Thursday, September 04, 2008

Ethnicity, ideology and the sometimes slippery concept of Australian "independence" - Part One: "Independence"

A contemporary (c1810) propaganda cartoon of Bligh's arrest produced to show Governor Bligh as a coward hiding under his bed.

In 3 September 1939 - the Second World War starts I said in part:

On 1 September German troops invaded Poland following a staged incident to provide a nominal justification. In response, Britain and France declared war on 3 September. The Dominions including Australia followed with independent declarations on the same day.

In a correction, anon noted that:

Australia had not ratified the Statute of Westminster and therefore was not able to independently declare war. We were hostage to England's (or should that be Britain's?) foreign policy.

Now anon is technically correct on the first point - the Australian Parliament did not ratify the Statute until 1942. It is the second sentence that I want to discuss in the context of the evolving sense of and presentation of Australian nationalism.

To set a context, in the period immediately after European settlement, formal political control rested with Westminster and its local representative, the Governor. Even then distance meant a degree of local autonomy.

Local interests were no mere ciphers. Australia's only military coup, the 1808 overthrow of Governor Bligh by the NSW Corp creating a military Government that ruled until 1810, was based on clashes of interest that played out in Sydney and the halls of Westminster.

Between 1836 and 1859, various parts of NSW were separated to form new colonies - South Australia (1836), New Zealand (1840), Victoria (1851) and Queensland (1859). Western Australia and Van Dieman's Land (Tasmania) were separate identities from the beginning.

The creation of South Australia and the separation of New Zealand were driven from Britain. Victoria and Queensland were driven more by local interests who wanted independence from Sydney control. The moves were opposed by Sydney interests who, in the case of Queensland, were able to get the proposed border shifted north.

In 1825 an appointed Legislative Council was created in NSW. This was followed by the grant of self-government under elected parliaments beginning with Victoria in 1852, the year after separation from NSW. From this point, the individual colonies had effective control over local matters.

The colonies were no mere ciphers for London. This held even in foreign policy areas where the colonies were active in trying to protect what they saw as their own interests to, as in Queensland's 1883 annexation of the southern coast of New Guinea, the sometimes distress of Westminster.

For reasons that I will come to a little later, modern Australians sometimes have difficult in understanding the nature of relations in the Empire, squeezing it into a them (the Brits) and us (the Ozzies) model. Really, there was only us.

You can see this if you think of the Empire as akin to Australia today.

There was the central government (Canberra, London) concerned with the interests of the Empire as a whole. Then there were the states (the various colonies) focused on their own concerns. The key difference between the two is that the Australian colonies had far more real power and independence than do the Australian states today.

I think that this is important because the them/us model acts to conceal things.

The treatment of the Aborigines did not come out of London, we did that. The adoption of protectionism in a generally free trade Empire did not come out of London. We did that. The adoption of the White Australia policy did not come out of London. We did that. Our over-reliance on the Imperial shield in the period leading up to the Second World war did not come out of London. We did that.

In all these cases, the British Government had a different view tempered by British social attitudes and the needs of a global trading Empire and Imperial power.

While the various colonies had very real powers, the creation of the Australian Federation ended what we now call the colonial period - itself an often mis-used word in an Australian context. The adoption of protectionism by the new Australian Parliament was the first independent trade act, the adoption of the White Australia policy our first foreign policy act.

The subsequent evolution of Australian official policy took place within an evolving Commonwealth and Empire. We entered the First World War as part of Empire. We, along with the other Dominions, signed the Treaty of Versaille in our own rights if within an Imperial umbrella and then became members of the League of Nations.

The role played by Australian Prime Minister William Morris Hughes (and here, here) in the period leading up to the signing of the Treaty is instructive.

Like a leading state politician today, Hughes was an Imperial (aka national) as well as Australian (aka state) political player. Determined to punish Germany, fearful of Japan, determined to protect what he saw as Australian as well as the Imperial interest, Hughes played an active role in British politics at electoral and Government level.

When I first studied Australian history, Hughes role was presented as the first successful exercise of an independent Australian foreign policy. It was not, nor was it successful except to the degree that Hughes got his own way. His desire to make Germany pay, his success in tightening sanctions on Germany, his alienation of Japan, all contributed to the subsequent Second World War.

The next major step in the evolution of Australia's national role came in 1926. There at the 1926 Imperial Conference, the governments of the Dominions and of the United Kingdom endorsed the Balfour Declaration of 1926, which declared that the Dominions were autonomous members of the British Empire, equal to each other and to the United Kingdom. The 1931 Statute of Westminster gave legal effect to the Balfour Declaration, declaring that the Parliament of the United Kingdom no longer had any legislative authority over the Dominions.

Initially Australia chose not ratify the Statute and did so for its own foreign policy reasons, the desire not to weaken Imperial links and protections in the face of the rise of Japan. We finally did so in 1942 when Japanese military success led to a greater focus on the US relationship.

The fact that Australia had not ratified the Statute did not affect constitutional practice.

In April 1933, 68 per cent of electors at a referendum in Western Australia voted for the state to leave the Commonwealth of Australia with the aim of becoming a separate Dominion within the British Empire. The state government sent a delegation to Westminster to cause the result to be enacted, but the British Parliament refused to intervene on the grounds that it was a matter for the Commonwealth of Australia. As a result no action was taken.

The last residual formal residual vestiges of the power of the British Parliament over the Dominions were finally removed by the Canada Act 1982, the Australia Act 1986, and the New Zealand Constitution Act 1986.

If you look at this potted history, you can see how the concept of Australian independence has evolved in ways not always well presented in current histories with their us/them focus. In the second part of this post, I will look at the evolving sense of Australian nationalism and the relationship between this and different streams in Australian thought.

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