Political Amnesia


… Francesca Beddie reviews Laura Tingle’s Quarterly Essay.

In Political Amnesia How we forgot to govern Tingle uses the words ‘memory’ and ‘history’ interchangeably. This is a pity for the two are not the same. She herself acknowledges that ‘as time goes by, the memories tend to over-glorify the past, and under-comprehend how it came about.’ This point notwithstanding, Tingle’s essay is an important reminder that without a sound understanding of the past — history rather than memory — it is nigh impossible to govern well.

Tingle’s 16-year-old daughter is doing Ancient History, bringing into her mother’s focus Tacitus’s account of the rise of Augustus, helped by the Roman nobles’ preference for ‘the safety of the present to the dangerous past’.

If only the allure of ancient history for many a teenager persisted into adulthood! Then we might have a political class more conscious of how the past determines present decisions.

Tingle’s essay is about the role of memory in politics and policymaking in Australia. She shows how the rise of the political adviser and growing disregard for non-partisan public servants has resulted in bad government. Without institutional memory, as Tingle shows, it is easy to repeat mistakes; to lose the nuance needed in good decision making; and to reduce policy making to fashionable slogans. ‘Such simplification robs the issue of its context, its own history.’ The essay shows what happens when ideologues get hold of the reins of power: they take the science out of climate change and the complexity out of the task of maintaining national security.

Read this essay to be alarmed about what undermining the public service as a repository of memory means for the nation.

Tingle sees her own profession of journalism as important in countering the amnesia she describes. But the media too ‘are losing their memory and no longer providing a reliable contemporary record’: that first draft of history historians often consult.

We professional historians should be reminding policy makers (and journalists) not to rely only on long-serving officers to maintain institutional memory but also on the tools of history: good records and archives – an increasing challenge in the era of email and the post-it-note, unrecorded directives and constant pressures for cost-cutting – which can serve to counter a defective memory or add the facts to a politically convenient historical anecdote.

Moreover, institutional memory and the records are not enough. We also need historians to keep that memory in the public eye, to analyse the records and make sure history remains useful to today’s decision makers.


Japan as the Occupier and the Occupied


Christine de Matos discusses the work involved in editing a volume of essays.

The year 2015 marked the centenary of Gallipoli, seen as the most important for Australia in a range of Great War centenaries that fall between 2014 and 2018. Less noticeably, 2015 also marked 70 years since the end of that other major 20th century conflict, the Asia Pacific War/World War II (1945-2015).

Quite serendipitously, I published a six-year-long edited book project, Japan as the Occupier and the Occupied, in this ‘other’ anniversary year. The book, co-edited with Mark E. Caprio, published by Palgrave Macmillan, and launched on 18 November at The Japan Foundation, Sydney, seeks to cross the historical divide created by the moment of Japan’s 1945 defeat.bookcover

Historians like to impose order on the past and thus Japan’s history has become segregated into its pre and post-1945 dimensions. As editors we rejected the artificiality of that division. Instead we sought to illuminate and understand both changes and continuities in Japan and its colonised and occupied territories at the moment when Japan’s position in the power dynamic suddenly switched from that of occupier to the occupied.

Launching the book presented the opportunity to reflect upon its making. My talk focussed on the theme of journeys: in content, through the constant movement of people across national borders, as colonisers, forced labourers, soldiers, POWs, repatriates; through the contributors, as we travelled to gather at conferences and workshops to develop and connect our ideas; and via the book itself, as the spark of an idea was shaped into a collaborative published work.

As an historian who works in academe, and who has now published three edited books, it has become obvious that the edited book is undervalued as part of ‘research output’. Published research is subject to a sea of acronyms – HERDC, ERA, IRMA – and reduced to a numerical classification: ‘1’ for a journal article, ‘5’ for a sole-authored book. What is the number for an edited book? That would be zero. Well, a ‘1’ for each chapter authored, but there is no classification for coordination of the project – that is, no numerical recognition for much of the six years of work. In universities, things like workloads and research funding are tied to these acronyms and numbers.

Why then bother once, let alone three times, you might ask. Editing a book is hard work. You need to locate willing contributors, replace those who leave along the way, find a way to evict those who do not produce quality work by the very, very last deadline. You need to put in applications for funding to run workshops or attend conferences (the e-world might be useful for much of the time, but nothing beats brainstorming minds physically gathered in a room). You need to submit book proposals, find expert readers for every chapter, go through several rounds of editing (I have a minimum of three). Chase up AWOL contributors. Let alone write your own chapter/s and introduction, decide on the order of chapters (and should we have sections?), put together title pages, dividers, contributor notes, contents page, the index, lists of figures and tables, references. Find photos for the cover, check permissions and copyright. Format all of this consistently, fill in endless forms. Negotiate with publishers and check the work of copyeditors.


And yet I find it such a rewarding experience, both in the course of the collating and that moment when you proudly hold the completed, beautiful product in your hand. Japan as the Occupier and the Occupied was a transnational and multidisciplinary project, with contributors from Japan, Southeast Asia and Australia.

As editors you are able to present readers a broader view of the topic from a variety of expert scholars with different backgrounds, foci and perspectives, yet with much greater coherence and depth than a journal issue. Your own work grows and develops through contact with others you might not otherwise have met. And you make friends across the country and globe that may even lead to future research collaborations. It is about being part of a project that is greater than oneself.

My fear is that without some form of recognition amongst the acronyms and numbers, the edited book will lose favour, its journey will end and we might talk of a pre and a post-edited book world. That would be a great intellectual loss indeed.