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Commemorating Australia: more than just war

The militarisation of Australian history and public memory has a seemingly unstoppable dynamic.

I would even say that the conflation of national history with military history, that is, the assumption that national history is military history, is pretty much complete. Rather than celebrating the diversity of Australian historical and cultural experience, it seems the only thing recent governments want to commemorate is Australia’s involvement in warfare.

Take as a case in point the Bombing of Darwin Day, newly added to our national calendar. Australia now has five national days of remembrance: two used for decades to commemorate those who lost their lives in war, Anzac Day (April 25) and Remembrance Day (November 11), plus a further three days, all added in the last five years, Battle for Australia Day (first Wednesday in September), Merchant Navy Day (September 3), and now Bombing of Darwin Day (February 19).

I am not saying we should not honour the sacrifice of Australians who have lost their lives in war – of course we should. However, if we are to continue this trend of adding national days each time a certain event or anniversary captures the public or political imagination, we could end up with as many national days commemorating war as we have war memorials in Canberra (which is a lot, more than 35 at last count).

The commemoration of war in Australia seems to be out of control. And things aren’t likely to improve ahead of the extravaganza marking the centenary of Anzac in April 2015.

Equally as worrying is the way in which the Department of Veterans’ Affairs (DVA) has quietly redefined its mission since the late 1990s to ensure that commemoration and education are now central to its work.

Of particular concern is the systematic distribution by DVA of curriculum materials – books, websites, posters, class exercises and prizes for essays – to all schools, primary and secondary, throughout Australia. A mass education program has been taking place without the public realising that DVA is spending millions of dollars of government funding in this way. Whether it is the job of the federal Department of Veterans’ Affairs to prescribe schoolchildren’s understanding of national history is surely debatable. Has the equivalent happened in any other democratic country?

In her book History’s Children: History Wars in the Classroom Anna Clark notes that:

“Anzac history certainly generates more education funding than any other areas of Australia’s past.”

A sobering lesson of the skewed sense of history this creates in young people was provided a couple of years ago when a young man from Victoria, interviewed on Anzac Day at Gallipoli, explained that he was there:

“Because this is where Australian history began. Nothing happened before Gallipoli.”

Really? What sort of history lesson is this?

The relentless militarisation of Australian history has successfully marginalised other national stories, other historic sites, and other conceptions of national values. It distorts our understanding of Australian history and particularly serves to obscure the proud achievements of men and women in civil and political society in building our nation prior to 1914.

Of course, the Australian nation was not born at Gallipoli in 1915, but with the inauguration of the Commonwealth of Australia in 1901. Significantly, ours was a nation made in peacetime, not war. It was, it should be remembered, a national vision resting on more than a century of dispossession and displacement of Indigenous peoples; and a vision initially constructed in terms of racial exclusion. But history also teaches us that political mobilisation in civil society was effective in ending the White Australia policy through commitment to the values of multiculturalism, non-discrimination and racial equality.

The Australian Constitution was created by men who had never been to war, such as Andrew Inglis Clark, Alfred Deakin, HB Higgins, Edmund Barton and Charles Kingston. Contrary to the popular idea that Australian values were forged in military service, the majority of Australian nation-builders, including John Curtin and Robert Menzies, never served in war.

Australian nation-building was applauded internationally for its innovative experiments to promote social justice and equality of opportunity between the classes and sexes. In the first decade of the new Commonwealth, the Australian Labor Party came to power for the first time, forming the world’s first ever national Labor government. Subsequent Liberal and Labor governments introduced advanced reforms, such as conciliation and arbitration, old age and invalid pensions, and one of the most radical maternity benefits in the world, which extended to unmarried mothers. Notably, Australia’s granting of full political rights to women was a world historic first, changing international political and social relations forever. Aren’t these achievements worth commemorating?

Australian historians have an important role to play. The predominant Anzac mythology is serving to suppress the equally important narrative that the Australian nation was formed in peacetime by men and women who gave years of their lives to help build an innovative democratic progressive society committed to the values of equal citizenship and opportunity. This significant achievement of Australian civil and political society should also be commemorated on an annual basis by our nation. As should the fact that Australia achieved a world first in according full political rights to women.

This article first appeared on the ABC’s The Drum Opinion, 24 February 2012

Marilyn Lake is Charles La Trobe Professor in History at La Trobe University.