Making History at Macquarie

Welcome to the Making History at Macquarie blog.

This site is part of a new initiative in the Department of Modern History and Politics at Macquarie University in Australia. The posts on this blog will be authored by senior undergraduate students in Modern History as part of their assessment for the compulsory capstone unit, a course about historical research methods and practice. Students completing this unit have to produce a 4,000 word research paper on a topic of their own choosing. On this site, students will post an 800-word piece that transforms their academic research paper into a short, accessible, and non-academic article (In creating this task and this site, we were inspired by The Conversation



3 comments on “Making History at Macquarie

  1. Good evening fellow history-majors! Hoping to be able to share and look through your theses through the coming month.

    Good luck with your other subjects / exams / assignments, and to those who are finishing their degree this semester!


  2. The 1975 Dismissal-Why All the Fuss??

    The Dismissal of 1975 caused an uproar because the governor-general became involved in Australian politics. The dismissal of the Whitlam Government by Kerr, brought the role of the governor-general under public scrutiny, as well as the Constitution and Conventions. Kerr’s dismissal of Whitlam has continued to be scrutinised by constitutional lawyers, politicians, and academics because the Conventions safeguarding the parliamentary model and democratic stability, were broken.

    How the dismissal is interpreted, reflects ideology, party loyalties, and the literal/legal reading of the Constitution; and the time frame. The dismissal involved the main structures of government – the governor-general, the Senate, and the House of Representatives. Special attention has been given to the Constitution and its Conventions: political/orthodox bias stressed the Conventions, while the legal/revisionist bias stressed the written word. Post-revisionists who access archival material, as well as more recently available political memoirs such as Fraser’s, synthesise the orthodox and revisionist interpretations. These three main schools deepen understanding of the dismissal which, even with some of the heat evaporated, still starts a debate.

    To understand the debate, it helps to understand Australia’s parliamentary model. Our political system is based on the Westminster model, where the English monarch personifies national unity in spite of political differences; and so is above politics. Therefore the role of her representative, the governor-general, is similar by Convention. Britain does not have a modern written constitution as such, and much in common law, is law through convention, as explained in Australian Political Institutions (Aitkin, et al. 1989).

    As a federation, the Senate was instituted to protect the states’ interests; and the Australian Constitution protected this function (Aitkin et al. 1989). Interpreting the Constitution literally, jeopardised the apolitical nature of the governor-general by revealing the implications of this role: it also gave the Senate power not held by Convention before 1975 because of the recognised political shift from states’ interests, to a party dominated House.

    The Opposition led Senate argued it exercised its ‘constitutional rights and powers’ (Hocking, 2012). This power, via the unconventional filling of two Senate vacancies with Coalition appointments, gave the Opposition control of the Senate; which now blocked Supply. Fraser, admitting this was improper, in Malcom Fraser: The Political Memoirs (2010), gained political advantage. At the request of Fraser, Opposition leader in the House of Representatives, the Senate forced the government to an election (Whitlam, 1985).

    Constitutional lawyers argued on 11 October, 1975, against breaking such a solid convention (Manne, 1999). The prime minister has the right to set the agenda for political debate and to set the date for an election- both necessary functions for stable government (Aitkin et al 1989). This prevents a ‘hamstrung government’, as noted in The Age on 12 November 1975, Professor Robert Manne in The Australian Century: Political Struggle in the Building of a Nation (1999), noted that, the legality of the action was not questioned then, because the uncertainty as to how the situation could be resolved, was paramount (Manne, 1999).

    This situation was generally thought to be unconventional, unconstitutional, maybe, even illegal, – it was definitely political. Professor Sawer in Australian Government Today (1987),
    concluded that a government being dismissed by the governor-general, was legal, but that Kerr had acted on a wrong principle. Other constitutional experts agreed. The question is, would the founding fathers who drafted the Constitution have agreed with this conclusion. According to Hocking, Garran in 1958 commented that the Constitution is political, as well as logical.

    Post-revisionists such as Hocking in Gough Whitlam, His Time (2012), have argued that Kerr’s informing the Opposition leader of his intentions without providing his prime minister with the same information, ‘is impossible to reconcile with constitutional propriety’. The access to new material such as Fraser and Simons Malcom Fraser (2010), has clarified other issues, such as Sir Garfield Barwick being Kerr’s adviser.

    Although Whitlam denied it in his The Truth of the Matter (2005), Brian Carroll (2011), a former Solicitor-General, is convinced that Kerr’s fear of Whitlam dismissing him was real, and that Kerr’s ‘Matters for Judgment’, Kerr makes a good argument for the dismissal. Carroll, still in Whitlam (2011) , argues that given the Senate had the power to refuse supply, and the governor-general had the power to dismiss the government, then the governor general ‘made the sensible judgment’ to force an election to overcome the impasse. However, a later Governor-General, William Deane, in Tony Stephens, Sir William Deane: the Things that Matter (2002) in 1996, supported the apolitical Convention of the role, insisting that regardless of reserve powers, he could only act on ministerial advice.

    The Dismissal, brought the parliamentary process under public scrutiny, particularly the power and the function of each player. The amended section regarding casual vacancies in the Senate would not stop another state premier, trying to manipulate the system a little over ten years later. However, the perceived threat to Australia’s democracy, and the society’s reaction to the legitimacy of a governor-general acting politically, has for the time being, reinforced the need for those in that role, to observe the Conventions when interpreting the Constitution .

    Further Reading:

    Aitkin, Don, Brian Jinks, and John Warhurst. Australian Political Institutions (4th ed.), Melbourne: Pitman Publishing, 1989.

    Carroll, Brian. Whitlam. Australia: Rosenberg Publishing Pty Ltd, 2011.

    Fraser, Malcolm and Margaret Simons. Malcom Fraser: The Political Memoirs, Victoria: Melbourne University Publishing Ltd., 2010.

    .Hocking, Jenny. Gough Whitlam, His Time: The Biography, vol. 2, Melbourne: Melbourne University Publishing Limited, 2012.

    Manne, Robert. “The Whitlam Revolution” In The Australian Century: Political Struggle in the Building of a Nation, edited by Robert Manne, Melbourne: The Text Publishing Company, 1999, pp. 179-223.

    Sawer, G. Australian Government Today, Melbourne: Pitman Publishing Pty. Ltd., 1987.

    Sexton, M. The Great Crash: The Short Life and Sudden Death of the Whitlam Government, Melbourne: Scribe Publications, 2005.

    Stephens, Troy. Sir William Deane: The Things that Matter, Sydney: Hodder, 2002.

    Weller, Patrick and Bron Stevens “On the Steps of History”, in The Dismissal: Where were you on November 11, 1975? ed. Sybil Nolan, Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 2005.

    Whitlam, Gough. The Whitlam Government 1972-1975, Victoria: Viking, 1985.

    Whitlam, Gough. The Truth of the Matter, Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 2005.

    “Sir John was Wrong” The Age, accessed 24-10-14.

  3. ashartman says:

    Queen Truganini

    Have you ever thought about why history chooses to focus on certain people and events while discarding others? Why, for example, do we focus on the Vietnam War rather than the Korean War? Tutankhamen rather than Hatshepsut? Queen Elizabeth rather than Queen Anne? Historians are obviously not able to write about every single detail and every single person all the time, it’s just not possible, and this is also made apparent in an Australian context. So my question to you today is: why do Australian historians focus on the life, death and mythology of Queen Truganini?

    Let me explain. Truganini is considered to be the last full blood Aboriginal of Tasmania at the time of her death in 1876 and since then has been both revered and vilified by different historians. What is known about Truganini’s life is exceedingly violent, including that her sister and much of her family were captured and/ or killed by sailors and that she watched her fiancé have his hands cut off by sealers.

    One of the more condemning facts about Truganini was her part in helping G. A. Robinson ‘capture’ the Aboriginals who were resistant towards British settlement. This has lead some historians to believe she was a traitor to her people. By the same token, some historians believe that her doing this prevented further bloodshed. Personally, I think a combination of both is true. I mainly justify this by drawing on the fact that Truganini and several other Aboriginal people did rebel against Robinson when he took them to Port Philip. If Truganini had simply being a traitor to her people, she would not have left Robinson but, by the same token, if she had simply being another victim of colonialism then she wouldn’t have been in a position of trust with him in the first place.

    One of the reasons why historians continue to be fascinated with Truganini is because traditionally the Aboriginal Tasmanians were viewed as a historical and anthropological commodity even after their death. For long time, this group of Aboriginals were seen as the missing link in the evolutionary train and their skeletons were considered especially valuable. For example, William Lanney’s, the last male full blood Aboriginal in Tasmania, corpse was mutilated when he died. When he died in 1869, his body was ‘preserved for science’ and it is the circumstances surrounding this event which highlight the dismissive, uncaring attitude that was perpetuated by British settlers. Lanney’s body was sought by two opposing members of the colony’s scientific establishment and, as a direct result, in the morgue his limbs were hacked off and stolen by members of the Royal Society of Tasmania, leaving only the torso for burial. Indeed, the head was never recovered.

    Unfortunately, a similar fate befell Truganini. A year after her death, her skeleton was exhumed and placed on display until 1947 when they were removed and placed in a bank vault. Unfortunately it was not until 1976, on the centenary of Truganini’s death, that her final wish was fulfilled and her body was cremated and spread into the D’Entrecasteaux Channel (a canal near where she was born).

    Truganini is often drawn upon as a tragic figure in the early struggle against colonialism as the figure of Truganini, and her story, easily resonated with modern audiences as she so clearly represents the struggle to own Australia’s colonial past, and has become a symbol for both the extermination of the Aboriginal people in Australia in the past and an inspiration for new representations and struggles of Aboriginal people today.

    With the death of Truganini, a certain colonial chapter of Tasmania was forever closed and that this is accepted to such a point that there was no space, desire or need to acknowledge the rest of the Aboriginal population as they were not considered to be fully aboriginal and that they have, in fact, disappeared completely from history and, therefore, cannot now be recognized. This means that Tasmanian Aborigines today are thus living under a greater burden of history than are those on the mainland. Because it is universally believed that they disappeared from history, the surviving Tasmanian Aborigines have had to struggle to be recognized at all and the actual documentation of Truganini’s death appeared irrefutable proof that the ‘final solution’ which everyone publicly abhorred had been triumphantly attained. Tasmania, it’s native population and, by extensive, Truganini can then be seen as the modern battleground for an old battle between the coloniser and the colonised but this time it is not land being fought over, but rather agency for past wrongs and authority over future perceptions.

    Truganini’s life and death has been uniquely well documented due to the interest in her during her life and immediately after her death, indeed this amount of knowledge is not known about another other Aboriginal figure of the same time. Indeed, Ryan points out that there have been poems, novels, plays, histories, biographies, paintings, photographs and scientific articles created about Truganini and even a song written about her by Midnight Oil, as well as memorials, place names and a representation on a stamp to mark the International Women’s Year.

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