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Reflections on the History Wars: The political battle for Australia's future

By Paul Keating - posted Friday, 12 September 2003

The writing of The History Wars is very important. The book will sit on the shelves of libraries as a sort of code stone to help people understand the motivations of players in today's contemporary debate. It sheds light on the political battle which is carried on in the pubs and on the footpaths about who we are and what has become of us. For the protagonists and antagonists in academe are now surrogates in a broader political battle about Australia's future.

We should reflect on this: alone, among the peoples of the world, we have possession of a continent, a continent we laid claim to as part of an empire, one we expropriated from another race, but a continent that is no longer an island in a sea of subjugated and colonial places. The Dutch no longer run Indonesia, the French no longer control Indo-China. And the Chinese now run China for themselves.

We occupy a continent surrounded by ancient societies; nations which have reclaimed their identity and their independence.


The Australian story, for it to be a record of continuing success has to come to terms with our expropriation of the land, our ambivalence about who we are and our place in the new geo-political make-up of the region. That is, being part of it, rather than simply being tolerated in it.

History is always our most useful tool and guide. Knowing our past helps us to divine our future; to see the long strands which denote our character and which have been common in each epoch of our development; and how they may be adapted in our transformation as an integral part of this region, while re-energising our national life.

How do we pick the good strands and the step changes on the pathway to our security?

Because there are only 20 million of us, the primary matter for national policy is how we maintain possession of the continent.

How do we find the pathway to a genuine security - a naturally reinforced one. Security in Asia and not from Asia. Where we are other than a client state perennially searching for a strategic guarantor.

Once, all our faith was in the British Navy. Now it has swung to the American defense establishment.


Those who militantly defend the conservative orthodoxy in Australia see all change as an affront to the past, especially their view of the past. Whereas, knowing the past and seeing it for what it is with all its blemishes, allows us to divine our destiny for our appointment with reality.

And our appointment with reality has to come around. We are no longer part of some empire. We are no longer some passenger on the British Lion. We are no longer protected by their navy to the extent that we ever were.

While people may say we enjoy some protection from the Americans, we have to be clear what reality, in this respect, means.

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Article edited by Jenny Ostini.
If you'd like to be a volunteer editor too, click here.

This is an edited extract from a speech given to the launch of The History Wars in Melbourne on 3 September 2003.

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About the Author

The Hon. Dr Paul Keating was Labor Prime Minister of Australia from 1993 to 1996. He is Visiting Professor of Public Policy at the University of New South Wales.

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