National History Challenge

Speech
  • Parliamentary Secretary to the Minister for Education

E&OE

Good morning,

People who give you a round of applause before you speak is a sign of the triumph of hope and optimism when hearing politician’s speeches.

My apologies for my lateness, I should say first, we were on a flight up from Melbourne today that was delayed by just under two hours. We got here as soon as we could, so my sincerest apologies and I hope to say hello to as many of you as I can afterwards.

To Richard Smith and Liz McGuiness co-chairs of the National History Challenge, thank you.

Most importantly congratulations to all our National History Challenge winners here today. You should all be proud of yourself and what you have achieved.

Your success reflects well on the support provided by your teachers, schools and your families.

History is critical to our understanding of our community, ourselves, our nation and our stories.

It also helps us face the challenges of today through understanding the challenges of others.

Reading history has been one of my favourite activities for as long as I can remember.

I have long been inspired as I have read historians with such diverse perspectives from Soboul on the French revolution, Bailyn on the American revolution, Caro on modern American history, Paul Johnson with his own changing perspectives and Geoffrey Blainey on writing Australian stories.

In a personal sense it reminds me humility is no bad thing, especially in politicians.

History reminding us to all be a little humble is one of its great strengths.

Our challenges as a nation may seem great today, but history reminds us they always seem great to the protagonists.

Indeed, I would suggest many of the challenges we talk about have often been greater.

Today we still debate whether all are suitably or appropriately included in our political community - whether that be those who choose to view history that is predominately the result of individual actors and events, or those who view it through the prism of groups of racial, ethnic, gender or religious identity.

Yet when we consider the events of the Eureka Stockade, or the Eureka massacre as one of my mentors and indeed a former Education Minister described it, or the civil rights movement, even the battle against Apartheid or the battle to free prisoners of conscience in communist eras that I remember when I was your age, we can see our own debates do not seem as desperate, even if they are important.

I’ve had a chance to read most of the essays and papers that are part of today’s awards. You have all grappled with one of the most important tasks of the historian, telling the stories behind the legends.

I’m impressed with the variety of legends you have explored and the rigour in which you have explored them. You have done the most courageous and rewarding aspect; you have put your own thoughts down in writing.

Your work takes us across centuries and continents, from the battle of Red Cliff in China, to Vlad the Impaler, Truganini in Tasmania, the Eureka Stockade in Ballarat, the Bolshevik revolution in Russia in 1917 and Australia’s experience of the Second World War.

Let me congratulate you for in particular the quality of your writing. These works were a pleasure to read and history that is well written is history that will be read.

I don’t always agree with what’s been written but it would be a boring world where we all agreed.

I know there are a wide range of views on the Australian Curriculum. The history curriculum in particular has generated considerable debate.

I think this debate is entirely appropriate.

One of the issues that I have long felt has never received the appropriate level of attention when I went through high school and university history was the formation of our own nation.

Our federal story is one that many others in the world look to for inspiration. Popular movement, elected delegates, ratification referenda – all conducted peacefully.

It was not perfect, not everyone had a voice – but by any standards it was an exceptionally democratic achievement.

Why is this so important? Because it goes to the legitimacy of our own political institutions.

The Prime Minister has made clear his intention to seek agreement on a referendum to amend the Commonwealth Constitution to make reference to Australia’s indigenous peoples.

But knowing the history of our federation is critical in understand this debate.

Which is why I was surprised earlier this year when our then Prime Minister made a basic factual error about the role of our indigenous people and their place in the formation of our nation.

In February the Prime Minister in talking to this issue said, “Indigenous people did not ordain our constitution nor contribute to its drafting. They had no opportunity to vote for it, yet all were affected by what it said and failed to say”.

That’s simply not true. In 1901, there was no statuary bar on aboriginal voting in Victoria, New South Wales, South Australia and the Northern Territory or Tasmania. There were legal bars in Queensland and Western Australia.

We didn’t have compulsory voting and there were other restrictions but the important point is that there were no specific legal prohibitions on the right of aborigines to vote across the colonies.

The truth about aboriginal voting needs to be told.

The Constitution did not do this. The ban came later as a result of one of the first measures of the first Parliament.

Every child is taught that we were the second nation to grant women the vote after New Zealand. This is true and it’s something we can be proud of, but the full story needs to be told whenever we teach this.

Section three of the Commonwealth Franchise Act of 1902 granted the vote to women, Section four the next clause took it away from all our indigenous people. The ban was removed by parliament five full years before the 1967 referendum, which reflected the significant change in community attitudes that had happened over the preceding 60 years.

History is critical when we deal with such matters because we need to know our starting point. Just as the story of indigenous people’s access to the ballot, all sides of our history need to be taught.

The story of the ballot is an important one. We can be simultaneously proud, yet wish we had done things differently, as indeed many of us would be about our own lives. I know I am.

You’ll be aware the Government has committed to undertaking a review of the Australian Curriculum.

The review will provide an opportunity to evaluate the robustness, independence and balance of the development and content of the Australian Curriculum.

It will also seek to understand whether the Australian Curriculum is delivering what parents and the broader community expect.

The review is yet to get underway and I encourage everyone to keep an open mind, as well as put their views forward.

Before announcing the winner of the 2013 National History Challenge, It’s my privilege to announce the theme for the 2014 Challenge and the theme will be; Changing Perspectives.

I know this will be a great topic for students to show off their skills in historical interpretation, within the framework of the curriculum.

Now for the most important part which is to announce the winner of the 2013 National History Challenge; the Young Historian of the Year.

If I could ask the winner to come forward.

The 2013 Young Historian of the Year is Leah Murray from Albany Creek State High School in Queensland.

Leah receives the prize for her essay exploring the Eureka Stockade as the birthplace of Australian democracy.

Now while I had no role whatsoever in choosing the winner, I would like to add my own personal congratulations. Eureka was also a matter of profound interest for me as well, when I started studying history.

The idea that Australians would rise up and use arms to seek a political outcome still strikes many as extraordinary.

And while we are now more aware of the violence on our frontiers and against our indigenous people, even if events and degree remain contested history, the overwhelming experience of the great numbers of Australians has been of peaceful change.

As somebody once said to me, in initial consideration Eureka seems so American.  

It was, after all, not dissimilar in scale to the skirmish that became known as ‘shot heard around the world’ at Lexington, Massachusetts, and that lit the spark for the American Revolution.

Yet as Leah so well outlines, change rapidly followed and peace remained the norm in our colonies.

A jury of fellow citizens freed those charged and Australia became a democratic leader, developing key institutions such as the secret ballot, which underpinned initially universal male then female suffrage.

Leah’s essay traces the story of the Eureka Stockade from the brief rebellion on 3 December 1854 through to the Commission of Inquiry report on 27 March 1855, a little over three months later.

The inquiry’s findings marked the end of the license fee which sparked the rebellion.

I now invite Leah to come forward and say a few words.

(Ends)

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