Speech at National History Challenge awards ceremony, Canberra


Simon Birmingham:   

Can I acknowledge [indistinct] to see you here again. I acknowledge Australia’s Indigenous people’s, the Ngunnawal-Ngambri people, to the Canberra region, indeed all of Australia’s Indigenous people, and acknowledge that as a nation we continue to learn so much more of Indigenous culture, from Indigenous culture, and to build on that culture together as a nation into the future.

It’s a real thrill for me to be back here again with wonderful gatherings of students, families, teachers, school leaders, and of course leaders in history in the community for the National History Challenge. First and foremost, of course, congratulations to all entrants, participants, finalists, and those who have been successful. It is wonderful to see yet again the passion, the enthusiasm, the quality, the high quality of essays, the displays, the presentations, the demonstration of outstanding research skills and hard work.

I pay tribute also to the History Teachers’ Association for their work, of course their work day-to-day across each of our nation’s schools in a passage of knowledge, teaching of skills and analysis, but also in particular around these awards, for the status, the elevation that they give to history, the celebration as a discipline that of course is one that we are so much poorer without.

It is so critical for Australian students to learn about our history – our history as a nation, our history as one part of the piece of a rich and complex world; the history that helps us to understand where we’ve come from, where we are today, and the challenges and opportunities we face for the future. As events occur in the present, there is little that can be said about the impact they will have in the future unless we consider lessons of history. That’s why looking back on key historical events and occurrences and trends is so valuable. It provides the building blocks to understand the way our society has evolved, and educate us as to how we can contribute to a better, brighter, more successful future.

That’s, of course, the striking part of the theme from this year’s challenge: Making a Better World. [Indistinct]. It’s a thing that looks to the future, but of course uses history as the basis for that optimism. Posing this question encourages participants to consider events and people across a wide range of historical contexts, but also consider how our past can impact on our future. Contributions of individuals have been assessed – individuals as diverse as Charles Perkins, Malcolm Fraser, Sir Robert Menzies, Germaine Greer, Vida Goldstein, Marquis Lafayette, and Emperor Shihuong Di – all of them, of course, bringing very much varied perspectives, historical contributions to an analysis of the future.

The events that were selected by individuals equally has varied, from Australia’s participation in the Vietnam War, to the British Abolitionist Movement, and the Cuban Missile Crisis. It was also encouraging to see and to hear of how participants drew upon a wide range of sources – both primary and secondary sources – and the evidence that was demonstrated to justifiable conclusions.

Participants have taken a critical eye to events and historic figures. They of course have done so, as we all have the luxury of doing in the analysis of history, with the aided benefit of hindsight. But a critical eye is a skillset that will stand participants in good stead through their senior years of high school, university, their future careers. Whether history plays an ongoing role in that or not is in some ways neither here nor there. That skill, that analytical skill, will be so critical whatever disciplines, work, they undertake in the future.

Great to see the dedication, effort and curiosity that is being applied to the study of history. There is something that I’d like [indistinct] continue to encourage and foster. I have no doubt the skills you are gaining today will empower these students in their future studies and careers.

Today, it’s my thrill to do a couple of things. Yes, there’s a national winner to be announced, but before we get to that, to also share with you the topic for the next National History Challenge – the 2018 challenge – the topic of which will be Turning Points. I’m sure it will provide students with an extensive range, again, of historical events or persons to choose from in preparing their entries. Again, of course, it also provides an opportunity to consider times and places that have been turning points, but to do so in a lens where we consider, today, perhaps whether those turning points occurred at the moment that people necessarily think they were, versus how we consider them today as events continue to unfold.

However, now is the moment to turn back to history in this year’s challenge. It’s my pleasure to announce that the 2017 National Young Historian of the Year is Ineka Voigt.


Ineka, congratulations. The judges told me that your essay on the Stolen Generation demonstrated a sophisticated understanding of the impact of the tragedy and trauma experienced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people; that your analysis of the events of the past through the lens of two culturally diverse systems has made us appreciate the impact of those events through different perspectives. On my reading of your essay, your analysis and use of the concept of a temporal wave in which hurt can remain ever-present, even over time, is a tribute to very rich analytical skills of which you should rightly be proud.

I forgot to bring my copy of your essay up here, because I was also going to note that as well as those strong analytical skills in print, there is of course a very impressive set of artistic skills as well that you have demonstrated in your piece, it was wonderful to see a mix of skills present.

Your essay demonstrates the importance of mutual understanding and ongoing efforts in reconciliation between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians. Thank you for a piece of work which you should be proud, your family and parents; those of course who gave their time with you in helping to provide the sources and the research and analysis should also be proud for their contributions. Please join me here in congratulating Ineka for her [indistinct].