Sunday, October 11, 2009

Sunday Essay - for Neil: threads in Australian history

It has been a little while since I wrote a companion piece to Neil. However, his Waltzing Matilda 21st century style – current reading drew me, as I suspect he thought that it might.

I haven't yet read Mark Davis’s The Land of Plenty: Australia in the 2000s (Melbourne, MUP 2008), the subject of Neil's post, although I will. I also look forward to reading Neil's assessment.

Given that I have not read the book, I cannot yet comment on it. However, I thought that I would clear a little undergrowth by setting out my own perspectives on some of the things that I suspect Mark has written about. Not to attack his views, I do not yet know them, but rather to clear my own thinking.

I suppose that it is sad but inevitable that age changes one's perspective. The young deal with what is, what might be. As one grows older, questions of what was, what might have been, become more important.

I make this point because in a sense it sets part of the context for this post. I look at Australia's past not just through my research, but through the prism set by my own experiences. 

It is often forgotten, certainly I find this a hard message to get across at a personal level, that the first key role of Government and Ministers is to set values. No matter how efficient or effective you may be, if the values are wrong or in conflict with policy, delivery will be wrong.

I don't mean anything high falutin by values, simply the general principles that will guide policy and indeed the nation.

The reason the Howard Government lost me despite my support for some elements of their policy lay in what I saw as an erosive style in conflict with what I perceived to be the fundamental values of Australia. I finally lost all patience, lost the ability to make excuses, with the Haneef case. I suspect that Mr Ruddock will come to be seen as a tragic figure who, despite himself, came to typify the neglect of due process, the willingness to over-ride individual rights and the increasing use of harsh use of language that marked the later Howard period.

Even as I wrote this post, the current Government was expressing regret for the sad case of Van Phuc Nguyen who was detained in 2002 and held illegally in Sydney's Villawood Detention Centre for more than three years. Mr Nguyen is a permanent resident of Australia, but immigration officials at Sydney airport did not recognise his visa.

One case, a dozen cases, but now there appear to have been hundreds of cases of injustice. As an Australian I cannot stomach this, nor can I accept the way in which so many Australians even now simply shrug the matter away. I regard what happened as deeply un-Australian, in conflict with what I have always seen as the values of this society.  

I have known or known of Mr Howard for a long while. I found him a warm person. When I had to brief him as Treasurer I was very nervous; this was my first ever ministerial briefing. He was kindness itself. I have often wondered how and why such an apparent disconnect could emerge between what I knew of the man and the later language and actions of the Howard Government. I think that part of the answer lies in the events of 9/11 and the subsequent responses: Mr Howard became trapped.

Part of the answer too, I think, lies in what I see as a broader coarsening of the language of Australian politics. Language became harsher, edgier. We can see this in NSW, but it is not unique to NSW.The language of punishment, vengeance and control combined with a sort of managerial speak has come to dominate.   

One of the issues that many historians have wrestled with is the way in which Australia combined an apparently egalitarian approach with sometimes social conservatism, conformism, injustice and a class based hierarchy. This last may not have been as strong as in the British Isles, but it certainly existed.

I think that the Australian historian John Hirst provided part of the explanation for this apparent conflict with his term "democracy of manners". Language reflects values and also affects behaviour. Our language, our manners, have been egalitarian. This has of itself acted to set a social frame.

Of course a critic could point to many exceptions, but I do think that it is acceptable as a broad generalisation. I would also suggest that it was very deeply embedded indeed in popular conceptions of what it was to be an Australian. Whatever the weaknesses may have been in Russell Wards' analysis of Australian history, and in some ways Russell was one of the most patrician figures I have known, the enduring power of The Australian Legend demonstrates the way in which he captured Australian perceptions of themselves.

Mr Howard substituted a much diminished view. The Legend had shrunk to concepts of mateship, nationalism and military prowess; the overall rhetoric linked back to the images, but was in many ways in conflict with them. The image of of people wrapped in the flag substituted for the old Australian irreverence about themselves.

It is important, I think, to recognise that the narrow nationalism of the Howard period can be directly traced back to the Whitlam Government (1972-1975).

There were always two threads to Australian nationalism. One was international, empire and commonwealth. This thread was proudly Australian, but saw no conflict between this and broader allegiances. Unless, of course, those allegiances threatened Australia.  A second thread linked to the Labor and Irish tradition was more narrowly nationalistic; perfidious Albion must be rejected, replaced by a more narrowly defined and uniquely Australian model drawing from one set of perceptions of Australia's past.

Consciously and systematically, the Whitlam Government began dismantling the official and even unofficial linkages to Australia's past. Sometimes it over-reached itself: the attempt on the grounds of non-discrimination to treat New Zealand and New Zealanders for passport purposes in the same way as any other nationality foundered on the self-evident fact that they were not the same as any other nationality.

Not all this was on the public record. I do not think that the rejection of the desire by Prince Charles to buy land in Australia on the grounds that, as a foreigner, he was not allowed to do so ever became public.

Of itself, a democracy of manners is not sufficient to explain Australia's egalitarianism and sometimes social reform. Canada and New Zealand also show this, although the expression varies. This was well recognised in the past, less so today when our view of the world has become so very Australia-centric, cut of from our broader past.

The Europeans who settled Australia came from a world that still bore many of the trappings of its Feudal past. The first industrial legislation in Australia was called the Master and Servants Act. They also came from a world on the verge of the agrarian and industrial revolution.

These semi-feudal trappings, the caste systems of the old world, quickly broke down in the new colonies and for a very simple practical reason. Not only was labour was short, but it was possible for a man from an ordinary working background, even a convict, to make money. By European standards, the ordinary Australian was remarkably well off and from a very early point in colonial history. This made for an independence of attitude, one supported by growing demand for Australia's rural products starting with wool.

The Australian colonies were fortunate, too, in the early grant of responsible government. Problems of governance in a sprawling and diverse Imperial super-power are beyond the scope of this post. The key point is that we did not have to fight for the vote, nor later for independence. These things were granted to us in stages; we had real local control from a very early point.

I make these points because we have a tendency to pat ourselves on the back, to say aren't we good, when we have in fact just been fortunate. Now here I want to introduce several themes in Australian history that I think are important: accident and self-help; boom and bust; wowser and larrikin; protestant and catholic.

Life in colonial Australia was just plain dangerous. Australian living standards may have been higher, life expectancy longer than England, but danger was still there. Apart from outbreaks of disease such as typhoid, accidents were common, the possibility of misfortune always there, help far away. This bred a self-help, cooperative attitude as people strove to build support and to help each other.

Australia's largest women's movement, the Country Women's Association is a later outcome of this. Just a simple thing, really: build rest-rooms in town so that country women and their kids in town have somewhere to go, to make a cup of tea, to talk to friends, to change the baby. Our entire volunteer tradition dates to this building and self-help period, as does our approach to collective action.

The concept of collective action is deeply embedded in Australian thinking. The union movement and indeed the Labor Party itself was one expression of this. The broader cooperative movement a second: friendly societies, building societies and cooperatives spread across Australia. 

It also led to a fairly pragmatic approach to government. Government was there to do things, to help build, to provide support, to fix things up. This was mixed with a genuine reforming ideology focused on social improvement. It came in flashes, but it was always there.

A moment ago I was critical of what I saw as the narrow nationalism of the Whitlam Government. We also need to recognise that that Government was a genuine reforming Government, one that wanted to do a lot in a very short space of time. Indeed, that desire was part of its problem, because it came to power after a long period in opposition with a large agenda just at the time that economic conditions were turning to the stagflation of the 1970s.   

It is my belief, I stand to be corrected on the evidence, that this volunteer, self help, ethos has been in decline since at least the eighties, maybe since the sixties.  Speaking as someone involved with voluntary organisations over the years, my recollection is that we started talking about the problem towards the end of the seventies.

I think that this can be traced back in part to the rise of individualism and self-expression in the sixties, with its rejection of things that attempted to control behaviour, to restrict freedoms.

In some ways I am a child of the sixties. I do not want to go back to the social rigidities of the 1950s, nor do I accept that individualism and self-expression (live and let live) are incompatible with either a self-help ethos or a volunteer spirit. My problem lies in my feeling that in rejecting the things that we did, we may have failed to recognise the extent to which prevailing social attitudes affect behaviour. If you reject one element, others suffer. In some ways, the sixties laid the basis for the me generation.  

This shift coincided with a second shift that reinforced the move towards a more individualist position along the collectivist-individualist spectrum, the rise of new attitudes towards the role of the state. In most developed countries the role of Government contracted, institutional structures were reshaped and reformed.

As one small sign of this in Australia, the great cooperative institutions that had been such a feature of Australian life were effectively privatised, providing one-off gains to members, but with very little recognition of the passing of an era. The Australian Mutual Provident Society, once a dominant feature of Australia's financial landscape, became just another insurance company. 

Boom and bust has been a second feature of Australian life. Australians know this, even take a sort of pride in it. What is, I think, less well recognised is the way it has affected attitudes.

During growth periods, Australians became more expansive, more outward looking. In busts, people turned in. Society became more conservative. Knowing that good times do end, Australians tend to party when things are good; this adds to things such as real estate bubbles, with the inevitable hang-over. I suspect that Australians are more obsessed with real estate than any nation in the world.

Within the cycle of booms and busts has been the constant presence of what the Australian marxist economic historian Ron Neale has described as the middling class. Ron described them in this way:

..petit bourgeois, aspiring professional men, other literates and artisans. Individuated or privatised like the middle class but collectively less deferential and more concerned to remove the privileges and authority of the upper class in which, without radical changes, they cannot hope to share.

Writing of his own early views, the Country Party politician David Drummond said that nothing would cause him

to accept that society was divided into 2 classes & 2 only. I knew that in between there was a middle class of decent law abiding people, farmers, graziers, small shopkeepers, & to a certain extent professional men. They were either self-employed or small employers but largely consisted of people who valued their independence and sought by hard work to build a secure place in society  they could sustain ...To the solid core of the "middle class" the unprincipled exploitive greed of employers was a loathsome as the destructive ill-balanced doctrines of extreme unionism.

Neale and Drummond are in fact describing the same group, one from the broader perspective of class and ideology in the nineteenth century, the second from the perspective of a farm labourer/share farmer in the period just before the First World War.

The key point about the middling class is that they were aspirational but constantly vulnerable even during good times. Some of the most radical as well as conservative Australian political responses have come from this group, as have enduring Australian concepts such as the dislike of banks so well expressed in the popular Australian movie The Castle.

  The middling class still exists, of course, but has I think shrunk in importance and influence. In its place we now have something that Australia has never seen before: a growing group of socially deprived people whose deprivation has become generationally independent of either boom or bust.

This really is quite new. Of course such cases have existed in the past. The thing I struggle with most at a personal level is that we have actually institutionalised this growing underclass. Worse, and this would not have been acceptable in the past, there appears to be a growing acceptance that this result is inevitable. We just have to manage the problem.

Larrikin versus wowser is the third theme that I want to look at briefly. Here again we have the apparent dichotomy within Australia that we saw with egalitarianism on one side, social conservatism and conformity on the other.

The term larrikin is used to describe the Australian folk tradition of irreverence, mockery of authority and disregard for rigid norms of propriety. The term wowser was applied in a derogatory way to describe those who wanted to impose religious and social morality on the community.

Today we live in a society that can be best described, to misquote Australian historian Geoffrey Blainey, as the triumph of the wowser. Larrikinism survives especially in the Australian sense of humour, but wowserism is dominant. However, it is a wowserism that has lost its soul.

  Early colonial society was male dominated, with men heavily out-numbering women. This is the world that Russell Ward believes spawned the Australian Legend. With time, there were more women and more families. The frontier with its male dominance kept moving out.

Two of the very best Australian local histories - John Ferrier's Colonial Armidale and Alan Atkinson''s Camden, winner of the 1998 NSW Premier's Literary award - trace the social transformation that resulted with the rise of the family.

Many factors contributed, including specially the various religious revival movements. However, the key was the need, the desire, to create a better environment for the family. Women played a key role here. The Temperance Movement was in fact the first Australian women's movement, one that actually redefined the role of women in colonial society. It may have been gender specific, the role of women in the home and family space was central, but it gave women power and a voice that had been lacking.

The Temperance Movement did believe in social controls, imposed limitations on things such as service of the alcohol that had been such a feature of Australian society, but moral reformation was central. Here the Movement joined with a whole series of other threads - adult education for example - all directed at social and moral reform.

The difference between nineteenth century wowserism and the modern equivalent, the reason why I say that wowserism has lost its soul, can be seen across a number of dimensions.

To the nineteenth century wowser, not that they applied that term to themselves, individual reformation was central, government action secondary. Today's Australia regards problems not so much as moral or social problems, although modern Australia can be very moralistic, but as something to be measured, assessed and then controlled. Essentially, we no longer believe in concepts such as moral or social improvement, even the idea of progress itself has been largely lost. Behaviour can and must be controlled for social good reasons, but the thought of active individual or social reformation seems strange in the extreme.

The last thread, Protestant vs Catholic, will finish this now long essay.

The term Anglo-Celtic has been coined in recent years to describe the "traditional" majority European population of this country. Past Australians would have found this term very strange indeed.

There is a common view in this country that Australia has been a uniform society. This is then contrasted with modern multicultural society with its proclaimed diversity. The reality is that that past "uniform" Australia had to manage a sectarian divide that was far deeper than today's divisions. That divide continues to affect Australian life. The Republican Movement itself is one modern outcrop, as is Australia's continuing secular society.

Modern Australian atheists deny the role of religion in Australian society. They actually struggle to understand the role of faith and belief.

At the time of the First Fleet, the England from which the fleet sailed still bore the marks of the religious struggles of the Reformation. The new colonial administration, all pragmatic men, knew that they could not simply transplant things such as the established Anglican church to the new colony. They had to deal with not just the Roman Catholics, but even more importantly with the extremely irascible and indeed tendentious Scottish Presbyterians with their infinite capacity for schism. This meant that the colony was, in an official sense, secular from the beginning.

Religion was important, but in its place. One side-effect that is, I think, little known is that NSW was perhaps the first place in the Christian world to provide Government support to Jewish schools as part of an overall financial package to support education.

The initial approach accommodated both the Anglican/Protestant majority and the Roman Catholic minority, as well as the minorities with other religions or with no religion at all. All this changed from the middle of the century with the Irish Catholic revival movement and the deliberate and successful attempt by Irish Catholic Bishops to assert Irish Catholic control over the Australian faithful. The result was a profound religious division in Australian society - the ghettoing of Roman Catholics -  that lasted until the second half of the twentieth century.

This division, and to my mind this was one good outcome, actually reinforced the secular trend in Australia. It also led to changes in Australian manners. Religion ceased to be a topic for discussion in polite society! It also laid the basis for acceptance of other faiths.

In this now very long essay I have tried to trace through some of the threads that have made Australia Australia. I hope that the argument is at least of some interest.        


marcellous said...

1. From the left, the conservative form of nationalism you identify would be thought of as British Empire nationalism.

2.(a) "We" were fortunate, but this good fortune has in a great many ways been built in the expropriation of the land from the indigenous inhabitants. Land sales financed the nineteenth-century state and the availability of land for selection likewise put land ownership within the reach of those of modest means, even though for many (for example, John Shaw Nielsen, AB Facey's family, etc) this was on terms and in circumstances which proved to be a less attractive than it seemed in prospect.
(b) and after federation this fortune was further secured by the exclusion of cheaper/non-white immigrant labour. (I'm leaving protectionism out of this because everybody did that.)
3. The catholic/protestant divide was of course a proxy for the British/Irish divide. I remember it as the big thing in my childhood - reinforced, of course, by the State School/parochial school divide between children. That ceased to be important when the Anglo-Celts together found they had more in common together in distinction to various waves of first European, then Asian (in the ancient sense, ie starting from the Hellespont/Bosporus) immigration. Things are a bit more complicated than that now that the latest immigrant origins have become more scattered.

As to Mr Howard, as you say, "The Legend had shrunk to concepts of mateship, nationalism and military prowess." Mr Howard's Legend was never Russell Ward's. It came, I think, from his father - WWI ex-serviceman; New Guinea dummy land-owner; [D H Lawrence's] Kangaroo-esque New Guard sympathiser (actual membership not established) and Dulwich Hill and Earlwood service-station proprietor. But you've left out sporting prowess, and JH's youth as a cricketing Methodist!

[That competitions were between protestants only harks back to 3 above.]

Jim Belshaw said...

That was an interesting comment, marcellous, one that in some ways reflects great divides within Australian thinking.

I am in the process of cooking dinner, so cannot respond properly now. I will try to do do once I have cooked!

Jim Belshaw said...

A break in cooking. You are, of course, correct M in saying that "From the left, the conservative form of nationalism you identify would be thought of as British Empire nationalism." That is the left position.

There was certainly conservative nationalism that could be thought of in those terms. The problem is that many of those who thought in non-conservative terms on conventional measures saw no conflict between their support for radical change and their support for Empire. Further, among those supporting Empire were a whole variety of streams of thought about Australia and nationalism.

Your point about the expropriation of land from the Aborigines and the importance of revenue from land sales is again correct. There is a further factor here: those who got land first and especially in the towns and cities benefited from economic rents. Land values increased because of growth in population and wealth, creating a wind-fall gain.

If course some of those who got land failed. The failed selector, people who bled their hearts out, is also part of the Australian story. However, I would argue that your point 2(a)is irrelevant to the argument I am mounting. I am concerned with the threads that make up the changing way Australians think. The fact that the sometimes expansiveness in Australian thinking is based in part on expropriation of land is important, but does not affect the argument about the way people feel.

Oops. Time to go back to the stove.

Jim Belshaw said...

Continuing on point 2 (b).

I do not think that you can leave protectionism out of it. Protectionism was part of the prive paid for Federation. It benefited certain industrial workers and their employers, but also lowered Australian standards of living while redistributing income with the new Commonwealth.

More importantly from my immediate perspective, the Deakinite compact - the sharing of benefits - actually became central to the Australian ethos. While I argue that protectionism lowered living standards, I am also conscious just how important the compact was.

Back to the stove!

Jim Belshaw said...


The Catholic/Protestant divide was not, at least initially, an Irish/Brittish divide. Under the influence of the Benedictines,the Roman Catholic Church was far more outwood looking. The attempted assination of the Italian Bishop of Armidale by a deranged Irishman was both an act of madness and a political statement.

The succesful attempt by the Irish heirarchy to assert control over the Australian Church actually created the sectarian Irish cum Catholic ghetto.

Of course sectarianism was an issue from the beginning. I suggested as much. However, if we look at Armidale as a local case study, the divide that existed later did not exist at first. When the Italian Bishop called for community support to build St Ursula's, it came from a broad cross-section of the community.

The real sectarian divide emerged later and was a direct result of the desire of the Church to preserve the faithful through separation.

Like you, I experienced the sectarian divide if from the other side of the fence. The Catholic mother who did not want me going out with her daughter is an example.

The post war migrant intake actually broke the divide in part because it brought in a large number of Catholic migrants to whom the now ancient divides were an irrelevance.

I think that I will stop here with a final musing.

It was Catholic historians who first analysed the influence of the Irish Church. Until reading them, I had actually accepted what had become the conventional sterotypes.

The more I research Australian history, the more I find that it challenges both my own and more broadly accepted views. It just wasn't like that.

The real joy that I am finding just at present in my historical research is that it is taking me in directions that I never expected to go. Sometimes this is unpleasant because it rubs up against my own deeply held views. More often, I find myself discovering things that I never knew existed.

Odd really, considering how much history I have done. But never before have I had the luxury of going where I will,of research and writing just for the pleasure of it.

marcellous said...

I would have thought that the point you make about the catholic church relates to the hierarchy rather than to their flock.

Why did the hierarchy change? (I agree that it did.) Might it be because the catholic laity (at this stage almost entirely Irish) were in a position either explicitly or implicitly to get the episcopate and clergy they desired?

Incidentally, as I read you, I think you may have misguessed the side of the sectarian divide I started on.

Jim Belshaw said...

M, I may indeed have misread your side of the sectarian divide.

Your point about the difference between the laity and the hieararchy is well taken. I cannot properly comment on this.

A lot of the recent historical reading I have done has a New England focus. The main Irish Catholic chain migration went south, not north. Not only was he Catholic proportion of the total population lower than elsewhere, but the Irish proportion of the Catholic population was lower.

The only book that I have read that deals in any way with the position at a local level in the south is Atkinson's Camden. Camden was on the southern chain migration route and Alan does deal with change within the Catholic Church as well as the way in which the sectarian divide played out in politics including the rise of Liberalism (not the same L as today).

I think that the real issue here is that I have not done enough reading to have the type of feel that I should as to the position at lay level, including the extent to which Northern New South Wales where I have done a fair bit of reading from a Catholic perspective was in fact representative.

Neil said...

I am going to reread Davis before I attempt to sum it up.

Jim Belshaw said...

Understood, Neil. Think of it as the enxt stage in our continuing conversation!