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Interview: Geoffrey Blainey, historian

28 October 2016

‘Refugees not on the move are the most numerous and the most needy’

I have held chairs in Economic History and, later, History, at Melbourne University, and also briefly a chair at Harvard. I have also spent long periods as a freelance historian. I was also chairman of various government boards and committees — including the equivalent of your Arts Council.


On weekdays, I work for a fair portion of nearly every day of the year. On maybe half of the Saturday afternoons or evenings of the year, I watch cricket or football (Aussie rules). My wife and I go to church on perhaps half of the Sundays of the year. We travel overseas for four or five weeks every year.


I wanted to write a book when I was very young. My first was the history of an isolated Tasmanian copper-field, Mount Lyell. Incidentally, the renovated spire of your St Martin’s-in-the-Fields is made of Mount Lyell copper.


In March 1984, at a Rotary convention, I said that the immigration programme, so successful in the period 1945-70 — indeed, one of the most successful in the world’s history — was running into trouble. At a time of the heaviest unemployment since 1940, migrants with a different culture and race were actually being settled by the government in the areas of the highest unemployment. It was not the migrants’ fault, I said, but this was a recipe for trouble.


I also said that the government’s immigration statistics were misleading. I was generally correct about the statistics, and that later aroused a lot of anger. That’s a long time ago. I don’t speak about the issue now, and I shouldn’t be discussing it with you.


Why shouldn’t I be attacked from time to time? I’m fairly well known. Some of my views — including a few wrongly attributed to me — are very well known. At one time — less so, today — I was often called “controversial” in the media. It’s odd that the word has a negative flavour. Why good journalists and academics should use the word as a weapon is puzzling. They actually dine on controversy: why do they scorn their own food?


I have been rewarded as well as denounced; so I’m fortunate, too. In the national Honours list on Australia Day 2000, I was specifically rewarded for igniting public debate on matters of national importance. Political correctness thrives in some Australian circles. In others, it has no sway.


Historians, in the course of a generation or two, display strong swings of opinions and biases. This is very evident in Australia. There’s “black-armband history” versus “three-cheers history”.


I believe that Australia’s history has many faults, but that, overall, it has been one of the success stories of modern times. So, while I comprehend its argument, I don’t belong to the shame school, or the mourning academy.


The world is peppered with half-failed nations. They produce most of the modern-day refugees. A successful nation is duty-bound to accept or welcome a proportion of refugees, but it has to regulate its own borders or it will eventually be in danger of becoming a failed nation. Even more important than accepting refugees is feeding and clothing them in their present dwelling-places. Refugees not on the move are the most numerous and the most needy; so the grave crisis is more in North Africa and the Middle East than on the European coastline — at least, that is how I see it.


I’m a constitutional monarchist, though not unsympathetic to the republican position. The present system works for Australia: we are, in effect, a crowned republic. It does look untidy to those who carry brooms wherever they wander. But nearly all the appealing political and religious stances are untidy, because they are compromises.


By the way, democracy as a mode of government depends on a degree of social cohesion and shared understanding. After all, it is government by debate.


In 1998, I was a delegate to the constitutional convention, set up by the Prime Minister, to debate whether Australia should become a republic — and, if so, what kind of republic. With George Mye, who was the sole representative from the Torres Strait Islands, I formally requested that a subcommittee be set up to report who should be eligible for the post of president in the new republic. A key argument of the Republicans was that the post was so important that it should be held by an Australian and not by the Queen. George and I were amused and vexed when the committee, promptly loaded with republicans, reported back that everybody on the electoral roll (in short, every Australian citizen) should be eligible, even if they spoke no English, the national language. You call it, in soccer, “an own goal”.


I guess the big contrast between British history and Australian is that Australia has a long Aboriginal history (more than 50,000 years), and a brief European or British history of less than 230 years. I’ve tried to write about both periods: they’re intensely different and engaging, too. One of my books, Triumph of the Nomads, is about Aboriginal history. It first appeared in 1975, and was very sympathetic towards them.


I hold the view that the most difficult confrontation in recorded history was the meeting at Sydney, in 1788, and thereafter, of the Aborigines and the incoming British marines and convicts. At times, it was bloody. At times, it was friendly. Governor Phillip made strong efforts to establish and maintain cordial relations, but succeeded less than he hoped. Other governors made serious attempts to set up Aborigines as farmers, but they did not wish to be farmers. If I had landed, by chance, among Aborigines in, say, AD 1000, and they had insisted that I be a hunter and gatherer, I, too, would have failed. They would have laughed at me. “He can’t even catch a possum and a Murray cod. . . Just look at that foreign misfit.”


What’s not widely understood, even in Australia today, is that the Aborigines were divided into hundreds of language and kinship groups. They didn’t regularly unite or coalesce to resist the invaders, or newcomers, call them what you like. Many of them sided with the British against their old enemies. Call these groups “tribes”, if you like, though now the word “nation” is coming into use. Casualties from warfare in Aboriginal times were heavy, though it’s politically incorrect to say that in certain influential circles.


I published A Short History of the World (Penguin) in 2000. I realised, after a few years, that I should know more about the history of Christianity, one of the key themes in that book, and hence the research that led to this book.


A Short History of Christianity has more than 600 pages (I haven’t seen your edition), and the second half of the book is the Reformation and onwards. The book is narrative history: it tries to make the past come alive. One of the main themes is that Christianity has had a great capacity to reinvent itself. A prevailing theory is that it is in permanent decline; in fact, it has experienced many periods of decline and many periods of unexpected revival. The book ends with these words: that the fascination with Christ will persist “long after we are all dead and the twenty-first century is lost behind passing clouds”.


Australia has only small sections in my book. It is part of the European, and especially the English, history of Christianity. The first clergyman to live in Australia, Richard Johnson, was an Evangelical Anglican chosen in London by William Wilberforce and John “Amazing Grace” Newton.


I wrote it for the curious reader, including those who had little knowledge of Christian history. Curiously, the biggest market for the book so far is Brazil, where it was briefly top of the national non-fiction list, to my puzzlement.


I do not identify God as a cause of historical events in any of my writings, to the best of my memory. In my private world, I might every now and then identify a greater presence, mysterious, and perhaps unknowable. Maybe I’m part-deist, though I do not use that word in conversation or debate.


Father was a Methodist minister with Anglican sympathies. He was born in 1899 on the Victorian goldfields: the surname Blainey is Welsh. Methodism in Australia no longer exists: Methodists and Congregationalists and most of the Presbyterians merged in 1977 to form the Uniting Church. I happened to be one of the few Methodists who voted against the merger.


My mother had a Cornish surname. My wife, Ann, was originally a Heriot, hence Scottish. Nearly all our ancestors migrated to Australia in the 1850s to search for gold. My wife is a biographer: her best-known book is a life of the famous singer Dame Nellie Melba.


I savour the sound of rain on an iron roof. Australia’s climate has always been fickle, and rain is often needed.


I’m often happiest when working or walking.


I think my life has been influenced most by writers, whether modern or biblical.


I’m a low-key optimist, but not utopian. This, in fact, is one of the most fortunate periods in the history of the world. The world has always been a rather perilous place. That is my reading of history.


If I was locked in a church for a few hours, I’d be happy with the companionship of an old copy of the Book of Common Prayer, with hymns attached.


Professor Blainey was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

A Shorter History of Christianity is published by SPCK at £12.99 (CT Bookshop £11.79).

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