When policy meets history

16 April 2018

If understanding history is necessary to avoid repeating past mistakes, what role do historians have to play in policymaking in a time of increasing international tension?

Between writing books, leading Deakin University’s unique Contemporary Histories Research Group (CHRG), teaching and researching, Professor David Lowe, Chair of Contemporary History with Deakin’s Faculty of Arts and Education is a busy man who is about to get a whole lot busier.

Professor Lowe has been awarded consecutive fellowships in two countries – the UK and Japan – where he will continue to explore his various research interests, including the uses of history by politicians, the growth of international students as a factor in cultural diplomacy and the history of Australia’s foreign and aid policies.

He will take up his position as Visiting Professor in Australian Studies at the Centre for Pacific and American Studies, University of Tokyo, in 2019 after completing his Smuts Visiting Research Fellowship in Commonwealth Studies at the University of Cambridge UK, which begins in October this year.

Professor Lowe is a leading historian of Australia’s international relations in the Asia-Pacific and both Fellowships will advance his work on Commonwealth history, Australia and Japan’s aid relationship and how historians can play a greater role in informing policy making.

During his time at Cambridge, Professor Lowe will research the role of the Commonwealth in planning and implementing aid and development for a decolonising Asia in the 1950s.

He is also hoping to strengthen ties between the British History and Policy group and the group he co-founded in Australia – the Australian Policy and History network.

“Essentially, the mission of these two groups is to ask which of the great policy issues that governments are wrestling with have historical precedents that historians might be able to bring to the debate,” he said.

“For example, terrorism prevention laws balance protection and the diminishing of personal liberties and raise the question of how far governments can go while maintaining the trust of their people. You can imagine that these same issues arose during both World Wars and with the creation of security and secret services.”

Professor Lowe said ideally historians could present information to governments about what had happened before and after similar policy developments in the past and help to inform new policy.

“The British History and Policy group have been very good at that; their reach is quite significant and they are called on to brief civil services and the Government,” he said.

“The group holds regular workshops and ‘witness seminars’, which bring together teams involved in previous crisis decision making and current day policymakers. With significant support from Deakin’s CHRG, the Australian Policy and History network has been working towards performing a similar role. We are excited that, towards the end of this year, Australian members will take part in a two-day conference in London with the British History and Policy network and the US National Centre for History to examine the role of historians in public policy.”

Professor Lowe’s Visiting Professorship in Tokyo will also contribute to discussions about the role of history in current-day policy making.

“I’m keen to connect with scholars at the Centre for Pacific and American Studies who share the interests of Deakin's CHRG in showing the historical underpinnings and lessons for current policy debates,” he said.

“Groups of scholars in Tokyo and Osaka have been conducting work that is close to what we in CHRG have been promoting and this is an opportunity to strengthen connections between us.”

The visiting professor program in Japan is supported by the Australia-Japan Foundation and is designed to strengthen academic co-operation between the two nations while enabling Japanese students to learn about Australian society.

During his Fellowship, Professor Lowe will teach Australian history and contemporary society to undergraduate and postgraduate students and conduct research on the connections between Australia and Japan in the area of foreign aid.

“I want to examine the ways in which Australian and Japanese efforts to provide leadership in relation to foreign aid in Asia after World War Two complemented each other at times, because in various ways both Japan and Australia were on the outer in Asia – Japan because of its role in the war and Australia because of the White Australia policy. Both countries saw foreign aid as a means of addressing the odium over their attitudes towards Asia and of finding their way into the international Asian community.

“What I’m discovering is that the two countries sometimes liaised with other quite directly in relation to aid, whether it be education as aid through the Colombo Plan or some other initiative.”

Professor said it was dynamic time for the Asia-Pacific region, with potential shifts in the international power balance causing both concern and opportunities.

“A lot of good comes from policy debates being informed by a strong sense of regional history,” he said.

“When politicians justify policy as being necessary because there are no precedents to a particular event, we need historians to point out the precedents that inevitably do exist and use what we’ve learnt from those experiences to shape/inform current policy.”

By Deakin Research

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Professor David Lowe, Chair in Contemporary History, has been awarded consecutive fellowships in the UK and Japan.

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Professor David Lowe, Chair in Contemporary History, has been awarded consecutive fellowships in the UK and Japan.

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