The Importance of Knowing Where We Came From

The Hon. John Howard OM AC delivered the Sir Paul Hasluck Foundation Inaugural Lecture in Winthrop Hall at the University of Western Australia on September 27, 2012.

It is a great honour to deliver the inaugural Sir Paul Hasluck Lecture. The University of Western Australia is where Sir Paul studied, and later taught history, the great passion of his life. More importantly, it’s where he met the great love of his life, Lady Alexandra Hasluck, an important historian in her own right.

I applaud the establishment of the Hasluck Foundation, through the efforts of its Chairman, Senator Brett Mason, and his parliamentary colleagues Arthur Sinodinos, Michaelia Cash, David Bushby, Mitch Fifield and Cory Bernardi. When Brett asked me to deliver this lecture I readily agreed. It honours a great Australian public figure and intellectual, a splendid governor-general, a creative minister of the Crown, an exemplary Liberal and a revered West Australian.

The second son of Salvation Army officers, Sir Paul spent his childhood in the small country towns of Western Australia. The strong interest he would show throughout his career in Aboriginal issues was no doubt influenced by his early interactions with Aboriginal Australians in these towns.

Indeed, his first major book, Black Australians, concerned the relations between colonists and Aborigines in nineteenth-century Western Australia. It was the first study of its kind anywhere in Australia.

Hasluck excelled at history. But as with many before him, and since, Sir Paul’s interest in history soon brought him into contact with the world of politics. Having demonstrated an aptitude for modern European history and international relations, he was recruited into the fledgling Department of External Affairs in 1941.

Sir Paul proved to be an able diplomat, and during the six years that he worked for the Department of External Affairs he played a significant role in the birth and difficult beginning of the United Nations.

He made a big impression in wartime Canberra, and it wasn’t just his talent and work ethic that gained attention. It’s said that Sir Paul avoided the inconvenience of petrol rationing by riding to work on a horse.

Canberra made less of a positive impression on him, however. In one letter home he described the city as “a completely sterile and safe cage in which public servants can work clearly without any major excitements to disturb their routine”. That sounds like a true-born West Australian.

Chosen as the Liberal candidate for the newly formed House of Representatives seat of Curtin, Hasluck was swept into parliament with the newly elected Menzies government in 1949. He would hold Curtin continuously for nearly twenty years. Not once during that time would he sit on the Opposition benches. Widely considered to be one of the most intellectually gifted politicians of his era, Sir Paul was appointed Minister for Territories within two years of his election.

It’s a measure of the man that he devoted himself to this difficult and unglamorous ministry for over twelve years, during which time he pioneered important policies that were well ahead of their time. He helped pave the way for Papua New Guinea’s independence by encouraging that country’s participation in its own administration.

Whilst he has since been criticised by revisionist historians on the Left for using the word assimi­lation, a term that was very much a product of its time, Sir Paul exhibited a deep, abiding concern for the welfare of the First Australians long before many others realised the human tragedy that was unfolding. Hasluck believed that the key to lifting Aboriginal Australians out of poverty was access to education, and integration with the modern Australian economy.

Looking at what my government was able to achieve through policies aimed at improving school attendance and limiting welfare dependence, or looking at the work done by Noel Pearson in Cape York, it’s hard not to conclude that decades of despair and misery could have been avoided if successive Australian governments had seen the wisdom of Sir Paul’s policy prescriptions much earlier.

He proved ahead of his time again as Minister for External Affairs. Twenty years before Paul Keating grandiloquently declared that Australia’s future lay in the Asia-Pacific region—as if he were the first person ever to have thought so—Hasluck was helping to steer Australia towards much closer integration with its region. That he was able to achieve such close ties with our Asian neighbours during a turbulent time for the region that included the Vietnam War and the Malaysian-Indonesian confrontation, was a tribute to his tenacity, skill and foresight.

It will come as no surprise then that many, in both the Liberal Party and Country Party, believed Paul Hasluck was the best person to replace Harold Holt as leader of the Liberal Party and Prime Minister after Holt took that fatal swim at Cheviot Beach on December 17, 1967. John Gorton defeated Paul Hasluck in the ballot for the leadership, and we will never know how different Australian political history might have been if the result had gone the other way.

They were dramatic days in the Liberal Party, graphically described in Alan Reid’s The Power Struggle, a real classic of Australian politics. I commend it to the many younger members of tonight’s audience who were not around at the time. Part of the drama was John McEwen’s blunt refusal to have the Country Party serve in a government led by William McMahon as Liberal Prime Minister. McMahon did not stand for leader.

As Reid’s book tells it, Hasluck adopted a “merit unheralded” approach to the leadership contest. He did little or no direct lobbying beyond an elegant letter to colleagues stating his case. For the first time in Australia there was extensive use of television by the candidates for the leadership of a political party. Gorton’s television performances were a crucial factor in his victory.

Paul Hasluck was of the understated, non-flamboyant kind, abhorring flashiness but all the more effective for that. He formed strong, clear judgments on both policy and people. On the latter we are indebted to his son, Nicholas, for the publication The Chance of Politics, a collection of Sir Paul’s frank and, on occasions, acerbic assessments of his political contemporaries.

Shortly after John Gorton’s election as Prime Minister, Hasluck was appointed Governor-General. At all times he stood above the political fray and provided invaluable private counsel to his three prime ministers, especially Gough Whitlam, with whom he enjoyed a warm relationship. In July 1974 the then Prime Minister honoured Sir Paul and Lady Hasluck with a dinner at Parliament House, to mark their retirement from Yarralumla. With a typical rhetorical flourish Whitlam remarked that Sir Paul’s career “was remarkable in its diversity, yet equally remarkable in its consistency. There has not been a proconsul of more diverse attainment since Cicero.”

In one of those quirks of history Sir Paul chose to decline Whitlam’s offer to extend his term as governor-general in 1974, to be succeeded by Sir John Kerr. The rest, as they say, is history.

Hasluck certainly seemed to live by that saying in his retirement from public life. After thirty-five years of making history, first as a diplomat and then as a politician, he could now return to writing it.

He completed a two-volume history of Australia during the Second World War, and wrote a number of other excellent histories and political accounts right up to his death in 1993. In his chapter on history in Light That Time Has Made he said:

students need to have some concept of the passage of the centuries before they are equipped to study the events of the recent decade. They cannot ask intelligent questions about what happened last year and this year and when, where, how and why it happened unless they have some knowledge in depth of the history of preceding years. 

With that admonition from Sir Paul in mind, I want to touch on the teaching of history in Australia. Done with a proper perspective, the teaching of history will illuminate what we have achieved as a nation, but done without context it will deny future generations a real understanding of what has made us as a nation.


Those who fail to learn history, Winston Churchill said, are doomed to repeat it. But history, if taught well, can point us not just to the mistakes we should never repeat but also to the successes that we should build on.

As Prime Minister I often spoke of the Australian achievement as a way of describing the epic success which has been the Australian nation. I didn’t coin that term; it was the description proposed by the Fraser government in the early 1980s for the Bicentenary celebrations in 1988. The Hawke government dropped it, which I thought a pity as it was a neat, but expressive, way of describing our national success story.

There are many components of the Australian achievement. Unlike so many other countries, we were able to create a functioning democratic political system without ever resorting to violence or conflict.

We were one of the first countries in the world to provide full voting rights to women. We introduced the secret ballot, known for a time around the world as the Australian ballot, one of the most important features of true democracy.

We were one of the first countries to abolish property tests for voting, and introduce the one-man-one-vote principle. Well before the rest of the world, Victoria introduced salaries for members of parliament to ensure that poorer men could afford to give up their jobs to stand for office.

Of course, along the way, we got things wrong. It took us far too long to recognise the special place of Aboriginal people in the history and culture of this country. In common with the rest of the world, it took us far too long to extinguish racial prejudice from our immigration policies. In common with the rest of the world, it took us far too long to recognise that men and women were capable of making an equal contribution to society.

But I don’t think we should ever let honest acknowledgement of this country’s past mistakes obscure its remarkable achievements. The story of Australia is an overwhelmingly positive one.

One component of the Australian achievement which has always stood out has been our capacity in numerous areas of human endeavour and public policy to achieve a sense of balance, which, in many cases is absent in other countries.

Despite what any self-appointed cultural dieticians tell you, Australia is part of Western civilisation. We speak the English language; so many of our institutions are inherited from Britain; and we share all of the advantages and identity of Western civilisation. The Western liberal tradition continues to infuse our public life.

We have been quite clever with our legacy. In building our egalitarian society, we took the good bits—we took the rule of law; we took the parliamentary system; we took the freedom of the press; we took an essentially civil approach to political differences and political discourse—but we rejected class distinction and needless barriers to social mobility.

The fundamental freedoms of Australia are protected by our robust parliamentary system, a highly ethical judiciary and a free and vigorous press, all of which are part of the Western liberal tradition.

Our incorruptible judiciary is held in high regard, and one of the reasons is that we don’t have a Bill of Rights. A Bill of Rights may sound great in theory, but it effectively hands over to unelected judges the power to decide questions of policy and public morality that should be resolved by a democratically elected legislature. One only need look at the issue of gun control in the United States to see how a Bill of Rights can prevent legislatures from acting in the way modern needs and common sense dictate.

We have a free media, and long may it remain unrestrained by those who think they know what people ought to be told. Tony Abbott should be supported to the hilt in his rejection of all attempts by the Gillard government at press censorship.

In our education and health systems, we’ve struck a good balance too. Our education system is stronger for having both public and private contributions. This hybrid model relieves the pressure on the public education system, creates healthy competition between public and private schools, and ensures that parents have the right to choose the type of education their children should receive.

We have balance in our health system. The public health system would come under unbearable strain if we didn’t have provision for private health insurance, and a strong private system.

There is balance in our welfare system as well. Of course, it has many flaws, but it is superior to what exists in the United States. The United States is a country I admire enormously but one of the reasons that country has too high a prison population is that its social welfare system sometimes pushes people into poverty and, in desperation, crime.

Conversely, in parts of Europe the built-in incentive for people to remain on welfare rather than seek work has contributed to the economic lethargy affecting many Eurozone countries. In his recent successful election campaign in France, François Hollande actually promised to reverse a recently legislated, and modest, increase in the retirement age from sixty to sixty-two. Australians are steadily moving towards a retirement age of sixty-seven.

We’ve achieved a good balance in our foreign policy too. When I was Prime Minister I was able to forge closer relationships in our region without ever compromising traditional alliances. I often said that we should never feel we had to choose between our history and our geography.

That was symbolised on two days in October 2003 when first President Bush addressed a joint sitting of parliament, and the next day President Hu Jintao, undertaking his first major overseas visit, also addressed a joint sitting of parliament. It was possible, simultaneously, to move even closer to the United States and at the same time build a positive and rewarding relationship with China, albeit of a different kind, but productive and enduring nonetheless. Obviously, we have more in common with the United States culturally, historically and politically, and we always will as we share common values, and we should not pretend otherwise. But we don’t have to make that a point of dispute with our Chinese friends.

Of course one can argue about the specifics in all these areas, and I happen to believe that Coalition governments tend to do a better job in all of them, but the point I simply make to you tonight is that in so many areas of public policy Australia has achieved a rare and important sense of balance.

This is something of which we should all be proud, and one might expect, therefore, that when it comes to the future teaching of the history of this country to Australian school children, that balance might be reflected. Regrettably, if recent and proposed curricula are any guide, this will not be the case. If the draft national history curriculum is anything to go by, and of course it must be, then that admirable sense of balance of which I have spoken tonight is absent. The draft history curriculum released by the Commonwealth government will be implemented in most states by the latter half of 2013; it sets out a framework for what students will learn through to Year 10 and must be taught in what will now be a compulsory subject. Also outlined is the curriculum for those who choose history in Years 11 and 12.

It is good that history will become a compulsory subject to Year 10. It is also good that there will be more emphasis on Aboriginal history, which must include a frank but objective assessment of past mistakes. Asian history will be more prominent, and no one can argue with that—although it is a bit of a myth that we haven’t been taught much Asian history in the past. When I sat the Modern History examination for the New South Wales Leaving Certificate in 1956 I answered questions on both China and Japan.

Beyond those praiseworthy features there is much about the curriculum that I find unbalanced, lacking in priorities and in some cases quite bizarre. The curriculum does not properly reflect the undoubted fact that Australia is part of Western civilisation; in the process it further marginalises the historic influence of the Judeo-Christian ethic in shaping Australian society and virtually purges British history from any meaningful role.

The teaching of history is meant to explain what happened, why, and what lessons can be learned from the past. The structure of this curriculum will not facilitate this occurring.

The laudable goals of enhancing the teaching of Aboriginal and Asian history could have been fully achieved by the curriculum’s authors without relegating or virtually eliminating the study of influences vital to a proper understanding of who we are as a people and where we came from.

It is a fact that modern Australia is a product of Western civilisation; the Judeo-Christian influence is a reality and the British inheritance is self-evident. We cannot properly understand our nation’s history unless we fully recognise that this is the case.

The curriculum’s treatment of human rights is ultra-legalistic, as if human rights were first discovered by those who wrote the United Nations Charter in 1945. The recommended study of political thought and movements, more generally as well as with application to Australia, is slanted to the progressive Left view of the world—the most egregious example being the perpetuation of the leftist myth that it was Gough Whitlam and not Harold Holt who abolished the White Australia policy.

Beyond a study of the two world wars, momentous events of the past 100 years such as the rise and fall of Soviet communism and the economic globalisation of recent decades, which has lifted hundreds of millions from poverty, are treated in a piecemeal fashion and not given the prominence their importance commands.

That our Western heritage appears to be so conspicuously absent from the history curriculum reflects a growing retreat from self-belief in Western civilisation. It is as if the West must always play the villain simply because it has tended to enjoy more power and economic success than other parts of the world since 1500.

Have a look at the curriculum for Years 10 to 12 dealing with the twentieth century. Students are invited to choose a study of one nation from each of two lists. Incredibly, Australia and the United States are in list one along with Germany and the Soviet Union—and this is for the period 1905 to 1945. The rationale for grouping Australia and the USA with Germany and Russia is that they were “Western nations beset by crises and that shared the following historical experiences; involvement in World War I, challenges to their democracies from ideologies such as Fascism and Nazism.”

Such a grouping justifies the description of bizarre. Neither Australia nor the United States faced any internal threat from Nazism or Fascism during that time. Self-evidently, those ideologies would only have affected Australia if Germany had been victorious in the Second World War. Also, when in that period did Russia, apart from the interregnum of the Provisional Government under Alexander Kerensky—which lasted from February to October 1917—enjoy anything approaching democracy? Didn’t the revolution take Russia from the absolutism of the Tsars to the dictatorship of the Soviets?

The purging of British history from the curriculum is particularly blameworthy. The influence of British institutions on Australia is a fact, not nostalgia: Magna Carta, parliamentary democracy, the language we speak—which, need I remind you, is now the lingua franca of Asia—much of the literature we imbibe, a free and irreverent media, our relatively civil system of political discourse, the rule of law and trial by jury; indeed, many of the sports we play; these are all owed in one form or another to the British.

How these institutions developed, and the individual and community struggles involved, is our history as much as it is British history. We cannot know modern Australia well without understanding the British story. How can young Australians ever be expected to understand how fragile and hard-won the rule of law is, without knowing a little about the English Civil War?

Noel Pearson enjoys wide respect as a forthright, articulate Aboriginal leader. One of his great strengths is that he speaks of Aboriginal issues in the broader Australian context. He once had something to say to me about the British influence on Australia. In a long, impassioned and thoughtful letter, written to me when I was Prime Minister in 2007, subsequently published, he said that Aboriginal Australia and the British inheritance were the two great formative influences on our nation. For him, both were critically important to what he saw as a fully reconciled Australia.

The curriculum dwells heavily on human rights, but in a fashion which suggests that the source of human rights is to be found in the United Nations Charter, the Declaration of Human Rights and various legislative enactments in Australia and around the world. These are important legal codifications of human rights but are anything but the full story. They represent no guarantee that human rights will be observed. History, including quite recent history, is replete with examples of fine-sounding words, even in constitutions, being swept aside, and human rights trampled upon, if the domestic as well as international political will, as well as the capacity, to protect them, is absent.

The proper human rights story cannot be told without a context which traces the evolution of the concept of individual liberty from early times, dealing with practices such as slavery and how it ended, as well as the most horrific instances of human rights violations such as the Holocaust. After all, the most basic of all rights is the right to live.

I have always respected the secular tradition in Australia, but this tradition is in no way in conflict with a full and objective understanding of the extent to which the Judeo-Christian ethic has moulded our society. Indeed, Christianity has often reinforced and inspired many of our most important secular ideas and values, including freedom of speech and freedom of association. The new curriculum does not reflect this.

There is some irony here. The more zealous secularists in our midst justify pressure to exclude, progressively, the Christian religion from the public space by invoking the mantra of the separation of church and state, in seeming ignorance that the very foundation of that important principle is to be found in the injunction of Christ in the Gospel according to St Matthew when he said, “Render unto Caesar the things which are Caesar’s, and unto God, the things that are God’s.”

Another illustration of the bizarre is to be found in the Year 10 curriculum, which is the final part of the compulsory course. In it students are required to do what is called an in-depth study of one of three aspects of globalisation from 1945 to today: the options are popular culture, environmental movements or mass migration movements.

Now I looked at that, and I read it several times and I thought to myself: since 1945, what has been the most significant element of globalisation that has really affected the world and Australia?

Surely it has to be economic globalisation? Surely it’s the fact that the spread through market forces and more open trade, of economic growth to countries like China, India and other nations in our region, has helped liberate literally hundreds of millions from poverty? It’s a process that is set to continue transforming the global balance of power and remains the key to eradicating poverty in places like Africa.

It’s also why the future of our country is so closely intertwined with that of China and its neighbours. One of the reasons we dodged the bullet of the global financial crisis was our enormous resource trade, particularly with China. The other reason was, of course, the excellent fiscal condition in which the Coalition left the Australian economy in 2007.

By the year 2030, most of the middle-class people in the world will live in the Asia-Pacific region. This is an historic trend and it’s the greatest shift in the locus of economic power since the Industrial Revolution.

Yet as the historian Greg Melleuish has pointed out, for some extraordinary reason, those who wrote this new curriculum, in their infinite wisdom, believed that ACDC and Kylie Minogue are more important to an understanding of the globalising world since 1945. And I say that with much respect to a talented entertainer.

This is in part a reflection of a modern trend to give higher priority to imparting abstract research skills than to actual knowledge. It is an approach that assumes it is more important to identify the online secondary sources for the Norman Conquest than to know what that was or when it happened.

But what’s the use of these research skills if students have no understanding of what to look for? What’s the use of teaching abstract themes if students don’t understand how they connect or why they’re important?

In its treatment of political thought and movement in the past 100 years, the starkest evidence that the curriculum has its priorities wrong is that there is no discrete study of the rise and fall of Soviet communism. Surely the fall of the Berlin Wall, and the associated end of Soviet domination of Eastern Europe leading to the disintegration of the Soviet Union itself, which finally put paid to any notion that the command economy model could work, has been the most momentous development to touch the ebb and flow of political ideologies since the end of the Second World War.

There is reference to these events, but only in country-specific studies that will not provide the prominence and perspective they deserve, and moreover the arrangement of the curriculum means that students will not be required to study these historic shifts. It will not allow for analysis of the impact of other political and economic philosophies, or of other nations, and their leaders, on the former Soviet system. Then that might have invited acknowledgement of the roles of Ronald Reagan, Margaret Thatcher and Pope John Paul II. I get the impression that the drafters of this curriculum would not have wanted that.

The curriculum is repeatedly unbalanced in the choice of subjects which have an obvious political context.

It’s impossible adequately to teach any country’s history without touching on political issues. That’s only proper. But it is imperative that balance and objectivity are scrupulously observed. One can have no objection to the progressive Left view being reflected in the curriculum provided it is balanced with other views. This is not the case with this curriculum.

For instance, in Year 9, students are given the option of learning about the “progressive ideas and movements” of the nineteenth century. The ideas which feature are socialism, imperialism, nationalism, egalitarianism, Darwinism, capitalism and Chartism. Not one mention of conservatism. Not one mention of liberalism, which is extraordinary given that the Western liberal tradition is pervasive in Australia and in similar countries.

In the same context students will study the reasons why one key idea emerged or developed a following. Naturally the example suggested in the curriculum is the influence of the industrial revolution on socialism. Where is the counter-balancing example?

In Year 11/12 one of the electives is workers’ rights. Students will learn about the Tolpuddle Martyrs, the influence of Chartism, and Engels and Marx. The International Labour Organisation will be studied, as will the International Federation of Trade Unions and their methods to advance workers’ rights. Once again, where is the balance? Where is the elective inviting a detailed study of free enterprise, including the central role of private property ownership? That should be included in any balanced study of our social history. In areas such as this the assumption of the curriculum is that wealth will always be there and scant regard need be paid to its generation.

Students can learn about the Harvester judgment, the introduction of pensions, and workers’ rights, and there can be no objection to that; but where, for example, is the reference to the decisive rejection in the late 1940s of attempts to nationalise Australia’s banking system? If successful those moves would have fundamentally altered the direction of the Australian economy. And as for the role of small business in the history of the Australian economy—not a mention.

Its coverage of modern Chinese political history inexplicably stops at 1976, two years before Deng Xiaoping introduced liberal economic reforms that would dramatically transform China’s economy, although some reference is made elsewhere to China’s contemporary economic performance; once again however, the context is wrong.

I am sure it will astonish you all to know that students will not be required to do a detailed study of the mainstream history of Australia between 1750 and 1918.

Let me explain why. The study of Australian history is first introduced into the curriculum in Year 6 but, understandably, it is of a generalised kind, and does not contain any of the so-called “depth studies”, which are introduced in later years. The curriculum returns to Australian history in Year 9, under the heading of “Making a Better World (1750–1914)”. Yet, incredibly, students will not be required to study Australian history in depth for that period because such a study is offered only as an alternative to a depth study of an Asian country. It is not compulsory.

So, under this curriculum, Australian school students will not be required to learn, in detail, about the formation of the Commonwealth of Australia through the federation of the colonies in 1901, without question the most important event in our national history. Need I say more.

Choices have to be made in any curriculum and of course it’s impossible to satisfy everybody, but my fear is that if this curriculum remains unamended young Australians of the future will be denied a proper knowledge of our nation’s history. If something is to be done about this curriculum then only state governments and, in particular, their education ministers can do it.

Australians have so much to be proud of. The common sense and balance we have achieved in so many important areas is a product of who we are and where we’ve come from. Let us never forget those influences, and those values that have contributed to the nation that so many are desperate to come to.

We must have got a lot right. I just hope we’re smart enough to defend what we’ve got right and where it came from.

Mr Howard was Prime Minister of Australia from 1996 to 2007. His memoir Lazarus Rising is Australia’s biggest-selling political autobiography.

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