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Shadow education minister says supporters of a free and open society ‘stand and fall by our commitment to truth’
Labor frontbencher Tanya Plibersek says liberal democracies can and must face uncomfortable truths because an honest reckoning with the past “separates us from totalitarians – people who want to erase uncomfortable memories from public life”.
The shadow education minister will use a speech in Sydney on Tuesday night to liken a persistent critique of the national curriculum, spearheaded by the federal education minister, Alan Tudge, to an authoritarian-style deleting of the past.
Tudge, who has spent months campaigning against elements of the proposed new curriculum, says he doesn’t want students to leave school with “a hatred” of their country. The minister has argued Anzac Day should be “presented as the most sacred of all days in Australia” rather than “contested”.
Referencing the proposed year 9 curriculum, Tudge has argued “instead of Anzac Day being presented as the most sacred of all days in Australia, where we stop, we reflect, we commemorate the 100,000 people who have died for our freedoms … it’s presented as a contested idea”.
Plibersek will use a lecture at the New South Wales parliament to deliver a riposte. She will argue honest history is the hallmark of free societies, and the foundation of all moral progress. She will argue liberal democrats and supporters of a free and open society “stand and fall by our commitment to truth”.
“It’s one of the things that separate us from totalitarians – people who want to erase uncomfortable memories from public life,” she will say.
Plibersek will say she is “an optimistic person by nature – and a patriot who loves her country deeply – but how can we study the bravery of Gallipoli without also admitting the British command got it wrong?”
Examining the truth of the Gallipoli landing as a “massively risky gamble – and a mistaken one in hindsight” would not detract from the courage and sacrifice of Australian forces.
“If anything, the full truth adds weight to their tragedy and courage,” Plibersek will say. “When we study history, it’s not just victory or triumph that we teach as bravery; it’s also resistance and even defeat.”
History, she argues, is fundamentally a quest for truth and, without the full truth, the endeavour is propaganda rather than scholarship.
“If you pull one thread from the tapestry because you don’t like it, the whole picture falls apart.
“How could you teach the history of China without the Long March or the Cultural Revolution or Tiananmen Square? How could you teach the history of the United States without slavery or the Civil War or the freedom rides?
“How could you teach the history of ancient Rome without the brutality and slaughter that won its Empire – and which paid for all its art, poetry, trade, architecture, and political glory?”
Plibersek will argue an honest history doesn’t always result in condemnation, or mean that citizens of nations “give up our faith in redemption or forgiveness”.
She will note that some of the greatest civilisations on earth have chequered histories, and they prosper because they are prepared to learn the lessons of the past.
Plibersek will acknowledge the rendering of past events is complicated, because no one has perfect knowledge. Sources can be patchy and “sometimes the bridge of time and culture is too long to cross”.
She says while there will always be arguments about past events and about points of emphasis, subjectivity becomes problematic when education ministers, like Tudge, seek to make and impose choices on Australian students.
Plibersek will argue Tudge wants the curriculum to reflect his own politics rather than a search for truth, and to “import the ridiculous American history wars into Australian classrooms”, which she says amounts a weaponisation of the curriculum.
“No serious athlete, or business leader, or scientist thinks they can ignore their past performance and still become better,” the shadow education minister will say on Tuesday night. “They do the opposite.
“They probe; they analyse; they look for points of weakness – they’re hungry for the truth, because that’s what helps them improve”.