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Transcripts from the Prime Ministers of Australia

Transcript 7455

PRIME MINISTER'S SPEECH AT LAUNCH OF THE CONVICT WORKERS OLD MINT, SYDNEY FRIDAY, 13 JANUARY 1989

Photo of Hawke, Robert

Hawke, Robert

Period of Service: 11/03/1983 to 20/12/1991

More information about Hawke, Robert on The National Archive website.

Release Date: 13/01/1989

Release Type: Speech

Transcript ID: 7455

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PRIME MINISTER
EMBARGOED UNTIL DELIVERY CHECK AGAINST DELIVERY
PRIME MINISTER'S SPEECH AT LAUNCH OF
THE CONVICT WORKERS
OLD MINT, SYDNEY
FRIDAY, 13 JANUARY 1989
Ladies and G-entlemen
1am delighted to be here today to launch Convict Workers.
The occasion, and the historic setting of the old Mint in
which we stand, provide me with an opportunity to reflect -on
the Bicentennial Year, and on the sense of our history which
it engendered.
The Bicentenary was not, nor was it ever intended to be,
merely a birthday party. Re-enactments of historical events
served to direct attention to our past. So too did the
publication of hundreds of new history books stimulated by
the Bicentenary.
As a young nation, concerned with our place in the world, we
need to examine our national identity, and to search out our
roots not out of an antiquarian interest in the past but
as a means of discovering our present and assessing our
future. The Bicentenary helped us to understand our
origins, to think honestly about our strengths and our
weaknesses as a nation, and to plan for the challenges
ahead. it is a matter of record, and regret, that not all
Australians took that opportunity. For reasons of political
convenience rather than conviction, some sought to replace a
sense of history with a misplaced sense of nostalgia,
through the deceptive slogan, " One Australia"; pride in our
developing national identity was supplanted by a crude and
divisive nationalism, which hurt thousands of Australians
and left many of the wondering whether they were truly at
home in this country; and a simplistic view of an avowedly
conformist past provided a bleak vision of our " future
directions". Fortunately, most Australians used the time productively.
1988 saw a nation-wide ' historic records search' designed to
locate those records of our past which remain in private
hands, treasured as heirlooms by the families that created
them. A wealth of written material was uncovered: diaries
and letters and account books which will help us to re-write

our history. The project symbolized the fact that our
development as a nation is based on the lives of ordinary
Australians going about their everyday business. Our past
has been made, as ; iii -u future, by those who until now
have rarely featured our history textbooks by those who
reap our harvests, dia cur ores, build our manufactured
goods, provide cur serv,_ ces, bring up our families.
The lives of so-cailed crolnary Australians are enormously
complex and % var-eo, as are their backgrounds. Some trace
their roots, wilth increasing pride, to the rich diversity of
Aboriginal cuit--res wnich existed on this continent for at
least 40,000 v'ears '_ efcre the convict workers arrived. In a
splendid twist : r ._-rcny, the Bicentenary has succeeded in
making AustraƱ i, ns m. ore aware that our history did not begin
in 1788.
Other Australians, -with equal enthusiuasm, trace their
heritage to those ,, ho were transported to these shores or
-who come as free settlers seven or eight generations ago.
But now, as throughout our history, a large proportion of
Australians are immigrants. The institutional structure
which today characterises Australia parliamentary
democracy, the rule of law, freedom of speech were ideas
transplanted in a new world by wave after wave of British
and Irish settlers. Increasingly that structure and the
ideas of fairness, equity and tolerance which it nourished
has provided a home for settlers from continental Europe,
the middle East and Asia. Out of that creative interplay of
diverse cultures in a new nation has evolved an exciting,
vibrant and innovative society a multicultural society
presented so convincingly in Jim Jupp's Encyclopaedia of the
Australian People, another important Bicentennial project to
which a number of the authors here today contributed.
But rich and significant as are the day-to-day lives of
Australians, too often they are made inarticulate by
history. I am often frustrated by the fact that my every
word and deed is liable to interpretation and dare I say
misinterpretation by media commentators, and my actions
significant or trivial preserved for posterity. Yet it is
equally frustrating that the Australians whom I meet, whose
concerns are of such consequence to the making of political
decisions, and whose interests gave rise to the great party
which I am now so proud to lead that those same
Australians are too often absent from our history.
The difficulty is that interpretation is to a large extent
shaped by the written records at hand, in which the voices
of Australian workers are often heard only at second hand.
Thankfully convicts did leave records criminal records.
And the book which ITlaunch today, through application of a
computer technology unimaginable a generation ago, uses
those records to paint a portrait of our first European
workers which bears little resemblance to the stereotype of
Fagin that is usually encountered in our history.

Convict workers forces us to re-assess the foundations of
those values wich we recognise as distinctively Australian.
In a mere two hundred years we have developed from a British
open prison to an independent niation enmeshed in the
economies of Asia and the Pacific Rim. And that remarkable
development has coloured the way in which we have viewed our
cast. in 1388 c~ nviczism w~ as still viewed as a stain on our
history, a deep embarrassment to an affluent society in
-which -workers -were building one of the world's first Labor
part~ es. After all, only twenty years before had the last
fleet of ccnvic: s teen landed in West Australia.
By 1938, :-ransported criminals had been retrospectively
pardoned. Australian schoolchildren were taught that those
who were reail cuilty remained back in Britain: the
convicts were victims, pushed into poaching or theft by
poverty, and often sent to Australia for their political
persuasions. In my generation a new historical vision emerged, expounded
most brilliantly by Manning Clark. I was taught that we had
to be more honest about our past and that honesty meant
coming to terms with our unsavoury beginnings, and
recognising that those transported were unskilled hardened
criminals. But, as Manning Clark himself emphasized recently, each
generation has the task of re-interpreting its history, of
viewing the past from a new present. Convict Workers is
just such a radical challenge to prevailing orthodToxy.
It is perhaps not surprising that during a period in which
our immigration policy has become such a matter of debate
that Convict Workers examines transported criminals as
migrants. Nor is it surprising that our contemporary
concern with improving education and training opportunities
for Australian workers finds expression in a book which
assesses our convict forbears, both women and men, in terms
of their human capital not just as thieves but as youthful
workers possessing remarkably high levels of literacy, work
skill and physical fitness; not just prisoners undergoing
punishment but as a well-organised, efficient labour force.
I doubt that the controversial findings of this book will be
accepted readily. Nor should they be. What the book does
achieve is a sophisticated re-examination of our beginning
as a convict society, and the impact of that experience on
our values today. It makes us look more critically at
conventional wisdom. Here we discover not just 20,000
thieves and villains, but 20,000 workers cooks and
carpenters, plasterers and ploughmen, soldiers and sailors,
gardeners and governesses, and even, I note with some
enthusiasm, a cricket-ball stitcher. Many, perhaps most, of
those transported for criminal offences not only had manual
skills of value to building a new colony but also had ideas
as to the sort of society that they wanted to create when
they regained their status as free workers.

There can be no doubt that many of the conclusions of this
book that convict diet was nutritionally high, that
working conditions -were good, that the lash was used in
moderation will arouse considerable controversy. But more
fundamentally this oook, by presenting transported convicts
as migrants and workers, allows Australia's history as a
oenal settlement to become an integral part of the economic
nistory of an imrmiarant society, rather than being treated
as an unsavoury aberration that : preceded free settlement.
On that score alone the nook . s to be welcomed.
To Steve Nicholas, he Editor of Convict Workers; and to his
fellow authors Kr~ s Corcoran, BarreysrDvdMeit,
Debbie Oxley, John Perkins and of course to Peter Shergold
who is doing an outstanding job as Head of the Office of
multicultural Affairs in my Department; I offer my
congratulations for a stimulating reinterpretation of our
past. I am delighted that Cambridge University press are
now publishina in Australia, and have chosen this book as
the first in a series of studies in Australian history. if
later volumes are as provocative as this the press will have
contributed to a significant re-evaluation of our past by
the time that we celebrate our next important anniversary
our centenary as a nation in 2001.
Ladies and Gentlemen, it gives me great pleasure to launch
Convict Workers.

Transcript 7455