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Defining moments in history

Daniel Hurst, ‘Tony Abbott says first fleet arrival is the defining moment in Australian history’, The Guardian, 29 August 2014

‘Its British settlement that has most profoundly shaped the country that we are,’ says prime minister.

Tony Abbott has nominated the arrival of the first fleet, along with the launch of Rupert Murdoch’s Australian newspaper and the publication of The Lucky Country, as defining moments in the nation’s history.

The prime minister marked the 200th anniversary of the death of Arthur Phillip, the first governor of New South Wales, by crediting the arrival of the first fleet from Britain in 1788 as “the moment this continent became part of the modern world”.

Abbott made the remarks on a visit to the National Museum of Australia in Canberra on Friday to launch the Defining Moments in Australian History project.

“Any attempt to nominate defining moments will inevitably be contentious,” Abbott said. “For instance, I hope that the defining moments of World War I might include the capture of Jerusalem and the achievements of General Monash as well as the landing at Gallipoli.

“I hope that the defining moments of 1964, for instance, might include the launch of the Australian newspaper as well as the publication of The Lucky Country.”

Abbott added that he wanted to see the success of a referendum to recognise Indigenous people within the constitution.

“There is a further defining moment that I hope one day will certainly have a plaque here at the National Museum and that’s for the constitutional amendment recognising Aboriginal peoples that I hope will soon take place,” he said.

In the speech on Friday, Abbott said it was fitting that the defining moments project launch coincided with the bicentenary of Phillip’s death.

“The arrival of the first fleet was the defining moment in the history of this continent. Let me repeat that: it was the defining moment in the history of this continent,” the prime minister said.

“It was the moment this continent became part of the modern world. It determined our language, our law and our fundamental values. Yes, it did dispossess and for a long time marginalise Indigenous people.

“As Noel Pearson frequently reminds us, modern Australia has an important Indigenous and multicultural character. Still it’s British settlement that has most profoundly shaped the country that we are.

“It has provided the foundation for Australia to become one of the freest, fairest and most prosperous societies on the face of the earth. So Arthur Phillip is as significant to modern Australia as George Washington is to the modern United States.

“On 26 January 1788 Governor Phillip raised the union flag at Sydney cove, drank to the king’s health and success to the settlement – I quote from the official record – ‘with all that display of form which on such occasions is esteemed propitious because it enlivens the spirits and fills the imagination with pleasing presages.’

“He encouraged all the new settlers including the convicts to work hard for the benefit of the community and promised the reward of land upon emancipation. His instructions from the British government were to build amity with the local inhabitants and Phillip tried hard and faithfully to carry these out. Most notably, he declined to order punishment after himself being speared.

“He was a man of his times. He was a man of courage, decency, moderation and vision – characteristics which should and usually do mark the nation he helped to found. Yes, he was a man of his times, he was a man who embodied the best of his times and may this country embody the very best.”

At a media conference, Abbott described Phillip as “the founder of modern Australia” but “we don’t know enough about him” or “acknowledge his contribution sufficiently”.

The government is yet to release the report of its review of the national school curriculum, including the area of history. The education minister, Christopher Pyne, said in January the review would consider concerns that the curriculum was “not recognising the legacy of western civilisation and not giving important events in Australia’s history and culture the prominence they deserve, such as Anzac Day”.

In July, Abbott was criticised for promoting the importance of foreign investment by saying that Australia “owes its existence to a form of foreign investment by the British government in the then unsettled or, um, scarcely settled, Great South Land”.


See also ‘Abbott criticised for view that First Fleet was Australia’s defining moment’, The Australian, 30 August 2014