Australian conservatives have embarked upon a rhetorical campaign against the education system that risks plunging the country back once again into the history wars experienced at the turn of the millennium. Late last year, attempts by then Education Minister Alan Tudge to intervene in the drafting process of the national curriculum were widely reported. Tudge called for broad changes to avoid a draft curriculum that “painted a negative view of our country, our history, our future.”
A year later, on 15 July 2022, it was revealed by The Saturday Paper that 11 sub-strands of the history curriculum had been successfully removed from the draft, alongside a quarter of the civics and citizenship course. The new curriculum replaced globally-focused units, like ‘Asia and the World’ and ‘Industrial Revolution’ and the ‘Movement of People’ with extra mandatory courses on Australian history like ‘Making and Transforming Australia 1750-1914’.
Perhaps more worryingly, the new draft also watered down the concept of “invasion” in the context of Australian colonial history, reframing it from a historical reality to an event “experienced by First Nations Australians as an invasion”.
Other narratives that underpin conservative ideology have been woven throughout the syllabus, evident in passages like “appreciating the cultural and historical foundations of Australia’s Christian heritage and their impact on Australian values,” found in the civics and citizenship section.
Such narrowing of a broad curriculum that caters to an increasingly diverse student population with a syllabus shaped by Eurocentric perspectives only alienates otherwise keen students and damages the standing of history as a discipline.
Anti-education rhetoric that has been deployed by right-wing politicians since the election is increasingly concerning. Senator Hollie Hughes blamed the LNP failure to secure the youth vote on schools being steeped in “left-wing rubbish” through “an education system that is basically being run by Marxists”.
Liberal Opposition Leader Peter Dutton has now identified education as a key campaign focus. Parents are worried that the education system is “driven by unions and by other activists,” according to Dutton.
“There has been a bewilderment by some parents in terms of what they see their kids coming home with. At the same time, education outcomes have declined in our country. This is a debate parents want to have. We want to contribute to that based on the values of our Party.”
Such language is incredibly dangerous and belies a devious strategy to control the future of Australian society. It is not unprecedented: the history wars at the turn of the millennium were driven by right-wing commentators working in lockstep with the Howard government. It sought to enforce a specific vision of Australia entrenched in individualism, neoliberalism, selfishness and greed. According to historian Tony Birch, the Australian conservative right attempted to discredit historians and divert national attention during key moments in the path to reconciliation, such as the Howard government’s lacklustre response to the 1997 Bringing Them Home report.
The current, renewed attempt at a history war is not only a desperate attempt to regain voters lost to the UAP and One Nation. The repeated reference to election results in this new salvo is particularly telling: Dutton knows that by controlling education, the Liberal party can entrench conservative values, and entrench a conservative voter base across Australian society. Educated voters have abandoned the Coalition in droves. Still captured by the hard right, it has apparently decided that the best way to reverse this trend is by manipulating the education system to ensure future votes, rather than changing their values to adapt to the times.
And a final note: Alan Tudge claimed recently that he “still want[s] to ensure […] when students come out of school they really understand Australia is one of the wealthiest, freest, most egalitarian and most tolerant societies that has ever existed in all of human history, and the origins of that and how we became that.”
Even if Tudge’s bewildering worded statement was correct, he would do better to look towards the myriad of campaigners, activists, and groups from Australia’s feminist, Indigenous, environmental, and union movements. It is these groups that have contributed to our wealth, freedom, equality, and tolerance, not conservatives who have consistently attempted to walk our country away from progress in any of those areas at every point in our history. Or better yet, acknowledge that our modern prosperity has emerged from a brutal history of violence, subjugation and dispossession that continues to this day.