Interview with André Brett

André Brett

Source: Jeremy Lasek, Australian Academy of the Humanities

André Brett is a New Zealand-Australian historian who has taught and researched at the University of Melbourne and the University of Wollongong. In July, he was named winner of the Australian Academy of the Humanities’ 2021 Max Crawford Medal. His latest book, Can’t Get There from Here: New Zealand Passenger Rail Since 1920, is due to be published by Otago University Press later this year. He joins Curtin University as a history lecturer in 2022.

When and where were you born?
In 1987 in New Zealand’s North Island.

How has that shaped who you are?
I grew up in Raumati Beach, one of a series of rural seaside communities morphing into Wellington’s outer suburbs. When I was 10, my mum and I moved to Queensland as part of that great Kiwi diaspora on the Gold Coast. I grew up watching events like the Olympics and became curious about countries I’d never heard of, sparking my interests in politics, societies and different communities. I started undergraduate studies at the University of Queensland and realised I really wanted less humid weather and a better live music scene, so I moved to Melbourne.

What stoked your interest in history?
I started studying political science with a history major for context. I entered university with the nebulous idea that I would go into some sort of diplomatic career and discover all these places that had so intrigued me from childhood. I realised about halfway through my second year that almost all my political science essays were history essays in disguise.

Was history about rediscovering yourself?
Even before I got to university, I was fascinated by New Zealand history. I left at the point that New Zealand was already part of my identity – especially in terms of following sport – but I was young enough that I wasn’t desperate to escape a boring home town. I looked back positively on New Zealand and wanted to know more about it. I realised that I had to keep digging back decades or centuries for answers, looking at influences from elsewhere. In trying to understand the country I came from, I had to understand the wider world.

You focus on the history of failure and unintended consequences. Why?
My PhD thesis was on the demise of New Zealand’s provincial governments. I grew up with a passionate provincial identity, yet New Zealand doesn’t have provinces akin to Australia’s states. Once I found out about the former provincial governments, it made sense. They existed for only 23 years – 1853 to 1876 – yet left a lasting impression on New Zealand. What were the options open to people at the time? Why did they choose to do what they did? Nothing is inevitable about history.

Australia and New Zealand are fierce sporting rivals. Can you imagine an alternative history where they’re barracking for the same team?
We’re now siloed into separate Australian and New Zealand histories, despite the heavily interlinked Australasian world of the late 19th century. Imagine you time-travelled to Melbourne in the 1880s and asked someone which of the seven colonies would not join a forthcoming federation. People would guess Western Australia, not New Zealand. The three big colonies were New South Wales, Victoria and New Zealand. People moved from one to the other, following gold rushes or other economic booms. The state borders weren’t arbitrary lines; they were heavily contested and drawn where they were for complex reasons.

The historian your latest award is named after, Max Crawford, battled a pervasive mid-20th-century view that Australian history was unworthy of serious study. Has that view changed?
We still have a sort of cringe towards our own history. Or we just simply perceive it as boring – that the important things happened elsewhere.

How has your disability affected your career?
I’ve been legally blind since birth. I have albinism. People don’t realise the pale skin is symptomatic of eye problems. I’ve spent my life coming up with workarounds. When I began my PhD, I was worried it might further damage my eyesight. I gave myself a year – if my eyes deteriorated, I’d give it away. They were fine, and here I am. I credit the rise of the digital humanities; the ability to blow things up on a large screen. I go into archives, take heaps of photos and enlarge them on my screen to read with ease. Some archives have been slower to permit photography than others. That impedes accessibility for people like me.

What do you like about what you do?
History can be a way of looking at our context, understanding our challenges, knowing our failures, and using all this to realise that a better future is possible.

What don’t you like about what you do?
The myth that because you’re doing something you love, it’s suitable to keep putting in unpaid work. I’ve been told that if you’re not prepared to drop everything and move anywhere in the world, you are not serious about academia. People who won’t uproot themselves and their families from cities, support networks and health providers are often frowned upon. We need to get rid of toxic attitudes like that. It’s not the way to get the best scholarship or provide the best teaching.

Should academic publications be open access by default?
I write because I want to be read. I want to engage audiences with their histories. When I’m writing on, say, the environmental history of a railway line, all the people who live lineside can’t read it. I wish our academic publishing sector was more accessible for readers and remunerated writers properly – especially early career casuals. Their income comes from tutoring and marking when they’re being judged on their publications. Junior historians get no financial return from articles of 8,000 words that require immense work. You desperately hope to get some reward in the future by being picked from a swollen field of job applicants.

If you were universities minister for a day, what would you do?
Reform Australian Research Council application processes. Many problems of insecure work are structural and require long-term changes in funding models and institutionalised attitudes. But we compound this by squandering thousands upon thousands of hours every year writing huge applications. We need leaner, multi-stage processes so that applicants get early feedback on competitiveness. And we need to consider how our limited funds can effectively keep talented people in the sector rather than creating anxiety and excessive workloads. ARC grants should not be make-or-break rolls of the dice.

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