Paul Daley: Militarisation of Australian History

Speech published with kind permission of Medical Association for Prevention of war..  For a link to the speech on the MAPW Website, see here.

Guardian columnist, journalist, novelist and playwright Paul Daley was MAPW’s guest at the annual ACT fundraising dinner, November 2019.

The following is the prepared text of Paul’s speech, published here with kind permission. 

Thank you for the welcome and thanks Sue for the invitation to speak tonight to the MAPW’s annual dinner.

The association does incredibly important work that is dear to my heart, in promoting peace and disarmament and through its ambition to reduce the physical and psychological impact of wars across the globe. I congratulate you all for supporting such an important and noble organisation – an organisation which has one aim: to make the world a better, more peaceful place. It’s hard to argue with that.

I’d like to start tonight by acknowledging the Aboriginal custodians of this land, the limestone plains, where we are gathered tonight, the elders past and present and any Indigenous people among us. This has always been Indigenous land – land from which the first custodians were dispossessed in the most violent of circumstances.

This has always been Indigenous land – land from which the first custodians were dispossessed in the most violent of circumstances.

Now, if I was the incumbent Prime Minister, I would also be giving a wholly inappropriate addendum to what has been a long-standing and bipartisan tradition of unambiguously acknowledging country and Indigenous custodianship. For it is clear that every time he makes a public speech the prime minister now plans to pay tribute to any serving defence force personnel and veterans, in the same breath as he makes his acknowledgment of Indigenous country.

Nobody is arguing that the critical work of defence personnel should be ignored by our political and cultural and opinion leaders. It never has been. But here Scott Morrison is affording a cultural and historical equivalence between defence force personnel and the Indigenous people of this continent who were invaded, dispossessed and murdered in their tens upon tens of thousands, denied citizenship and political franchise in their own land, and who now suffer the associated continued injustices, traumas and discriminations. The conflation diminishes the universally unique Indigenous spiritual and cultural antiquity in this land. And it does little but confuse the unique issues that relate to former and serving defence personnel.

As political messaging goes, this is as subtle as a sledgehammer – and fitting, perhaps, for a tourism ad-man who’s somehow made it to the lodge. It is also cynical in the extreme because it deliberately plays to a tension, racial in part, that has long existed over Australian historiography’s interpretations of national genesis and identity. In some ways those tensions have never been more acute, now that in every public speech the pm makes he apparently plans to simultaneously acknowledge defence personnel and Indigenous country.

For many, many decades now…militarism has been ascendant in Australia’s foundation story

For many, many decades now – perhaps since the days of Billy Hughes – militarism has been ascendant in Australia’s foundation story. Indeed, there is ample in our colonial and postcolonial social and political past to illustrate how Australia has long sought to construct a foundation myth around militarisation.

I don’t think our arguments about how Australian history is interpreted should be captive to a left-right paradigm. Leaders of all political persuasions in both colonial and post-federation Australia have rushed to beat a khaki drum albeit with differing levels of subtlety and for varying ends. The cultural sanctity of ANZAC – including the profligate spending on it – has long had bipartisan protection. Few, at least that I can think of, have argued for the primacy in our national story of 60,000-plus years of Indigenous civilisation.

But I think there is room for nuance. I think Australian history is complex, for all its light and shade. And I actually think it can incorporate narratives that have been set up to compete during decades of culture war. I think that it is not black or white, or a simple case of an either-or narrative. I’ll come back to that when I get to the Australian War Memorial and the stories its guardians allow it to tell.

In the past five or six years I’ve been writing a column about all this called “postcolonial”. It was named with deliberate irony by the global editor in chief of the guardian, Kath Viner. While the title hinted at the present Australian federation, progressive since its genesis in some ways – for example on women’s suffrage and worker’s rights and the freedoms afforded to some – it also alludes to the colonial stains that Australia can’t escape without the type of prolonged, intensive and painful period of national introspection and truth-telling that we have yet to fully embark on.

I’ve written volumes about how Australia’s national narrative has become hostage to those I’ve called the `ANZAC birthers’ – historians, writers, military leaders and politicians, beginning with old Billy Hughes, who’ve insisted the Australian nation was somehow born on the shores and cliffs of Gallipoli. It’s a narrative that has grown ever more pervasive in recent decades, especially since the 70th anniversary of the Gallipoli invasion during which Bob Hawke returned to what had become Turkey with the veterans, and amid the profound impact on Australian consciousness, especially among the young, of Peter Weir’s evocative movie Gallipoli and also amid a raft of literally hundreds of popular histories about Australia’s participation in the Dardanelles campaign.

The ANZAC narrative… has blossomed at the expensive of other salient elements of our continental history

It’s a narrative, I think, that has blossomed at the expensive of other salient elements of our continental history, not least the cultural treasure associated with 60,000-plus years of Indigenous civilisation, the contributions made by women and migrants, and, of course, the long and peaceful negotiations preceding a federation that was achieved without the cordite and cold steel that characterised such momentous political turning points in other nations.

In recent years the competing narratives of Australian foundation have revolved around a face-off between two military operations – that on an obscure finger of the ottoman empire in 1915 and that other invasion – the one Australia talks and thinks less about – in 1788. There is the invasion we boast about even though we were on the losing side. And there is the one many Australians, especially our political leaders, find it difficult to name. The confection of an Australian narrative around one as has been the case with ANZAC, denies so much more of the depth and texture that Australia’s difficult, amazing story has to offer.

I think the pervasiveness of what Geoffrey Searle labelled in the 1960s as ANZACkery has inured mainstream cultural consciousness to the creeping militarisation of the Australian story and to the disproportionate commemoration of Australia’s involvement in world war one. The $600 million of mostly government money spent on ANZAC commemoration and the Australian media’s largely uncritical embrace of it – including a needless $100 million Monash Interpretive Centre on the European western front where Australia’s war dead are already widely acknowledged – would seem to testify to this.

This money was lavished, coincidentally, at a time when Indigenous delegates gathered at Uluru to discuss how they might or might not wish to be acknowledged in the constitution, a collection of words that many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people see as the founding document of the settler state.

The response from Uluru was unambiguous: words in the constitution were meaningless; a formal process of truth-telling about the racially-driven violence and oppression that has stretched from the frontier until now and a constitutionally enshrined Indigenous voice to parliament were called for.

Critically, the statement out of Uluru expressed optimism that ancient sovereignty might shine through as a fuller expression of Australia’s nationhood.

Ministers of the Turnbull government took less than a day to reject the central message out of Uluru. Six months later, having cynically mischaracterised it as a third chamber, Malcolm Turnbull rejected the voice to parliament in a press release. A year and a half later Morrison in his speeches invests military service with the same continental historical and spiritual weight as that ancient sovereignty, while rejecting out of hand that enshrined voice to parliament. And so much for historical truth telling – no advance has been made on that and no adequate, considered response has been proffered by government.

Last week as I watched the images of Australians – and others – queuing up to clamber over Uluru ahead of the climbing ban (a disturbing metaphor for so much treatment of Indigenous Australians), it became clear to me that Morrison, with his new take on the acknowledgment of country, has a ready audience. What he is saying is not so much a dog whistle as a siren to those who do not understand or who feel threatened by the deep, complex Indigenous past of this land.

He, like Tony Abbott before him, is conveying a message that the most important stories this country has to tell revolve around a series of whitefella dates – 1915 and 1788, and, of course, 1770, when James Cook arrived. Morrison, by the way, has agreed to spend $50 million on Cook commemorations, much of it in his own electorate of Cook where the navigator landed, including on another expensive monument to the British navy man. Do we really need another monument to James Cook? Last time I counted on the monuments Australia site, at least 110 monuments and statues had been dedicated to the lieutenant. This does not count the many institutions, streets, parks, towns, and waterways named after him.

It’s worth remembering that just a few years ago another liberal pm Tony Abbott declared Australia was quote “scarcely settled” at invasion with the first fleet’s arrival in 1788 – an event he regarded as quote “the defining moment in the history of this country”.

The political intransigence over the date of Australia day shows how blithely the sentiments of many Indigenous people and their supporters are disregarded. The same might apply to some other symbolism of the federation, including the national anthem with its line – “for we are young and free”. It seems to me almost a provocation to Indigenous sensibility that the War Memorial has chosen under the directorship of Brendan Nelson to use that line to which so many Indigenous people object, on its banner promotions and advertising materials.

I’ve always loved Canberra, both as a place to live and also as a repository of the Australian memory through its institutions such as the national archives, the national library, the gallery, the national museum and the war memorial. Canberra, despite the politicians who malign it and bang on endlessly about some Canberra bubble, is a smart, progressive and outward looking place. It’s a city I’ve loved living in and one which I really enjoy returning to often.

But it is also a city at odds with the greeting I get when I walk into Canberra airport where the names and wares of some of the world’s biggest manufacturers of combat weaponry are advertised on monolithic billboards on the walls. This conveys to me – and I’m sure to many visitors to the national capital – an unmistakable impression of a country tying its identity, in part, to warfare.

Canberra… is obviously a city where politics speaks intimately to the arms merchants.

This is obviously a city where politics speaks intimately to the arms merchants. This is not surprising, perhaps, given Australia’s stated aim under the Turnbull government and its successor to make Australia one of the world’s top 10 arms exporters. Where once it was the sheep’s back, then farm equipment, cars and minerals, now it seems, Australia is aiming low – seeking to build an international reputation on the ever-greater export of killing machines.

Christopher Pyne, then the relevant minister, said that Australia would never export weapons “willy-nilly”- that they’d only be sold to “appropriate countries and places”. Of course, no long or even medium-term guarantees can ever be given on how the weapons of war are used and by whom – given the massive second-hand trade in armaments. At a time of increasing global insecurity and ever-changing allegiances, becoming a world leader in the arms trade would seem to me to be an ignoble aspiration.

I thought World Vision’s Tim Costello nailed it when he said: “the government says this is an export and investment opportunity, but we would be exporting death and profiting from bloodshed. Is that what we want Australia to be known for?” Apparently, yes.

It was instructive to me that so much – though not all – media challenge to the proposition was grounded in economic rather than moral doubt.

Now Canberra is also a place where the arms merchants speak to one particular cultural institution: the war memorial. According to the memorial’s own records it solicits and accepts funding from the world’s foremost weapons manufacturers: Lockheed Martin, Boeing, BAE systems, Raytheon, Northrop Grumman and Thales. Many of you will have heard Dr Nelson justifying this.

My friend David Stephens, the convenor of the wonderful Honest History outfit, wrote fittingly of the relationship between the memorial and the arms merchants as “the military-industrial-commemorative complex” whereby the arms maker provides, the ADF disposes, the memorial commemorates in a continuous cycle”.

I see this as nothing but an obscene contradiction: the makers of the weapons of war have no business in commemorating the deaths of those they profit from.

But the memorial, of course, is filled with contradictions, not least over its refusal to commemorate the wars and conflicts that raged across this continent between Indigenous defenders of their lands and soldiers, settlers, militias and raiding parties – conflicts that claimed, according to reputable research, as many as 60,000 Indigenous lives in Queensland alone. That’s the same as the number of Australian men who died in WW1 and a national translation dramatically overshadows the conservative projection that 20,000 Indigenous people died across the continent in those conflicts.

In my view it is intellectually inconsistent to laud, as the war memorial does, the contribution of ‘black diggers” who fought under the British or Australian flag – yes, an important acknowledgment in itself – while refusing to tell the story of those Indigenous people who resisted continental invasion.

It would be simple for the AWM to tell both stories. Yet it refuses.

Australian history and culture are complex and nuanced. 60,000-plus years of Indigenous civilisation, with all of its cultural and spiritual wealth, is the bedrock of this country’s story. It’s the spine of the Australian book. The important chapters, not least the remarkable continued flourishing of the oldest civilisation on earth, the arrival of the Macassans, the Dutch and the British, invasion in 1788, federation in 1901, Gallipoli in 1915 and so much that is happened since, are written along that continuum of memory.

There’s room for far more than just that new military story.

Thank you for listening. I hope I’ve made some sense. And thanks very much for coming along tonight to support the fine work of MAPW.