Beginning in the winter of 1966, Meanjin published a new series of commentaries on the reality of present-day life and living in God’s Own Country.
The American Cultural Wave is so influential that even its Australian opponents have taken to western gunplay, for it is an attractive game to those who see black in one barrel and white in the other. Less than forty thousand shots have been fired down the main street of Godzone, but among the corpses are all the Australian politicians, the big businessmen, the knights, salesmen, advertising men, disc jockeys, computer technicians, bowser men and wowser women. It seemed at first that some Australians might escape, but the final casualty lists embrace such minorities as drug addicts, pop-music fans, motorists, suburban dwellers, Anglophiles and Anzac Day marchers, intellectuals and nationalists, Saturday afternoon crowds and Sunday morning congregations. When the command went out that the enemies of the people must be vanquished, the command was either misheard or was grasped too dearly. And yet hope still remains, for all the obstacles to the utopias prescribed for Australia have now been removed.
The pessimists fired most of the rounds; bursts of inspired accuracy were followed by sacrificial shots at their own feet. It was almost as if they wished to be whisked away to those utopias which they vaguely glimpsed in the future or saw more confidently in the past. Indeed their belief that the times had once been happier or more promising seemed to make the 1960s even more disillusioning, and their pessimistic view of the present seemed to gild the past. At least I assume that their age of gloom and their age of gold were linked, for I’m not sure that I have lived in the Australia of the 1960s and I do not quite recognize the golden ages which they safely enshrined in the past. Nothing I write, however, can prove or disprove their diagnosis and the predictions which they make or imply. As these predictions will be judged by future events, and not by our analogies and arguments and intuitions, I have to concede that the pessimists could be correct even though the evidence to my equally-biased mind seems to be against them.
In attempting to analyse some of the themes in a six-sided controversy it is easy to be unfair. The important points in some articles are the silent points, the assumptions, and are not always easy to pluck out. Nor is the measure of agreement between clashing writers easy to discern; it is pointless to keep on admitting that one likes this argument or agrees with that, like a child in a sweetshop, and yet the absence of such comments can be misleading. Moreover, the smokescreens which we unconsciously invoke in controversy can easily derail a debate. I notice that at the end of my previous paragraph I slipped in the adjective ‘equally biased’, a confession which I will obviously try to disown. Similarly, Ian Turner, after pages of pessimism, startles the reader with the summary: ‘This is not counsel of despair.’ Two paragraphs later the pessimism is again in command.
The concept of the golden age is a kind of smokescreen, and Turner employs it freely. ‘Within the framework of family and community,’ he writes, ‘it seemed that men could make their own decisions, control their own lives. In mass industrial society this can no longer be done.’ But could the serf in czarist Russia control the hours of his labour, could the Polish peasant find enough to eat if the harvest failed or soldiers crossed his land, could the French housewife control the size of her family, or could the English farm labourer learn to read? Did they even think they could control their own life, except within the narrowest limits in the most favourable circumstances? Industrial society may in fact enchain them, but the chains are longer and lighter and are fixed for fewer hours of the day.
`Increasingly’, Turner argues, ‘no man can know or control the whole process of production; only the machines can do that.’ Which machines, one wonders, outside science fiction? If he means that control of a large industry or a national economy is a cooperative venture instead of the act of an all-powerful master, isn’t this check on the power of one man a check which a democrat would value? What has happened in industry, he adds, has happened in the universities, the factories of the intellect. It is true that the universities have become so specialized that ‘no-one now can comprehend the whole of life.’ The now is significant, for it summons a golden age in which one man could be an expert in many fields; and yet if that expert was to be resurrected on examination day in 1967 he would probably find that his comprehension did not win him a place in a university quota. The steady accumulation of knowledge has given man—not, as Turner argues, a narrower ‘area of choice and effective decision’—a choice so wide that it includes the choice of destroying the world. It is true, as he skilfully shows, that the productive machine has given rise to the political machine and that Australia has two similar parties which fix their eyes on the swinging voter, but this seems preferable to the political system which they replaced; the swinging voter of 1966 was a more democratic symbol than the swinging rebel in 1766. It is unfortunately not a very pliant system for a social reformer, and it is fortunately not a very pliant system for the regimenter; and I suppose that Ian Turner is both. While some of his arguments lead towards the idea of a democratic utopia, others lead towards the idea of a benevolent liberator.
THE POWER of the United States has permeated recent articles in the Godzone series. This is understandable, for America is a kind of cargo cult. The Australian worshippers see America as the magic source of sensations and possessions; on television nightly their voices purr with comfort or caterwaul with promises of excitement. The extreme critics of America are less visible. There is more intellectual meat in their package, though it is often minced meat. According to their sense of taste the United States smacks of materialism, capitalism, accentuated individualism, mechanisation, urbanization—in short, of modernity and its evils. ‘Most of the complaints about the United States’, writes J. D. B. Miller, ‘look to me like complaints about the twentieth century.’ Indeed the same complaints were made in the nineteenth century by de Lagarde and Langbehn and a line of German critics who saw the rich urbanized Jews as the advance agents of modernity. In the words of Fritz Stern’s book The Politics of Cultural Despair: ‘the identification of Jew and modernity became an immensely powerful component of anti-Semitism, though one that has often been overlooked.’ In Australia a few of the outbursts against Americans are also as irrational as anti-semitism, and as irrational as those extreme admirers of America who despise the trinket which they lauded yesterday. As an antidote something can be be said for Allan Ashbolt’s anti-Americanism. Like the cobalt bullets which are swallowed by sheep and which dissolve over the years, his medicine would be useful in measured doses in the appropriate sheep. Furthermore the sheep would probably swallow it eagerly if this Australian invention were given an American wrapping.
Geoffrey Serle’s criticism of the American tidal wave was made from a different headland. He thought the material and spiritual cargoes carried in by the wave were not so relevant as the fear that the wave would submerge us. ‘Australia has abandoned the prospect of independent nationhood; we are going to become just slightly different sorts of Americans.’ So saying, he glanced alertly back to the mid 1950s, a minor golden age. It seemed then that an unassertive sense of Australian identity was emerging, that The Summer of the Seventeenth Doll was only one sign of a cultural summer in the land, and that Australia was drifting from Britain towards its own independent place on the high seas. Alas, he observes, within barely a decade Australia has ‘irrevocably’ linked itself to America. Of the gloomy analyses of American influence which I have read, his is the most thoughtful. The essential fact, he concludes, ‘which I believe justifies my whole interpretation is that Australia is more vulnerable to Americanization than any other country—Britain, European or Latin American countries, even Canada.’ He says we are vulnerable because we are determined to be a satellite for strategic reasons, because we are powerless to resist American command of key sectors of our economy, and because we lack a strong sense of nationality and a language barrier to shield us from the source of infection.
The four pillars of the argument seem strong when they stand together. A century or so ago, however, when the United States was rapidly overtaking Britain in economic power, it could be said to be unusually vulnerable to British influence. British capital was in full flow—the strongest stream of international investment hitherto seen—and could not be regulated as easily then as it can in Australia today. America, moreover, had no language barrier to isolate British influence, and its sense of nationality was perhaps no keener than Australia’s today. And so a pessimistic American historian, writing in the 1860s, could well have made the very lament we read in Meanjin: ‘Of course we never stood a chance of really becoming a nation, of making some highly individual contribution to mankind’s story.’ Now, Serle may suggest that the analogy is misleading or that his fourth and most powerful pillar, the strategic pillar, is still intact. But even if no analogy is relevant, and even if Australia’s position has to be regarded as unique, the evidence suggests that each of his pillars is brittle, and that Australia is more independent than at any time in its history.
Serle makes an even gloomier prophecy. He predicts that we will be more enchained than we were in the 1920s and 1930s, when we were a satellite of Britain. The chains will be tighter for two reasons. Firstly, we will have less ease of social access to American society than we had to British society before the war; this reason, however, demolishes his previous argument on the language barrier, an argument which implies that less ease of access reduces the American influence. Secondly, and this is more important to his theme, he argues that in the last decade we have lost hope of retaining control of even ‘a major part of the economy’ and that America will have ‘rather tighter economic control’ over our life than Britain had in the days of Bruce and Lyons. It should be said that North American capital will have to continue to flow in for quite a time before it exceeds the present British investment in Australia, and the speed of its flow across the Pacific could be checked by Washington’s attitude to overseas investment—an attitude which at present is not very favourable; but let’s assume, as Geoffrey Serle assumes, that the fast flow will continue.
I think his argument would be stronger if we were living in the 1850s, when taxation was low, the international flow of funds was relatively free, and governments were unwilling to interfere too much in business. Even in the 1920s, when the cabinets and civil servants usually wielded not much more power than the boardrooms in economic matters, Serle’s argument could still have had some validity: in that situation it was better for Australia if important economic decisions were made in Collins Street rather than Wall Street. Today, however, his argument seems frock-coated. Increasing American ownership of some of the crucial industries in Australia does not mean that Wall Street commands those industries. Indeed, in the last generation Australia’s economic independence, if one can use such a phrase about any country in the western world, has probably advanced at a swifter pace than in any other generation of Australian history. Moreover, even if we define economic independence in a variety of ways, it is difficult to see any way in which Australia has lost that independence in the last ten, twenty, or thirty years. Australia’s command of her own economic affairs, and of the actions of overseas investors, has increased dramatically since the inter-war period. The central bank system is more effective and sophisticated, Keynesian economics is a weapon more flexible than the old vaults full of gold, federal power has increased at the expense of the states’ powers, taxation of company profits and restrictions on outflow of profits are higher . . . one could go on listing the ways in which Australia now can, and often does, control influences from overseas. The economy is also more self-sufficient than it was in the !930s, and much of that self-sufficiency has come from overseas investment in manufacturing and mining. It is hard to argue that Australia was more independent in the 1930s when it produced no oil, made no aluminium and few specialized steels, built ships that were scarcely larger than trawlers, assembled cars and trucks mainly from imported parts, and had a relatively weak industry in heavy chemicals?
Just as the world depression had emphasized our lack of economic control, so the second World War emphasized our lack of self-sufficiency; but in both arenas the country has gained during recent decades. Similarly we depended heavily in the inter-war years on British trade and its web of mutual concessions, but now our foreign trade depends much less on any one country; in Serle’s terms this could be interpreted as a gain in independence. Again, the interest which Australia had to pay to British and American investors each year is less burdensome than in the inter-war era; the actual sum is larger but in terms of our national income or export income, in other words our ability to pay, it is not. Above all, the pinch of indebtedness comes in lean years, and by that test we are less encumbered by international mortgages than we were before the war. It may seem an anomaly that a country can increase its independence when it is gulping foreign capital, but it is mainly an anomaly, I would suggest, in the minds of those who both minimize the economic advantages of overseas capital and believe that ownership of share certificates implies unfettered control. Such ideas fit more the nineteenth century. Even then they were rather inadequate in analysing the overall effects of foreign capital, for one of the main causes of the United States’ increasing economic independence in the nineteenth century was the huge inflow of overseas capital.
I have doubts about foreign capital, but they are more instinctive than rational. For example, I was disappointed to see a British company take over Mt Lyell, a mining company for which I once worked, and yet the real test of this transaction is a long-term and complicated economic test: will the new owners contribute far more to the health of the Australian mining industry, and the mining towns and the economy as a whole, than they take away in dividends? If they pass this test, then my only defence is nostalgia, the invoking of a golden age with which to tarnish the present. I could wish Australians had done more to develop the new mineral finds in the last decade, for a rich mineral deposit can lead to so much industrial expansion, and yet the simple fact is that Australia lacked the huge sums necessary to develop all these deposits. More relevant, Australians were not willing enough to take the risks in that early stage when a manageable outlay would at least have given them a larger interest in the new fields as a whole. Their reluctance can be blamed on so many groups, ranging from rich stockbrokers and socialist pamphleteers to governments of every shade, that the blame encompasses virtually the whole of society; our nationalist reaction of course is to blame the overseas investors, without whom we would possibly have no mineral boom today. One may also argue that overseas ownership of an Australian industry deprives Australians of most of the top managerial posts; this was once so, but it is no longer true in most industries. There is an understandable tendency—fostered in part by the strength of Australian nationalist sentiments—for an overseas firm owning a large Australian refinery or factory to be conscious that it is an outsider and to outdo local firms in concern for the national interest This concern for the national interest may be a form of self-interest; it’s still a gift-horse and worth accepting. If overseas capital does act against Australia’s interest, it should be carefully regulated.
The arguments against overseas capital can be used with no loss of logic against overseas migrants, though one rarely hears them now. Migrants can adversely affect our balance of payments; tens of thousands of them come annually in foreign ships which we have to hire, and tens of thousands of them remit money home to Naples or Lesbos. Migrants also bring foreign ways and ideas; they deprive Australians of prized jobs; they concentrate on certain sectors of the economy and even ‘control’ them. Similarly when nationalists suggest that Australia, in leasing idle mining lands to a foreign company, is selling part of its farm, inheritance, or birthright, they could complain with equal consistency about the Italians who buy farms at Ingham, particularly if they employ only Italian cane-cutters and send ‘dividends’ through the post to Italy. One of the problems of nationalism is that it is inclined to overpower logic.
The inflow of capital and people from overseas are interlocked. One may not like the albatross; but if it is shot, the migrant ships eventually vanish. The flow of both capital and migrants should be assessed by their overall effect on the country’s welfare. By that measure I think their contribution since 1945 has been impressive, though it could become less so. I agree with Allan Ashbolt that we perhaps exaggerate the cultural diversity which the New Australians have created, that ‘perhaps our cultural diversification comes to nothing more than an increase in the sales of ‘Continental’ foodstuffs; and yet the migrants and their children will also enlarge the market for Australian culture, a market which was crampingly small in the past. I agree with Ian Turner that technology and the additive of foreign capital have filled the streets with exhaust fumes and petrol pumps, but they also underwrite the expansion of higher education, on which his resurgence of reason must largely depend. I agree with Geoffrey Serle that the inflow of dollars will have to be watched, but it is quickly pushing Australia towards the kind of economic autonomy which he so much desires. Material development isn’t everything, but many non-material things depend on it.
If this discussion is transferred to an international or moral viewpoint, the problem of overseas capital has a simple answer; we should refuse most of it. We should refuse it, not because it is dangerous but because it is so useful in diversifying an economy and raising the standard of living. The world would gain materially if American private investment went largely to south-east Asia or India or Africa where the need is immeasurably greater. On the other hand, Australia has a mite of moral justification in accepting the capital insofar as it underwrites the settling of Europeans—and the necessary creation of jobs, houses, schools, transport, and social amenities—in a country which offers most of them a more satisfying life. Without that capital the migration programme would sooner or later flag, and that would mean in effect a curtailing of the international redistribution of wealth which this kind of programme represents. Fundamentally, however, our migration policy is nationalist—not internationalist—in inspiration; if it were internationalist we would be at least experimenting with free passages to a small cross-section of Indonesians or Malaysians or Vietnamese.
American capital continues to pour into Australia. To Serle it is a symbol of Australia’s desire to be protected and even controlled by the United States. The Australian government, he implies, has quietly, conspiratorially, busied itself in persuading Americans to increase their economic stake in Australia; Americans will then be more willing to defend a country which holds so many millions of their dollars. He admits that he can produce no evidence of this conspiracy, and suggests our politicians are much more secretive than those of Britain and the United States and like to keep the public uninformed. We do not need cabinet documents, however, to judge the general accuracy of his analysis. The terms under which many of the largest American corporations have come to Australia in recent years can be easily ascertained, and I know no evidence that Americans have been preferred to British companies, and see no sign that either has been preferred to Australian companies when mineral deposits are leased or electricity and water contracts are negotiated. Curiously, a large proportion of such contracts with overseas companies in the last two decades has been arranged by these various state governments, whether Labor or Liberal: so the conspiracy widens.
Serle is even more concerned that Australia is a mere ‘political satellite’ of the United States and has faint hope of altering this relationship.
It is true that Australia’s military policy at present is in harmony with Washington’s and that Australia’s foreign policy is largely in tune, but do these signs really mean that we are determined to be a mere satellite? In any military alliance between a small nation and a mighty nation, it is obvious who will lead, especially in a battlefield in which the smaller ally is a latecomer; but does this mean that every such alliance—and they have been formed and dissolved for centuries—represents a complete abdication of independence and above all a permanent abdication? Irrespective of which major country Australia joins in a military alliance, Australia will be the minor partner and will be dependent; for the very definition of an alliance is a dependent relationship. I see no way in which a small nation can assure its own military independence. In essence it is in a position where it will either be too dependent on its allies or too dependent on potential enemies, and anything which lessens the one kind of dependence will possibly increase the other. While there is wide room for debate on whether Australia should have a military alliance with the United States, or what kind of alliance is most desirable, the idea that Australia can be independent seems mythical.
Serle’s outline of the military alliance seems to have three weaknesses. In my opinion he overstresses the degree of independence which Australia can really achieve in defence policy. He overstates the harmony which exists between Australian and American foreign policy; Australia trades heavily with China and permits a cavalcade of Australian citizens to visit China; but if we were the kind of satellite he describes, all this would have ceased long ago. Finally, he comes with slight reservations to the conclusion that we are committed for a long time, perhaps for ever, to the kind of political relationship which in 1967 links the two countries; he might be right, but his prediction could be nullified within a decade by elections in Australia and the United States, by events in Vietnam, by changes within the main Australian political parties, by events in Indonesia, and by any number of conceivable events. If, as he implies, the present American-Australian relationship could not have been easily predicted in the mid-1950s, what new accumulation of knowledge or insight permits the events of the mid-1970s to be predicted with confidence? His warning is valuable, but seems more positive than the facts so far warrant.
IN EARLIER ARTICLES Owen Webster and Noel McLachlan criticized nationalism; ‘…in a country of the age and calibre of Australia it is contemptible’, wrote Webster. In contrast Serle pleaded that Australia very much needed a moderate dose of nationalism as an antibiotic against certain American infections.* Anyone who read his article would agree that his own nationalism is generous or restrained. Often his plea seems to be more for patriotism than for nationalism—if there is any difference left in these now-blurred concepts. At the same time he values one kind of Australian nationalism so highly that unconsciously he assumes that there is no other kind of nationalism. This assumption stands out in his criticism of Australian policies since the war. It emerges, too, from his description of the Labor Party as the party of nationalism and the Liberals as the party of empire, a distinction which he believes has existed for decades and will continue to exist. This distinction seems dubious. Both parties are nationalist, though their nationalism often embraces different strands and fluctuates with the rise and fall of their political power. In fact I suspect that the main dynamic in Australian policies since the second World War has been nationalism in various garbs. Australia’s hunger for overseas migrants since 1945, as many speeches by Calwell and Menzies reveal, comes from the crisis of 1941 and 1942 and the belief that Australia had to increase her population and industrial strength rapidly if she was to survive. Any policy based on the idea of national survival must be partly a nationalist policy, if that phrase is to mean anything; and Australia’s military and economic policies since the war have probably been more nationalist than those of most countries in the western world. It is a brand of nationalism which more than anything makes the Australian government so interested in Vietnam and in the American military alliance. Indeed it is likely that if these policies persist for a long period they will lead subtly from the idea that a small population hinders national survival to the idea that a large and wealthy population is a sign of national greatness.
Serle suggests that we need more nationalism in order to check ‘Americanization’, but it almost seems that the very trends which he regrets are largely the effects of the nationalism which he seems to admire. At first sight it is a curious turn of events that disciples of the old Australian legend should criticize an Australian Prime Minister on the grounds that he exemplifies, through his fears for Australia’s safety and his friendship with President Johnson, the sacred virtues of the good old cause: nationalism and mateship. Could a sundowner of the 1880s have predicted that the spirit of Australia would disappear into the Darling, to reappear eighty years later in an artificial lake in Canberra?
The Australian legend of the late-nineteenth century has deeply influenced our attitudes, and for good more than ill. But every legend has to be re-examined, and the more so if it has been given lasting vitality by the imagination and genius of some of our greatest writers. The blindspot of this legend, in its most vigorous version, is that it contains a vision of nationalism and politics which was more realistic in the day of the paddleboat than in the day of the yellow submarine.
The nationalist and patriotic strands in Australian history need to be unravelled. I’m not sure what pattern will emerge but I doubt if it will be the pattern which we at present accept. ‘One of the great central facts of Australian history,’ Geoffrey Serle wrote in a stimulating article in Meanjin Quarterly (2/1965), ‘is the close link between nationalism and radicalism.’ In his later Godzone article he carries on this assumption, suggesting that those who oppose the military and economic links between Australia and the United States are carrying on the nationalist tradition, and that our hope of independence may very much lie in reviving our sense of national identity. On the other hand it seems that our present links with the United States are largely a result of an increasing sense of national identity; of a nationalism which has no particular links with radicalism. It was Ken Inglis, brilliantly exploring the Anzac tradition (Meanjin Quarterly 1/1965), who suggested that Australia has had ‘two main streams of national tradition, the one radical and the other patriotic.’ And he went on to ask—do they flow together or remain apart?—a question which is not easy to answer but which, in any analysis of Australia today, requires an answer.
THE RADICAL, working-class stream of nationalism is well known; among its hallmarks were anti-British and anti-Empire sentiments. It involved the corollary, visible in Serle’s article, that the right-wing parties and their supporters could not be Australian nationalists yesterday because they were loyal to Britain and the Empire, and that they cannot be nationalists today because they are transferring their loyalty from West-minister to Washington. If these definitions are correct, then we should perhaps eliminate one of the main groups in the old radical stream—the Irish; their hostility to Britain was in large part related to their loyalty to Ireland. We could also think of eliminating many of the bushmen, who resented the Australian mercantile and governing classes as much as they resented the corresponding classes in England. We might also have to eliminate most of the Labor governments which held federal power in times of crisis, for they were hardly less loyal to Britain than the right-wing governments; it is true that Curtin turned to the United States for aid in 1941, but only because Britain was unable to supply further aid. While there seems no point in actually eliminating these groups from the stream of radical nationalism or patriotism, we probably should be cautious in deciding how much the stream was patriotic and how much nationalist at varying periods, or even how radical it was.
The other stream of nationalism lacks the attention of the talented literary critics and historians who have mapped the radical stream. And yet even if one accepted, for the sake of argument, the definition that a nationalist cannot be too loyal to Britain, it is still possible to map a stream, or at least a series of deep waterholes—and such indeed may be the correct description for the other ‘stream’. Episodes of the other form of nationalism possibly include some of the campaigns led by William Charles Wentworth, the anti-transportation leagues, the agitation for responsible government, and the rebellion of small capitalists who, so far as I can see, were the main agitators on Eureka, though not on any other Victorian goldfield. Other episodes, embracing varied strands of nationalism and gaining much or most of their support from propertied people, were the tariff-protection leagues, the move to annex Papua in the 1880s, the federation movement in the 1890s, and the increasing tariffs against British imports in the following decade. Between the world wars the right-wing nationalism laid strong claims to the Anzac tradition and chanted the slogan Populate or Perish’ and heightened the tariff wall against British goods. In the context of 1931 the action of the Bank of New South Wales in divorcing the Australian pound from sterling was rather more nationalistic than the recent switch from pounds to dollars. And in the late 1930s one could suggest that in some ways the two most nationalistic men in public life were the two leading industralists, Essington Lewis and W. S. Robinson. Nationalism was not cast in the one mould in Australia, nor in any country.
The notion of the ‘yellow peril’ has widened both streams of Australian nationalism in the quarter century since the fall of Singapore. One of the streams has also been swelled by the ‘red peril’, so that today it is probably the main stream of nationalism. Like the old nationalism which flourished at the back of Bourke it is a survival nationalism, born of a threat coming from what is seen as a hostile environment; likewise it is both defensive and aggressive. The strength and diversity of Australian nationalism are reflected in the debates on Vietnam. While idealistic arguments were used by both sides, the most popular arguments seemed to be nationalist: that Australian troops had to be in Vietnam in order to protect Australia from Communism or to ensure that the United States would protect Australia from another species of Asian dragon; alternatively, that Australian troops should not fight in Vietnam because they were merely arousing Asian hostility to Australia or provoking the enmity of China. Indeed, the war in Vietnam can be diagnosed with some truth as either a civil war, an invasion, a struggle between capitalism and communism, or a fight between versions of Australian, American and Vietnamese nationalism, each group of nationalists insisting that their own national survival may ultimately depend on the result of the war. If it is correct to say that the average Australian’s attitude to Vietnam is strongly tinged with nationalism, then one must see the American military alliance not as a permanent bond but as largely an alliance of convenience: an alliance which may be weakened as quickly as the British alliance was weakened in the last decade. Geoffrey Serle fairly criticizes our withdrawal of loyalty from Britain (though not Britain’s withdrawal of loyalty over the common market), implying that such behaviour is fickle and unprincipled. But then that’s what nationalism often is, for its dominant principle is the national interest. It is therefore both a vital and a dangerous principle.
THE AUSTRALIAN LEGEND enshrines a valuable ideal but is not necessarily a sound guide to understanding either Australian nationalism or present-day politics.
The legend usually has an inbuilt notion of the class struggle and, given the time when the legend arose, could not envisage that modern technology would do more.than political protest to raise the standard of living of the average man. The legend assumed that material progress could come only through the struggle of organized labour in shearing sheds and parliaments, and accordingly many followers of the legend are slightly incredulous that the Menzies era should have been accompanied by increasing comfort for workingmen. Thus Allan Ashbolt devotes perhaps the most cautious sentence in his exuberant and witty article to this issue: . at least under the Prime Ministership of R. G. Menzies there seems to have been material progress.’ There seems to have been? Even such conditional praise, Ashbolt realizes, was perhaps too generous, and he goes on to add that the Snowy Scheme and the post-war migration scheme and many other facets ‘of this impetus for change actually came from the Chifley government.’ I agree with Noel McLachlan’s aside that if William Lane were to be resurrected in 1967 and shown an Australian suburb, it is just possible he might say, ‘Behold, my New Australia’. It is also possible that Lane would erase his exclamation when told that a non-Labor government had been in power for nearly two decades and that its most helpful allies were a line of technical innovations stretching forward from the cursed shearing machine—which was one of the provokers of the pastoral troubles that preceded his departure for Paraguay.
The Curtin, Chifley and Menzies regimes all contributed much to Australia’s material progress, and I think it likely that, in terms of annual progress, the Menzies regime contributed the most; but in making that comment I have fallen half way into the trap of judging politics by the computer test: how much legislation, how many reforms, did each government initiate? No single governing party in Australia has had a monopoly of material progress, partly because the economic policies of successive governments have had too many similarities, but more because the scientist and technologist have become more creative than the politicians. The fact that Australia since the war has enormously expanded its high schools and universities is a political achievement, and marks accordingly can be awarded to Dedman or Menzies or some other nominated hero; but Deakin or Fisher probably could not have made such a reform of education, simply because the agricultural and industrial Machines sixty years ago were so inadequate that most of our manpower and capital were used in growing grain and making clothes: the nation was less able to pay for higher education. While the Snowy Mountains scheme was a political achievement, and political praise can be given to Chifley who turned the first sod or to Menzies who turned other sods, the scheme was far more an engineering than a political achievement. Indeed subterranean clover will probably be more vital than all the Snowy’s water and power in hastening our material progress; and a leaf of clover does not usually sprout from the leaves of a statute book. The idea that politics were the key to material progress and that only one party held the key seems, to me outmoded in a country with Australia’s social and economic structure. Unfortunately, it is a convenient idea for politicians, and both major parties still fight their elections largely on this assumption. The effect is to disenfranchise the electorate on those issues which, rising above bread and butter, are now the justification for the idea that politic’s are vital.
DEMOCRACY could be a more flourishing plant in Australia. Although parties and political machines are inevitable, they obstruct as well as further the popular will. While we insist on exporting a form of democracy to South Vietnam, we mark the package ‘Fragile—For Export Only’. We do not value that same democracy so highly as to insist that the Australian electors should vote on the specific issue of Vietnam or any other specific issue. Ian Turner would very much agree that one of the curiosities of our society, and of any society which has the British form of parliamentary democracy, is that freedom of choice is considered more important in petrol than in politics. Every three years we are given two or three political packages of ideas, and in effect told to accept one whole package. If election day is the equivalent of our triennial visit to the political supermarket, then the supermarket is about as modern and as efficient as an outback Afghan trader. Obviously the analogy cannot be carried too far, and a cabinet must be given a wide rein during its elected term; but should its rein be quite as free as in the nineteenth century when mass democracy was a tentative innovation which had to feel its way? As Australia gave event man the vote at a time when a large slice of the electorate was illiterate, and at a time when the high price of newspapers and the difficulties of travel limited the flow of ideas between electorate and parliament, then another tentative step forward in democratic government can surely be risked in an age of radio, television, and universal literacy.
It has been freely suggested in Meanjin Quarterly that Australia ‘is over-governed’, that all the parliaments and their regiment of politicians represent a national vice and folly. On the other hand the many sets of parliaments reflect a federal system, and at least that has the advantage of giving the electors a wider choice. In a federation the variety of political issues wrapped in the one yes-no question on election day is less of a jumble, and moreover we have twice as many election days. To abolish state parliaments would restrict Australia’s freedom of political choice, when in fact the freedom should be increased. The most practicable, immediate remedy for the antiquated form of democracy we practice is probably the initiative referendum—the right of a sufficient minority to call for a public referendum on any vital issue. The right would in itself lead to no miracle, and may never be granted. For it is easy to predict the arguments which might be used against such an idea; they were all used in the 1840s and 1850s against the idea of manhood suffrage. To these will be added the argument that the idea is impracticable and has never been tried, to which one reply is that this kind of referendum has long been practised in Switzerland and other European countries. In the opinion of some, a more convincing argument in the present Australian climate would be the reply that this kind of referendum has even been practised in some states of the United States.
One of the main virtues of a true democracy, if is is ever attainable, is the assumption that no person, city, nation, or creed should inhabit a padded cell. In everyone is at least a trace of the desire to construct such a cell, and the blueprints are daily traced in newspapers and public controversy. We seek security from the outside world with such formulas as a Washington alliance or expensive, heavily-armed neutrality; similarly, White Australia is a padded cell, Rich Australia is another, and the obsession with Americanism or communism leads straight to the padded cell. To move towards a political system in which most voters have to feel personally responsible for what the politicians do is to puncture one of our most comforting cells: the widespread idea that we can completely blame politicians for so many ills and blunders. While our elect govern in Canberra, we are inclined to stand aside, a symbolic stone’s throw away, and wash our hands in the artificial lake.
Of course it may be too late to fiddle with the old political machinery. The pessimists may be right, and they may have to carry out the sacrificial acts at which they hint. And so, while Allan Ashbolt is throwing himself as an individual democratic protest in front of an advancing swathe of motor motors, Geoffrey Serle will be trying to preserve an Australian individuality and personality, perhaps wearing a sombrero (for Mexico, he says ‘may have something to teach us’) or perhaps riding a mule—for Ian Turner may have ceased tilting at petrol bowsers and blown them all up. But their actions, like their arguments, will have emphasized the high importance of individual responsibility and the text that it is easier to pass through the eye of a ballot-box than to create a heaven on earth.
* When McLachlan observed that many Australian intellectuals had ‘hoary nationalistic preoccupations’, Serle was genuinely puzzled; he could not recall one such intellectual. He went on to say that intellectuals who were nationalists were also rather internationalist in their sympathies. I gather that these are people who are nationalist on some issues and internationalist on others; Serle says they are doves on Vietnam, reformers on White Australia, hostile to militarism, and sympathetic to foreigners. All these enlightened views, however, can be perfectly consistent at present with an Australian nationalism, Some Australian nationalists condemn Vietnam and White Australia because these policies arouse hostility to Australia, and they condemn military aggression just as a rich man will condemn a thief or a communist. The real test is whether they would hold these views if they ran counter to nationalism? If they did hold them, they would not be nationalists.