Manning Clark’s funeral, on 27 May 1991 at – to the surprise of many – St Christopher’s Roman Catholic Cathedral in Canberra, was attended by much of Australia’s ‘progressive’ elite: the governor-general (Bill Hayden), the prime minister (Bob Hawke), the deputy prime minister and future prime minister (Paul Keating), all of them at one time leaders of the Labor Party, along with much of the federal cabinet, the chief justice of the High Court and six hundred others. Although not a state funeral, it was a very good imitation of one. It attested to Clark’s standing as the representative spokesman (especially after the death of Patrick White a few months before) of a certain kind of Australian radical-democratic nationalism. Had the conservative parties been in power, the funeral rites would have been rather different: Liberal Party grandees would not have crowded the cathedral. As Clark became a public figure, and he worked very hard at becoming one, his work came in the eyes of conservatives to epitomise a left-wing interpretation of Australian history that excluded alternative explanations, especially conservative ones. His critics argued, with some justification, that Clark’s work consistently denied the significance and worthiness of the British institutions and constitutional arrangements Australia had inherited. Above all, in the minds of such conservatives as John Howard, it was designed to maximise Anglo-Australia’s guilt for what happened to the Aborigines; something for which late 20th-century Australians could not be held responsible. This was the ‘black armband’ school of history, a phrase popularised, though not coined, by Howard himself. And it’s certainly true that Clark argued that the European settlement of Australia was a catastrophe for the indigenous population.
LRB 23 February 2012 | PDF Download