Redefining our past does injustice to Australia now

Redefining our past does injustice to Australia now, by Nick Cater.

Scott Morrison’s insistence that slavery was not part of the Australian colonial experience might have been the opportunity for the truthful discussion the ABC keeps telling us we need to have.

Instead, Radio National Breakfast wheeled out Bruce Pascoe to confirm the ABC’s prejudices and tell us why the Prime Minister was wrong. “It’s pretty obvious that when you chain people up by the neck and force them to march 300km and then to work on cattle stations for non-indigenous barons, then that is slavery.”

Semantic carelessness, conflated half-truths and a slap-happy interpretation of evidence were the best Pascoe could muster to build a case against Morrison. Yet presenter Hamish Macdonald felt no need to offer a countervailing opinion, let alone correct Pascoe’s factual mistakes. A “pretty obvious” case is good enough for a mind that is already made up.

A progressive view of the world demands we take a dim view of our forebears so that our own compassion shines. It requires a conviction that no generation has been as enlightened as ours and no one who came before us saw the world with such clarity.

There is no shortage of brutal episodes to make this self-aggrandising point. Chattel slavery, however, the ownership of human beings as personal property who can be exchanged as commodities, has always been illegal in Australia. Children have never inherited slave status from their mother, nor been sold like cattle in open markets. Unlike the US, Australia didn’t need a civil war to decide the matter. As governor Arthur Phillip wrote to the Home Office: “There can be no slavery in a free land and consequently no slaves.”

Balanced and informed history demands acceptance of the inconvenient fact colonial Australia was not the fatal shore but a land of redemption.

Characterising Australia by the incidence of criminal behaviour is disingenuous. The unlawful killing of Aborigines occurred at the frontiers of settlement and was never sanctioned by the state.

A nation’s moral fibre should not be measured by its most shameful moments but by how it responds to them. Do brutal acts accelerate a downward spiral of general degeneracy, as it did in the Belgian Congo, for example? Or are we committed to the liberal ideal of continuous self-improvement?

The word slavery is a relatively new arrival in Australian history books, whether written by scholars from the left or right. Manning Clark drew a long bow to claim that the European convicts were slaves, but the word appears in no other context in his six-volume history of Australia.

The whole slavery-in-Australia concoction is based on lies and exaggerations by a communist, Faith Bandler, in the 1970s.

Australia was part of the British Empire, which abolished slavery in 1807 with the passing of the Abolition of the Slave Trade Act by the British Parliament. The white population of Australia in 1807 was minuscule. It was scarcely more than a couple of penal colonies for convicts. After 1807, slavery was expressly illegal.