Daily Archives: October 19, 2022

‘Lessons From History: Leading historians tackle Australia’s greatest challenges’ by Carolyn Holbrook, Lyndon Megarrity and David Lowe (eds).

2022, 349 p. & notes

It’s a big claim: that historians can tackle Australia’s greatest challenges. Despite Santayana’s rather facile aphorism “Those who cannot remember the past are condemned to repeat it”, the humanities -and history in particular- have been largely left behind in the trample of lobbyists, think-tanks and policy advisors who direct political decisions from a more presentist and futurist perspective. I’m not sure that it’s a historian, rolling up her sleeves, who is on the end of the old phone depicted on the front cover,

This book, written during the COVID pandemic, responds to the feeling, that I share with many others, that we seem to be living in particularly historically fraught times. It aims to:

[provide] a roadmap for this vital knowledge, laying bare how history can and, indeed, should inform public debate. It is a book for politicians, policymakers, community workers, journalists and engaged citizens, as well as historians. Far from seeking to offer crude historical ‘lessons’ or rigid templates that might be imposed upon contemporary problems, instead we are interested in history’s capacity to enlarge and contextualise public debates…. Historical literacy may not always lead to better policy, but we maintain that history is fundamental to understanding context- which, from its Latin roots, means weaving together or drawing on surrounding circumstances.


The chapters that follow, mostly about 12-20 pages in length, deal with the major ‘hot-button’ challenges of the early 2020s: climate, China, foreign aid and investment, equality, water and power policy, refugees, war crime, the far right, First Nations issues, women and childcare, domestic violence, the Northern Territory, federation. Each chapter chooses its own time parameters, informed by the issue at hand, and closes with a summary statement: “Lessons from history” with the main policy ‘takeaway’ in a couple of short paragraphs, giving the book a somewhat managerial flavour. The chapters reflect the methodologies and ‘schools’ of the authors: economic historians provide statistics; oral historians provide snapshots from interviews.

The book is in two parts, which work almost at odds with each other. Part I: How a Knowledge of History Makes Better Policy seems to challenge the idea that historians, specifically amongst other public intellectuals, have anything particular to offer, and whether what they offer is used accurately or usefully. Graeme Davison champions, as a historian, the intellectual and social commentator Hugh Stretton, who published books like Ideas for Australian Cities (1970);Capitalism, Socialism and the Environment (1978) and his final work Economics: a New Introduction (2015). These do not sound like the work of a historian and indeed, Stretton himself doubted whether he was a historian but, as Davison says

..from first to last, his thinking about public policy was deeply historical. He was not a policy wonk who taught history on the side; everything he wrote about public policy drew on his understanding of history


Stretton did not look to history for specific information, or analogies, but instead for a way of reasoning and a capacity to think about problems in a certain way. Frank Bongiorno warns in his chapter that politicians, exhorted to look to the past, can take the wrong lesson -e.g. by conceptualizing anything in diplomacy other than bristling belligerence as Chamberlain-esque ‘appeasement’ – or can subscribe too uncritically to an orthodox reading of economics – e.g. that Australia’s economic decline of the 20th century was caused by the flabbiness encouraged by the Australian Settlement, that only rigorous market reforms by governments of the 1980s and 90s could reverse. James Walter challenges the idea that historians are necessarily ‘outsiders’ by looking at historians who have worked ‘inside the tent’ of government policy, like the feminist historians in the 1970s/1980s and civic historians like Stuart Macintyre and John Hirst, and the policy pressure exerted by Gideon Haigh and Graeme Davison to secure funding for the National Archives of Australia.

Part II Lessons from History then turns its attention to the ‘challenges’. The challenges very much reflect the year in which the book has been compiled. While this contributes to its timeliness, it does also cast some -not all- chapters as more like commentary than analysis, giving the book the feeling of being an extended Monthly magazine or other Schwartz Media publication. Indeed, many of the better-known authors have featured in Quarterly Essays, and in some other chapters where the writer was not known to me, I found myself being able to predict what the “Lessons for History” were going to be after reading just one or two pages. I even found myself double checking to see if these were really historians (yes, most but not all were) and not lobbyists or spokespeople.

I was mystified by the short time spans and limited parameters that some authors chose for themselves. Several chapters reached back onto to the 1970s and 80s, as if the issues underpinning the current challenges started only then. For example, Mia Martin Hobbs’ chapter ‘Why soldiers commit war crimes- and what we can do about it’ looked only at the Vietnam and Afghan wars; the multiply-authored chapter ‘Urban water policy in a drying continent’ looked mainly from the 1990s’ onwards. ‘We need to hear the voices of refugees: citizen engagement for reforming refugee policy’ focussed on Tamil refugees, surely just one of the many refugee groups in Australia today.

The chapters I enjoyed most had a broader span, and surprised me by some of their conclusions. I was surprised that Claire E. W. Wright agreed with Graeme Samuel’s contention that an ‘impenetrable club’ of women was keeping other women out of the boardroom, before unpacking the reasons why this might be- although Wright, too, confined her analysis to post 1980s. I enjoyed Joan Beaumont’s chapter ‘Governing during economic crisis: the importance of memory’ which looked at the recent references to the 1930s Depression as a point of comparison during the COVID epidemic, and the power of the Great Depression in collective memory. I found Caroline Holbrook’s chapter on ‘How To Fix our Federation’, with its comparison of Commonwealth Day (1 January 1901) and Australia Day fascinating. I give my tick of approval to her suggestion of 29-30 March, the anniversary of the first elections for federal parliament, as an alternative to Australia Day, a choice that engenders pride in democracy itself and Australia’s contribution internationally. (For myself, better still if it could include a successful Voice referendum on that day too.)

As you might expect in a book of this type, some essays are more likely to appeal than others. For me, I like the ones that stretched further back in time than 1980, and I felt short-changed by those that ended with a policy prescription that could be found just as easily in a Saturday-paper article. There were others, however, that combined a concise sweep of events with an analysis of their meaning, and a critique of how they could be used or misused in policy formulation. These were the ones that left me wanting to hear more.

My rating: 7/10

Sourced from: Yarra Plenty Regional Library