Re-examining the nation’s ‘iconic’ moments

Published 22 December 2008

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Federation, the landing at Gallipoli, and 9/11 – all memorable moments, but were they actually turning points for Australia?

The answer is outlined in a controversial new history book, co-edited by Dr David Andrew Roberts, a Senior Lecturer at the University of New England.

Turning Points in Australian History (2008, UNSW Press) is a book with a difference. It aims to provoke passionate discussion on Australia’s history and provide more than just a list of important historical events.

‘We want Australians to re-examine certain moments, and re-evaluate their idea of a “turning point”, Dr Roberts said. ‘In some instances, the effects of these events have been greatly exaggerated and the iconic moment isn’t actually as important as popularly thought.’

Turning Points in Australian History is co-edited with Dr Martin Crotty from the University of Queensland. Across 17 chapters, leading historians and commentators reflect on events ranging from the closure of the land bridge between mainland Australia and Tasmania 14,000 years ago, through to the horrific events of September 2001.

‘Gallipoli was strategically insignificant in the broader picture of the Great War,’ Dr Roberts explained. ‘Federation is something of a lacklustre affair and easily forgotten. And the 1967 Referendum was a crucial moment in the inclusion of Aboriginal peoples in an Australian nation but was hardly a turning point in the achievement of Aboriginal rights.’

In contrast, the book flags the release of the contraceptive pill and the opening of the Australian Institute of Sport as events that helped to shape our nation, even though they were not met with much fanfare at the time.

Turning Points in Australian History is also intended as a response to the attack on the way History is taught in schools and universities. ‘In his final years, former Prime Minister John Howard said there was a loss of any clear, structured narrative,’ Dr Roberts recalled. ‘He said the national story had become a “fragmented stew of themes and issues”. What Mr Howard essentially wanted was for history to be taught through the memorising of facts and dates, presenting the past as a largely uncomplicated and mostly triumphant, self-justifying story of national achievement.’

‘We want to provide an important reminder to those wanting to impose a universal history curriculum for our school kids,’ he added, ‘and a lesson for all Australians wishing to understand their nation’s past: history is never simple or straightforward, and it always resists attempts to make it so.’

Contributors to the book include UNE historian Dr Erin Ihde and former UNE scholars Professor Iain Davidson (now at Harvard University) and Dr Frank Bongiorno (now at King’s College London). ‘UNE’s Australian History course has the reputation of being the best in regional Australia,’ Dr Roberts said. ‘We are very active in research, and engaging with communities outside of the normal channels of academic life.’

Turning Points in Australian History follows the same editors’ controversial and acclaimed Great Mistakes of Australian History (2006, UNSW Press).