Five minutes with…Bradley Bowden

Professor Bradley Bowden

By training, Professor Bradley Bowden is an historian, a graduate of the University of Queensland History Department (1977) and the University of Wollongong (PhD, 1992). He is also a graduate of the School of Hard Knocks, having served behind the mast in the Australian merchant fleet between 1980 and 1988. We spent five minutes with the once sea-faring Professor Bowden to learn a little more about his time on terra firma….

In what area/s do your current research interests lie?

One of the benefits of historical training is that it allows the researcher to shift from diverse topics with relative ease. Such a scope is evident in my recent publications which encompass:

  • Employer support for trade unionism in Brisbane, 1856-1890
  • The History of the Modern Labor Party in Queensland since 1988
  • The History of Trade Unionism in Australia, the 1820s to 2011
  • An Economic History of the Pan-Pacific Coal Trade since the 1950s
  • Changes in Productivity in Queensland Coal Mining, 2001-2013; and
  • Railway Development and the Shaping of Queensland Society, 1880 to 1900

What are you working on at the moment?

Professor Bradley Bowden, formerly of the Australian merchant fleet, 1980-88
Professor Bradley Bowden, formerly of the Australian merchant fleet, 1980-88

An indication of the research methodology used in my work is captured by one of his most recent projects: the History of the Modern Labor Party in Queensland. Published in Labour History journal in November 2013, the research represents the only study of the Queensland Labor Party in the post-1980s era.

The decision to undertake it was made in the wake of the defeat of the Bligh Government in early 2011, when the absence of any research assessment of the Queensland party was apparent. To fill this void, I took himself off to the John Oxley Library (State Library), to examine the 600-odd boxes of Queensland Labor Party records. Here I hit my first problem: there was no catalogue and no one had any idea what was in the boxes. There was no alternative but to spend each spare hour searching for needles in the proverbial haystack. The research was then matched with an analysis of both voting patterns and census figures. The result was a work that not only described what happened within Labor, but was also explained Labor’s electoral successes and failures. The study concluded that Queensland Labor today is a very sick animal, with a very weak base.

Are there challenges in your field/s in trying to bridge the gap between research, practice and policy?

My major industry engagement has occurred through writing about the history of trade unions. I am a senior figure in the disciplines of labour history, economic history and management history, Program Chair of the Management History Division of the (American) Academy of Management, and editor for a book series on management history. Despite this considerable record though, I suspect my areas of research are seen as marginal and/ or not relevant to current management problems. The fallacy of this view can be seen in the recent history of the Queensland’s coal industry — the State’s leading exporter. During the recent ‘boom’, businesses led by BHP Billiton massively expanded borrowing and output on the basis that this boom would go one forever due to Chinese demand; a view contradicted not only by my research into the history of the Pacific Coal trade, but by the post-2011 collapse of the boom. By following an ahistorical, misguided policy, the managers of Queensland’s resource companies have placed their enterprises in a very precarious situation, straddled with enormous debts despite a decade of boom prices. Many will not survive.