The infamous culture wars sank to a sorry new low last night. At the Prime Minister’s Literary Awards, handed out in Melbourne, the prize for history went to a right-wing rant against Australian trade unions, an ideological tract that includes errors, hearsay, exaggeration and in some cases, sheer fiction and fantasy. History it is not.
The book is Australia’s Secret War, subtitled How Unionists Sabotaged Our Troops in World War II, by Western Australian writer Hal G.P. Colebatch and published — no surprise here — by the right-wing Quadrant magazine. It was a joint winner of the history award with Broken Nation, Professor Joan Beaumont’s splendid book about Australia in World War I. Prize: $40,000 each.
It’s hard to know where to begin on this travesty, but here are two examples. In his introduction, Colebatch claims that a strike by wharf labourers in Sydney kept soldiers returning from Japanese prisoner-of-war camps away from their families. In October 1945, he says, these men were held penned-up on a British aircraft carrier, HMS Speaker, which had brought them home. The wharfies would not allow them ashore to meet their loved ones for 36 hours.
This is untrue. It simply did not happen. Newspaper accounts of their return report the men were greeted by cheering crowds the day they arrived. The history of HMS Speaker, written by one of the ship’s officers and available online, makes no mention of this supposed scandal. There was no wharfies strike that day. Colebatch gives his only source for this nonsense as a letter from one W.S. Monks, dated 1995, 50 years after the event and 20 years ago. He does not reveal who this Monks might be, but there was no soldier or POW of that name in WWII.
The second example is worse, if anything. Colebatch alleges that a flight of 16 American Vultee Vengeance dive bombers returning from a raid on Rabaul crashed into the sea off New Britain because the radar station at their base on Green Island was not working. He claimed — with no evidence at all — that the valves for the radar had been stolen by wharfies.
This is sheer fiction. The Americans did not fly the Vultee Vengeance in combat, so they made no raid on Rabaul. Significantly, Colebatch doesn’t give a date, but there is no American record, official or unofficial, of 16 of these aircraft and their 32 crew members lost in this way at any time, as there surely would be had it happened. He also gets the number of the Green Island radar unit wrong. Again, he relies on rumour and hearsay for this nonsense. No official documents, nothing, just two individual reminiscences by old soldiers decades ago.
“Colebatch is entitled to his own opinions, but not his own facts. Australia’s Secret War is a farrago.”
The only vaguely comparable incident in the area was the crash of seven Royal New Zealand Air Force Corsair fighters — different air force, different aircraft — in 1945. But that was nothing to do with faulty radar. They simply ran out of fuel when they were caught in a sudden tropical storm.
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I could go on, but you get the picture. Page after page, chapter after chapter, the book is an egregious exercise in union-bashing with little or no display of original research or historical scholarship.
Colebatch, a Perth lawyer and self-styled poet, has long been a spear carrier for the hard Right. His publisher, Quadrant magazine, is holy writ for that ever-diminishing band of geriatric self-styled culture warriors still bewailing the departure of the late B.A. Santamaria.
Naturally, when the book came out, it was ballyhooed to the skies by Quadrant’s editor, the ever-contentious Keith Windschuttle, and the usual Tory gaggle of Alan Jones, Andrew Bolt and Miranda Devine et al. Writing as if she actually knew what she was talking about, Devine banged on in the Sydney Daily Telegraph about “union bastardry”, branding the non-existent HMS Speaker strike as an “obscene act”.
“You will read this book with mounting fury,” she huffed.
Indeed you might, but only because it is so downright awful.
Which might lead you, gentle reader, to ask how on earth it got the gong. No surprises there either. The chief judge of the non-fiction and history awards for this year was none other than our old friend Gerard “Gollum” Henderson, ringmaster of the right-wing Sydney Institute, long-time culture impresario and an Abbott confidante. His right-hand man on the judging panel was a former Quadrant editor and Liberal MP, Peter Coleman. Ho hum. Nuff said.
Naturally I’ll be accused of sour grapes. My book First Victory, about the Australian navy in WWI, was a short-listed finalist in the same category. (In fact, it won this year’s NSW Premier’s Prize for military history.)
But I don’t care. Colebatch is entitled to his own opinions, but not his own facts. Australia’s Secret War is a farrago. Perhaps worst of all, it’s badly written, too. Cliche piled upon cliche. Its selection as a co-winner devalues the Prime Minister’s history award, leaving it a bloodied casualty on this ideological battlefield.