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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.

The silence of which Stanner spoke was, in fact, broken by the three-volume study sponsored by the Social Science Research Council and authored by Charles Rowley - The Destruction of Aboriginal Society, Outcasts in White Society and The Remote Aborigines, published in 1970. Rowley's trilogy represents one of the great scholarly and moral achievements of Australia's intellectual history. With its publication and absorption into the nation's bloodstream, Australia became a significantly different country.

Henry Reynolds was one of the young historians inspired by Stanner's lecture. In part because of Stanner he was persuaded to give his life to an exploration of the meaning of the dispossession, from many different angles. One of the books Reynolds wrote, The Other Side of the Frontier, was another important landmark, generally still regarded as a classic in its field. Yet in this work of discovery Reynolds was not alone. From the late 1960s, hundreds of books and articles on the dispossession by dozens of scholars were published. Through their collective work the great Australian silence was shattered.

As it happens, and perhaps not accidentally, the flowering of post-settlement Aboriginal history coincided with the end of the era of assimilation, which Stanner identified as an impossible and inhumane policy which instructed the Aborigines to remake their identity, or, as he put it, 'to un-be'. After the end of assimilation, politics and history were intertwined in many, complex ways. A deepened historical consciousness and a sharpened moral conscience concerning the dispossession played a vital part in the granting of land rights, in the creation of national representative Aboriginal political structures, in the acceptance of native title, in the attempts to write a treaty between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians and, when this failed, in the struggle for reconciliation.

Sometimes the new historians of the dispossession played an even more direct legal or political role. Reynolds' histories were important in the thinking of the High Court judges who in 1992 at Mabo discovered native title in the common law. Without the pioneering historical research of Peter Read, the inquiry commissioned by the Keating government into Aboriginal child removal might never have been held. In the quarter-century, then, between the last year of the McMahon government and the fall of Keating, while historians deepened understanding of the dispossession, governments and courts discovered, within the limits of the legally and politically possible, both practical and symbolic ways to overturn aspects of what Justices Gaudron and Deane had called Australia's 'national legacy of unutterable shame'. Of course there was considerable resistance from economic interest groups and political conservatives to the post-assimilation trajectory of Aboriginal policy and law, and even one or two feeble attempts to discredit the new historians. In general, however, during this quarter-century, the resistance to the emergence of a new Australian consciousness on the question of the dispossession failed.

The Howard government was elected in March 1996. Before the election Howard told the nation that he intended to govern for 'all of us', a phrase which the Aboriginal leader Noel Pearson instantly understood as a coded message about the government's intention to distance itself from 'minorities', like Aborigines, and to govern on behalf of 'the mainstream'. Howard also told us that he hoped to make Australians feel 'comfortable and relaxed' about their past, whose most unsettling dimension was, of course, the destruction of Aboriginal society. From the American neo-conservative movement Howard had inherited the thought that left-wing elites bullied ordinary people into submission on questions concerning class, gender and race, by a process known as 'political correctness'. He soon let it be known that he intended to release Australians from its thrall.

Following the Howard election a series of cultural battles took place on key questions of Aboriginal law and policy. The Howard government soon faced a second High Court native title judgement (Wik) which found that, in certain very limited circumstances, native title might survive on land over which pastoral leases had once been granted. The government used this judgment as the occasion to amend substantially the Keating government's Native Title Act and, almost as significantly, to exclude Aboriginal political leaders almost altogether from the process of negotiation.

The Howard government inherited from the period of Keating the report of the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission into Aboriginal child removal policies and practices, Bringing them home. Although the report initially received an overwhelmingly sympathetic response from the media and the public, the Howard government's eventual reaction was, in part, hostile and, in part, cool. It treated Bringing them home's genocide conclusion as risible. On semantic grounds it denied the existence of any 'stolen generations'. It refused the recommendation for financial compensation to the separated children. It refused to offer to the members of the stolen generations in particular or to the Aboriginal people in general a formal government apology. In a parliamentary motion negotiated with the new Aboriginal Senator Aden Ridgeway, John Howard made it clear that while he was prime minister his government would go no further than to express its 'regrets' concerning what had been done to Aborigines in what was conceded to be the most 'blemished' chapter of Australia's history. On the eve of the centenary of federation, throughout the year 2000, hundreds of thousands of citizens walked across the bridges of Australia's capital cities, as a symbol of their desire for reconciliation and the opening of a new era in our national life. Following the most important of these walks, across the Sydney Harbour Bridge, the Prime Minister, as anticipated, spurned the suggested declaration handed to him by the Council for Aboriginal Reconciliation. John Howard was unwilling to accept any form of words that suggested a government apology or that referred to policies of Aboriginal 'self-determination', a formula which might have been acceptable to every Australian prime minister since Gough Whitlam, but was not acceptable to him.

The Howard government now abandoned the decade-long dream of some grand act of reconciliation with talk of something it called 'practical reconciliation', that is to say improvements in Aboriginal education, employment and health. Yet even its interest in practical reconciliation was thin. The government replaced the outgoing Minister for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Island Affairs, Senator Herron, with a part-time minister, Philip Ruddock, the bulk of whose time and energy was necessarily devoted to the complex and controversial areas of immigration and refugee affairs. In 2001, public interest in Aboriginal reconciliation or native title or questions of injustice bequeathed by history quickly died away. It was replaced by (necessary) discussions about the breakdown of life in the remote Aboriginal communities and the (undeniable) failings of the current leadership of the representative Aboriginal body, ATSIC.

More deeply, during the Howard years, a counter-revolution in sensibility concerning the dispossession of the Aborigines - no less real than the revolution which had begun in the late 1960s and early 1970s, in the days of Stanner and Rowley - was swiftly gathering momentum. The counter-revolution first crystallised around the question of Aboriginal child removal. A campaign against Bringing them home was conducted by the conservative magazine Quadrant and supported by a number of right-wing commentators in the daily press - the editor of Quadrant, Paddy McGuinness, Frank Devine, Piers Akerman, Michael Duffy, Andrew Bolt, Christopher Pearson and Ron Brunton. The campaign characterised Aboriginal witnesses as notoriously unreliable. It claimed that before World War II the 'half-caste' children had been removed to 'rescue' them from ostracism by the tribe and after the war from parental neglect and abuse. It accused the authors of Bringing them home, and those who defended the report, of sentimentality, moral vanity, political correctness and hatred for Australia. It treated the question of genocide raised by Bringing them home as beyond discussion and beneath contempt. In the course of this campaign, attitudes towards the question of historic injustices suffered by the Aboriginal people, at least as measured by the tone of public discourse, began noticeably to harden.

As this campaign was reaching its conclusion, towards the end of 2000, a 35,000-word essay, of a kind which had not been published in Australia for a generation or more, appeared in three issues of Quadrant. The theme of the essay was the supposed left-wing myth concerning British settler massacres of Aborigines. Its author was the formerly obscure, retired Sydney academic Keith Windschuttle, once an ultra-radical leftist who had moved, during the 1990s, rather rapidly to the right, at the time when his positivistic attack on deconstructionism and postmodernism, The Killing of History, had been championed by The New Criterion, the starchy neo-conservative New York cultural magazine. By the late 1990s, Windschuttle's journey from Pol Pot enthusiast to apologist for the British Empire was complete.

Windschuttle had never previously written at any length about Aborigines or the Australian frontier. In his Quadrant essay his starting point, for reasons that were never satisfactorily explained, was four massacres mentioned by the journalist Phillip Knightley in his new portrait of Australia. In three of these cases Windschuttle attempted to show, either by drawing on others' work or by a far from convincing chain of evidentiary reasoning, that no massacres had taken place. He also attempted to show that the tentative estimates of 20,000 Aboriginal killings on the frontier between the late 1780s and the late 1920s which had been independently arrived at by Henry Reynolds and Richard Broome, and which had been regarded as a reasonable guess by the most conservative of all contemporary Australian historians, Geoffrey Blainey, was a vast exaggeration and, indeed, a 'fabrication'. Windschuttle, who had at that time done no systematic historical research on settler-indigenous relations (or on anything else), claimed to know for certain that the number of Aborigines killed at the frontier had been very small. How did he know this? Windschuttle argued that because of the British settlers' Christian faith and because of their civilisation's fidelity to the idea of the rule of law, large numbers of killings could be excluded in advance as a cultural impossibility. He expressed astonishment at the discovery that Henry Reynolds' estimate of 20,000 killings, which he had previously accepted on trust, was not even based on a tabulated list of every occasion on which Aborigines had been killed. For Windschuttle, it appeared clear that a death which was unreported and thus undocumented was a death which had not occurred. (By the use of a methodology equivalent to Windschuttle's it would be possible to prove that virtually no sexual abuse of children occurred in Western societies before the 1970s.) Windschuttle apparently could not imagine the kind of rough frontier society where settlers killed Aborigines who threatened their livestock or their lives; where such deaths went officially unidentified; and where government officials tacitly agreed, in regard to settler violence, to turn a blind eye. He also appeared to know next to nothing of the fifty-year history of killings carried out by the Queensland Native Police.

Although many of the arguments in Windschuttle's Quadrant essay were unpersuasive and unsupported either by independent research or even familiarity with the relevant secondary historical literature, it was remarkable how seriously they began to be taken. Windschuttle was invited to debate Henry Reynolds on ABC television and at the National Press Club. Because of the seriousness with which his challenge was taken, he was invited to participate in a conference of historians at the National Museum in Canberra, which eventually produced an impressive book. Many criticisms of Windschuttle's essay were mounted. In response he either failed to answer his critics adequately, or at all, or pretended that the only criticism he encountered was, in essence, mere ad hominem. Unlike the historians he attacked, Windschuttle claimed implausibly, but with an apparently straight face, to have no political agenda of his own. He was simply interested, he claimed, in establishing the truth by discovering and presenting the unembellished 'facts'. Among Australia's conservative intelligentsia, and beyond, support for Windschuttle grew. Clearly he was singing a song many people wanted to hear.

For historians it is customary to begin investigations with hunches but to defer the arrival at definitive conclusions until research is complete. With Windschuttle the order appears to have been reversed. Having convinced himself in a few months in 2000 that no significant killings of Aboriginals had occurred on the Australian frontier, and having staked his reputation on the conclusion already reached, Windschuttle now embarked upon the necessary archival research, promising that he would produce three revisionist volumes of, in total, 500,000 words. For his first volume he chose Van Diemen's Land or Tasmania where, for the past 170 years, since the conduct of a British parliamentary inquiry, civilised opinion had accepted that a terrible human tragedy had taken place.

The first volume of Windschuttle's The Fabrication of Aboriginal History was published towards the end of 2002, after perhaps eighteen months of research and writing. Clearly he was proceeding with furious energy. He did not grasp that writing history invariably takes imagination, absorption in the sources, and also time. Windschuttle argued here that the indigenous Tasmanians were a 'primitive', 'maladapted' and 'dysfunctional' people who had survived for 35,000 years or so, more or less by luck. He argued that the 'full-blood' Aborigines had died out within seventy years of the arrival of the British, in part because of their susceptibility to European diseases and in part because, as 'agents of their own demise', the men had traded away their women to the whites. Windschuttle argued that the Tasmanian Aborigines had no sense of 'property' and hence no idea of 'trespass' or even strong bonds of attachment to their lands. It followed, then, that the fierce attacks they mounted on British settlers, especially in the 1820s, were not patriotic, nor in defence of territory, nor reasonably understood as acts of war, but mere expressions of their criminal proclivities, the lust for plunder of consumer goods and the unprovoked desire of savages for murder and revenge. As Windschuttle pointed out, the Tasmanian Aborigines did not know the meaning of the Christian virtue of 'compassion'.

Windschuttle regarded almost all previous writers on Aboriginal-settler conflict in Tasmania, from the 1830s to the present day, as belonging to what he called the 'orthodox school'. What bound this extremely heterogeneous group of writers together was, apparently, their agreement that in Tasmania a terrible tragedy had occurred and that in that tragedy it was the Aborigines, the ancestral inhabitants of the disputed lands, who were the party which had been more seriously wronged. In these clashes Windschuttle could see no British wrongdoing. If there was a tragedy here, he argued, it rested only in the self-destructive futility of Aboriginal behaviour, in Aboriginal callousness towards their women and in the absence of an Aboriginal leadership wise enough to grasp the benefits of the 'civilisation' offered by the British arrival and to submit.

Most importantly of all, Windschuttle argued that it was certain that in Tasmania, despite the reduction of the Aboriginal population to a few hundreds by the early 1830s, there had been more killings of British settlers by Aborigines than of Aborigines by settlers. He was determined, by what he claimed to be a scrupulous investigation of sources and footnotes, to demonstrate that all recent members of the 'orthodox school', but especially three historians - Henry Reynolds, Lloyd Robson and Lyndall Ryan - had not merely made mistakes in their discussions of settler motives and Aboriginal killings but had deliberately fabricated evidence concerning the behaviour of the British during the settler-Aboriginal clash.

When the self-published but lavishly produced first volume of Fabrication appeared, it was accompanied by a quotation from the editor of The New Criterion, Roger Kimball, not previously known to be an expert on either Australia or Aborigines, who hailed it as 'a scholarly masterpiece Â… destined to become an historical classic, changing forever the way we all look at the opening chapter of Australian history'. Besides the words of the man who launched Fabrication in Sydney, Professor Claudio Veliz, Kimball's praise seemed positively lukewarm. In characteristically baroque style, Veliz described the Windschuttle book as 'meticulously well-researched', 'courageous', 'illuminating', 'immensely readable' and 'masterful'. The author not only brought 'devastating stylistic understatement to his subject'; he also refrained (as no doubt Henry Reynolds and Lyndall Ryan would be amused to learn) 'from translating his findings into inelegant personal attack'. Veliz thought Fabrication 'without doubt one of the most important books of our time'. He was reported to have likened the settlement of Australia, at the launch, to a 'nuns' picnic'. When his launch speech was printed in Quadrant these instantly notorious words had, for some reason, disappeared. Quadrant chose a former editor, Peter Coleman, as the appropriate reviewer for Fabrication. Coleman's unfamiliarity with frontier history was so comprehensive that he still apparently believed that, apart from Myall Creek (1838) and Coniston (1928), every other massacre of Aborigines was mere unsubstantiated rumour or, in lawyer's jargon, 'alleged'. He duly praised the book's painstaking and devastating scholarship, although he regretted the entire absence from Fabrication of a sense of tragedy. Coleman was apparently not aware that the period of left-wing cultural hegemony in Australia had passed. He believed it unlikely that Windschuttle would be noticed by the mainstream media. As it happens, he could not have been more wrong.

One of the media's most important powers is its agenda-setting capacity. On the publication of the first volume of Fabrication, the editors of The Australian decided to promote, within their pages, a wide-ranging Windschuttle debate. Even Windschuttle was surprised and gratified by what he called, at the launch, 'the rather good press' that his book had received by that time.

On publication, The Australian published an opinion piece by Windschuttle and a sympathetic portrait of its author by a senior journalist, Bernard Lane. Lane also reported in its news pages Claudio Veliz's 'nun's picnic' speech; a talk delivered by Windschuttle to the Sydney Institute, whose director Gerard Henderson had already described Windschuttle as someone who had made 'a valuable contribution to Australian history'; and an enthusiastic review of Fabrication in The New Criterion by Geoffrey Blainey, which argued that Fabrication was 'one of the most important and devastating [books] written on Australian history in recent decades'.

In response to the initial promotion of Windschuttle, three academics, Stephen Muecke, Marcia Langton and Heather Goodall, wrote a letter to the editor of The Australian complaining about the paper's boosting of a right-wing polemicist such as Windschuttle. Muecke and his fellow authors had accurately discerned the cultural meaning of the promotion but badly misread the political mood. They were soon rebuked by two fellow historians, Bob Reece and Tim Rowse, no friends of Windschuttle, and by The Australian itself, for their illiberal censoriousness.

It was certainly not the case that in their sponsorship of the 'sorely needed' Windschuttle debate The Australian published only articles favourable to Fabrication. In the coming weeks it would publish a review by Henry Reynolds, a self-defence by Lyndall Ryan and contra Windschuttle pieces by Bain Attwood and Dirk Moses as well as pro Windschuttle commentaries by Roger Sandall, Peter Ryan ('One welcomes - indeed one stands up to cheer - Keith Windschuttle's fresh examination of Australia's black-white frontier'), Geoffrey Blainey, Janet Albrechtsen and Windschuttle himself. Yet it was also obvious to anyone following the coverage of the controversy in The Australian where the sympathies of the paper lay. The Australian twice editorialised favourably on Windschuttle. It pursued Windschuttle's targets with real tenacity, contacting, for example, the Vice-Chancellor of Lyndall Ryan's university and her publisher, Allen & Unwin, in order to enquire of them what they intended to do. It dismissed the claim that Windschuttle, the defender of old-fashioned scholarly standards, had copied out or lightly paraphrased a number of passages from the American anthropologist, Robert Edgerton, as 'a diversionary tactic'.And it recycled a 7000 word personal attack on the academic who had noticed the borrowings (a certain Robert Manne), which was written by the wife of the editor-in-chief of The Australian, Chris Mitchell, and which had been published in The Courier-Mail eighteen months before. Chiefly because of the promotion by The Australian, the publication of the first volume of Fabrication became a major cultural event.

By their nature historical debates of the kind raised by the appearance of the first volume of Windschuttle's trilogy cannot be resolved in the pages of newspapers. Their resolution requires space. This book is aimed at readers who are interested in the early history of Australia and in a thorough, expert discussion of Windschuttle's case. In my opinion the sum total of the chapters which follow reveal that, although it is written at a higher level of maturity and surface plausibility, the first volume of Keith Windschuttle's Fabrication contributes to Australian history what Helen Demidenko's The Hand that Signed the Paper contributed to Australian fiction - counterfeit coin. Readers will, of course, make up their own minds.

What was so dispiriting about the Demidenko affair was the lapse of critical judgment in so large a part of Australia's literary intelligentsia. What is even more alarming in the reception of The Fabrication of Aboriginal History is the way so many prominent Australian conservatives have been so easily misled by so ignorant, so polemical and so pitiless a book. The generation after Stanner broke the great Australian silence concerning the dispossession. It might be the task of the next generation, if the enthusiasm for Windschuttle is any guide, to prevent the arrival in its place of a great Australian indifference.


Robert Manne is Professor of Politics at La Trobe University and a regular commentator for the Sydney Morning Herald and The Age. This is the introduction to his new book: Whitewash: On Keith Windschuttle's Fabrication of Aboriginal History, Edited by Robert Mann, Black Inc. Agenda, Melbourne, 2003, pp. 1-12. (ISBN 0975076906, $29.95. Now available at all good bookstores). Note that the (41) endnotes to the chapter have not been reproduced. Robert Manne's other books include The Culture of Forgetting: Helen Demidenko and the Holocaust (1996) and In Denial: The Stolen Generation and the Right (2001).


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