History meets parliament

Our Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, is taking history books to read at the beach.  One is Michael Pembroke’s biography of NSW governor Arthur Phillip. Pembroke’s book was on the shortlist in the history category of the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards. It did not win the $80,000 prize, which was shared by Joan Beaumont for Broken Nation: Australians in the Great War, and Hal Colebatch for Australia’s Secret War: How Unionists Sabotaged Our Troops in World War II.

The judges’ decision has stirred the coals of Australia’s history wars. Beaumont’s work had already been widely praised, with one review in The Guardian asserting: ‘This detailed and unflinching narrative sets a high benchmark in the lead up to the centenary of the first world war’. On the other hand, Colebatch’s tome has been dubbed shoddy and right-wing by columnist and fellow contender Mike Carlton, and  ‘badly structured [with a lot of] hearsay’, by one of the judges, Ann Moyal.  For readers who have not followed the furore, there is a good account in The Saturday Paper.

Apart from offering some ideas for your Christmas reading list, the current argy bargy again puts the spotlight on the practice of history. As Peter Stanley commented: ‘… good history has to be based on evidence, scholarship and good writing’.  He went on to observe that ‘Hal Colebatch’s book fails on every one of those measures’. You can read more of Stanley’s critique here.

Other commentary has pointed out how good it is that Australia now has these well-endowed and high-profile literary awards. And it is heartening that our leaders are reading history. As the PHA NSW & ACT discussed at the Australian Historical Association conference in 2013, good history can be a great policy tool. The question the current commotion poses is how we can make sure our politicians and the people they appoint to judge such a prestigious prize better understand the complexities of history making.

Perhaps we can take a leaf out of the History & Policy collaboration in Britain, which has regular engagement with policy makers (and a dedicated  trade union forum), and has won admirers for using an historical lens within government.  While any effort by the PHA NSW & ACT would be on a much more modest scale, we could consider making ‘history meets parliament’ a feature for our pearl anniversary.  If the scientists can do it, why not historians?

With best wishes of the season to all our blog readers

Francesca Beddie

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