Illustration: Simon Letch
As an Aboriginal person who had family serve in World War I, I am acutely aware that there are many Aboriginal families who had relatives who fought at Gallipoli. I am nevertheless always deeply concerned each Anzac Day about the way in which Gallipoli has become so politicised in the evolving memory of so many Australians. As historian Don Watson has written, “the more politicians and media commentators talk of the values of Anzac Day, traduce it for convenient contemporary instruction and daub themselves with the soldiers’ moral courage, the more like a kitsch religion it becomes".
In the process of the politicisation of Anzac Day and events almost a century ago on the Gallipoli peninsula, I feel that many Australians are further entrenching an attitude of denial about key aspects of their own history. They are seeking to divert attention away from earlier wars that had more to do with defining the Australian national character than Gallipoli did. By that I mean the colonial "wars" that many in Australia still have great difficulty in even accepting as wars.
The politicisation of our historical memory can be seen through two phases. The first phase was the sudden outburst of patriotic nationalism that emerged during the 1988 bicentennial celebrations. This event was tagged in a multimillion-dollar publicity campaign as the “Celebration of a Nation”, a slogan that was at the time parodied by Aboriginal activists as the “Masturbation of the Nation”. But it was this occasion, presided over by then Labor prime minister Bob Hawke, that led to the beginning of the phenomenon where young Australians bedeck themselves with Aussie flags and become patriotically drunk on nationalistic occasions such as Australia Day and Anzac Day.
The other phase occurred during the period of John Howard’s prime ministership when two things happened. The first was when Howard attended the 90th anniversary of the ill-fated Gallipoli landing on Anzac Day in 2005 and declared that the Anzac legend had helped Australians define themselves. He said: "Anzac Day is a chance to reflect with pride on what it means to be Australian and the values we hold dear: determination, courage, compassion and resourcefulness".
Howard had also presided over what became known as the “history wars” back home during his prime ministership. This was an unsavoury episode that is of particular importance to Aboriginal people because it involves the "whitewashing" and "airbrushing" of the history of Australia. In 1993 Professor Geoffrey Blainey coined the phrase "black armband view of history”. That phrase was used, pejoratively or otherwise, by some Australian social scientists, commentators and, particularly, Howard to describe historians whom they viewed as having presented an overly critical portrayal of Australian history since European settlement.
Implicit in Howard’s use of the phrase was a sense of denial about the true nature of the frontier conflict. That sense of denial was amplified during the “history wars” by a small group of conservative academics, most notably Keith Windschuttle, who became a celebrity in a nation seeking to continue its long tradition of denial about its treatment of Aboriginal people. Windschuttle was controversially appointed to the board of the ABC by the Howard government.
The politicisation of our national memorialisation of Anzac Day is further evident when we have a former Howard government minister Brendan Nelson as the director of the Australian War Memorial in Canberra, and former South Australian premier Mike Rann visiting Gallipoli as a Commonwealth war graves commissioner. With so many former politicians infesting the memorialisation landscape it is little wonder that politics dominates discussion about what exactly we should be remembering and commemorating.
Nelson claims that colonial conflict does not constitute what he and the War Memorial consider a "war". But, ironically Nelson and the War Memorial are much better disposed to the acknowledgement of Aboriginal involvement in the wars conducted by the Australian nation, even when some of those battles such as the Gallipoli campaign were more about fighting on behalf of Britain rather than Australia. This attitude reflects a broader national discomfort with the idea that Aboriginal warriors in the colonial era were fighting a "war"against an invading force.
However, as prominent historian Henry Reynolds asserts, “If there was no war, then thousands of Aborigines were murdered in a century-long, continent-wide crime wave tolerated by government. There seems to be no other option. It must be one or the other".
Dr Gary Foley is a historian at Victoria University