Post-mortems continue on last week’s history summit in Canberra; another of the participants, John Hirst, gives his view in this morning’s Age. But one lesson is already clear: the next summit should invite fewer historians and more lawyers.

Why lawyers? Because a lawyer would not be able to just slide over, as the historians did, the distinction between ends and means. Specifically, any half-competent constitutional lawyer would see that there is a gap between “more narrative history should be taught in high schools” and “the federal government should force the states to fix things”.

It’s no longer a novelty to say that the Howard government is the most centralist that Australia has ever had. But the plan to mandate a particular scheme of history teaching is almost a reductio ad absurdum of centralism. If Canberra can do that, what can’t it do? If experimentation at state level isn’t to be permitted even there, where will it ever be permitted?

A summit of experts (or even “experts”) in the field was never going to consider that side of the question. Experts look at what should be done, not who should do it. Witness the history of anti-poverty campaigns in Australia (and across the western world), where a host of government reports have slid from the premise “something should be done about poverty” – which is pretty clear – to the conclusion “the government should do something about poverty”, which doesn’t follow and may well not be true.

So by all means look at how history teaching can be improved. But also keep an eye on the Constitution, and what we’re doing to the country by concentrating more and more power in Canberra. Because if history teaches us anything, it’s the danger posed by unbridled power.

Peter Fray

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