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Towards an Australian republic (part 2)

By Dr George Venturini

Race, trade and loyalty to ‘home’

It was Thomas Alexander Browne, a London-born Australian author, who sometimes published under the pseudonym Rolf Boldrewood, who lived across the nineteenth century, who became responsible for the dicta “race is everything” and “the triumph of the Aryan stock”. In such a world, the Irish might have been in peril, and the Chinese and the ‘Hindoos’ certainly had a problem. But it was the Aborigines who most deserved his attention: they were apparently doomed by the working ‘natural laws’, and all they could hope for was a sympathy for a ‘dying race’. On the frontier, gradual extinction remained too slow; better apply the violent dispossession such as across Queensland, the Northern Territory and Western Australia. (M. Peel, A little history of Australia (Melbourne 1997) 31).

In the 1840s and 1850s the Colonial Office had proposed a General Assembly for the Australian colonies to deal with matters of common Australian interest. But the colonies lacked any compelling reasons to unite and preferred separate self-government. In 1889 the Imperial government tried again, and appointed Major General Bevan Edwards to inspect the defences of Australia. He recommended the establishment of a single central authority to weld the various colonial forces into one army. Australian politicians now agreed on the need for a united Australia: to prevent invasion by Chinese, promote development and preserve the power of propertied interests. The unifiers also shared a rudimentary patriotic and nationalist sentiment based on pride in material pioneering achievement – the extent to which they had subdued the wilderness. (W. J. Lines, Taming the great south land: A history of the conquest of nature in Australia (Sydney 1991) 136)’.

In time the first occupiers became divided into two parties: ‘exclusionists’ and ‘emancipists’, the former because they sought to exclude from polite society ex-convicts and all other low fellows, the latter because they were emancipated prisoners or friends, associates or descendants of such people. John Hood hardly exaggerated when he wrote as late as 1843: “Caste in Hindostan is no more rigidly regarded than it is in Australia: the bond and the free, emancipist and exclusionist, seldom associated together familiarly.” As well-bred Hood lamented in 1843: “If the truth must be told, the fortunes of many of the exclusionists themselves were not acquired by the purest means; close contacts, the gin or rum-shop, embarrassments wilfully created by insidious loans and ejectments, and other crooked paths, were used equally by both parties, bond and free.” (J. Hood, Australia and the East (London 1843), cited by R. Ward, op. cit. 58,59).

Governor Macquarie had provided opportunities to those born within the colony. Most of his countrymen regarded the native-born as the depraved spawn of criminal degenerates, prone to idleness, compulsive drinking and poor personal hygiene. Actually, the native-born were far healthier than their English counterparts, having eschewed the brutality of growing-up conditions in England. They enjoyed full employment and shorter working hours than English labourers and, even when food was scarce, never had to resort to dead rats, bark or lumps of coal, those staples of working-class English cuisine. Yet, most of these ‘colonial boys’ were convinced of their inferiority. A young naive-born, a protégé of Macquarie, expressed hope that he might one day be trusted to do some exploring, “altho’ an Australian.” The first generation of new-Australians carried chips on their shoulders. Not only that: they believed that English chips were better. Quite likely they had just set-up the ‘cultural cringe’.

Macquarie’s willingness to work with ex-convicts, black sheep, the native-born, women and other ‘undesirables’ has often been portrayed as some kind of ‘champion of Australian democracy’. Nothing could be farther from the truth. Macquarie, a solid, reactionary Scot-turned-Englishman wrote of his implacable hatred of the “infernal and destructive principles of democracy.” In his view it was the sublimation of what he disliked the most: Greek decadence, French extremism, and American danger. He did not have a democratic bone in his body. He was an autocrat who did not mind the origin of his interlocutor and her/his past, so long as s/he obeyed his commands and did not cost him money.

In the twenty-two years from 1861 to 1883, 29 million acres of ‘Crown land’ were alienated, but the area under cultivation grew by only about half a million. E.G. Shann summed up in a well-known phrase the general effects of the Free Selection Acts in all colonies: “And it came to pass that demagogues dispersed the public estate and pastoralists gathered up the freehold thereof.” (E. G. Shann, An economic history of Australia (Cambridge 1948) 233).

For a hundred years most well-to-do, middle-class Australians, whether immigrants or native-born, had seen themselves primarily as colonists whose first and ‘natural’ loyalty was to the ‘Old Country’. For the same period, most poor ‘working-class’ Australians, particularly if they were native-born, had thought of themselves primarily as Australians whose first loyalty was naturally to their own country. Yet, up until the turn of the century, the first group had enjoyed a practical monopoly of political and social power. (R. Ward, op.cit. 188).

In 1888 the people of New South Wales celebrated the centenary of the beginning of the white conquest of Australia. Surviving black Australians were ignored by the merry-makers just as they had been for the whole period in those parts of the continent where they had already been ‘dispersed’, if not wholly destroyed.

For their part, the Aborigines ignored the corroboree in Sydney as did, for the most part white settlers in the other five colonies and in New Zealand, still then thought of as one of the Australian, or Australasian, colonies.

Apparently most white Australians still thought of themselves as ‘settlers in separate colonies’. (R. Ward, op.cit. 187).

All through the 1890s, at the moment of federation in 1901, and for a good decade afterwards, different people had different ‘Australias’ in their heads, different hopes and fears for a new country marooned so far from its ‘Anglo-Saxon’ beginnings.

Workers also talked of profound change. In the ‘new unionism’ of William Spence, ideals of workers’ unity joined an assumption of basic class antagonism. For journalist William Lane, a ‘paradise’ for working men rested in the inevitable victory of socialism over capitalism.

Events in the early 1890s certainly revealed deep social divisions. Employers used ‘scab’ labour to break a maritime strike. Shearing unions won some concessions in 1890, but were shattered by an employer counter-offensive in 1891. These confrontations pitted strikers against police and hastily mobilised ‘special forces’, and convinced many unionists of the need to secure their own political representation. (M. Peel, op. cit. 36).

If the strikes and the depression had revealed anything, it was the need for change. Busts brought foreclosures and bankruptcy to the middle class. Workers wanted protection from exploitation, from the threat the unemployed posed to jobs and wages, and the ‘natural’ servility they saw among ‘non-European’ labour. Farmers and rural labourers wanted protection against droughts and tumbling prices. In ‘overgrown’ and ‘diseased’ cities, comfortable people wanted protection from their poor neighbours’ infections and supposed criminal habits. The poor wanted a decent life, more secure workers wanted to keep the decency they had achieved. The future had to be different, not more of the same.

On the eve of the first all-Australia conference to discuss federation, in February 1890, Sir Henry Parkes, chairman and Premier of New South Wales, reminded the participants that: “The crimson thread of kinship runs through us all. Even native-born Australians are Britons … We know the value of our British origin; we know that we represent a race, which for the purposes of settling new Colonies never had its equal on the face of the earth.” (B. R. Wise, The making of the Australian Commonwealth, 1889-1900 : a stage in the growth of the Empire (London 1913) 52).

Parkes assured his audience that Australians had “made such progress as has excited the admiration of the best of other countries.” Yet, if he hoped for a pro-federation crusade, he would remain disappointed.

Throughout the conference, speakers stressed their loyalty to the Queen and the Empire – ‘home’ in one word – and insisted that a united Australia could remain British and conservative. They did not envisage federation as a step towards independence or separation from Great Britain. On the contrary, just as the greatness of the United States lay in its sovereignty, the greatness of federated Australia would be its enduring membership of the British Empire. At the end of the conference, Chairman Parkes commemorated Australia’s first step towards federation by planting an English oak tree in the gardens of Parliament House, Melbourne. (W. J. Lines, op.cit. 137).

The idea of federation remained more popular outside the official political process, with the Australasian Natives’ Association and the Federal Leagues reviving it again at conferences in Corowa in 1893 and Bathurst three years later.

Elected conventions began discussing the details in 1897. Less populous states feared domination by New South Wales, while New South Wales doubted its need to dominate them.

In 1897-98 delegates from each colony met to draft a constitution, protective of wealth, and rigidly resistant to amendment, for the new Commonwealth of Australia. The finer details were hammered out in the federal conventions of 1897 and 1898, and the voters of Victoria, Tasmania and South Australia quickly ratified the new constitution.

Having secured some amendments, New South Wales and Queensland joined in 1899.

Colonial representatives met again in Sydney in March 1891 to consider a federal constitution and in 1895 the premiers of the colonies met in Hobart. In the midst of industrial strife and class conflict, many federation advocates regarded Australian political unity as the only means of preventing one or other of the colonies from going over to socialism. (B. R. Wise, op. cit. 222).

The rapid rise of the Australian Labor Party, which captured its first seats in New South Wales in 1891 and briefly held power in Queensland in 1899, was also worrying. Inventing the political structures of a new nation was a risky business, especially as the decision to federate was to rest on colony-to-colony popular referenda.

At its first meeting on 1 August 1890, the Council of the Australian Labor Federation wrote the first plank of its parliamentary platform as “Universal White Adult Suffrage for all parliamentary and local elections” and in 1905 the federal parliamentary platform began: “Objective, – (1) The cultivation of an Australian sentiment based upon the maintenance of racial purity, and the development in Australia of an enlightened and self-reliant community.” (R. Ward, op. cit. 189).

Most Australians, however, remained indifferent to the changes being planned in their name.

Labor’s political leaders actively opposed, or at best were lukewarm towards, federation. Some thought it a conservative device for distracting attention from the need for social reforms. Others thought that the proposed constitution gave too much ill-defined power to the Governor-General, a view which was to be proved disastrously true seventy-five years later.

Conservatives, whether Free Trader or Protectionist in complexion, were divided over federation.

Overwhelmingly the lead came from liberal, middle-class politicians like Alfred Deakin of Victoria, Sir Henry Parkes of New South Wales, and Charles Cameron Kingston of South Australia.

Such men and their supporters were inspired by a sincere and often deeply felt Australian patriotism, but they were also highly practical politicians who seldom lost sight of more mundane matters. (R. Ward, op.cit. 216-217).

They thought, rightly, that federation would pay.

Tasmania, for instance, with its small area and largely rural population, depended heavily upon the exports of agricultural produce to the mainland colonies.

One federal propagandist in the ‘Apple Isle’ found the following speech enormously effective: “Gentlemen, if you vote for the Hill you will found a great and glorious nation under the bright Southern Cross, and meat will be cheaper; and you will live to see the Australian race dominate the Southern seas, and you will have a market for both potatoes and apples; and your sons shall reap the grand heritage of nationhood, and if Sir William Lyne does come back to power in Sydney he can never do you one penny worth of harm.” (B. R. Wise, op. cit. 356). Lyne was the Protectionist leader in New South Wales who, it was feared, might ruin Tasmania by introducing tariffs to protect the mother colony’s agriculture against Tasmanian competition.

Although electors in each colony subsequently approved the federal proposal, less than 47 per cent of those eligible actually voted. The federators next sought the assent of the British Parliament. The British Parliament ratified the agreement in 1900, despite the dithering of Western Australia, which merged into the new Commonwealth one month after Britain had officially set it up.

The Colonial Secretary, Joseph Chamberlain, however, citing the opposition of banks and other institutions, insisted on amending the constitution to provide for the right of appeal from Australia’s highest court to the Privy Council in London. (J. Quick and R. R. Garran, The annotated constitution of the Australian Commonwealth (Sydney 1901) 235).

The Australian petitioners agreed to the amendment, which effectively permitted Britain veto power over Australian legislation; with the security of British investments assured, the Australian Commonwealth came into existence on 1 January 1901, Commonwealth Inauguration Day. Celebrations were held all over the new country.

The most important enactments were concerned with festering national sentiment and security or with raising living standards for the masses, but, these two policies appeared to many, if not most, people of the time to be two complementary aspects of the one broad national policy. The embarrassing ‘White Australia’ policy, for instance, was established by the first parliament’s Immigration Restriction Act and Pacific Island Labourers Act. (R. Ward, op. cit. 225).

Was the policy inspired mainly by racist or by economic motives? Careful examination of all the speeches made in the House of Representatives and the Senate shows that both considerations were present in the minds of almost all members.

To be continued . . . Tomorrow: What have we got?

GeorgeVenturiniDr. Venturino Giorgio Venturini ‘George’ devoted some sixty years to study, practice, teach, write and administer law at different places in four continents. In 1975, invited by Attorney-General Lionel Keith Murphy, Q.C., he left a law chair in Chicago to join the Trade Practices Commission in Canberra – to serve the Whitlam Government. In time he witnessed the administration of a law of prohibition as a law of abuse, and documented it in Malpractice, antitrust as an Australian poshlost (Sydney 1980).

Links to previous instalments:

Part One: Lies, bread and circuses


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