Remembering the future

I heard Keith Windschuttle speak in 2003. This is from my journal notes:

I walked to the Melbourne Trades Hall through Carlton’s Lygon Street on Wednesday March 5, 2003. Past fancy Italian restaurants with men in good suits and crisp white aprons touting on the street. Melbourne’s Grand Prix red and white flags were beating against the windows. Past set tables under gas heated umbrellas for a kilometre or so before arriving at the grey cement and stone of the old Trades Hall. Tonight, historians Keith Windschuttle and Pat Grimshaw (Melbourne University) are debating Windschuttle’s allegations of misrepresentation of Australian history by at least two of our major historians.

The core of those who consider themselves ‘The Left’ in Melbourne have gathered. There is an odour of blood in the air this evening, just before the Labor Day long weekend. You can hear the cars screaming around Albert Park Lake as they warm up for the Grand Prix. This is a moment in history where I want to be present, sitting in the front seat, listening.

Windschuttle sits behind a table chatting to the moderator on a high stage of a two tiered hall in the old Trades Hall building. Professor Pat Grimshaw arrives and about three hundred members of the public take their seats in the body of the hall and in the balcony. Some stand around the doorways.

Each speaker has half an hour to put their case. Windschuttle speaks first. He launches straight into the facts, and a small history of how he came to re-examine the histories of Henry Reynolds and Lyndall Ryan after reading of Rod Moran’s difficulties with regard to the alleged Forrest River Massacre in Western Australia.

Windschuttle claims that Governor Phillip, and the Australian colonies in general, were never seriously threatened by aboriginal resistance. That a figure given by Reynolds for the number of aborigines killed by whites in Queensland turned out to be the number of whites killed by aborigines. That  Tasmanian aborigines were mainly killed by pneumonia and influenza rather than any deliberate policy of the government. Windschuttle claims that accusations of genocide are wrong. So seriously wrong, that the true figures show that there were more whites killed by aboriginals, than aboriginals killed by whites. 

Windschuttle claims that Tasmania was one of the most benign settlements ever made by the British Empire, coming at a time when slavery had been outlawed, and the dignity and equality of each human being was strongly adhered to by both the humanists and the missionaries. Aboriginal resistance in Tasmania, he says, was mainly the result of criminal activities of a couple of aboriginal outlaws, one from N.S.W. and the other brought up from infancy in a white household. Rather than guerrilla warriors, both were bushrangers living by plundering outlying farms, and their example was eventually followed by the remnants of the tribal Aborigines. He is succinct, clear and maintains an integrity and authenticity with a penetrating intelligence that reminds me of Tom Wolfe. 

Grimshaw attacks the man. She mouths the words Keith Windschuttle slowly and jeeringly. I am reminded of the games that we played in the debating society at secondary school. She begins with various definitions of the ‘craft’ of a historian. Grimshaw instructs us that it is the job of historians to interpret the ‘silences’ in history, and that ‘post-modernism’ requires a much greater interpretive role for the historian. She refers to ‘British Imperialism’ and ‘the invasion’ where there were no treaties signed and no compensation paid.

She mocks Windschuttle for publishing in right wing Quadrant magazine and asks how he could even consider the word of ‘humanitarians and missionaries’ when interpreting aboriginal history.

Grimshaw claims that Windschuttle has completely ignored aboriginal resistance, and then refers to the Maori experience in her homeland of New Zealand. She makes an aggressive, and largely irrelevant, argument defending the genocidal undercurrents presented by both Lyndall Ryan and Henry Reynolds.

The half-hour of questions that followed revealed a disturbed and angry audience. They fired emotional and incoherent questions at Windschuttle with what could only be described as venom. Gary Foley, ex-aboriginal activist, asked Windschuttle if it were true he had been paid $200 to give this lecture. I am bamboozled by this question. As it turned out he got his airfare and a normal lecture fee of about one hundred dollars. I wonder what Foley thinks of Geoff Clark (ATSIC Chairman) taking his wife to Ireland at an expense of over thirty thousand dollars to the taxpayer to attend a conference of fifty people, or indeed the affluent, privileged, middle class existence he himself has enjoyed over the past twenty years or so?

Windschuttle handled all the questions easily, even the angry woman who shouted out from the gods that we were all invaders who had destroyed the Garden of Eden. He was composed and compassionate, though direct and scholarly in replying to the fast disappearing patience of the comrades.

Ian Syson, ex-editor of the Left’s Overland magazine remained leaning on the doorway silently glaring. In the previous Saturday’s Age he had published a short article in the ‘Chapter and Verse’ section, berating the National Library of Australia for displaying Windschuttle’s book in a prominent position because it was ‘self published’. Yet he showed no concern about the false displays depicting highly disputed massacres of aboriginal people by white people remaining in the National Museum of Australia. Syson remained silent for the entire debate and left early.

At the end Keith Windschuttle was left alone on the stage, as the party faithful filed out of this old hall, bloodless and with an air of disgust. Though I admire and respect those who fight for the underdog and a ‘fair go’, I fear there are elements in power in left wing circles who are willing to fill ‘the silences’ in history with fabrication and lies.

I am pleased that our history in settling and helping bring this nation into being, along with the aboriginal people, has clearly been more compassionate and even considered, than has been told. I call on Professor Lyndall Ryan [this was written in 2003] to come clean and face the music. Tell us once and for all whether Keith Windschuttle has got it right. After twelve months to consider his thesis, she has a responsibility to tell us the truth.

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