How does history get so twisted?

Fraser in June 1977.

Fraser in June 1977. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Last night I watched Immigration Nation on SBS One and filled in some gaps in my knowledge. For months I’ve been hearing it said on social media that Malcolm Fraser has become more humanitarian with age, he wasn’t like that when he was Prime Minister. Oh, yes he was! Whitlam allowed 1,000 and no more Indo-Chinese refugees in case, coming from a communist country, they wouldn’t vote Labor later on. Fraser was the Prime Minister that opened Australia’s heart and we accepted 70,000 refugees. I have no idea of their voting patterns and nor does it worry me.

I am no longer a member of the Liberal party because I can’t accept the party line on several issues but I have taken some flak for my ongoing support of Fraser.  I don’t understand how or why people think he has changed when history tells me he hasn’t. He may have more freedom now to speak in ways he couldn’t before, or in ways that were not necessary before the current crop of Liberals, but I see Fraser acted humanely then as he does now.

The program put in perspective for me why Fraser is so disapproving of the current approach to the treatment of asylum seekers and refugees.

It makes me wonder how history gets so twisted. Every historian has a personal perspective, I suppose, and in some cases that will impact later perceptions of historical times and events. Most historians research diligently and write with the earnest intention of presenting the recounting of a time and events as closely as they possibly can to the reality.  I believe Matthew Wright is one of those historians.

Of course, we don’t go around reading history books all the time. We read newspaper articles, we talk to friends, family and co-workers and our perspective becomes removed from the reality of the time.  Given the state of the mainstream media at the moment, more opinion than actual reporting, the media doesn’t necessarily present an accurate picture to the reader. If we live in a country we weren’t born in, we have less knowledge of the history than we might otherwise have had. In that situation we have, I think, a tendency to think the “locals” have it right when in fact they may not.

I am not talking about the Battle of Hastings in 1066 though. I am talking about a period of history in my adult lifetime. Many of the political players of that time are still alive and able to state what happened with clarity. Yes, there will always be fundamental differences of perspective: everyone knows Whitlam and Fraser see November 11, 1975 entirely differently from a personal perspective, yet the facts of the day remain the same.

The facts of who had the humanitarian approach at the time was certainly brought home to me last night, watching Immigration Nation.

Which brings me to another observation. It seems there is a tendency to blindly defend OR blindly attack. People will blindly defend the policies of either political party just because that is the party they support, rather than provide critical feedback. If they disagree in many cases they will simply stay silent and so the voices of the blind defenders rise above all else. Just as over the years many defended the institutions now appearing at the Royal Commission in Child Sexual Abuse. How many years has it taken for the voices of those blindly defending the institutions to be drowned out and some action taken?

Humans are pack animals. We like to belong, be it a political, religious or football affiliation. The power of the pack.

Let us not be blind to things we should we should not accept even when those things are in our own pack. Let us open our eyes and our ears and seek the truth of situations current and past.

We must speak out when things are not right, for only then can we improve the very “pack” we consider we belong to.

Malcolm Fraser speaks out. Years ago he took action. So should all of us.

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14 comments on “How does history get so twisted?

  1. […] billboard. Using people as a political football is not the sort of action I expect from a leader. Malcolm Fraser was a leader. Abbott is not. Not my […]


  2. Hi – thanks for the shout-out! Historians do indeed have personal perspectives which sometimes intrude despite their asserted abstraction. But I think the bigger problem is the ‘follow my leader’ approach in which all tend to follow new trends. Here in NZ, for instance, a generation of historians generally known as ‘revisionists’ have completely re-written our colonial past since the 1980s, reversing (though not, to my mind, properly questioning) earlier prejudices.

    It was certainly time to question some old ideas, but ‘revisionism’ isn’t the way to do it – to me it lacks the necessary philosophical rigour. One of the outcomes has been that old misconceptions have been replaced by new ones – witness the notion, now held as a truth, that Maori invented trench warfare and it was then stolen by the British for the First World War. An absurd idea, as anybody with the slightest knowledge of military history well knows – I’ve written five books (all commercially published) so far that include arguments showing why it’s without basis. But the notion fits post-colonial thinking and has gained a good deal of traction among the non-military historical community.

    An example of myth-making, generated by the way that modern historians have re-framed the past to suit modern ideology.


    • Thank you Matthew for sharing such a great example of history being re-written.

      Another example is just leaving historical facts out altogether. One I am constantly amused by, although it isn’t really funny, is that the USA was a penal colony before Australia and actually received more convicts. Very few Americans are actually aware of this, although I did meet a senior Symantec VP who was well aware. I was very impressed with her knowledge!


  3. Hi Robyn,
    This is another important post on immigration and a topic I wish our govt here would pick up again in a serious way… Hope all is well with you and yours. I’m still out of the blogging loop and have been quite busy with family, study, and other demands. Please extend my love to your hubby and kids and I hope to be back at blogging again soon.
    I’ve been thinking of you. {Hugs} and blessings!


    • Elizabeth! I have been a bit worried, so glad to hear from you. I was thinking of emailing you to make sure all was well, but if you were really busy an email would just be something else to deal with!

      Hugs and blessings back to you too!


    • Forgot to say, I see much discussion referred to re immigration in the USA, but to be honest I haven’t kept up with it. I think refugees/displaced people is becoming a major issue the world needs to address in better ways.


  4. Immigration Nation was certainly an interesting program.
    Yes, I also wish all humans would be kind to each other, irrespective of race or religion.
    Watching Law and Order SVU lasts night, and they highlighted the plight of women in the Congo where they get raped by militia irrespective of age, When this is make public why aren’t powerful governments speaking against it?


  5. Personally,I think it is fair enough that we put pressure on foreign governments to change because we are stakeholders in what they do. If neighbours are beating their children and they keep ending up crying on our doorstep asking for help, then their family life becomes part of our business. In addition, we can say that if people want to be part of a community, there are certain values that they need to adopt.

    I don’t know too much about the Refugee Convention, but I think the UN declaration of Human Rights needs to be simplified. It tends to be ambiguous and contradictory. I also think our own Human Rights legislation needs to be updated because it only provides protection to groups not to individuals.

    Ultimately, I think these problems are caused because groups form that deny dignitary for the individual and individual opportunity. I appreciate that most people in the world probably want a cultural identity, and personally I can respect that, as long the individuals who want to escape culture have the freedom to do. I personally believe that the societies that provide the most scope for individual expression are the most socially enlightened, most adaptable to change, the most compassionate, and the most economically prosperous.


    • Many of these instruments are very old, like our Migration Act. I agree they need to be rewritten.

      Putting pressure on other countries is a problematic idea – it would be nice if all cultures had the same freedoms for the individual, but they don’t and changing some of those cultures is a long process.

      I don’t know what the answer is – I do know we shouldn’t be treating our fellow man in cruel ways.


      • I agree that changing cultures is a long process and perhaps engagement may help the change. That said, I think it is also important for societies to decide what they believe in and uphold those values.

        Looking at the 20th century, the constant battle was the individual escaping the group. It started in world war 1 where nationalism had showed that individuals were expendable, and individuals got fed up with it. That battle continued in world war 2, and the cold war. Then post-modernism took over and western countries decided they didn’t believe in anything anymore and it was acceptable for groups to suppress individuality if done in the name of culture.


      • The difference between cultures of collectivism and individualism is very interesting. Western cultures are individualistic and non-western are mostly cultures of collectivism. It is a huge adjustment for people from such cultures when they move to a culture of individualism. I think the freedom of western cultures (although do we have any freedoms left??) can be attractive from a distance, but very different to live in on a day-to-day basis.

        It is easier to “control” the masses in a culture of collectivism than a culture of individualism, hence the change is slower.

        I’m not sure I agree that western countries find it acceptable for groups to suppress individuality but what I DO see is individuals giving up their individuality to support their “group” – religion, political party, etc – without real questioning of the objectives/policies of that group.

        Critical thinking seems to have taken a back seat to barracking for the “group”.


  6. The image of a prime minister is always defined in comparison to those who have gone before, who come after and who are in opposition. Whitlam tried to portray himself as the man who tore down the white Australia policy when in truth it was dismantled by Menzies, Gorton and Holt. Nevertheless, the image of Whitlam the humanitarian stuck (even though it didn’t like Asians that would vote Liberal.) By comparison, Fraser was the conservative fogey speaking with a British accent.

    Personally, I also think the issue of refugees is much more complicated that it was in the 70s. Today, Australia is seen all over the world as a desirable place to get to, but in the 1970s, the image of Australia was basically white trash with relatively low standards of living. Only truly desperate people wanted to come here. However today, because about 3 billion people would come here if they could, and many of those are trying, it is more difficult to conclude that if someone claims to be a refugee they truly are one.


    • Agree with you totally that the issue of refugees is more complicated. The world is not nice in more places now than then – or is it? Technology means more people know about other ways of life now and see others don’t live an oppressed life.

      I agree it may be more difficult to conclude genuine refugee status, however I also think we need to update the Refugee Convention to take into account today’s numbers and circumstances. How, I have no idea: the mind boggles at the complexities of so many awful regimes.

      Yet equally it is not our place to force sovereign nations to change either. Change must come from within, although in the case of tyrants, that is well nigh impossible.

      Why can’t humans just be nice?


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