This piece is part of the Urgent Histories forum which has been organised by the Australian Historical Association. David Lowe and James Walter have responded thoughtfully to the articles in this forum, which can be found in History Australia.

Together, these essays make a powerful case for historians helping our publics think about temporal argument. We are prompted to respond by suggesting more work under two headings: working through ‘the economy’; and through greater attention to political communication.

Environmental history has produced some of the finest, most poetic historical writing in Australia. What might also be valuable now are more prosaic forms. This perhaps lowers the elevator from the epistemologically rich discussion by Tamson Pietsch and Frances Flanagan, yet the ground floor matters.

What follows reflects our concern for the ease with which Australian climate change sceptics have maintained the false binaries of jobs versus climate action or ‘the economy’ versus climate action, and for their political success in doing so. As a long-term project to de-essentialise ‘the economy’, historians might redouble their recent efforts (especially through new ventures into materialism) to own it and write it in ways that build bridges with the policy-making community and also with voters who have had ‘the economy’ shoved down their throats.

‘The economy’ is generally depicted in Australian political language in terms that evoke house-keeping virtue, encouraging balance, prudence, reward for effort and avoidance of debt. More broadly it is defined as the connected production and consumption activities that determine how scarce resources are allocated. In both cases, human actions are dominant, and what the essays show is that the presumed anthropocentrism in such a definition is ripe for shifting. Paul Kramer’s summative sketching of the ongoing need for research into externalities – who got counted and who did not, who benefited and who or what suffered, at particular stages of labor and production and with particular generation and utilisations of energy – goes to this point.

It makes great sense to partly liberate the economy from its commonly assumed tether to Australia or another nation-state. At its most meaningful, the economy has always been inseparable from the conditions sustaining humans. Nor do you have to be a world systems theorist or a historian of scarce commodities to know that economies connect – across the boundaries of nation-states, with other locally-defined economies, and temporally with recent and deeper times.

Bruno Latour, cited approvingly in these essays, might resist our focus on the economy in favour of a new political ecology, but our concerns and approaches are not so divergent from his. He, and also Manuel De Landa through the concept of assemblage, help bridge the potential Cartesian divisions inherent in such a porous construction of economic historical work; and importantly, they still encourage the telling of stories, why things happened as they did, in ways digestible to others beside ourselves.

The same concern for the economy also invites our connecting the narratives about shared environmental destruction with constant imagining of how others process or cope with such portentous information. Nearly 20 years ago, historian and activist Hugh Stretton wrote that part of understanding the economy was acknowledging that, ‘Many of the causal forces at work can only be known by knowing – as well as you can – the minds of the people concerned. That’s complicated by their many differences: their common and conflicting material interests, their shared and conflicting values and judgements of right and wrong, their diverse imagination of what their individual and collective options actually are.’ (Davison 2017:193)

Stretton’s views suggest to us the need for another bridge – an awareness of how significant are processes of ‘political communication’ if our narrative interventions are to succeed. Hence, another necessary interdisciplinary link should be that between historians and political scientists. On the one hand, big ideas rarely emerge from the work of political parties. None of the driving concerns covered in these essays was first articulated in political debates, but rather had to be fed into political and policy discourse. That is the imperative behind maintaining ‘urgent histories’. On the other hand, the belief that ‘truth will out’ is insufficient in a world of proliferating, countervailing narratives.

A sobering lesson for all of us is drawn in Chris Achen and Larry Bartels’ Democracy for Realists (2016). They demonstrate persuasively just how influential emotion, interests and group identity (rather than rational, fact based assessment) is for all of us, framing the messages we will accept.

To take one example, three simple points illuminate the quandary in climate change debates. First, research shows that among Australian politicians, political party affiliation and ideology have a powerful influence on climate change beliefs, with centre-left and progressive parties holding beliefs more consistent with scientific consensus about climate change than non-aligned or conservative leaders (Fielding et al. 2012).

Second, large N surveys over several years have established that on average 80 per cent of Australians think that climate change is happening and 62 per cent believe that it is human induced, but there is variation according to political affiliation. Conservative voters are less likely to believe that it is caused by human behaviour and less likely to think government should do more to address the issue (Huntley 2019; Leviston et al. 2015).

Third, it has been demonstrated that in Australia and Britain there are significant differences between supporters and those not committed to any party, as well as between supporters based on the strength of their party identification. The stronger party identification becomes, the more the representative congruence between supporters and the broader public decreases. Parties now can be conceptualized as a series of concentric circles of increasing engagement but declining representativeness (Gauja & Grömping 2109).

Arguably, the messages of environmental activists and historians have influenced a majority (see those large N surveys): why then did this prove insufficient to win the vote in what some said was the ‘climate change election’ in 2019? As Alan Davies argued forty years ago (Davies 1980), political outlooks are ramshackle and inconsistent. Responses are stimulated in particular circumstances: what we say when asked a survey question is one thing; what we think when prompted in another context (for instance, in the ballot box, when weighing up not one but a number of concerns simultaneously) may be quite another.

Communication professionals working for parties are well aware of this and frame messages to provoke concerns other than ‘expected’ responses. As Tony Abbott gleefully noted, even though losing his seat, the Coalition prevailed because it changed the climate campaign from one of ideals and moral principles to one about economics.

What can be done? Of course we cannot abandon the attempt to generate histories, such as these essays canvass, that change public opinion and exert pressure from below. But nor can we ignore collaboration with policy makers themselves, nor the expertise in political communication that can teach us how to circumvent predictable impediments when targeting particular audiences. Here is an example.

Peter Shergold, an academic historian before entering the Public Service, is credited with having steered the report that persuaded the Howard government to introduce an emissions trading scheme in 2007. The Shergold report covered the science about climate change, but knowing that the data would not convince sceptics, outspoken denialists, or those uneasy about economic change in Howard’s cabinet, he framed the message as one of prudence and economic reform. One may have doubts about this, but, argued Shergold, why not insure just in case? And if the trend is towards industrial change and renewable energy, we can be ahead of the game, facilitating the new jobs that are bound to created. As we know, Shergold enjoyed success – albeit briefly.

We need urgent histories. We need also to inject familiar concepts such as the economy with new purpose, and to collaborate with and learn from political scientists and policy makers themselves in targeting messages that will sway decision makers.

Chris Achen and Larry Bartels, Democracy for Realists: Why Elections Do Not Produce Responsive Government, Princeton, 2016
Alan Davies, Skills, outlooks and passions: A psychoanalytical contribution to the study of politics. Cambridge University Press, 1980: 123-290.
Graeme Davison, Hugh Stretton: Selected Writings, Schwartz, 2018
K. Fielding, B. Head, W. Laffan, M. Western, and O. Hoegh-Guldberg. Australian Politicians’ Beliefs about Climate Change: Political Partisanship and Political Ideology. Environmental Politics, 21, 2012: 712–33
A. Gauja, A. & M. Grömping. The expanding party universe: Patterns of partisan engagement in Australia and the United Kingdom. Party Politics, 2019 (on line)
Rebecca Huntley. Australia Fair: Listening to the Nation. Quarterly Essay 73. Black Inc., 2019: 33-35.
Z. Leviston, M. Greenhill and I. Walker. Australian Attitudes to Climate Change: 2010-2014. CSIRO, 2015: viii-x, 44-48.

David Lowe
David Lowe

David is Chair of Contemporary History at Deakin University and co-founder of the Australian Policy and History Network. His research focuses on modern international history, including Australia’s role in the world, and the remembering of prominent events. Recent books include (with Carola Lentz) Remembering Independence, Routledge, 2018 and (edited, with Cassandra Atherton and Alyson Miller) The Unfinished Atomic Bomb, Rowman and Littlefield, 2018. He is currently working on three projects: an international history of the Colombo Plan for aid to South and Southeast Asia; a history of Australia’s foreign aid; and histories of Australia’s overseas embassies.

James Walter
James Walter

James Walter is Emeritus Professor of Politics at Monash University, with research interests in political biography, history of ideas, leadership and historical patterns of policy determination.