Gillard government can remake history by adopting a neglected idea

Don Bradman was the “greatest living Australian”, according to John Howard, and is so central to the country’s history, he features in the citizenship test. AAP Photo/ Mortlock Library of South Australia
Australia is in danger of forgetting its past. The government is starving history projects of their funding. And we have until Friday to try to stop the total abolition of the crucial Making History initiative. It’s the latest sign that Julia Gillard’s government doesn’t understand the importance of promoting history.

In 2007, the inaugural Prime Minister’s Prize for Australian History was awarded at a luncheon event at Parliament House, Canberra. The prize, worth $100 000, was created by former Prime Minister John Howard as part of his push to renew the teaching of Australian history in schools. He was sufficiently passionate about the prize to insist that his favorite book, Les Carlyon’s The Great War, share the inaugural prize with the judge’s pick.

While many expected the incoming Labor government would drop the prize, especially after they announced the establishment of the Prime Minister’s prizes for fiction and non-fiction, it was retained, but its profile dipped.

Neither Prime Ministers Rudd nor Gillard have ever presented the award in person.

The announcement of the 2009 winners (Bentley Dean and Martin Butler, for their film Contact) in December last year, didn’t even make it into the Arts pages of our newspapers.

Perhaps this says something about the poor news appetite for history outside the paradigm of the history wars. These arguments centred on conflicting interpretation of Australia’s troubled history of race relations. The wars are widely thought to have ended with John Howard’s election loss in 2007.

Howard was not just a history buff, fond of Gallipoli, Menzies and Don Bradman, but an eager antagonist in Australia’s history wars.

He took on the revisionist historians and called for a “root and branch renewal” of the teaching of Australian history.

He created the Making History initiative, a significant pool of funding for the production of documentaries about Australia’s history.

When his government introduced a history and civics test for prospective Australian citizens, there was even a question on Bradman. John Howard had once described him as our “greatest living Australian”, before his death in 2001.*

Whatever you thought of Howard’s take on our past, under his government, history was important, part of defining his vision of nation.

In some respects, the Rudd and Gillard governments have continued the history push: the drive towards a national curriculum in history is still underway, and the citizenship test has been retained.

In other ways though, the Gillard government has appeared embarrassed by Howard’s ardent nationalist history. And ministers seem unwilling to put their own vision for Australian history in its place.

The government’s lack of continued support for the Making History initiative, which John Howard put in place to boost Australian history on our television screens, is the most glaring example of this lack of nerve on historical matters.

The Making History initiative was by far the most significant history project under the Howard government.

In 2004, Howard announced that if re-elected, he would commission Film Australia to produce a ten part series of “high-quality documentaries on Australia’s history”.

The $7.5 million scheme was a huge boost to local history documentary production, bankrolling a slate of films including the three part Constructing Australia and the one hour documentaries Menzies and Churchill at War, The Prime Minister is Missing, and Monash: the Forgotten Anzac.

While these films were rightly criticized for their focus on “dead white males” and some suspected that they tallied all too closely with a conservative vision of our national past, there’s little doubt that they exposed many Australians to hitherto-unknown aspects of their history.

They also proved that Australian history on television could be popular, stimulating further programs like Immigration Nation and The Making of Modern Australia.

These later programs offered a corrective to Making History’s focus on politicians and explorers and they aimed to challenge, rather than affirm, our easy assumptions about our past.

In 2008, an additional $7.5 million of government funds extended the Making History initiative to mid-2011. Almost twenty documentaries on various aspects of Australian history have now been produced under its banner.

However, earlier this year, Screen Australia (formed from the merger of Film Australia, the Australian Film Commission and the Film Finance Corporation in mid-2008), announced that it will abolish the Making History initiative.

While Screen Australia claims that “Making History funds have been rolled into the National Documentary Program” (NDP), total NDP funding is just $7 million - $500 000 less than the amount allocated to the first Making History initiative alone.

Clearly this represents a significant cut to the funding available for documentary production overall, and to history documentary in particular. Without the government’s backing via a dedicated history fund, the number of history documentaries on television is bound to decline.

What will be lost when this funding disappears? For a start, there will be even less Australian history on our television screens. The high costs involved in producing television history mean that it is almost impossible to produce without public funds, and commercial broadcasters will not pick up the slack.

Who will make Australian histories for television if we do not? Australians watch far more British and American history on television, but the traffic doesn’t flow the other way.

Australian documentaries need government support because, with a few rare exceptions, the rest of the world doesn’t fund them.

Second, less Australian history on television means that we are losing one of the most popular and accessible means of understanding our past.

According to the Australians and the Past survey, more of us find out about the past from film and television than from almost any other source. Eighty-four percent of respondents said they had watched movies or television as a means of engaging with the past.

Far more people consume history in images, rather than in books. Television dramatizes history, it makes us feel connected to the past and the people in it.

This should not be under-estimated, especially when we so often hear schoolchildren complain that Australian history is “boring”.

Third, television documentaries communicate history to broad audiences; they popularize and ‘translate’ the work of academic historians to the public.

The work academic historians do is at least partly funded by the taxpayer: shouldn’t the government be supporting ways to communicate this work to the broadest possible audience?

The government’s continuing support of the Making History initiative would send a clear signal that history matters.

Gillard doesn’t need to be a history buff and she doesn’t need to be a zealot: with friends like Howard, history didn’t need to worry about enemies.

Certainly no-one wants to see a repeat of the blatant politicization of history that took place under Howard’s leadership.

But there’s a difference between not wanting to inflame a culture war and being too timid to articulate a cultural vision.

Restoring funding to Screen Australia for the Making History initiative would be the ideal way for the Gillard government to signal that it cares about Australian history outside the classroom and beyond the history wars.

  • This article was edited on 23rd May 2011 to correct John Howard’s words. It originally stated that he described Don Bradman as the “greatest ever Australian”.