Tag Archives: Australia

Why It’s Important to Study Australian History in Australia

My last blog was inspired by an activity I had my students do, reflecting on the importance of studying American History in Australia. This post is inspired by the conversations had about that task, where the same students who saw the importance of understanding the history of the United States roundly dismissed Australian History.

There was a time where I shared the opinion of my students, that Australia doesn’t have an interesting history, aside from the clichéd moments, such as the First Fleet, Gold Rush and World Wars.

As I’ve explained earlier, my work now explores what is to me a crucial period of Australian history, the post-war period. It was at this time that Australia began to emerge from the shadow of the British Empire and start to construct its own identity.

One of the basic assumptions that I have always believed as an historian is that understanding the past assists us in understanding the present. It is an argument I always use when questioned by people who are sceptical as to the value of historical study, particularly after I explain that I would like to make a career out of being an historian.

With that in mind, it becomes obvious that the study of Australian History should be crucial at all levels of education in Australia. Without understanding where we have come from we cannot possibly hope to grasp what is happening today.

Yet this is clearly not the case. I have students who are clearly engaged with the study of history deriding Australian History. Clearly this is a flaw with the way history is taught at high schools where the clichéd topics appear to be emphasised. Students come to university with an assumption that Australian history is boring, or even worse that ‘we have no history’, as a student informed me in class a couple of months ago.

This couldn’t be further from the truth. My own work examines a fascinating period in Australia, where our place in the world was changing, along with the country itself. No longer would Australia be a part of the European world. It was time to accept our proximity to the ‘Near North’, and engage with the newly formed and quickly developing countries of Asia.

Another key area that needs to be studied is the interaction between indigenous Australians and settlers during the process of colonisation throughout the 19th century. Recognising that the relative prosperity enjoyed by a large proportion of Australians came at the expense of another group might change the way people act today.

I guess I could sum up this post (as well as my discussion of the importance of American History) by simply pointing out that everyone should have at least some kind of education in history. Obviously, this reflects my own passion for history. But I am convinced that Australian history is not ‘boring’, and does not simply comprise of a handful of select topics. The sooner this fact is grasped, the better for everyone.

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Why It’s Important to Study American History in Australia

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I am currently teaching a unit at Monash University on the American Civil War. Earlier this semester I assigned my students the task of explaining why they were interested in American History and why they, as Australians, were interested in the United States. They had 500 words to answer the question. I figured I would put my response, in the interests of explaining to people who ask me the same question.

As I have already explained on this blog, my current research project explores the influence of American power and ideas on Australian policy in Southeast Asia between 1945-75. The transnational route has been a departure for me, as I was previously just interested in American History.

Ever since I studied the Vietnam War as an undergraduate I have been interested in the political history of the United States. As the dominant power in world politics, I feel it is necessary to understand how America came to be the country it is today.

While it wasn’t until the period following the Second World War that the US really took the reins as global leader, the stage had been set in the previous several decades. As a historian, I am intrigued by the way American power developed, and by the reluctance they exhibited in exerting that power. My previous research project explored the Wilsonian period, where the US missed a crucial opportunity to exert global leadership.

Why this reluctance? Understanding the answer to this question (which cannot be provided in less than 500 words) helps us understand America today. In the same way, understanding the developments of the American Civil War helps my students recognise some of the difficulties the US faces today.

But why is it important for us to understand these ideas in Australia? I think there are two primary reasons: Firstly, Australia has consciously caused itself to become part of the American-led world system; and secondly, the widespread influence of American culture and politics effects Australia to such an extent that understanding the US helps us understand ourselves.

Australia and the US share some striking similarities. Both countries dispossessed large numbers of indigenous peoples in a colonisation process that was effectively genocide. Both countries enjoy relatively peaceful democratic political systems that are underpinned by stable economies. Both countries experience a level of prosperity that the majority of other countries envy. It seems obvious that studying the history of America helps us understand our own history.

Obviously differences exist between the two countries. The US enjoys a level of global prominence that Australia will never attain. Race and multiculturalism are experienced in different ways. Geographical and ecological differences have resulted in vastly different settlement patterns. But recognising and exploring the differences only helps us understand the other more effectively.

Personally, the final reason is perhaps the most important. As an Australian, I find the United States fascinating. Full of contradictions, the more I learn about the history of the USA the more interesting the country becomes.

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Some Important Moments in Australian-Indonesian Relations

A lot has been said in the news recently about Australian relations with Indonesia. Largely revolving around asylum seekers and Tony Abbott’s pledge to ‘Turn Back the Boats,’ there has been a mood of looming crisis between the two countries. Indonesia has criticised the Coalition policy, showing just how difficult the issue is. With Abbott now in Indonesia, it will be interesting to see what his skills as a foreign affairs leader are like.

While this is a key moment in our relations with one of our closest neighbours, I thought I’d put it into perspective by looking at other moments where Australia and Indonesia didn’t see eye to eye.

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West New Guinea

After playing an important role in assisting with Indonesian independence in 1949, relations between Australia and Indonesia soured over the status of West New Guinea. Australia was anxious to prevent Indonesia from taking over the region, partly owing to its own colonial concerns next door in Papua and New Guinea.

Differences existed for over a decade, until a US supported deal saw WNG become part of Indonesia in 1963. Australia’s fears of an expansionist Indonesia were largely unfounded (a trend that would repeat itself), but this was the first of a regular series of moments that pushed Australian-Indonesian relations.

‘Konfrontasi’

 

At a very similar time to the disagreement over WNG, tensions grew over the Indonesian reaction to the creation of Malaysia. Sukarno initiated a policy of ‘Confrontation’ that actually led to direct conflict between Australian and Indonesia forces.

Eventually the dispute was settled, largely due to the overthrow of Sukarno and the rise of a right-wing military dictatorship led by Suharto (leading to a genocide of over a million ‘communists’). Suharto, with his anti-communist views proved much more satisfying to American and Australian policymakers who were concerned about Sukarno’s unpredictability.

Once again, crisis loomed and was ultimately avoided.

 

East Timor and its Aftermath

In 1975, following the withdrawal of Portuguese rule, East Timor was invaded and ultimately incorporated into Indonesia. Australia was forewarned about this and effectively did nothing to stop it, despite 5 Australian journalists being killed.

Fast forward almost 25 years and Australia became heavily involved in assisting East Timor gain its independence, as part of a UN operation.

This policy coincided with considerable upheaval in Indonesia, as the Suharto regime collapsed, and terrorist activity affected Australia in 2002 and 2004.

All combined, this led to what has been referred to as ‘probably the lowest period in Australian-Indonesian relations.’Despite this, relations have improved, only to be pushed by the recent developments.

 

So the rollercoaster ride of Australian relations with Indonesia continues. Will Tony Abbott be able to keep things going smoothly or are we due for another series of strongly worded threats? I’m curious to see how Abbott can reconcile his strong words at home with the need for diplomacy overseas.

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