Cursing and Breast-Beating

Ross McKibbin

  • An Eye for Eternity: The Life of Manning Clark by Mark McKenna
    Miegunyah, 793 pp, £57.95, May 2011, ISBN 978 0 522 85617 0

Manning Clark’s funeral, on 27 May 1991 at – to the surprise of many – St Christopher’s Roman Catholic Cathedral in Canberra, was attended by much of Australia’s ‘progressive’ elite: the governor-general (Bill Hayden), the prime minister (Bob Hawke), the deputy prime minister and future prime minister (Paul Keating), all of them at one time leaders of the Labor Party, along with much of the federal cabinet, the chief justice of the High Court and six hundred others. Although not a state funeral, it was a very good imitation of one. It attested to Clark’s standing as the representative spokesman (especially after the death of Patrick White a few months before) of a certain kind of Australian radical-democratic nationalism. Had the conservative parties been in power, the funeral rites would have been rather different: Liberal Party grandees would not have crowded the cathedral. As Clark became a public figure, and he worked very hard at becoming one, his work came in the eyes of conservatives to epitomise a left-wing interpretation of Australian history that excluded alternative explanations, especially conservative ones. His critics argued, with some justification, that Clark’s work consistently denied the significance and worthiness of the British institutions and constitutional arrangements Australia had inherited. Above all, in the minds of such conservatives as John Howard, it was designed to maximise Anglo-Australia’s guilt for what happened to the Aborigines; something for which late 20th-century Australians could not be held responsible. This was the ‘black armband’ school of history, a phrase popularised, though not coined, by Howard himself. And it’s certainly true that Clark argued that the European settlement of Australia was a catastrophe for the indigenous population.

The extent of conservative hostility to Clark was demonstrated by two incidents not long after his death. In August 1993 Peter Ryan delivered, in the conservative journal Quadrant, an extraordinary attack on Clark’s six-volume History of Australia, which he had shepherded through publication at Melbourne University Press. He was, he said, ashamed to have published it: Clark was a fraud. He also repeated criticisms many had already made of the volumes. Ryan, it seems, had long nourished resentments against Clark and was driven, too, by his strong dislike of the anti-Britishness of Paul Keating, by then prime minister, and a feeling that Clark was partly responsible for Keating. Ryan’s criticisms were widely publicised and regarded by many on the right as confirmation of what they had always believed.

Three years later, the Brisbane Courier Mail printed a story claiming that Clark had been in some way a Soviet agent, an accusation founded partly on his ambiguous relations with the Soviet Union but also on a recollection by the poet Les Murray, then the literary editor of Quadrant, that at a dinner party in the 1970s he’d seen Clark wearing the Order of Lenin. The Courier Mail was forced to withdraw the accusation and was reported to the Press Council, but many were still prepared to believe the story: Howard used it to attack once again the black armband school and its ‘demonisation’ of those on the political right. Both of these affairs – in themselves mere storms in teacups – were significant because they established the centrality of Clark in Australia’s culture wars. Whether he was right or wrong was less important than who and how many believed him to be right or wrong; less important, indeed, than what he actually wrote. Politically, much hung on these things; to some extent it still does.

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