It’s official. Australia has been deemed the world’s worst performer at COP26.
The Climate Action Network (CAN), an association of more than 1500 civil society organisations in over 130 countries dedicated to fostering sustainable action to avert the climate crisis, voted Australia the ‘colossal fossil’ of this year’s COP, dubbing our leaders ‘fossil fools’ and citing a series of ‘epic fails’ in our nation’s bogus policy to reach net zero.
No podium finishes. No Academy Awards acceptance speeches. This was not, as Australia likes to write its own script for international success, a nation punching above its weight on the world stage. This was a nation going down like a lead balloon.
My how the mighty have fallen, from taking line honours in global democracy at the turn of the twentieth century to barely finishing the race on global emissions reductions in 2021. (And yes, it IS a race.)
Contrast CAN’s dismal report card to the assessment of globe-trotting American journalist Jessie Ackermann, who journeyed south of the equatorial line to witness the world’s most progressive nation. ‘Students of social questions, professors and pupils, came to Australia,’ wrote Ackermann in 1913, ‘until in time Australia became the Mecca for observation concerning up-to-date legislation in the interests of all the people—the whole of the people.’
Like all those studious writers and critics who prophesised with their pen, Ackermann knew that Australia had found the gold-standard solution to what was then the world’s most pressing social and political problem: ‘The Woman Question’.
From Washington to Whitehall, from Glasgow to Johannesburg, women (and their male allies) demanded the symbolic key to unlock half the population’s systemic oppression: the vote.
For inspiration and leadership, they looked to a serious young nation that had, as Vida Goldstein, one of the country’s chief patriots declared, ‘made justice the foundation of its constitution’. In 1902, just one year after its inauguration, the new Australian parliament passed legislation securing white women’s right to both vote and to stand for federal office. This Act made Australian women the most fully enfranchised in the world. As one journalist in 1903 wrote, ‘The purest type of democracy the human race has ever known flourishes to-day beneath Australian skies.’
And this, at a time when women’s suffrage was described as ‘the great world movement … the most insistent political problem of the day … the most significant revolution that has come over society in the first years of the 20th century’. A critical, epoch-defining issue requiring a long-term, structural solution. There could be no policy frippery; no 24/7 news cycle quick fix.
No-one could say to the unenfranchised woman, ‘we’ve moved on’.
Which is not to say, of course, that anti-suffragists didn’t try to put their thumbs in the dyke, nor that Australia’s solution in 1902 was the end of the story. There is no avoiding the fact that that all Indigenous Australians were disenfranchised by the very same act of parliament that secured women their historic rights. The Franchise Act of 1902 meant that race, not gender, became the precondition for inclusion in the body politic of White Australia.
Few international onlookers batted an eyelid at this scenario. Instead, people across the globe watched on with either delight or horror or just plain curiosity as Australian women turned up at polling booths and stood as candidates for election. Women then turned to their own governments, and fathers and husbands and said, in an Edwardian-era version of When Harry Met Sally, ‘I’ll have what she’s having’.
Australia truly was, in the decade and a half before 1914, what one contemporary called ‘the envy of the world’. As Jessie Ackermann put it, Australia was ‘in the noonday glare’. In a good way.
And Australians were proud of their achievement. When Prime Minister Andrew Fisher represented his nation at the Imperial Conference in London in 1911, held to coincide with the coronation of King George, he told a captive London audience that ‘a true democracy can only be maintained honestly and fairly by including women as well as men in the electorate of the country’. This was a provocative statement, given that not only was Britain in an royalist frenzy on the eve of a new King’s reign, but also currently at war with her militant Suffragettes, keeping over 750 of them as political prisoners at Holloway Gaol.
Three weeks prior to the Coronation, 100,000 Londoners turned out to watch 40,000 suffragists march through London’s streets in a festive protest for their rights. A large contingent of expat and visiting Australians, including Goldstein and First Lady Margaret Fisher, rallied behind a banner bearing the words ‘Trust the Women Mother, As I Have Done’.
Prior to WW1, there was a significant portion of social and political commentators who believed that Australia’s maturity—its coming of age as a nation—was due to the actions of its women and the calibre of its womanhood. And that significant and meaningful parallels could be drawn between the independence of women and the independence of the nation; between female self-assertion and colonial self-assertion; and between women’s control of their own affairs and Australia’s control of its domestic and international affairs.
So, what has happened to shift the national conversation from Australia’s youthful, maverick mission as a global innovator to a country of politically timorous conformists at best and of obstinately smug climate reprobates at worst?
How did a proud world leader become a recalcitrant world lagger in just over a century?
Historians, political scientists, press gallery and water cooler pundits alike will argue the toss, but for my money part of the answer lies in the fact that after WW1, after the disastrous slaughter of Gallipoli, Australia doubled down on a gender script that equated masculinity with nation-building.
‘Diggers’ became the motif for patriotic sacrifice and service, a motif that could easily segue from militarism to other forms of colonial and capitalist expansion. After WW2, digging became the literal mechanism for economic wish fulfilment along an extractive frontier. National progress and development were no longer tied to political rights and entitlements but to a mining industry that promised untold and eternal riches.
Khaki and slouch hat were replaced by high-vis and hard hat.
In the process of gendering progress male, coal-loving politicians could dismiss innovative solutions to twenty-first century problems. Without a counter-narrative grounded in Australia’s progressive history, genuine scientific and technological advances could be spun as emasculating distractions from the real job of providing jobs for real men. Thus, in 2019, the electric vehicle could be dismissed by our current Prime Minister as an Aussie-weekend wowser, a trendy lady gadget unable to ‘tow your trailer’. ‘It’s not going to tow your boat,’ Morrison warned his target electoral audience, ‘It’s not going to get you out to your favourite camping spot with your family.’
One hundred and twenty years ago Australian women’s political activism drove our nation out of the Victorian age and towards a democratic destiny that is today taken for granted as world’s best practice. Perhaps if we better understood and commemorated this historical fact, we wouldn’t now be climate-shamed on the world stage by such interminable fossil fools.
Clare Wright is Professor of History at La Trobe University. You Daughters of Freedom: The Australians Who Won the Vote and Inspired the World, the second instalment of her Democracy Trilogy, is published by Text.