"A democrat towards knowledge": the work of Geoffrey Blainey

2017-01-30T22:56:21Z (GMT) by Allsop, Richard Matthew
This thesis studies the career of Geoffrey Blainey, both as a historian and controversialist. It considers what factors contributed to his success as a writer of works of history and how he became a high-profile public figure. When he commented on the issue of Asian immigration in 1984, this profile ensured that his views made front page news and led to a situation where his historical writing was read through the prism of his political views by friend and foe alike. The thesis takes issue with simplistic post-1984 categorisations of Blainey as a “conservative historian”. It argues that, in his desire to find material explanations for historical events, Blainey has often seemed closer to the materialists of the Left, such as Marxists or the Annales school, than to the traditional conservative conception of history being driven by politics, wars and ‘great men’. There also needs to be a renewed recognition that at the time of its publication in 1975 Blainey’s Triumph of the Nomads was regarded as the most prominent progressive treatment of Aboriginal history to have been written to that time. This focus on materialist factors in history was also evident in Blainey’s ongoing interest in economic issues. He was an active participant in the big economic policy debates in the 1980s and 1990s, something which has received little attention from other historians, but which is crucial to understanding his later writing on Australian history. Blainey has never been a typical professional historian. He started his adult working life as a freelance historian and he has always maintained the belief that the research and writing of history should happen in the marketplace as much as in the academy. A utilitarian approach that history is about finding out interesting things about the past and then sharing them with as broad an audience as possible has been a constant feature of his historical method. For three decades the differences were accommodated but the evolution of Blainey’s outlook, and more significant changes in the dominant views of the history academy, meant that by the 1980s a schism had developed between Blainey and other historians. Understanding how and why that schism occurred not only sheds light on Blainey’s career, but also on the practice of history in Australia.