Monday, December 24

Another honour for Howard's 'history wars' victim

As my friends know, I've sometimes had to battle the urge to become a Howard hater – and never more so than when I remember his treatment of Dawn Casey (pictured).

So as John Howard heads for the golf course, surely now regretting the hubris which caused so much damage to the Liberal Party he professed to love, it's great to see one of the victims of his pogrom against political correctness go from strength to strength.

Dr Casey is to become the director of Sydney's Powerhouse Museum from next March. For the past three years she has been the highly regarded chief executive of another top Australian museum, the West Australian Museum.

But most of us remember the way Howard and his hard-right mates ousted Dr Casey as director of Canberra's new National Museum of Australia because they decided her exhibit labels failed to reflect their "three cheers" view of our history and our society.

One hopes it was not also a factor that Dr Casey is Aboriginal.

A little potted history to refresh our memories. Dr Casey, already highly regarded for her achievements in public administration, oversaw the construction and opening of the NMA, winning further acclaim for meeting a tight budget and tight timetable for the Centenary of Federation celebrations in 2001.

Most of the museum's council members found no fault with her work. But one did – David Barnett, a hard right conservative known best for an admiring authorised biography of Howard.

He compiled a dossier of thousands of museum labels he found objectionable. But with the Centenary deadline looming, council chairman Tony Staley – himself a former minister in the Fraser government, and Liberal Party president from 1993 to 1999 – was reluctant to act.

Staley turned to Geoffrey Blainey, the historian most admired by conservatives, who suggested Monash University history professor Graeme Davison review Barnett's allegations. Davison examined them in detail, checked them against historical sources, and said Barnett's criticisms were ill-founded.

Conservatives often rabbit on about accepting the umpire's decision. Hah! When Dr Casey's original term at the NMA expired in 2002, the government renewed her contract for just one year instead of the three or five years one would expect.

The hard-right commentariat had been frothing at the mouth. Miranda Devine saw "sneering ridicule for white Australia". Tedious as ever, Piers Ackerman said the museum suffered from political correctness. Pru Goward, head of the Office for the Status of Women (and wife of David Barnett), said it trivialised the contribution of women.

Keith Windschuttle, the Quadrant contributor (and now, new Quadrant editor) who has been unable to discover any evidence of massacres of Aborigines (apart from Myall Creek, which is so well documented in sworn court evidence it is undeniable) took up the campaign against Dr Casey.

Inside, on the museum's council, Christopher Pearson, a former Howard speechwriter, seized the cudgels too.

The council decided on an external review. The responsible Howard minister, Rod Kemp, chose as chairman John Carroll, a conservative with connections to the right-wing propaganda organisation (a.k.a. "think tank"), the Institute of Public Affairs. Other members included Philip Jones, a senior curator at the South Australian Museum who had won the conservatives' approval during the Hindmarsh Island affair. Balancing them were Sydney businessman Richard Longes and palaeobiologist Patricia Vickers-Rich.

One might ask: Where was the historian?

But despite the appearance of a stacked inquiry, the committee, against all expectations, reported there was no problem with political or cultural bias at the NMA.

Accept the umpire's decision? Get real. When Dr Casey's one-year contract extension expired in 2003, the government showed her out the door.

At the Powerhouse, Dr Casey faces problems from the start – because of NSW Government funding cuts, she must cut staffing by up to 10 per cent.

However, it's unlikely she will push out anyone because they don't share her political views.

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