Review: Australian History in 7 Questions, by John Hirst.

Black Inc., 2014, 206pp.9781863956703

John Hirst’s latest book, Australian History in 7 Questions, examines Australian History in a new format. Unlike previous Australian Histories, resembling Manning Clark’s epic six volumes, or Thomas Keneally’s three volumes of Australian History, or The Oxford History of Australia, Hirst addresses Australian History in a thematic aspect, rather than a grand or specific narrative.

The idea for the book derives from Hirst’s The Shortest History of Europe, and four lectures given under the title ‘Four Questions in Australian History.’ The lectures were extended to seven questions for the purpose of this book. The question addressed in the book are: “Why did Aborigines not become farmers?”, “How did a penal colony change peacefully to a democracy?”, “Why was Australia so prosperous so early?”, “Why did the Australian colonies federate?”, “What effect did convict origins have on national character?”, “Why was the postwar migration programme a success?”, and “Why is Australia not a republic?”.

The questions Hirst has chosen to answer for his readers are specifically chosen. These questions comprehend parts of Australia’s contested history; address Australia’s most treasured myths, overlooked historical questions, and the possibility of Australia’s future. These seven questions also lead to others: the question of Australia’s frontier violence, the rise of the Anzac legend, the effect of the White Australia policy, Australia’s national anxiety with migration, and the failures of Australia’s republican movement.

Hirst’s answers also provide contrasting accounts to some Australian history ‘classics’. For example, Hirst demonstrates that the Australian colonies and their peaceful transformation into a federation – first dismissing the connotations of an open prison and demonstrating the colonies emphasis on English law, and therefore its economic, social and political triumphs – provide a complete contrast, for example, to Robert Hughes’ The Fatal Shore, that demonstrates the suffering and brutality in the colonies.

The Australian story embraces several myths, and it is both the Anzac legend and the New Year message from John Curtain: Australia ‘looks to America’ that feature in Hirst’s work. While Hirst discusses the “speculative connection between convict shame and national history”, Hirst believes that modern Australians are puzzled by the assertion that the Australian nation “was born at Gallipoli”. I disagree. Today, both modern Australians and young Australians believe that Gallipoli was where Australia was born, and not at federation in 1901.

Many historians, including Tom Millar, claim that the New Year message of Prime Minister Curtain in 1941 “marked the beginning of a new shift in Australia’s sense of military dependence away from Britain to America.” It is under closer scrutiny that this claim becomes more complex and problematic for Miller and other historians. Hirst demonstrates that this “new shift” was not the case, and by the end of the war, the New Year Message from Curtain had left no lasting mark on Australia as it continued to develop military links with Britain; including a long-range rocket facility at Woomera, and the development of nuclear bombs in South Australia. “In the 1950s Britain tested its atomic and nuclear bombs in Australia. Australia welcomed the mushroom clouds because Britain with the bomb made Australia more safe.”

Hirst, while answering “Why was the postwar migration programme a success?”, rejects the notion that Australia’s backlash against Asylum Seekers arriving by boat was a result of racism and xenophobia, rather:

[I]t was the boat people’s mode of arrival that caused resentment. It was uncontrolled, so there was the potential for the numbers to blow out. The people were not fleeing immediate danger; they were imposing themselves on the country rather than being invited and there were grounds for thinking that they were not all genuine refugees. This was a complete reversal of how migration was usually conducted.

 Therefore, asylum seekers arriving by boat “affronted the Australia egalitarian instinct.”

If you are familiar with Hirst’s previous works – Australian History in 7 Questions is Hirst’s 14th book – such as Convict Society and its enemies, The Strange Birth of Colonial Democracy, The Sentimental Nation, Looking for Australia, or Sense and Nonsense of Australian History, some of his arguments will be familiar. However, Australian History in 7 Questions is a fresh new format in discussing Australia’s history. The straight-forward responses, clarity, insight, diagrams and lists, and contentious conclusions not only encompass all of Australia’s past, but demonstrate that Australian history is far from being “dull and predictable”.

While you may agree or disagree with Hirst’s questions or answers – or both – it is the combination of a lifetime of research and writing Australian history written for the novice historian, and the professional.