Luke Slattery, The Australian (Sydney), September 13, 2008
STUART Macintyre can run from one prestigious appointment to another, but he just can’t hide from the Blainey affair.
Macintyre, who is at a conference in Canada, will return to Melbourne University and a post on the new National Curriculum Board later this month, after a 12-month stint at Harvard University as chair of Australian studies.
Awaiting him are damaging allegations that he played a role in destroying historian Geoffrey Blainey’s academic career. The event, which some regard as the most squalid in Australian intellectual history, if not the opening shot in the history wars, is reprised in a forthcoming essay by Quadrant editor Keith Windschuttle.
It relates how Macintyre and fellow academic staff at Melbourne University’s history department turned on Blainey in 1984, after he had made public statements about the high volume of Asian immigration amid a bruising economic recession.
Blainey made the comments at a Rotary International meeting in Warrnambool, Victoria, and they were quoted in the Melbourne press. A mild-mannered scholar and elegant writer, Blainey became a controversialist overnight. A fortnight later, 23 staff, including Macintyre, signed a letter of protest against Blainey, then the Ernest Scott Professor of History.
This set in train a series of events, including student protests and pickets, that led to Blainey’s resignation from his tenured post: an extraordinary move for a mid-career scholar of high repute.
Macintyre succeeded him in the post.
The letter of protest began: “As historians at the University of Melbourne, we wish to dissociate ourselves entirely from the widely publicised attacks which Professor Geoffrey Blainey, an eminent member of our profession, and a professor in our department, has recently made on the Government’s immigration policy with regard to Asians.”
In his forthcoming essay on the history wars, Windschuttle alleges Blainey was the victim of a “calculated move to make him feel as uncomfortable as possible within his own department, to generate hostility towards him among the wider university community, and to sanction the actions the signatories expected students to take”.
“In short, it was done to get rid of him,” Windschuttle writes. He points out that Macintyre was the “greatest beneficiary” of Blainey’s resignation.
Soon after the staff letter was published in Melbourne’s The Age newspaper in May 1984, Blainey ceased teaching. He became dean of the arts faculty and retired officially four years later.
Macintyre has discussed the events in his book The History Wars, in the guise of an observer rather than a participant.
In an email conversation with The Weekend Australian yesterday, he said: “The claim that I led the attack on Geoff out of malice or ambition was propagated by (former publisher at Melbourne University Press) Peter Ryan, who repeatedly elided four years that passed between the Warrnambool speech and Geoff’s decision to retire after his second term as dean.”
In a 2006 interview, Blainey, who went on to a successful career as a freelance historian, said he would have stayed at Melbourne University if not for the hostility on campus. “Why should you leave an institution you’ve been in for a long time, where you are close to a very good library, are well paid and have a lot of time to write after doing your teaching and administration?” Blainey said.
“Compared with writing as a freelancer, the university is infinitely preferable. It was a great disappointment having to leave but there was no future for me there.”
Windschuttle describes the protest letter as an authoritarian action and its signatories as enemies of free speech. The event was a crux moment in Australian intellectual history, helping to shape the identities of Left and Right.
Former Treasury secretary John Stone regarded Blainey as “a brave man set upon by various political and intellectual thugs”, while former prime minister John Howard thought for a time that Blainey, who became his administration’s favourite historian, had been hounded out of office.
Left-wing historian Henry Reynolds has argued that Blainey “lost the respect of practically the whole profession” through his intervention in the immigration debate.
In Macintyre’s view, the letter’s primary purpose was “to declare that he (Blainey) spoke for himself and not for us”.
“Over the preceding two months he had been regularly identified as a professor of history at Melbourne University and dean of the faculty of arts,” he said. “There is a loose convention that academics should reserve use of their university title to commentary on matters of professional expertise and our letter therefore said that he spoke as an individual.”
Windschuttle describes this as “dissembling . . . the members of his own staff sent a very clear message that they found him unwelcome . . . It certainly ended his university career.”
Gerard Henderson, executive director of the Sydney Institute and former Howard speech writer, said the impression he had gained from conversations with Blainey was that he resigned not because he was hounded out but because he wanted to go.
He also pointed out that Macintyre had declined to join Blainey’s critics in a subsequent book on the events of 1984, titled Surrender Australia.
Historian Ross Fitzgerald said the history wars of recent years began with Blainey’s 1984 speech and the reaction of his colleagues, who later “slammed his academic work as a way of slamming him”.
He added that recent criticism of Macintyre, including references to his past as a Communist Party member, amounted to a campaign of vilification “almost as reprehensible” as the attacks on Blainey.
Blainey could not be contacted for comment.