Emerging Historians – Dr Benjamin T. Jones

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Dr Benjamin T. Jones, ANU 2012, Australian Research Council Fellow (DECRA), School of History, ANU. AHA member since 2014.

1. Describe your PhD research.

My PhD explored the granting of responsible government in colonial Canada and Australia in the mid-nineteenth century. It specifically looked at the role of civic republican thinking (as opposed to liberalism) in the campaigns in various provinces and states. Ultimately, my argument was that civic republican ideas played a significant role. Responsible government was not just a fight for individual rights. The reformist crowd had a specific vision of what free, British, settler societies should look like. This research was published as a monograph titled Republicanism and Responsible Government: The Shaping of Australia and Canada by McGill-Queen’s University Press in 2014.

 2. Why does it matter?

I’ve always been fascinated by how different the concepts of freedom and democracy are in Australia as opposed to the United States. To some extent this research helps unpack the historical origins of the vast differences. Why for instance does Australia have compulsory voting and universal health while the US has neither? I think the civic republican tradition offers part of the answer.

The transnational approach of this work is also significant. The old historical paradigm of Australian exceptionalism is increasingly hard to defend. It is important to place the Australian colonies in the wider context of a vast British empire and a rapidly changing and democratising world. Australians today pay little attention to Canadian politics but in the nineteenth century their political journey was keenly observed and often used as a precedent for democratic demands. My hope is that this research helps readers to gain a wider perspective on the evolution of democracy in both countries.

 3. What are you researching now or intending to do next?

 Last year I was honoured to win a Discovery Early Career Research Award from the Australian Research Council. I am currently a year into my new project called Aristotle’s Australia. Building on my PhD, this work explores the civic republican tradition in twentieth century Australia. In one sense it is a history of two different national identities: British Australian in the first half and then simply Australian in the second. But of course the story is far more complex and nuanced than this. What did it mean to be an active citizen? Who should be included in the political process? What has shaped Australian political ideas and why has Australian democracy developed a pronounced collectivism while other democracies champion the rights of the individual? Again, I look to the civic republican tradition to form part of the answer to the riddle that is Australian democracy.

4. What do you love about being an historian?

 Being a historian is a pleasure and a privilege. Historians are the guardians of national stories and have so much to offer modern political debate by looking to the lessons of the past. Historians provide a great public service by applying a long lens to contemporary issues and tracing the development of ideas and the consequences. That said, I also love discovering the small, intimate, humanising details that really bring a historical period to life. As L.P. Hartley famously put it, ‘the past is a foreign country’ and it is the historian’s toolbox that gives you a passport. I think Tom Griffiths’ beautiful metaphor, ‘The Art of Time Travel’, captures the wonder of historical study. History ignites the imagination. It requires excellent research skills but also empathy, and compassion, an ability and willingness to connect with the past not just intellectually but emotionally also.

 5. What’s the one aspect you find most challenging about being an ECR?

Without question financial insecurity, and all the stress and anxiety that accompany it, is the most challenging aspect of life as an early career researcher. The creeping casualisation of the university workforce has created a scenario where many ECRs work as sessional tutors or course coordinators for years without accumulating sick pay, holiday pay, long-service leave, and other benefits of secure full-time work. Trapped on short-term teaching contracts, many ECRs essentially have to reapply for their own jobs every semester, never certain of class sizes or how many hours they may get. This has serious consequences, not least with regard to mental health, and many talented ECRs end up either relying on their partner or family for financial support or leaving academia altogether.

 6. What do you find most exciting?

I’m tempted to say being referred to as Doctor! I think the most exciting thing about being an ECR is the opportunity to diversify your research interests and areas. As a PhD candidate you often get tunnel vision, focusing so strictly on your topic. Following graduation, I have really enjoyed branching out and exploring other aspects of history. I’ve had the opportunity to work on exciting projects in twentieth century Australian history, public memory, heritage, politics, and other areas that are outside my thesis topic.

 7. If you could go back to any historical period, where would you go and why?

Is it too boring to fall back on my primary area of expertise and say mid-nineteenth century Australia? Peter Cochrane’s excellent Colonial Ambition really piqued my interest in this dynamic period where the merits and limits of democracy are being negotiated. How thrilling it would be to squeeze into a packed Victoria Theatre in Sydney in 1853 to hear Daniel Deniehy renounce the ‘bunyip aristocracy’ or to stand among 12 000 diggers on the Ballarat gold fields in 1854 and hear Peter Lalor lead the pledge to the Southern Cross flag. Perhaps most of all, I would love to attend one of John Dunmore Lang’s Australia League meetings and see the response to his passionate calls for a republic. The nineteenth century press was wonderfully descriptive and I have a fair imagination of what it was like. Still, it would be incredible to actually hear the voices and the diverse accents, to see the brilliant colours and costumes, and even, though I’m sure it wasn’t pleasant, to smell what these burgeoning colonial cities and towns smelt like.




  1. Pingback: AHA ECR blog – Emerging Historians Q&A with Benjamin T. Jones – The Australian Historical Association
  2. Pingback: Dissecting the DECRA – Interview with Benjamin T. Jones | Australian Historical Association

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