Emerging Historians – Dr John Doyle


John Doyle (2)

Dr John Doyle – AHA member since 2013

I gained my PhD (on the political history of Australian telecommunications reform) from La Trobe University a few days before last Christmas, which was a rather pleasing way to round out the year. I was very fortunate at La Trobe to receive invaluable guidance and support from my supervisor, Professor Judith Brett, and many other colleagues. During my candidature, I tutored in Australian history and politics, coordinated a parliamentary internship program and also took some time off to consult to the telecommunications industry association, Communications Alliance. I’ve recently became an associate of the Contemporary Histories Research Group at Deakin University. 

1. Describe your PhD research.

My PhD is a political and policy history of Australian telecommunications reform from the late 1960s to early 1990s, principally from the perspective of successive Commonwealth governments and the Labor and Liberal-Country parties. During this period, Australia transitioned from a long-accepted status quo – which the Whitlam-led Opposition upset in 1967 with a commitment to major telecommunications reform – to fundamental change in 1991 when the Hawke government enacted a new telecommunications framework that looked to competition between rival providers to stimulate economic and social improvements.

My thesis investigated the key drivers of telecommunications policy decision-making and explored how governments and the major parties each balanced national interests with those of their support bases. I found that the underlying dynamic in telecommunications during this period was the interplay between relentless technological change, reasonably stable policy objectives, inflexible structural arrangements and competing political forces.

I was particularly interested in how the forces both for and against change interacted and the extent to which they influenced policy. Neither side of politics could resist the pressures for change, but significant reform only occurred under the Whitlam and Hawke governments. My thesis identified a number of contingent and contextual factors that, I argued, went beyond party politics and had to be present in order for significant telecommunications reform to occur.

2. Why does it matter?

Telecommunications is a critically important area of policy because it enables social interaction and economic activity. The politics of reform in this area is a red-blooded human tale of competing community interests (city and bush, unions and business, consumers and producers), policy conundrums and disruptive technological change. Despite this, the literature is rather under-cooked. There has been work on aspects of Australian telecommunications policy dealing with parts of the 1960s to ‘90s period, most notably Ann Moyal’s magisterial Clear Across Australia, published in 1984, but there is nothing that integrates the entire period into a cohesive overarching narrative. My thesis set out to redress this. I also aimed to shed some new light on the Whitlam, Fraser and Hawke governments and the policy development process in Australia.

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

My top priority is turning my thesis into a book. I’m also planning a couple of articles for history journals and potentially another for a public policy journal. And I’ve promised an opinion piece for the Australian Policy and History Network (now with a reinvigorated website at aph.org.au). At the time of writing, I’m also contemplating another semester of sessional teaching.

4. What do you love about being an historian?

I love the journey of discovery that is historical research, especially losing myself for days at a time in the archives and also interviewing people about their recollections. I can easily spend hours in front of the microfiche reader riveted by contemporary accounts of now historic events. My favourite parts of PhD research were unquestionably delving into previously unexamined Cabinet papers and interviewing former politicians about past political battles and policy decisions. Speaking with Paul Keating for over an hour in his stately office easily offset the agony of drafting and redrafting (and redrafting) my thesis!

I also love the special satisfaction that comes with finalising a piece of writing and then having the opportunity to contribute in a modest way to advancing knowledge and understanding. I particularly enjoy drawing out linkages between historical and contemporary issues and events. I believe that there is much in my PhD research that can inform current policy and political debates; for example, about the National Broadband Network – and I hope that the NBN controversy will foster interest in my work from publishers!

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

I agree with the comments of earlier contributors about the issues associated with job and financial insecurity and of remaining resilient in the face of adversity, however I’ve tried to come up with something new to say here. For me, as a VECR (Very Early Career Researcher), my key challenges are refining my post-PhD research impulses into something manageable, and keeping my mind open to opportunities to make a meaningful and fulfilling contribution that may lie outside of the conventional university system.

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

So many events going back millennia come to mind, but where I’d most love to go is central and eastern Europe during the latter half of 1989, with a specific appointment to visit Berlin on 9 November to join the jubilant crowds as the Wall comes down. As a short-term exchange student in Germany in the late 1980s, I had the opportunity to visit West and East Berlin. I was an unexposed eighteen-year-old on my first overseas trip. Tasting the oppressiveness of the East, in contrast with the vitality of the West, and realising that, by accident of birth, I could freely cross an arbitrary line on the ground that others were literally dying to do, had a profound impact on the way I saw the world.

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