducing the whole tragic and complex story to what one historian had called 'a melancholy footnote' and another a mere 'codicil'.

According to Stanner, this silence was no accident.

Inattention on such a scale cannot possibly be explained by absent-mindedness. It is a structural matter, a view from a window which has been carefully placed to exclude a whole quadrant of the landscape. What may well have begun as a simple forgetting of other possible views turned under habit and over time into something like a cult of forgetfulness practised on a national scale. We have been able for so long to disremember the aborigines that we are now hard put to keep them in mind even when we most want to do so.

Stanner, who possessed sensitive cultural antennae, was aware that at the time he wrote this lecture the cult of forgetfulness was coming to an end.

I hardly think that what I have called 'the great Australian silence' will survive the research that is now in course. Our university and research institutes are full of young people who are working actively to end it. The Australian Institute of Aboriginal Studies and the Social Science Research Council of Australia have both promoted studies which will bring the historical and contemporary dimensions together and will assuredly persuade scholars to renovate their categories of understanding.