Oz Blog News Commentary

Malcolm Turnbull Keeps Getting History Wrong. Here is Why

May 2, 2018 - 14:40 -- Admin

On 25 August 2017, Australian prime minister Malcolm Turnbull uploaded a 526-word post condemning two minor acts of vandalism to Facebook. The post begins:

The vandalism of the statues of James Cook and Lachlan Macquarie is a cowardly criminal act and I hope the police swiftly find those responsible and bring them to justice. But it is also part of a deeply disturbing and totalitarian campaign to not just challenge our history but to deny it and obliterate it. This is what Stalin did. When he fell out with his henchmen he didn’t just execute them, they were removed from all official photographs – they became non-persons, banished not just from life’s mortal coil but from memory and history itself.

The deeply disturbing and totalitarian campaign which resembles what Stalin did consisted of two spray painted messages, with no structural or permanent damage to the inanimate objects on which the message was written.

One message said CHANGE THE DATE and the other said NO PRIDE IN GENOCIDE.

It refers to the proposition that Australia, as a nation, not celebrate its national day on 26 January. The reason is because 26 January marks the beginning of the British invasion, first on Gadigal country, and then spreading across the lands of 350 distinct Peoples. As award-winning novelist Claire G Coleman wrote here, the initial British invasion made way for the ‘attempted genocide of another culture’.


The laws of war and the British invasion

From an international law perspective, both unjustified invasion (in Thomsian terms of jus bello) and an attempted genocide are war crimes. We often hear of how the times have changed since 1770 when Cook claimed the east of the continent for the British crown, but this is a misrepresentation. The just war doctrine, generally attributed to Aquinas (1224-1275) was already 500 years old; and Aquinas derived and distilled his propositions from earlier works, as all scholars do.

The second message NO PRIDE IN GENOCIDE states a simple truth: that those who attempt genocide ought not be proud of their genocidal project. This is an incontrovertible moral position: attempting to wipe out an entire ethno-racial or religious people is a crime against the target group and a crime against humanity.

What Turnbull does in his social media post is flip a crude binary power relation from perpetrator to victim. He does not draw a parallel between the autocratic, murderous Stalin and the autocratic, murderous Macquarie. Instead, he misplaces historical fact to compare a known mass killer to an anonymous individual with a moral message whose one act referred to here, spray painting a statue, did not hurt anybody. Any body. There are minor clean-up costs and inconveniences and some sense of indignity or anger among those who are emotionally attached to their dead heroes.

Graffiti on a statue is peaceful protest, not a reign of terror. Peaceful protest is where nobody gets hurt, and a reign of terror is where thousands, even millions of people are killed. These are not the same thing.


The illogics of public debate

Analogical overreach is a familiar technique of public debate. It is used frequently by the white male executive class who dominate our social institutions. This group struggles to discern historical truth from their own belief in whatever claim they are making and their act of saying it.

Meanwhile, everyone else is compelled to back claims with facts and evidence, and often to justify speaking in public at all. Comparing graffiti to a fascist dictatorship is a fairly extreme departure from truth. Yet there it is, sent out across the digital landscape for anyone to disseminate (the post was shared 2300 times), and for white nationalists to shout FREE SPEECH when we try to call it in.

In this way, a deeply erroneous claim – that representations of dead white men (a statue) are of greater import than First Peoples justice and rights – becomes reified. The Prime Minister sets the terms, and public debate then operates within those terms. A value-laden norm about ‘first contact’ or ‘meeting place’ or ‘discovery’ carries a host of underlying assumptions which may only be questioned or even articulated within the acceptable parameters laid down by the vested interests of the executive class.

Alternative narratives may be tolerated, but only to the extent that this base line of conformity is not disturbed. Anything that upsets the parameters of debate rather than offer token balance within it is derided as identity politics (because only dominant white males may pronounce impartial truth), and disrespectful (because only white males qualify as civilised).

Those who do question the parameters, such as by promoting Change the Date, are denigrated as divisive, or in an extreme case such as this one, labelled cowardly and criminal. The Stalin comparison has another, special purpose. It is designed to create the impression that a graffiti vandal is dangerous and to be feared. This is so we may infer that by defending a stone rendering of a dead Yorkshireman, Turnbull is being brave.

It does not take courage to post an illogical analogy on social media. People do it every day.


Honouring the living

There is a scene in the Dickens masterpiece Bleak House where much loved ex-soldier Sergeant George, known for acting on principle, must decide whether to hand over a letter written by his late comrade captain James Hawdon to the lawyer Tulkinghorn and the money-lender Smallweed. The letter is of great value, as it will confirm the identity of Nemo the law writer, who fathered the illegitimate child Esther Summerton to Honoria Barbery before her marriage to Sir Leicester Dedlock.

George teaches the military arts with his faithful comrade-in-arms Phil. He is behind in the rent and in debt to Smallweed. As he deliberates over his debts and the reputation of Captain Hawdon, Phil says ‘we’ll get by, guvnor. We always do.’ No, says George eventually, deciding to part with the letter. ‘My duty is to the living.’

Such a principle of soldiering is lost on tin pots like Abbott and Turnbull and Dutton.

In the introduction to his book Soldier Dead, Michael Sledge (2004, p. 4) writes: ‘I have read of and spoken with those who have risked and will risk their lives to recover the remains of their comrades; those who did and do hold their political careers to be more important than the duties of their office…’

Politicians who start and join wars do not risk their own lives, and a commander who risks the lives of the living to recover the dead is making bad decisions. This is so in combat and equally true for commemoration and national narrative. For every $500 million allocated to the Australian War Memorial, or $100 million on a museum in another hemisphere, or $50 million in yet more homage to Cook, there are opportunity costs. These costs are paid by children whose education is compromised, by patients to whom health services are not delivered, by women seeking refuge from violent men but who can not get away.

The ‘benefit’, in return for this extremely high price in which some pay with their lives, is for a white male executive class to dominate the national narrative in ways that venerate their heroes and erase thousands of acts of courage, determinations, heroic resistance, and everyday struggles. It is history written and re-written by the most powerful and least moral, such that the ‘different times’ argument becomes ever weaker. It is one thing to argue, however uncritically, that Cook himself should be judged by the standards of eighteenth century England. It is quite another to continue to claim honour for actions which opened the door to invasion and attempted genocide in 2018.

Why not right past wrongs instead?


Honouring (some) dead: three projects, and that $650 million price tag

The hundreds of millions of public dollars allocated to just three projects, and just during this Coalition government, are a profligate waste and utterly inexcusable investment in historical inaccuracy. In my work on decolonising knowledge systems, I developed four basic principles. There is much more to decolonising, a process rather than an end point, but these are the basics to which I adhere. Where we refuse to adhere to these principles, the opposite of knowledge – errors, mistakes, falsehoods, lies – will be disseminated instead.

The principles are that knowledge must be place-based; the past co-exists with the present; human cultures are not frozen in time; and that anglo- and euro-centric frameworks inevitably produce inaccuracies. A more detailed exegesis of these principles is available here.


  • The $500 million Australian War Memorial Redevelopment


For many years, First Peoples have campaigned to see Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander diggers recognised in our official military histories. The problem was that their distinct identity as Indigenous soldiers was routinely erased; and their specific experience as returned soldiers who were denied the basic rights of citizenship, including soldier-settlement compensation packages. It is a predictable and poignant irony that white soldiers were gifted parcels of stolen Aboriginal land; while Aboriginal soldiers were doubly dispossessed.

Similarly, the Australian War Memorial has consistently refused to recognise the Frontier Wars. Aboriginal resistance to the invaders and colonisers is well-documented historical fact and ongoing, for example, the Stolenwealth Games action. This campaign sought to correct the record with regard to the legitimacy of the Commonwealth, which is a re-branding of the British Empire, as evidenced by its predecessor event, the Empire Games.

It is incontrovertible fact that the British Empire enriched itself by plundering the people and lands of places to which it had no right, on every populated continent, as demonstrated by Shashi Tharoor on India, here. There has been no acknowledgement, and no reparations. This alone tells us the resistance is ongoing, rather than a new or discrete action. Re-branding can not change the fact that the Commonwealth is an illegitimate global entity, regardless of what political leaders say at the CHOGM (Commonwealth Heads of Government Meeting).

Meanwhile, the failed former leader of the Liberal Party Brendan Nelson, recycled to head a national institution as failed white male leaders inevitably are, accepted the proposition that navy personnel who participate in turning back refugee boats be recognised at the Australian War Memorial. This is in breach of its mission, because we have not declared war on non-state actors who seek asylum in Australia, and no ADF personnel died. Many refugees have died under the same Operation Sovereign Borders policy.

A separate memorial to resistance warriors and the Frontier Massacres has also been canvassed (sign the petition, instigated by the Aboriginal Tent Embassy, here). It is conceivable that, if properly funded and headed by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, this approach will result in a more accurate telling of invasion and colonisation. It is frankly inconceivable that the establishment of such an institution would be allocated anything remotely like the half-billion dollars Nelson has requested for the existing AWM.


  • The $100 million Sir John Monash Centre


Located in Villiers-Bretonneux in France, this vanity project of former prime minister Tony Abbott is riddled with the worst excesses of misplaced military commemorations. From the opening ceremony, media and law commentator David Marr noted that ‘the French prime minister, Édouard Philippe, delivered a speech that blew [Australian prime minister] Malcolm Turnbull’s to smithereens’. Quoting Remarque’s seminal account All Quiet on the Western Front, Philippe said:

The earth is more important to the soldier than to anybody else,’ continues Erich Maria Remarque, ‘the earth is his only friend, his brother, his mother. He groans out his terror and screams into its silence and safety’. For many young Australians, this earth was their final safe place. For many of them, this earth was the final confidante of a thought or a word intended for a loved one from the other side of the world.”

Marr tells us that Turnbull was pedestrian and dull in comparison, which is no surprise to anyone who has observed the hallmarks of Turnbullian speechmaking, which has three settings: plodding gravitas, phoney enthusiasm, and unconcealed anger.

Far worse than these embarrassments is the fact that Turnbull attributed a pivotal victory led by Brigadiers-General Glasgow and Elliot to Sir John Monash. This was picked up by historian Ross McMullen, who alerted us via Fairfax newspapers almost a full week later. All those political advisors, those DFAT officials and media staff, and nobody bothered to fact-check whether Monash led a battle that Turnbull, twice in two days, said Monash won.

Military history is absolutely not my thing, but research is, to which online search skills are essential. It took me about 20 minutes to locate the primary source in the AWM archives, a letter from Monash dated 26 April 1918. Another quick search produced multiple scholarly and popular works, unsurprising given the near-consensus view is that the action was decisive in the lead-up to German surrender (for example, Pedersen 2014, pp. 139-44).

It was not difficult to find out that Turnbull had attributed victory to a bystander based at a nearby chateau (sic) who himself noted – in parentheses! – that the battle was led by Brigs-General Glasgow and Elliot (War letters of General Monash, 26 April, 1918, Australian War Memorial, Canberra pp. 398-400: accessed 30 April 2018).




[Anzac day was] signalled by a wonderful fight, Monash wrote, carried out by the 13th and 15th Australian brigades – (Glasgow and Elliot) both of which Brigades have been under my orders for the past few weeks. It was the same old story. My 9th Brigade had held securely, and kept the Bosch out of the town of Villers Bretonneux for three weeks. They were then withdrawn for a rest on April 23rd, and the 8th British Division (regulars) took over the Sector from them.

Naturally, on April 24th, the Bosch attacked (with 4 Divisions) and biffed the Tommies out of town. Late at night we had to organise a counter-attack. This was undertaken by 13th and 15th Brigades, in the early hours of Anzac day. They advanced 3,000 yards, in the dark, without artillery support, completely restored the position, and captured over 1,000 prisoners. I can see the prisoners pouring past this chateau, from the window of the office, as I write this letter. It was a fine performance.

Everything on my front is quiet. Although there has been a lot of talk of another big attack, nothing has materialised. In any case we are quite ready for him.

A key difference between Turnbull and Philippe is this: the French prime minister is on his own soil. He is place-based. Turnbull, and Abbott, and the edifice they conceived, are misplaced. Malcolm Bligh Turnbull is descended from, and named after, the least capable colonial leader of his age. Bligh is a man who sailors mounted a mutiny against at sea; and who soldiers mounted a coup against on land. Abbott is British-born and remains British in spirit. For instance, he said to tory prime minister David Cameron, on the world stage, at a G20 meeting, that pre-colonial Sydney was ‘nothing but bush’.

In fact, Australia is home to the oldest continuing cultures on earth, a claim explored with nuance by Luke Pearson here. It is a place of successful, subtle and sophisticated societies which have developed – and continue to develop – over 65,000 years; societies of intricate laws and vast knowledge of ecology, of astronomy, of the human condition.

However, it is not possible to shift Turnbull or Abbott from their anglo-centric, colonial mindset, and as stated above, anglo-centrism produces inaccuracy. The widely discredited ‘great man in history’ method has been discarded from curricula by historians all over the world, but not by conservative politicians. For men like Abbott and Turnbull, it is the only approach. They do not have the range, or the depth, to process any other perspective.


The $50 million Kamay Botany Bay-Cook Plan

Learning nothing, our prime minister then returned home and strolled along the Kamay (Port Botany) shoreline with Treasurer and local member Scott Morrison. While the ABC took care to revive the defaced Cook statue story, it did not bother to identify or publish a quote of anyone other than the two white men pictured at the photo op. Goori journalist Jack Latimore confirms that La Perouse Local Aboriginal Land Council representatives were present here.

The Turnbull and Morrison quotes, and ABC report generally, are riddled with the usual rag-bag of errors, misrepresentations, misleading frameworks, and erasure of Aboriginal people and Aboriginal resistance:

Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull says the revamp of Sydney’s historical Botany Bay site, the place of the first encounter between Europeans and Indigenous Australians will allow the country to “celebrate, understand and interpret” the “momentous place” it is.

This is frustratingly wrong, on so many levels. Cook was not a European, he was an Englishman. He lived during an era when Britain was almost constantly at war with continental states like Spain and, most notably, France. There is no announcement about venerating the Frenchman La Perouse, who turned up in 1788 a few days after Phillip and his fleet. Just Cook.

This matters. The English colonised this place, not ‘Europeans’. There is no reason that continental Europe should share the responsibility for the crimes of the English colonisers and their band of British collaborators, like the Scotsman Macquarie. The English did not identify as European then, and despite the best efforts of more progressive thinkers, have failed to do so now, as evidenced by Brexit.

Kamay, or Botany Bay, was not the first encounter between Europeans and Indigenous Australians, either. Some famous prior ‘encounters’ include the 1629 wreck of the Batavia off the west Australian coast, where two white men were put ashore as punishment for murders there. The Torres Strait is named after the 1606-08 voyage of Luis Váez de Torres. The Tasman sea and Tasmania itself are named for the 1642 claim to the island staked by Abel Tasman. Unlike Cook, these men were Europeans, but that does mean their names and claims had any validity, for the simple reason that the continent and her islands were already occupied by First Peoples.

Nor did Cook ‘encounter’ Indigenous people. He attacked, firing musket balls three times in what appears to be within as many minutes of weighing anchor, as his Sunday 29 April 1770 journal entry records. After describing his first two ‘Musquet small shott’, Cook wrote:

emmediatly after this we landed which we had no sooner done than they throw’d two darts at us  this obliged me to fire a third shott soon after which they both made off, but not in such haste but what we might have taken one

Cook eventually got himself killed for carrying out his ‘obligation’ to shoot native peoples after entering their waters without permission. Whether his ignominious end at Kealakekua (Karakakooa) Bay, Hawaii, is accurately told at Kamay remains to be seen. Either way, the Turnbull remarks brings us back to where we began:

This is a momentous place, he said. One we need to celebrate understand interpret and reflect on.

While it is a momentous place – a place of great moment, which changed the course of the 65,000 years of human occupation here, for every Aboriginal descendant since – it is not one we need to celebrate. It is a place of commemoration, not celebration, because the Cook claim opened the way to invasion, followed by colonial violence up to and including attempted genocide. And as the anonymous spray painter condemned by Turnbull made clear, in that act of peaceful protest which did no harm at all, there is no pride in genocide.