Paul Keating

Paul Keating’s view that Gallipoli is an inappropriate defining point of Australian identity has drawn an emphatic string of rebuttal from, among others, leading labor politicians who ought to know better (Age 1/11).

In declaring his position, Keating has merely echoed an opinion that was actually argued by many (but not all) returned soldiers who fought in the First World War of which Gallipoli was but the beginning for this nation.

The responses of returned men from the First World War to the meaning of Australian sacrifice were varied. Many stood in stark contrast to the jingoistic and increasingly militaristic meanings that have been ascribed to the Anzac legend in recent times.

After the war thousands of men flocked to returned soldiers organizations only to quickly reject them when they saw that the values ensconced within mirrored the conservatism of the old order which many hoped would be changed by the memory of the massive casualties inflicted. It would take over a decade before sizeable numbers of ageing veterans began to drift into the embrace of the RSL.

Socialism thrived as a political alternative among many returned soldiers – the majority of whom were from distinctly working class backgrounds. The post war period saw the emergence of secret conservative armies in the ‘Old’ and ‘New’ Guard populated by returned soldiers in response to a perceived threat of a socialist revolution emanating from trade unions whose membership was equally sustained by many returned soldiers.

The fact is the First World War was a divisive element both during and after the war in Australia. In this sense our memory of it as a unifying force has changed markedly over time. John Brumby, one of the Keating critics, would do well to remember that the Victorian Labor Party moved to have the teaching of war banned in state schools in the post war period.

Gallipoli was, as Keating argues, shocking for us. Furthermore thousands of soldiers undoubtedly shared his view that they had been sacrificed by an imperial government in an ill conceived and poorly executed campaign. The soldiers who witnessed the bloodshed and carnage of war did not all necessarily draw inspiration from it or see it as forging a national identity.

One can take exception to Keating’s conclusion that we feel redeemed or born again by our participation, one can argue whether Australians did or did not believe the war was a valid defense of Australia. What we cannot deny is that many returned soldiers felt betrayed by the lack of change in society commensurate with the sacrifice made.  Some felt betrayed by their own government others by the Imperial imperatives of the time. Others embraced the myth of a national coming of age. Responses were varied and because of that undeniable fact we cannot deny the historical legitimacy of Keating’s point of view.

What is more perplexing is the manner to which modern Labor politicians bleatingly follow the conservatively constructed Anzac legend. I suspect this is what lies at the heart of Keating’s rejection of Gallipoli as an appropriate birthplace for a national identity.

To argue that Gallipoli created a national identity is to engage in an exercise of historical reductionism that jettisons the stories of Federation, forgets the labor movements struggle for equity and fairness in wages and working conditions, and whitewashes the significance of the early Labor governments’ social reforms for the general betterment of Australian society. These things, preceding the landing at Gallipoli, were what defined the nation for the century to come and set it on the path to becoming a fairer and more egalitarian society.