Address to the 2016 National History Challenge

Simon Birmingham: Thank you very much, Liz. Ladies and gentlemen, thank you so much for the opportunity to be here today and I recognise you as the chair of the National History Challenge, Paul Foley, the president, the Honourable Margaret Reid, former esteemed senator and former President of the Australian Senate, and I'm sure you don't miss the final sitting week of the year terribly much anymore as we sit odd and ever-longer hours every night of the week. It's my pleasure to be here to join you all today, and can I start by acknowledging the traditional owners of the Canberra region, the Ngunnawal people, and all of Australia's Indigenous people, seeing as I often do acknowledge that as a nation we continue to learn much more about knowledge of Indigenous Australians, much more from that knowledge and of course to build upon that knowledge. To my other Parliamentary colleagues, special guests, and most importantly students, participants in the National History Challenge, your families, teachers, supporters, thank you all so much for being here today.

It is often said a society without knowledge of their past history, origin and culture is like a tree without roots. An understanding of history can ground us, it can help us to grow and educate us so we can contribute and make a brighter future. That’s why we are here today, to celebrate the achievements of our young historians. And I commend you all on the passion you’ve brought to this year’s challenge and your high quality essays, displays, performances and presentations which we've been hearing about. You’ve demonstrated excellent research and analytical skills, as well as capacity for hard work. These skills will hold you in great stead in your future studies and careers, whatever they may be.

This year’s Challenge, as we've heard, explored the concepts of triumph and tragedy in history. You’ve researched a wide range of people and events; from Alexander the Great to the Antarctic explorers Douglas Mawson and Ernest Shackleton, the pioneer of Australian football, painter Albert Namatjira, and modern day sporting hero Aussie Rules footballer, Adam Goodes, even the Australian economy in the 1980s. And you covered events as different as the Battle of the Coral Sea during the Second World War, nuclear tests at Maralinga, or the 1967 Referendum.

I've been amazed to look at the summaries of your essays, of your works, and the way in which you've kept such a keen eye for history, and of course the way history records the rise and fall of individuals or events. The Ancient Greek King Alexander of Macedon may be known as the Great, Alexander the Great, as our ACT winner Julia Cooper of Radford College notes, history also records his – quote from her essay – destructive egocentric intentions and the ultimate failure of his endeavour. As we stand in this building, there's the odd person – clearly no longer here, of course – whose perhaps ultimate failure because of destructive egocentric intentions may come to mind. You can debate amongst yourselves who I know comes to the forefront of my mind.

But nonetheless, and seriously, the quality of the work and the maturity of judgment you’ve all displayed is testament to your dedication, your historical curiosity and your presentation of evidence. I’m delighted to announce, firstly, before we get to the national winner, that next year’s theme for the 2017 National History Challenge is Making a Better World. So I encourage you all to get your thinking caps on and start researching for next year’s event. Making a better world of course still involves, hopefully, ultimately at the end, the triumph of achieving a better world, but rarely is that a single trajectory, and you can see from this year's theme, the tragedies along the way of course will be part of those stories I'm sure.

But now, the moment you've all been waiting for. I can only imagine how challenging it was to select the National Young Historian of the Year. It is never an easy  task in any of these types of awards with such high calibre entries, students who have committed and dedicated so much with the help of their wonderful teachers and schools and parents and supporters, but I'm told this year there was one clear standout. It's my great pleasure to announce that the 2016 National Young Historian of the Year is Rachel Wang from MLC School, Burwood in New South Wales.

Rachel, I had the enormous pleasure last night, while the Senate sat until about 12:30 in the morning, of reading your essay. I know far more about Albert Namatjira's life today than I did yesterday, and that's thanks to your wonderfully written essay. It is a testament to you and that you have undertaken such a detailed analysis, but done so in a way that is enjoyable to read, and that I certainly wanted to get to the end of it, wanted to keep reading each page. Didn't necessarily want it to end though, because it was very well written, as well as of course being an outstanding source that is well referenced, that is factual, and that encapsulates the very detailed triumphs and tragedies of the life of this great Australian.

The judges said that your essay demonstrated a sophisticated understanding of the nuances of tragedy and triumph, and explored the positives of Indigenous achievement while detailing the restrictions imposed on his daily life. Your description of Namatjira as – quote – the first bridge between two vastly different cultures is quite fitting. It's an analysis that serves as a lesson to us all about the importance of mutual understanding and reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. So whilst I don't envy the judges in having to select winners out of what I am confident are a range of extraordinary and high quality entries, I do, having had the pleasure of reading your entry last night, think the judges had a not altogether unenjoyable task in going through wonderful works.

My congratulations to each and every one of those recognised today, more broadly to every participant. It is a wonderful thing to encourage Australian students to learn more about the history of our nation, the history of the world, but of course beyond that to develop skills that will empower them wherever they go in their lives in the future, which is what history writing studies achieve.

But congratulations Rachel, you are this year's national winner. Well done.