Doctor John Hirst
22 February 2016
I want to acknowledge the passing of historian and public intellectual John Hirst, who passed away recently aged just 73. John Hirst was at the La Trobe University history department from 1968 to 2006—a history in itself. He was head of the department, and author of 16 books which have shaped our understanding of Australia. Among them are The Oxford Companion to Australian History, Australian History in 7 Questions and The Shortest History of Europe, which has sold more than 100,000 copies—more than 10,000 copies in China alone.
Chris Feik, John's editor—and, thankfully, mine too on two books—said:
He had a sociological imagination of great originality, and the historian's gift of synthesising vast amounts of material and seeing new patterns and meanings. His work will surely endure, for its originality, scholarship and deep intelligence.
In a beautiful obituary, Frank Bongiorno described John as 'a fiercely independent intellectual'. He talked about how John challenged orthodoxies created by some of the profession's biggest names:
So Geoffrey Blainey thought distance shaped Australia? Hirst was doubtful, and he outlined his case to his colleagues … Russel Ward reckoned that the noble bushman … was the typical Australian? What about the pioneer, asked Hirst … .The federation of the Australian colonies was a mere business deal? Hirst wrote a whole book, and a very good one … putting that one to rest …
Frank Bongiorno said of John Hirst, 'Australia never quite lived up to his ambition for it.' He recognised John Hirst's belief:
… that historians should be public intellectuals grappling with difficult things that mattered.
As Frank Bongiorno put it:
Hirst was a frequent contributor to newspaper opinion pages not because he particularly enjoyed the limelight … but because it was part of his ideal of engaged citizenship.
National Museum of Australia Director Mathew Trinca paid tribute to John Hirst as 'one of the leading historians advising the museum in the years preceding its opening,' and a member of its governing council from 2003 to 2009. He said:
Dr Hirst believed that understanding the past helps us make sense of our present and future, and that we are all the better for having a keen-eyed historical view.
The great Stuart Macintyre said of John Hirst that he was 'an accomplished and strikingly original historian'. I do not agree with the member for Warringah very often. But he put it beautifully when, in describing John Hirst, he said:
Australia has lost a fine mind, clear thinker and good bloke.
Robert Manne said:
He was extraordinarily independent, had a penetrating intellect, and was courageous and very generous.
And Ben Wilkie's tribute to John Hirst in the Spectator noted his observation that:
… if you believe there is no national identity, for instance, the Japanese from Australians, try going to Japan and acting like an Australian, and see how you get on.
John Hirst's writing is too broad, vast and important for me to try to do any justice to it in the time I have here, but I would recommend to honourable members his wonderful piece, in The Monthly in 2008, on what it was like to write the official history of Australia to be given to new migrants. The section on diggers opened with the following:
Except for small-scale battles between settlers and Aboriginal people, Australia has been a remarkably peaceful country. There have been no civil wars or revolutions. It is strange, then, that it has a very strong military tradition and that the ordinary soldier, the digger, is the national hero.
Sense and nonsense in Australian history ends with an envoy in which John Hirst talks about a Vietnamese busker playing a didgeridoo. I would recommend that to honourable members too.
As Franklin Bongiorno said, 'He did not jump on and off bandwagons.' He was an egalitarian, a social democrat and a Republican.
Not long after I was elected, John and I had lunch in the members dining room. He had been kind enough to include an extract of Imagining Australia in his book The Australians, talking about mateship. He had liked that my first speech argued that Labor should claim the Deakinite small 'l' liberal tradition, though he thought I had undersold George Reid. I always think of John when I drive past the suburb of Reid in the centre of Canberra.
As the saying goes, a man dies twice: once when you stop breathing and once when you are forgotten. Thanks to John's books, many a significant figure in Australian history will be better understood by generations to come and they too will ensure that Australians will not quickly forget John Hirst.