Books

John Hirst
Australian History in 7 Questions

In his new book, John Hirst eschews narrative history for a thematic treatment of seven questions that still puzzle Australian historians. This approach is not new to him. In 2006, Hirst was asked by the Howard government to write the official Australian history document that would be distributed to migrants before their citizenship tests. Instead of writing the sort of coherent narrative John Howard was keen on, Hirst approached it thematically. He has since expressed surprise that the result survived largely intact, but he needn’t have been. He is a deft hand at simplifying complex issues and at balancing contrasting accounts of contested historical moments. The Howard government would also surely have approved of Hirst’s interest in seeing us rediscover instances of “success” in Australian history. 

Some of his questions here speak to our most treasured national myths (“What effect did convict origins have on national character?”); others may never have occurred to readers without a prior interest (“Why did Aborigines not become farmers?” “Why did the Australian colonies federate?”). Once called by Stuart Macintyre “the gadfly of Australian history”, Hirst answers these questions in often unexpected and never less than intriguing ways. He’ll also make you realise how little you know about some of our history. 

Occasionally the questions are frustrating. In his determination that we see the big picture, things can get a little reductive. It may be a fair point, for example, that the success of the postwar migration program is too often overlooked in the rush to call Australia an intolerant society. It also may be important to remember that Australia has the highest proportion of its people born outside the country of all nations on Earth except Israel. To contend, however, that the most telling criticism of boat people is that they are “queue jumpers”, an idea that affronts “the Australian egalitarian instinct”, overlooks how loaded political slogans such as this can be, and how poorly they conceal the less attractive sentiments about asylum seekers that find voice through them.

But Hirst takes complex and persistently myth-confused questions and offers answers that are mostly nuanced and compelling. If you don’t always agree with the answers, you will certainly acquire a renewed interest in the questions. This, surely, is the highest hope of good history.  SH

Black Inc, 224pp, $24.99

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Jul 12, 2014 as "John Hirst, Australian History in 7 Questions". Subscribe here.