New site to help politicians learn the lessons from history

26 March 2010

A new website being launched today (Friday 26 March 2010) at Deakin University’s Alfred Deakin Research Institute (Geelong, Victoria) will help politicians avoid reinventing the wheel and repeating the errors of the past.

“Politicians often invoke history for persuasive effect and legitimacy, especially when they are claiming ‘turning points’ or claiming the status of harbingers of new eras,” Institute Director and historian, Professor David Lowe explained at the launch of the new Australian Policy and History Network site.

“But we have to ask ‘Why don’t politicians listen to historians?’ Perhaps the key word in this question is ‘listen’ because we know they draw on historians’ work.

“A well-known Australian example is of historian Don Watson penning some of the more memorable of former Prime Minister Paul Keating’s speeches, including the extraordinary ‘Redfern speech’ of 1992, in which Keating recognised the role of white Australians in dispossessing Aborigines.

“Historian Henry Reynolds’ multiple works on the same theme has influenced policy-makers in relation to indigenous land rights.”

Professor Lowe said historians had a lot to offer policy-makers, yet Australian historians had to be accessible as well.

“Relying on busy politicians and public servants to buy books or attend conferences is not realistic,” he said.

“In order to be heard, historians need to find ways of engaging with politicians and policy-makers.”

Professor Lowe said British historians have played significant roles in shaping the British government’s response to the arrival of the AIDS virus, outlining the limitations of policing according to what worked and what didn’t in past cases of infectious diseases.

“Robert McNamara, the US Secretary of Defense in the 1960s, readily admitted he could have learned a lesson from history after the US ill-fated foray into Vietnam,” he said.

Professor Lowe said the new Australian Policy and History Network was based on the successful History and Policy group founded in the UK in 2002.

“This coalition of historians is constantly on the lookout for good history writing that encourages perspective in current policy contexts.

“It offers another way by which historians can engage with policy-makers and the media.

“If, for example, we have reached the point at which households need to start thinking about rationing carbon emissions, policy-makers might like to know what worked and what didn’t when rationing was applied to households during the Blitz in the Second World War.

“There will no doubt be sources of scepticism about what historians can offer policy-makers, who are often so pressed for time and so locked into the present that they succumb to a ‘presentist’ mind-set, convinced that that the challenges facing us today - global warming, an ageing population, post-Cold War international relations – are so unprecedented as to be incapable of any guidance from the past.

“Yet, this is precisely when history and historically ways of seeing are more important than ever.

“The life of Robert McNamara, one of ‘the best and the brightest’ stands as a reminder of what opportunities can be missed when historians are not listened to.”

News facts
  • Why donít politicians listen to historians?
  • Historians have a lot to offer policy-makers.
  • New website will help politicians avoid reinventing the wheel and repeating the errors of the past.

Media contact

Professor David Lowe
Director, Alfred Deakin Research Institute
03 5227 2691

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26th March 2010