Tribute to Ms Inga Clendinnen, AO

About this Item
SubjectsAborigines: New South Wales; Honours; Australia: History; Holidays
BusinessAdjournment, Motion

Page: 20807

    The Hon. JAN BURNSWOODS [6.25 p.m.]: Tonight I pay tribute to one of the finest people I know in Australia, who was recognised by being given the award of Officer in the Order of Australia on Australia Day: the historian Inga Clendinnen. Inga Clendinnen has, over some decades, proved what a useful profession that of historian is and how much a historian like her can contribute to our society. Over the years that she has taught in Melbourne—firstly at the University of Melbourne—Inga has moved from being an expert in Mayan and Aztec cultures and the Spanish conquest of Mexico, with all that that involved in exploring early issues of colonialism and so on, to recently writing a book called Reading the Holocaust, which opened up a completely new avenue of historical exploration.

    Most recently, many members will have heard of Inga's book Dancing with Strangers, which is currently out of print because it sold so well. That book explores the relationship between the British settlers and Aboriginal people during the first five years of the colony of New South Wales. She has also written an autobiography and memoir titled The Eye of the Tiger, which is a very thoughtful account of her experiences on discovering that she had a very serious liver disease, her stays in hospital and her eventual liver transplant. She meditates a lot on all sorts of things in that book, not least the fact, as she says, "The only way to get a new liver is through the public hospital system. You wait your turn. It can't be bought." Perhaps that expression says something about the philosophy of Inga Clendinnen.

    Her citation credits her with addressing issues of fundamental concern to Australian society and for helping to shape public debate on contemporary issues. She has indeed done that. At the time of receiving the award she made a number of comments about what surrounds the awards and Australia Day. For instance, she is a critic of the date of Australia Day. She ended the Boyer Lectures that she gave in 1999 with these remarks:

    There remains a scar on the face of the country, a birthstain of injustice and exclusion directed against people who could so easily provide the core of our sense of ourselves as a nation, but who remain on the fringes of the land they once possessed.

    She argues along those lines that Australia Day is an inappropriate day for us to celebrate our nationhood. Perhaps strangely for someone who is so conscious of the evils of nationalism and war, she is a great admirer of the traditional Anzac Day because, as she views it, the Diggers, the people who originally celebrated the defeat at Gallipoli, knew it was a defeat. They were marking the fact that war was futile and they were celebrating those who had died. They were committing themselves to a vision of the future that did not involve sending young men to die so uselessly in places like Gallipoli and, later on, the Western Front in France. I think perhaps it may be true that Anzac Day and some of the ways in which these national events are marked have changed considerably over the last decade or so, and if that is so maybe Inga Clendinnen would no longer argue as she did then.

    I can think of very few people who deserve an award of Officer in the Order of Australia as much as Inga Clendinnen. She has inspired generations of university students, including me many years ago. She has gone on inspiring people. For instance, she was the guest speaker at the Premier's History Awards dinner in New South Wales a few years ago, when she spoke in part about her book on the Holocaust. She deserves more recognition than she has had. As I said at the beginning, she is someone who should remind us, as the number of people studying history drops, that we can ill afford to do without our historians, who look with such thoughtful and compassionate eyes on our country's history and that of other countries.

    Motion agreed to.
    The House adjourned at 6.30 p.m. until Thursday 2 March 2006 at 11.00 a.m.