Home' Policy Magazine : Policy Vol 31 - No 4 Contents When scholars and students want to learn about the nature
of convict society, or to study how prisons were transformed
into colonial democracies, or when they seek the explanation
for why the colonies created a nation, they will consult Hirst’s
Convict Society and Its Enemies, The Strange Birth of Colonial
Democracy, and The Sentimental Nation.
Yet this influential body of work was but a segment of Hirst’s
contribution to his field. He was interested in everything, and
thankfully has left us with a plethora of beautifully written books,
essays and articles on many subjects that captured his attention.
The extraordinary breadth of his work includes the books
Australian History in 7 Questions and The Shortest History
of Europe. The latter volume has been translated into nine
languages, selling more than 100,000 copies in China alone.
But it is the title of the edited collection of his various writings,
Sense and Nonsense in Australian History, that gives the sense
of his work’s originality and significance. Hirst’s dissent from
what he called the left-progressive consensus within academe
concerning the nation’s past, present and future inevitably led to
him to be labelled as a contrarian.
This does not do justice to his achievements. What Hirst
produced, time and again, were impeccably scholarly, and
enormously entertaining, ripostes against orthodoxies he
believed to be in error. To read Hirst is not to encounter a
curmudgeon but to be delighted as he marshals facts, logic and
evidence with unarguable skill and precision to establish the
heterodox case, while conveying powerful insights into whatever
historical experience or process is discussed.
The conclusions drawn, and the wisdom thereby imparted, were
boldly stated no matter the political and cultural dynamite he
was handling, be it disputing the radical feminist account of the
role of gender in Australian history or contradicting the capital-m
Multiculturalist view of Australia as a perpetually racist country.
It was his commitment to the rigorous pursuit of historical truth
that drove him to explore the deeper patterns and meanings of
the past, and the contemporary implications, that others had
missed or misled us about.
Hirst had no peer as a culture warrior, and these features of his
work were a manifestation of his fierce independence combined
with a brilliant mind. But he defied simplistic categorisation as
a partisan because his politics were idiosyncratic.
A lifelong Labor voter, he admitted to becoming more conservative
across time and ended up voting for John Howard, but without
abandoning his commitment to egalitarianism. He remained
stoically Old Labor on economic policy and matters of class,
while his second and third thoughts about the consequences of
the social revolution of the 1960s shaped the social conservatism
that distanced him from the modern Labor Party. He was a self-
described social democrat, and hence also a traditionalist in that
dual sense. Unlike many academics, he did not aim to impress
his university colleagues but wrote for the benefit of the national
culture. That his mission was to influence how Australians
understood the qualities and characteristics of their society
accounts for his unparalleled ability to write for a general audience.
For all his readability, Hirst was an elegant and outstanding
A Giant of Australian Intellectual Life
Historian John Hirst, who died 6 February in Melbourne aged 73, had a long and distinguished
career that will forever shape our understanding of Australia from foundation to Federation.
stylist, as adept at clarifying complex issues by reducing them to
their essentials as he was at crafting the pithy line that eliminated
all doubt his interpretation was true and correct. It was his style,
allied to his civic-mindedness, that set him apart and made him
among the last of a virtually extinct breed within the universities
the public intellectual.
He applied the same public-spirited attitude to a variety of official
roles, which included convener of the Australian Republican
Movement in Victoria and chairman of the commonwealth
Civics Education Group. Herein also lay the motivation for his
years of active public engagement as a social commentator,
through the writing of newspaper opinion pieces, often for The
Australian but also for the Fairfax papers, and through the
articles that regularly appeared in Quadrant, particularly when
the magazine was under the editorship of his friend and La Trobe
University colleague Robert Manne.
The scope of his commentary — on topics as different as why
the jobless should work for the dole, why Australian foreign
policy should take a realistic attitude towards Indonesia, and
why strong border protection policies built popular support
for a large, legal, non-discriminatory immigration program —
burnished his reputation as an intellectual gadfly renowned for
shaking up dull conventionalities.
More telling was his influence. His Quadrant article “The Five
Fallacies of Aboriginal Policy,” published in 1994, established
the parameters of the reconsideration of indigenous policy that
has occurred in the past decade or so; an intellectual legacy
acknowledged by Noel Pearson.
Hirst maintained an amazingly diverse and large circle of
friends and admirers encompassing journalists, editors, authors,
academics, think tankers, and politicians from across the spectrum
hence, the uneasy juxtaposition of the email addresses of
some sworn enemies in the message he sent announcing his
retirement in 2006. He knew everyone, and was on the same
good terms with people whose natural home was the left-leaning
Black Inc publishers as he was with those in the conservative
Connor Court stable.
This was not only due to Hirst’s innate decency. The mentoring
role he assumed for so many people was a natural extension of
his wonderful record as a thesis supervisor, which launched the
successful careers of many academic historians. Unfailingly
willing to lend his time, support and expertise to those who
sought it or whom he sought out to help, he could more
accurately be described as a generous sponsor of the careers of
young people he believed in, myself included. I am enormously
privileged to be one of those who owes him a huge debt for
his wise counsel and profound impact on my professional life
during the 20 years of our friendship.
John Hirst was a great man and a master historian who exerted
a wide influence over many aspects of our public life.
This article is republished here courtesy of The Australian, in which
it appeared on February 9.
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