The trouble with Keith Windschuttle

Source: The Age
December 7, 2004

The controversial writer's new salvo in the culture wars mirrors the left-wing view he confronts, writes Gerard Henderson.

A new front was opened last night in what have been termed the culture wars. Columnist Frank Devine launched two books published by Macleay Press - Keith Windschuttle's The White Australia Policy and John Dawson's Washout. The former is Windschuttle's most recent contribution to the Australian history debate, following his controversial 2002 tome The Fabrication of Aboriginal History. The latter is a defence of Windschuttle that contains a foreword by the history warrior himself. Both volumes are likely to attract return fire.

In his foreword to Washout, Windschuttle makes it clear who his enemies are. Namely "most of today's senior Australian historians who are products of the 1960s when they learnt their craft as undergraduate and postgraduate students". He maintains that, in the process, "many adopted the fashionable slogan of that radical decade that 'everything is political'."

Windschuttle quotes Henry Reynolds as declaring in 1981 that his work as a historian "is inescapably political".

The prime targets in The White Australia Policy include Reynolds, Andrew Markus, Ann McGrath and John Mulvaney. They are classified as members of the "academic left" and are accused of fundamentally mistaking "the Australian character, Australian nationalism and the reasons why the White Australia Policy was introduced".

As with The Fabrication of Aboriginal History, the strength of Windschuttle's latest book is that the author goes back to the original sources to make his points and to discredit his opponents. There is only one exception - but it demonstrates an essential weakness in the author's approach.

In the concluding chapter of The White Australia Policy, Windschuttle examines Labor leaders and the WAP. He refers to the 1975 Race Discrimination Act as "probably the great achievement" of Gough Whitlam's administration. And, correctly, he condemns the support given to the WAP by such previous Labor leaders as Chris Watson and Arthur Calwell. Then Windschuttle takes issue with "the academic adulation of Paul Keating" - maintaining that the most recent Labor PM "earned the admiration of intellectuals by urging that Australia cease being 'a branch office of empire', convert to a republic and aim for 'enmeshment' " in Asia.

So, what's the source of this? After all, there are numerous transcripts that document what Keating said when he was prime minister. However, Windschuttle avoids all such primary evidence and puts his faith in an American secondary source - Samuel P. Huntington's The Clash of Civilisations. A reading of Huntington's 1996 book will reveal that the author has little understanding of Australia and that his journalistic sources for the Keating quote do not support the claim that Keating called for Australia's "enmeshment" in Asia. In fact, Keating said often that Australia was not - and could never be - an Asian nation.

It appears that Windschuttle wanted to compare Keating's "mostly empty rhetoric" with the reality that "annual Asian immigration" to Australia fell during Keating's time as prime minister. The intention is to de-authorise "the academic left's political cheerleading on the issue" as part of a broader attempt to bag what Windschuttle terms "hard multiculturalism". Yet the policy of multiculturalism (which was introduced by Gough Whitlam and Malcolm Fraser in the 1970s) has nothing to do with the White Australia Policy (which was abandoned by the Coalition's Harold Holt and, subsequently, Whitlam in the late 1960s and early '70s).

The problem with Windschuttle's work is that, at times, you get the impression that he is a former Marxist - turned political conservative - who is waging a personal war on the very left-wing interpretation of Australian history that he once both embraced and proclaimed. His revisionism is essential reading for anyone who wants to join the debate on Australian history. Yet, because his history contains a substantial degree of personal polemic, it sometimes lacks empathy.

For example, in his revisionist interpretation concerning the fate of the Tasmanian Aborigines, Windschuttle recorded that "only" about 120 had been killed. His assertion has not been disproved, yet the word "only" was regrettable. It is much the same with his current work. Relying on contemporary sources and Myra Willard's 1923 History of the White Australia Policy, Windschuttle argues that the WAP was introduced for economic and nationalistic reasons and was not motivated primarily by race.

There is something to be said for this interpretation. Yet even Willard concedes that "racial unity" was a factor. David Johanson acknowledged in his 1962 essay in Immigration: Control or Colour Bar? that the motives for the WAP "were racial as well as economic". And Windschuttle himself refers to the presence of some "overt racists" advancing the WAP cause within both the Labor and Protectionist parties of about 100 years ago.

What is missing from Windschuttle's book is empathy for individuals who were the victims of the WAP, which was often harshly administered by bureaucrats, along with a recognition that the WAP was a bad policy. It made little sense for an immigrant, trading nation based in the Asian region to ban Asian immigrants because of their race. Yet Windschuttle maintains that "even through the eyes of its instigators . . . it was a rational, and in a number of ways progressive, product of its times". In fact, there was nothing rational and progressive about the WAP - which is why it was junked half a century after its implementation.

Once again, Windschuttle has fired off much valuable information that challenges contemporary views of Australia history. But, once again, his offensive falters by being a mirror image of the ideological-based history he is confronting.

Gerard Henderson is executive director of The Sydney Institute.