We focus on the unfinished business of the past, especially as it surfaces in contemporary public debates, disputes and narratives. We deliberately deploy the plural term ‘histories’ to signal both the contestability of explanatory stories and to embrace our different theoretical and methodological vantage points – some of which are more frequently found in disciplines other than history.

We receive funding from a range of organisations including the Australian Research Council (ARC), government agencies, private industry, the not-for-profit sector and other universities around the world.

Our research is aligned to three major themes led by renowned scholars in collaboration with highly active and successful historians, literary and creative writers, and others, whose work relates to the strongest echoes of the past in present.

Interdisciplinary Themes

The Colonial Project
Australia, Asia and the Pacific, including race, religion and cultural authority in local encounters; history and social science in the civilising mission

Life Stories

Including biography/autobiography, heroes/villains, scandalous lives and the phenomenon of public intellectuals

Conflict and Memory in the Twentieth Century

Including the politics of commemoration, grief and loss, public memory and debates

Research Highlights

Below is a sample of some of our current projects, listed alphabetically by researcher.

  • Prose Poetry: An Introduction

    Princeton University Press, forthcoming

    The purpose of our book is threefold. First, it will provide systematic analysis of the prose poetry form, focusing on the historical trajectory of its use in America, Europe, Australia and beyond. Second, it will offer extensive and rigorous discussion of the key characteristics of prose poetry, such as fragmentation, closure, momentum and metonymy in an effort to define the taxonomy of the form. Third, it will analyze a selection of key prose poems across time from the works of the American poets of the 1950s and 1960s to the most recent work from the International Prose Poetry Institute’s Prose Poetry Project, the largest repository of solely prose poetry, internationally. This book will fill the gap in current scholarship on prose poetry by providing a comprehensive and detailed study of the prose poem; the first of its kind.

  • The Atomic Bomb Maidens

    This book is supported by an Australia Council Grant.

    This book of prose poetry explores the plight of the Hiroshima Atomic Bomb Maidens with a secondary narrative exploring absence, brokenness, speechlessness and the atomic sublime.

  • Hibakusha Poets as Public Intellectuals

    Noam Chomsky has argued that the most effective public intellectuals are dissident intellectuals who act from the margins. The US censorship of public discussion of the bombings during the Allied Occupation of Japan ensured that the public did not understand all that had occurred in Hiroshima and Nagasaki. This lack of discussion about the A-bomb and the scientific testing on hibakusha saw them stigmatised, however this marginalisation makes them powerful public intellectuals. Hibakusha poets such as Toge and Kurihara offer a kind of authentic ‘evidencing’ and recording of the horror of the events of the atomic bombing. The simplicity and accessibility of these poems are essential to the public dissemination of their message, however this has worked against their preservation in the literary canon. This is, in part, because the literary canon prioritises a greater sophistication of language and range of poetic techniques. This book examines the way in which hibakusha poets can be recognised as public intellectuals. It hinges on a number of considerations centred on public intellectualism, canonicity and use of language.

  • Ann Bon and the Women of Coranderrk

    This research project is Joanna Cruickshank’s primary research task within an ARC Linkage Project,  the Minutes of Evidence Project: Promoting New and Collaborative Ways of Understanding Australia’s Past and Engaging with Structural Justice, led by the University of Melbourne. It examines the role of women in the 1881 Victorian Commission of Inquiry into the Coranderrk Aboriginal Reserve, when Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal people campaigned for the rights of Coranderrk residents. The first part of the project is an analysis of the role of Aboriginal women who spoke out during the Inquiry, calling for justice for themselves and their families. The second part of the project is a biography of Ann Bon, an ally of the Coranderrk residents and the only woman appointed to the Victorian Board of Protection. This project draws attention to the way in which issues of gender were central to both oppressive and co-operative relations between non-Indigenous and Indigenous people.

  • The Judge as Policy-Maker: A Biography of Robert Marsden Hope

    This project is a biographical study of Robert Marsden Hope (1919-1999), a NSW Supreme Court judge who was appointed by three successive Prime Ministers – Gough Whitlam, Malcolm Fraser and Bob Hawke – to conduct two Royal Commissions and a judicial inquiry in the Australian intelligence and security services. The sixteen major reports from these three inquiries fundamentally reshaped the legislation, structures, operations, doctrines and culture of the Australian intelligence community. Another inquiry chaired by Justice Hope played a crucial role in the development of Commonwealth and State government policies on conservation and the environment. The biographical study will throw light, not only on policy and policy-making in these areas, but also on the role of judges serving the executive arm of government as Royal Commissioners.

  • Remembering Independence: New Nations of the Postwar World

    David Lowe and Jonathan are working with German anthropologist Carola Lentz on the next volume in the Routledge series, Remembering the Modern World. They are looking at case studies of how postwar nations in different parts of the world have remembered, and are remembering, their independence.There are two basic concerns underpinning the study. The first relates to the unceasing “work” of remembering independence, including multiple forms, ceremonial, textual, multi-media and personal as well as collective. The second regards the contests between groups within the nation-state for claims to agency in ushering in independence and building the nation. In making choices about which heroes to celebrate, which moments of independence-making to highlight, the modern state can build bridges between its different ethnic or regional groups and strengthen its legitimacy, but also deepen existing rifts or provoke outright conflict. State agents capable of controlling practices of memory-making regularly draw on remembrance of independence for enhancing their legitimacy and authority, whether using it for electoral political purpose, for forging bonds between different groups or in order to distract from major economic or social problems. At the same time, the power of the nation-state to dominate the remembering of independence is limited by remembering from below and particular grievances or claims to restitution.

  • The Charitable Child: Children and Philanthropy in the Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Centuries

    This book examines the relationship between children and philanthropic institutions in the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries by foregrounding children’s active roles as supporters of philanthropic enterprises. Not only does this add a new chapter to the history of childhood by asserting children’s agency and responsiveness to the needs of others during this period, it also gives us new insights into the ways in which philanthropy traversed boundaries based on class, race, and gender. Despite numerous charitable campaigns in the British and colonial periodical press aimed at children, little has been done to examine how and why children became part of philanthropic enterprises. The book explores how, and which, children operated as philanthropic agents within imperial, missionary, and national boundaries by examining the campaigns launched and promoted in British, Australian, Canadian, and New Zealand children’s magazines and in the children’s pages of periodicals and newspapers.

  • Representing Multicultural Australia in National and State Libraries

    Australia has a culturally and linguistically diverse population. More than 28 per cent of Australians were born overseas. Many of them come from non-English speaking cultures. That presents complex challenges for the National Library of Australia (NLA) and the Australian state libraries.

    According to the National Library Act 1960, the NLA is “to maintain and develop a national collection of library material, including a comprehensive collection of library material relating to Australia and the Australian people”. How could this obligation be best interpreted? What exactly is meant by “Australia” and “the Australian people”? For example, does “Australia” end at its current national borders? And do “the Australian people” include non-citizens or people who once lived in Australia? Does material relating to the Australian people include material about Australian residents’ pre-migration pasts?

    This ARC-funded project has five broad aims:

    • to investigate the policies, programs and projects that have informed how materials related to the histories and cultures of Australians from culturally and linguistically diverse (CALD) backgrounds in the National Library and the state libraries of South Australia, Victoria and New South Wales have been collected and made accessible;
    • to develop and test a method to comprehensively evaluate the National Library collection to determine to what extent it represents the histories and cultures of Australians from CALD backgrounds;
    • to develop and test targeted acquisition and digital access strategies at the NLA to ensure that materials related to the histories and cultures of Australians from CALD backgrounds are adequately represented in state and national library collections and/or made accessible to Australians;
    • to contrast and compare Australian practices of collecting and making accessible materials related to the histories and cultures of migrants from CALD backgrounds with those in other societies of immigration (including Canada, New Zealand and Argentina); and
    • to explore the conceptual and practical dimensions of alternative collecting frameworks.

    The research team is led by Klaus Neumann and includes Jodie Boyd (RMIT University), Morgan Harrington (RMIT University), Amelia McKenzie (National Library), Ian McShane (RMIT University), Michael Piggott (Deakin University), Sarah Powell (State Library of South Australia) and Janice van de Velde (State Library of Victoria).

  • Protecting Non-Citizens: An Australian Legal and Political History

    The protection needs of millions of people who are de jure or de facto stateless have presented a seemingly intractable global challenge for close to a century. This project is the first comprehensive analysis of Australia’s response to that challenge. Using legal and historical methodology, and with particular reference to the period 1945 to 1989, this project investigates Australia’s contribution to international discussions about the right and/or duty of states to provide surrogate protection to non-citizens. It also analyses the impact of emerging international legal norms on Australian asylum seeker policy and administrative practice, and the conflicting interests within government that informed policy decisions.

    Research so far:

    We have done extensive archival research at the National Archives of Australia, the National Library of Australia, the UNHCR archives in Geneva, and the archives of the United Nations Office Geneva (UNOG). We have been particularly interested in a 1977 conference of plenipotentiaries in Geneva, that was convened to draft a Convention on Territorial Asylum (which would have complemented the 1951 UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees). We have also investigated the intersections between Australia’s involvement in international discussions about the rights of and to asylum and Australian government responses to requests for political asylum in Australia.

  • Papua New Guinea in World War II

    The impact of the Second World War on Papua New Guinea was both profound and pervasive.  Yet the Papua New Guinean people’s experience of War remains a largely unexplored area, leaving a vacuum in both our understanding of the War’s role in shaping PNG and in Papua New Guineans’ awareness of their own national history.  Supported by the Australian Government’s aid program in PNG, this project seeks to address this deficiency through a number of research projects that will explore the War’s impact in different parts of Papua New Guinea, conducted by Papua New Guinean and Australian researchers and coordinated by Dr Ritchie.  The research will be based around the recording of oral history interviews with Papua New Guineans about their, or their parents’, encounters with the War, for permanent retention in PNG by its National Museum and Art Gallery.  At the same time, the research will lead to a range of publications, films, radio programs, websites, and educational material that will help to share the knowledge gained both internationally and, most importantly, among Papua New Guineans.  The ‘Papua New Guinea in World War II’ project will be conducted in 2016 and 2017, with a major commemoration of the 75th anniversary of the War’s outbreak (in 1942) scheduled to coincide with the Kokoda Trail campaign in the second half of 2017.

  • The PNG Speaks Project

    The aim of PNG Speaks is to record oral history interviews with Papua New Guineans about their memories of PNG’s independence in 1975, the years leading up to it, and the time immediately following.  Over the next two years, we anticipate recording interviews with up to forty Papua New Guineans from a broad cross-section of PNG society including politics, the public service, universities, business, the churches, and civil society.  The interview recordings will be available to be listened to through the project website,   The project  will provide insights into how the nation’s first leaders were able to establish a vision of a united PNG and bring the people to embrace independence.  The interviews also illustrate how the idea of the nation came to be embraced, or challenged, by men and women from across Papua New Guinea’s diverse societies and places.

    The project is jointly conducted by Deakin University, the University of Queensland, and the PNG National Museum and Art Gallery, and interviews are conducted by senior PNG academics and public servants, collaborating with Deakin and University of Queensland researchers.  Funding support for PNG Speaks has been generously provided by the Australian Government through its aid program in PNG.

  • Exploring the Middle Ground: New Histories of Cross Cultural Encounters in Australian Maritime and Land Exploration

    This project proposes the concept of the middle ground to describe and represent the nature of cross-cultural encounters and relations within the history of Australian maritime and land exploration. Through a series of detailed cross-cultural historical studies of key exploration expeditions, the study seeks to re-establish the critical importance of exploration as a site in which relations between Indigenous people and others developed, including in ways that were influential in shaping later race relations within the context of occupation and settlement. In this way, the concept of the middle ground is also presented as a means by which to unsettle Australian history’s conventional periodisation into pre-settlement and settlement phases. This project is funded by the Australian Research Council and is led by the Australian National University.

  • The Decolonisation of Melanesia

    This is a broad investigation of the decolonisation of Melanesia from both a local and international perspective. The project has so far produced two workshops and a special issue for the Journal of Pacific History edited by Helen Gardner and Christopher Waters. The project has recently expanded to other academics and included five Deakin historians at the 2014 Pacific History Conference in Taiwan.

  • The Culture of War: Private Life and Sentiment in Australia 1914-18

    The social and political outlines of Australia’s First World War are clear, yet the emotional world, or ‘culture of war’, in which Australians lived the war is only partially appreciated. This project examines the lived experience and agency of civilians in making war between 1914 and 1918. Engaging with current international debates about the cultural history of the First World War, it investigates the extent to which ordinary Australians’ everyday attitudes, feelings and activities made and sustained the war. Redressing the privileging of soldiers’ voices in Australian war historiography, it provides an innovative reconceptualisation of the Australian experience of war. This project is funded by the Australian Research Council.

Research Publications

  • Crisis? What crisis? A new prime minister in PNG might not signal meaningful change for its citizens

    Jonathan RitchieDeakin University

    In recent days, Papua New Guinea’s Prime Minister Peter O’Neill has announced his resignation, failed to formally resign, and is now taking legal action to prevent a parliamentary vote to remove him from office.

    For most of PNG’s more than eight million inhabitants, today will not be substantially different from any other day. It will be a day of toil, hardship, humour, love, fear – and of negotiating how to survive in PNG’s villages and squatter settlements.

    There are crises aplenty in the lives of these Papua New Guineans, but most won’t be worrying too much about the crisis unfolding in the nation’s capital, Port Moresby. Yet, this dispute is dominating the waking hours of the educated urbanites and social media commentators there and in the country’s major centres – as well as a small group of people watching PNG from Australia, and elsewhere.

    Will Peter O’Neill really resign? Will he somehow manage to cling to the prime ministership? Will he leave, only to be replaced by one of his allies through whom he could continue to exercise power?

    A reshuffling of the political cards

    While we acknowledge the divide between the great majority of struggling Papua New Guineans and PNG’s elites, we shouldn’t minimise the importance of the current crisis engulfing the country. O’Neill’s departure has the potential for a wholesale shift in the policy direction taken by PNG’s government.

    It could result in PNG moving away from the big spending on major projects of the past few years, which many Papua New Guineans see as having benefited Port Moresby at the expense of everywhere else in this still largely rural nation.

    But the suspicion of at least some informed Papua New Guinean observers is that it will result only in the rearranging of the deck chairs. A reshuffling of the cards that will lead to another privileged insider, another member of PNG’s political class, taking over the PM’s role from the mostly unlamented O’Neill.

    Rural citizens are disenfranchised and disengaged

    Despite their apparent failure in Australia’s recent federal election, most people would still agree that polls and surveys are a valuable way of gauging popular opinion. One of the more curious (and frustrating) aspects of PNG’s public affairs is that there has never been a successful attempt to conduct systematic and reasonably reliable opinion surveying.

    This means that it is basically impossible to say with any certainty what “the average Papua New Guinean” thinks about O’Neill and the current political crisis. We don’t really know if O’Neill’s departure would be celebrated, or mourned.

    PNG’s geographical challenges, along with inadequate transport and communication structures, suggest that most people will hear the news of Port Moresby politics at several removes. Should they feel sufficiently energised to want to act on what they hear – well, events will have moved on by that time.

    Most Papua New Guineans living in villages, in highland valleys, islands, or other remote places, are disenfranchised, and certainly disengaged, from what goes on in Port Moresby. The same observation could be made about the people who live in the mushrooming settlements in Port Moresby, Lae, Mt Hagen, and other centres. Even if they are notionally urban dwellers, their connection with the complexities of these events is remote.

    So we tend to rely on what we hear from the city residents who are more engaged in public life, and especially those who are social media-savvy.

    City-dwellers resent O’Neill

    What this group thinks about the O’Neill situation is fairly apparent. Ever since he replaced the ailing Michael Somare as Prime Minister in 2011, resentment against O’Neill has been expressed in a range of forums (including social media, to the annoyance of O’Neill and his supporters).

    The wave of anger has built over the years since then, and has crested recently with the revelations about O’Neill’s involvement with the Oil Search-UBS loan affair, which many regard as confirming every suspicion they held about the Prime Minister’s character. The A$1.2 billion loan from the Swiss UBS bank, which enabled the PNG government to buy shares in Oil Search Ltd, was, in the words of PNG’s Ombudsman Commission, “highly inappropriate”. It was undertaken in the face of contrary advice from PNG’s then Treasurer, Don Polye, whom O’Neill sacked.

    Anti-O’Neill sentiment over the years failed to garner much support from the Members of PNG’s National Parliament. Until very recently, O’Neill’s People’s National Congress (PNC) and its coalition partners dominated the House. Crucially, and mostly driven by the UBS revelations, this has now changed.

    The prime minister is becoming increasingly isolated as more parliamentarians defect from the O’Neill party to join the disparate collection of MPs who are gathering at one of Port Moresby’s luxury hotels. While some social media commentators reckon that his recent “resignation” may be merely a ploy, it is looking like the game might be up for Peter O’Neill – unless through the cunning and political adeptness he is known for, he is still able to turn the tables on his political enemies.

    At the time of writing, O’Neill is pursuing action in the PNG Supreme Court over the legality of a “vote of no confidence” in his government.

    Leadership isn’t the only crisis facing PNG

    There is a crisis in PNG at the moment. Indeed, there are several. The country is suffering from significant health issues, ranging from the reappearance of TB and polio to the inadequacy of its pharmaceutical and medical supplies.

    In October, the people of Bougainville may vote to secede from the rest of the country, of which they have been part since 1975.

    The billions of kina spent on development has largely been confined to the cities, and most Papua New Guineans have experienced little change in their living standards over the past four decades.

    These are the real challenges facing PNG, and the current leadership crisis in Port Moresby might – or, as some fear, might not – produce a meaningful response to them.

    The author would like to acknowledge the contribution of Brime Olewale to this story.

    This article is republished from The Conversation under a Creative Commons license. Read the original article.

  • Postcards from Papua New Guinea

    Welcome to Postcards from Papua New Guinea, brief articles written by CHRG members that highlight the complexity of this wonderful nation and its people and their pasts.

    PhD candidate, Anna Kent, reflects on the development of scholarships after her recent visit to PNG.

    PhD candidate, Ipul Powaseu provides a detailed and personal perspective about what it is like for the local communities and people of Manus to have asylum seekers live in there.

    PhD candidate, Deb Lee-Talbot, reflected on her experiences as an Australian agnostic in a modern Anglican Cathedral in PNG.

    Honours candidate, Jarrod Hodgson, examines the Woodlark Gold Project, and how local communities have responded to the increases in mining activity in the region.

    PhD candidate, Brad Underhill, reflects on Papua New Guinea’s reputation after partaking in the ‘Unity Walk’ in Port Moresby.

    Independence Day 16 September 2019 – Associate Professor Helen Gardner

    Are you a CHRG member and interested to contribute? Contact Dr Jon Ritchie and Deb Lee-Talbot via for further details.

Witness seminars

The Contemporary Histories Research Group includes, among its research interests, the role of witnessing events and provision of testimony. One way in which we can explore the human presence in recent events is to gather witnesses who were directly or indirectly involved in particular historical episodes, and invite discussion of their recollections. A Witness Seminar, as has been used by different groups of historians around the world, seeks to do this.

  • Witness Seminar Transcripts

    These are the transcripts, as seen and agreed by participants involved, of a ‘witness seminar’ held at Deakin University’s Waterfront Campus, Geelong, on 1 October 2014, as part of a conference on the History of Australia’s diplomatic representation in the United States. These transcripts accompany further research now gathered in a book published by ANU Press: David Lowe, David Lee and Carl Bridge (eds), Australia Goes to Washington: 75 years of Australian Representation in the United States, 1940-2015 (2016).

    The format was to invite groups of Australian diplomats who formerly served in Australia’s Embassy in Washington to reflect on their times, facilitated by senior journalist and former Washington correspondent, Jim Middleton.

    The contemporary appointments (in Washington) of speakers on the panels were:

    Ms Virginia Grenville, Minister-Counsellor (Agriculture) 2000-3
    Mr John McCarthy, Ambassador, 1995-97
    Ms Zorica McCarthy, Office of National Assessment liaison officer, early 1990s
    Ms Meg McDonald, Deputy Chief of Mission, 1998-2002
    Mr Tim McDonald, Deputy Chief of Mission, 1984-87
    Mr Alistair Maclean, First Secretary and later Counsellor (Commercial), 1997-2001
    Mr Jim Middleton, Chief Political Correspondent and Political Editor ABC TV News 1988-2007 and North American correspondent, 1980-86.
    Air Vice-Marshall Kym Osley, Head of Australian Defence Staff, 2008-10
    Ms Tanya Smith, Minister-Counsellor (Congressional Liaison) 2002-5

    Those asking questions and offering comments from the floor were:

    Emeritus Prof James Cotton (UNSW, ADFA)
    Prof James Curran (Sydney)
    Professor Joan Beaumont (ANU)
    Assoc Prof Frank Bongiorno (ANU)
    Dr Peter Edwards, (Deakin, honorary)
    Mr Jeremy Hearder (DFAT, Historical Publications and Research)
    Dr David Lee (DFAT, Historical Publications and Research)
    Prof David Lowe (Deakin)
    Prof Derek McDougall (Melbourne, honorary)
    Dr Craig Snyder (Deakin)

    Download the transcript

Australian Policy
 and History

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