Awarding a PM’s literary prize to a poorly sourced anti-union tome is an unsubtle attempt to rewrite history. By Mike Seccombe.

PM’s Literary Awards ignite fresh history wars

Tony Abbott has not had a lot to smile about lately. But on Monday night in the Great Hall of the National Gallery of Victoria, as he prepared to announce the Prime Minister’s Literary Award for history, he wore a big old grin.

He went through the motions of envelope opening, but he knew already what the judges’ decision was. The government factotum placed in charge of the judging process had told him weeks ago.

The $80,000 prize was to be split between two authors. One who had produced a fine work of academically acceptable history and one who had produced a politically acceptable polemic.

The joint winners were Joan Beaumont for Broken Nation: Australians in the Great War, and Hal G. P. Colebatch for Australia’s Secret War: How Unionists Sabotaged Our Troops in World War II.

Then the two authors came to the podium to speak.

Beaumont gave a brief speech of thanks, veering just a little political when she described her book as being about “contests about core values and issues which I think remain germane to our society”.

She posed one question: “To what degree should individual liberties be compromised in the interests of national security and what is the legitimate exercise of power by national governments in time of war, and how is the social fabric harmed when some groups in our society are demonised as the enemy within?” 

Abbott and his arts minister and attorney-general, George Brandis, who also was in attendance, might well have detected some criticism there, but only implicitly.

Then Colebatch stepped forward to give the longest speech of any of the night’s award recipients. There was nothing subtle about this one.

His book, he said, shed light on “a dark aspect of Australian history”, in which unionised, communist-influenced workers, “largely maritime unions and coalminers, treacherously sabotaged the war effort and held the country to ransom at its hour of greatest peril”.

He went on to accuse senior figures in the Labor Party of having been complicit.

Then he rounded on his audience.

“The second scandal this book more or less accidentally discovered is the extent to which the left-leaning academic history industry, with all the time and resources at its disposal, has hardly touched this story, but left it to a private citizen working on his own time.”

Colebatch went on to suggest a conspiracy by these lefties to leave “a blank space in the nation’s historical memory”. 

1 . Months of planning

Abbott and Brandis should have been well pleased. Here was months of planning to prosecute with new vigour Australia’s history wars come to pass in Colebatch’s bitter tirade.

Since that award presentation and speech, the country’s academic historians have been in a highly agitated state at the way they were disrespected. People who actually know something about the complexities of industrial conflict during World War II have been aghast at Colebatch’s simplistic portrayal of events and dubious scholarship. More of their critique later.

Out on the belligerent right of politics – with the usual suspects in the Murdoch media and other journals such as Quadrant, which published Colebatch’s work – there has been much celebration.

After the quiescent years of Labor, the Abbott government was again asserting the right of victors to write, or rewrite, history.

The fight to own the past has been going on forever of course, but escalated in Australia a couple of decades ago as the Liberal Party under John Howard drifted further to the right.

Howard glommed onto the memorable line of Geoffrey Blainey, a conservative but a proper historian, describing the “black armband view of history” in 1993, and pursued it tenaciously as a major part of his broader assault on what was called “political correctness”.

In 2006, in a speech marking the 50th anniversary of Quadrant, Howard proudly declared victory. Political correctness was dead in Australia, he said, although he warned that the “soft left” still maintained significant influence, particularly in academia.

But, he was mopping up that resistance too. That year he established the prime minister’s history prize, a $100,000 annual grant to be judged by a panel, but over which the PM had the final say.

Howard was apt to meddle in the adjudication, as Tom Frame, director of the Centre for the Study of Armed Conflict and Society, UNSW Canberra, and one of the judges for the inaugural history award, can attest.

“We were told our role was to make recommendations to the prime minister, to put a number of titles to him,” he recalls.

“There was some resistance to the idea that we should rank them [but] we did speak to their merits when we decided what was on the shortlist.”

There was, as Frame puts it in his mild way, “an element of surprise for us” when it was announced that the prize would be split.

Half would go to a narrowly focused gem replete with fresh scholarship, Peter Cochrane’s Colonial Ambition: Foundations of Australian Democracy, which told the story of the introduction of responsible government to New South Wales.

The other half would go to a sweeping work by journalist Les Carlyon, The Great War, subsequently conscripted by Howard to serve in his history wars.

It was not that either book was unworthy, says Frame, as that they established the precedent for interference in pursuit of politically partisan points.

“The risk there,” says Frame, “is that the role of the judge will come to be seen as tainted and people won’t want to do it.”

Or that the book itself will be devalued by the process.

Such concerns did not trouble Tony Abbott and George Brandis, apparently.

2 . Recasting judging panel

Indeed, six months ago Brandis was happy to admit, to a senate estimates committee, that he had deliberately set out to recast in a conservative mould the judging panel for the history and nonfiction awards.

Like Howard in his Quadrant address eight years previously, Brandis defended this on the basis that the halls of academe were dominated by lefties, and thus lefties kept dominating the selection panels and winning the prizes.

Well, he certainly fixed that. Brandis recast the selection panel for the PM’s history and nonfiction awards as conservative not just in an academic sense, but in a highly partisan political one.

Thus Gerard Henderson, youthful devotee of B. A. Santamaria, later chief-of-staff to John Howard and now executive director of the right-wing think tank The Sydney Institute, was appointed chairman of the five-member panel.

Also appointed was Peter Coleman, a former Liberal MP, editor of Quadrant and columnist for Spectator Australia.

So was psychiatrist Ida Lichter, a sometime speaker at Henderson’s think tank and contributor to The Australian.

The fourth member was an actual historian, Professor Ross Fitzgerald. 

The fifth and final member was also a historian, Ann Moyal. No question she was well qualified for the job. She is considered the mother of the Australian Dictionary of Biography. She has 14 books to her name, as well as innumerable other writings, produced over a long and distinguished academic career.

In 1993 she was made a member of the Order of Australia for her writing about the history of Australian science and technology. She is a fellow of the Australian Academy of the Humanities. At age 88, she remains an intellectual force to be reckoned with.

But she is no fan of the Abbott government. “I never knew how I got on to the committee,” says Moyal.

The suspicion is that she was put there as window-dressing, to give the impression of rigour and impartiality to an essentially political exercise.

Whatever the reasons for her appointment, the salient fact is that Ann Moyal has now quit the committee.

She gives a variety of reasons for this. She thinks the judging panel should be younger – its average age is above 75. She thinks it should comprise “people with a record of publication and scholarship”, which is now not the case. And she thinks the judging process was haphazard.

Above all, she is unhappy with the panel’s decision to award the Colebatch book.

There were “some wonderful books” among the 148 delivered to the judges for assessment, she says. And she advocated for all those who made it onto the shortlist, except one.

That was Colebatch’s, which came in after the deadline for entries, but which was nonetheless accepted by panel chairman Henderson.

“I really can’t say I had no influence. I had a lot of influence. But on the one that has provided all the controversy, I had no influence,” she says.

“It was a rudimentary book. It was badly structured … and a lot of it was hearsay. At least it was bringing forward a piece of history into knowledge, and for that reason I thought it was all right on the shortlist. But the others were by comparison very widely and deeply researched.”

3 . Strong criticism

She is quite restrained, compared with some of the book’s other critics. Mike Carlton, who was shortlisted for his own piece of military history, describes it as “rubbish”.

Carlton has gone back to the historical record to challenge assertions in the book. Incidents described by Colebatch, he writes, “simply did not happen” and were “sheer fiction”.

“I don’t think good history has to be of one ideology or another,” says Peter Stanley of UNSW Canberra. 

“But good history has to be based on evidence, scholarship and good writing. And I would say Hal Colebatch’s book fails on every one of those measures.”

Stanley, too, has written about the effect of industrial action on the war effort. He has interviewed war veterans about it. He also went to official archives and found many of those recollections were wrong.

“I can’t believe he checked with any union records or any primary sources,” says Stanley.

Stuart Macintyre, of the University of Melbourne, is currently working on a book covering the same period. He has previously written extensively about the war and the history of communism in Australia.

He notes that the amount of time lost to industrial action during World War II – about two hours per worker per year – was about one-tenth the amount lost to absenteeism and injury, and was lower than that in Britain and the United States.

“The two industries most heavily hit by industrial trouble, the waterside workers and ironworkers, were highly decentralised unions and most of the stoppages came from local committees,” he says.

“Indeed after the Soviet Union was attacked by Germany, they occurred against the wishes and advice of the state or national officials who were telling them to keep working.”

Stanley stresses the same point. To the extent that unionised workers hindered the war effort, it was mostly as a result of pilfering and local disputes rather than organised political action.

Suffice to say Colebatch’s book has not been well received by many experts in the field.

But that is not the real point here.

The real issue is that the Abbott government is clearly intent on escalating the history wars, and doing it in ways that go beyond the usual rules of scholarly engagement.

In his speech in Melbourne on Monday, Abbott defended himself against the “shared assumption that my reading must be a dull reflection or reinforcement of views already held.”

That was before he announced the prize. It looks like a pre-emptive strike against the reality of the situation.

This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on December 13, 2014 as "Abbott’s fresh history wars".

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