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Book Launch Speech: Australia on the World Stage

The Rockhampton book launch of Australia on the World Stage: History, Politics, and International Relations (Routledge, 2022) took place on 9 November 2022 at Central Queensland University. It was officially launched by Vice Chancellor, Pr Nick Klomp. The below speech was delivered by co-editor Benjamin T. Jones.

L-R: Acting Dean of the School of Education and the Arts, Rickie Fisher, Benjamin T. Jones, and Vice Chancellor Nick Klomp.

I’d like to start by acknowledging that we are gathered on Darumbal country and pay respect to their elders and I acknowledge any Darumbal people who are here today. Coincidentally, Nick and I started working at CQU at the same time nearly 4 years ago and both traded the cold of Canberra for the warmth of Rockhampton and what a wonderful decision that has turned out to be. A few of my former colleagues expressed concerns at the time if I’d be able to remain as research active as I had been at a regional university but the answer is a resounding yes. This is the second book I’ve published since moving CQU and my third is well advanced, I’ve been a keynote speaker at a major international conference at the University of Texas, I’ve just returned from a Visiting Fellowship at the University of Cologne, I was elected National Secretary of the Australian Historical Association, I’ve been an invited speaker for the British houses of parliament and next month I’ve been invited to Canberra to speak at a symposium at our parliament house. And I say all this not to boast – well a bit to boast – but mainly to highlight that this is a research active university, we don’t just teach the research of others but CQU is publishing original research and taking part in important national and international conversations about history and in many other fields.

But research does take time, it is a lot of work and it requires a genuinely supportive academic environment, so before talking about the book, I’d like to thank Nick again for his ongoing support, our wonderful acting Dean Rickie Fisher, Celeste Lawson who is just the most encouraging supervisor you can ask for, and especially Mike Danaher who has been my most immediate and regularly called on mentor, supervisor, colleague and friend. I also want to acknowledge the School or Education and the Arts more generally, we have a vibrant, collegial, research active school and I impress on our students, especially those who go on to be history teachers that you should say with great pride that you are a graduate of this School. And I want to give particular honour to a man who couldn’t be here, but our former dean Bill Blayney has been a steadfast supporter since the day I arrived and I know he has gone in to bat for me on many occasions so I truly do thank him for seeing potential in me and value in my work.

So why publish a book like this? A re-examination of Australia’s history and especially of its foreign relations written by 15 leading academics. Well, definitely not because it is easy. A colleague once told me that organising a group of academics is like trying to herd cats, and there is definitely some truth to that. I found 15 hard enough so how Rickie does it so well with a whole school, let alone poor Nick with hundreds of us, I don’t know. It was probably a three year project to put this together and somewhere along the way, I swore to myself that my next book would be solo-authored but I’m very glad I persisted along with my wonderful co-editors Bridget Brooklyn from Western Sydney and Bec Strating from La Trobe because I genuinely believe that interdisciplinary works have an amazing power to open up research questions and start new rich conversations that might never have happened if we kept ourselves hidden in our respective silos.

Interdisciplinary collaboration strongly informs my research and my pedagogy, I completed by PhD at the ANU but deliberately chose not to do it in their School of History but rather in their vibrant Humanities Research Centre because the program exposed me to sociologists, anthropologists, artists, post-colonial scholars and I’m sure my own work was stronger for that. So with this book, we had an initial zoom symposium to discuss our chapter ideas and we had a leading China scholar like John Fitzgerald sharing ideas with distinguished historians like Carol Liston (both are Order of Australia recipients). We also had emerging superstars like Andre Brett who won the 2021 Crawford Medal, the most prestigious early career award in the Humanities, and James Blackwell, a proud Wiradyuri man who is a trail blazer of First Nations international relations.

So despite the occasional irritation of chasing up late chapters and the other slings and arrows that come with editing a book, it was such an honour to lead this project and I’m so grateful to our wonderful authors and most importantly, the diverse backgrounds of interests of the group means that the reader does get a truly unique history of Australia, I’m sure that no other Australian history has chapters dedicated just to Australia’s role as a colonising power in Antarctica like the one written by Elizabeth Buchannan, and Australia’s performance and influence at the United Nations, like the one offered by Jon Piccini and Roland Burke. These important chapters are the result of purposeful interdisciplinary collaboration and asking different questions to the ones a group of historian might have come up with on their own.

This book has been arranged in two parts. The first is a broadly chronological look at Australian history and the second is thematic looking at Australia’s relationships with the US, China, Japan, Indonesia, New Zealand and the Pacific Islands. It is a book that doesn’t necessarily have to be read in order and the chapters are coherent on their own. But taken as a whole, I hope the book challenges some of the lazy stereotypes about Australia’s place in the world. There are three chapters that examine Australia’s relationships with Britain and that reflects the historic impact of Britain on this country, but the list of chapters in part 2 demonstrate where Australia is in the world and the relationships which will be the most significant in the future.

In particular, I think Michael O’Keefe’s chapter on Indonesia is highly relevant not only for discussions of the past but especially for discussions of our future. And I’m delighted that our university has worked hard to forge a connection with Indonesia – and just by the by, my latest article for the Conversation was translated into Indonesian – they are interested in us but are we interested in them? Despite being two decades into the Asian century and more than 3 decades since the Garnaut report urged Australia to become Asia literate the old impulse to look to Britain for security is revealed in the recent AUKUS agreement.

As Paul Pickering cheekily notes in his foreword, the temptation to fall back on old habits and hide behind the ample trousers of a bumbling Etonian prime minister remain strong. Now Paul only wrote those words in June and yet it was out of date by the time the book was published not by one prime minister but two as both Boris Johnson and Liz Truss have fallen victim to the inner working of the British Conservative party – if only Rishi Sunak had gone to Eton, the line might have been accurate again. But I do think the whole episode suggests that if Australia is looking for security and stability, we might do better somewhere closer to home than 10 Downing Street.

I hope the book challenges readers to think deeply about Australia’s place in the world and also its history, ancient and modern. I have with me a few of the more significant Australian histories from the last century and if you’ll indulge me, I’d just like to read the opening lines. Keith Hancock’s Australia was first published in 1930 and was a popular school text and was continuously in print for about half a century. It begins, “Many nations adventured for the discovery of Australia but the British peoples alone have possessed her”. Manning Clark, perhaps the most influential historian ever in Australia, begins his 6 volume history from 1962 with these words: “civilization did not begin in Australia until the last quarter of the eighteenth century”. And another influential historian A.G.L. Shaw began his 1955 book the Story of Australia by stating, “During the greater part of the history of so-called civilized man, Australia remained a land unknown to the rest of the world, even to its nearest neighbours”. All three of these works are products of their time, of course, and even all these years later there is still a lot of value in reading them but the common narrative is that the Australian story doesn’t really begin until 1788. There were people here but Clark even draws the distinction between a culture and a civilization and even Shaw who throws in the qualifier “so-called” still presents First Nations as passive, static, inward-looking and with no place on the world stage. In the decades since, dozens of new histories have attempted to retell the story but as Stuart Macintyre noted in his still well-read Concise History of Australia from 1999, the British-centric story had been told to generations of Australians and it remains tenacious today.

We open the book noting that a recent prime minster tweeted that “Our modern Australian nation began on January 26, 1788”. This comment was made in the context of a culture war about the date of Australia Day but it still shows the persuasiveness of the British version of Australian history. Obviously the modern Australian nation did not begin in 1788 – that is before the states were formed, the constitution was written, the flag was designed or even the name Australia was coined. Legally at least, the Australia nation has a very clear and obvious beginning on 1 January 1901. The myth of Australia somehow beginning in 1788 has emotional power for some but is patently ahistorical. The Darumbal people here in Rockhampton were blissfully unaware on 27 January 1788 that any great change had taken place on Gadigal country the day before and carried on as normal for over half a century until the arrival of the Archers.

So one hope for this book is that it serves to decentre Britishness from the Australian story. It is an important part, but it is far from the whole story. What is now called Australia was home to engaged, open, and outward-looking people. The British arrived two centuries ago. It is now well-known that First Nations in Arnhem Land took part in what we would today call international trade with Macassans for at least than long prior to 1788. Archaeological research has found evidence of vast international trade networks that are thousands of years older. Pottery shards and other evidence on Lizard Island, 33 kilometres off the coast of northern Queensland, seem to confirm ‘an expansive seascape that linked communities from the Gulf of Papua and northern Queensland’ dating back to the late Holocene. As Billy
Griffiths writes, ‘the sheer antiquity of humanity in Australia – is difficult to fathom’.

The first substantive chapter is written by another proud Wiradyuri man, Lawrence Bamblett and it is simply called before Australia. It’s a chapter I learned a great deal from and serves as a reminder of how deep and rich the history of ancient Australia is – if indeed it is appropriate to still use the word Australia so many centuries before Flinders thought it up. The next chapter by Carol Liston starts with European contact in the early 17th century and finishes with the granting of responsible government in the 1850s. Again, it deliberately unanchors Australian history from Britain and 1788 and really highlights the role of fate and chance in history. Yes it was the British who colonised this land but it might also have been the Portuguese, Dutch, or French, or indeed the Chinese and it was never a certainty that there would be just one colonising power on the vast continent. And as Andre Brett highlights in the following chapter, the shape of the Commonwealth of Australia was never pre-determined either. The Mater Hospital here in Rocky has a particularly grand entrance because it was intended to be the Governor’s mansion after northern Queensland separated from Brisbane – a cause that probably would have been successful had the people of Rockhampton and Townsville agreed where the capital would be.

I’m interested to hear any questions people might have and the School has kindly provided a nice morning tea that I don’t want to keep you away from for much longer but if I can intrude on you patience for a few minutes longer I think there is a real contemporary as well as historical relevance to this book and I would highlight the important chapter by Bec Starting on our relationship with the United States and John Fitzgerald’s chapter on China, especially under Xi Jinping. In addition to the excellent scholarship, I think these chapters invite us to look beyond the false dichotomy of dependence and independence. They provide an alternative reading to the stubbornly persistent idea that Australia’s actions on the world stage have been limited to blindly following its imperial masters first the UK then the US. They suggest a more nuanced view, that Australia has been a deliberate actor on the world stage and that our foreign and defence policy has been shaped by a range of complex and intersecting influences.

Finally my own chapter is titled British Dominion to almost republic and traces the radical transformation of Australian national identity in the second half of the 20th century. It begins with the royal tour of 1954, the monarchic high water mark that saw rapturous crowds visit the new Queen wherever she went, including of course Rockhampton – only a two hour stop off, long enough to drive from the airport to town hall and back again but one that is still fondly remembered – the chair she sat on at town hall has even been preserved by the council and was recently on display. When the tour ended the Sydney Morning Herald uncontroversial concluded that Australia will always be a British nation.

Yet by the end of the following decade, Britain left Australia economically, militarily, and culturally – the attempt to join the European common market was seen as a rejection of preferential commonwealth trade, the east of Suez policy cemented the new reality that the US was Australia’s chief security partner – and even culturally the word British was reclaimed in 1961 to only mean the UK – though prime minister Harold Macmillan did give the prime ministers of Australia, Canada, and NZ a courtesy call to see if they objected – none did.

Generations of Australians have identified with the phrase used by Hancock in 1930 – Independent Australian Britons but following the changes of the 1960s – the Whitlam years and the dawning of a new nationalism, and especially with the passage of the 1986 Australia Acts which cut any ties to British parliament or courts – this was replaced by simply viewing ourselves as independent Australians. The republic referendum of 1999 failed of course and that story will be the topic of my next book – again definitely solo authored – and I can talk at length about the reasons why but suffice to say they are varied and multifaceted and particularly now that the long Elizabethan age has come to a close, it is likely that we will continue to debate what it means to be an Australian and what our place and role on the world stage is in the 21st century. I commend the book to you and thank you for your kind attention.

The book is available for purchase HERE

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Statement on the Livingstone and Rockhampton Boundary Survey Results

The official results of the survey can be found HERE.

I was disappointed to learn that the Livingstone and Rockhampton boundary survey returned a No vote of 54.6%. The result is unfortunate for three reasons.

The first is that the people of Glenlee, Glendale, and Rockyview have now clearly stated that they want to be part of Rockhampton Council four times and still their wishes are being ignored. Of the affected localities, 58% voted Yes, but once again their voices have been swamped. Nobody likes paying rates but there is at least some comfort when you know those funds are going to the local area where you live and work. It is fair to ask why it was not a small, simple survey only of the affected residents.

The second reason why this result is disappointing is because the survey and the campaigns were conducted at significant cost but did not return any useful new data. We already knew that the northern suburbs wanted to be in Rockhampton. We already knew that most people in Rockhampton would support it and most people in Livingstone would oppose it. What we did not get from Livingstone was a plan or vision to develop the northern suburbs and grow the whole region. Questions over the efficiency and financial sustainability of smaller councils like Livingstone remain.

Lastly, it has been disappointing to watch the debate over boundaries descend into low politics. At its nadir, there was name calling and an implication that Rockhampton Council was somehow being greedy or tricky in putting a question forward. The No campaign slogans accusing Rockhampton of a land grab were historically inaccurate and have left a rift among neighbours that will take some time to heal.

Moving forward, my hope is that we can repair some of the damage done and remind ourselves that we are all Central Queenslanders, we share the beautiful Capricornia region and our political leaders serve us best when they focus on the things that unite us.

Image from Electoral Commission Queensland