I wrote recently that Australians don’t revere past politicians. But evidence against this, at least for elites, is the popularity of long-form interviews with politicians past. The most recent installment is the ABC series on Paul Keating. As a historian I consider that the value of open-form interviews with past politicians, who have had plenty of time to get their stories clear is of limited value (the official description for Keating promises ‘inside stories’). It is the case even for more contemporary analysis. It is persistent belief that if only you can talk to the ‘insiders’ you can explain why things happen. Interviews can be valuable but they need to be part of an overall research project. Paul Keating’s continuing appeal is as spokesperson for a particular generation of policy makers. His time in office as Treasurer and Prime Minister saw both the highpoint and the effective dismantling of incomes policy. Keating seemed in control but his variant positions suggest this was not the case. This is the old problem of the role of the individual in history (on which see me here). Why are past public servants never interviewed? When Tony Cole was appointed to the Abbott government’s Commission of Audit did anyone in the media even mention his past role in Treasury during the Keating era?
Long-form interviews by ABC journalists have come to substitute for a decent contemporary history in Australia. We have nothing like the British Mile End Group at the University of London. Australian Universities are to blame as well as journalists (and are not most journalists BA graduates?). In 2008 the Mile End Group introduced an undergraduate unit on the Blair government: ‘ultra-contemporary history’. Even less contemporary reflection is lacking. There is an official history of privatization in Britain. In Australia (unlike New Zealand) the focus of official history has been largely military, although with some attention to foreign policy. Even military history has been scaled down. As John Nethercote noted in 2011: the Australian Research Council ‘simply does not allow sufficient time for quality work’. Australian governments have some little interest in the provision of alternative sources of funding.