Anzac and Australasia: war and democracy in our national museums

Apr 21, 2021
Credit - Unsplash

The paradox of Anzac commemoration in Australia is that an acronym representing a transnational formation – Australia and New Zealand – known collectively as ‘Australasia’ in earlier decades – has come to stand for a nationalist celebration that effectively renders New Zealand invisible.

The perversity of Anzac commemoration in Australia is that it obscures the actual historic achievement of ‘Australasia’, which was to establish a progressive new world, that enshrined the social and political ideals of minimum and award wages and gender equality and voting rights, radical democratic innovations that attracted the attention of the rest of the world to the south west Pacific.

The national tradition of Anzac commemoration has, however, prioritized military service over democratic participation as the true marker of Australian patriotism and distinctive expression of Australian values: courage, mateship, humour, respect – ‘the selfless spirit of Anzac’. In insisting that the nation was born in military combat overseas, Anzac mythology helps us forget that what was truly original and remarkable in the new Commonwealth of Australia was the declaration that Australian workers must be offered civilised working conditions and paid decent award-based wages; and that women citizens must have equal political rights with men. These were world historic achievements.

In 1896, Victorian workers became the first in the world to achieve a legal minimum wage pioneering a new kind of ‘economic democracy’, as American commentator Walter Lippman observed. In 1907, the Harvester judgment stipulated that the minimum wage should be a ‘living wage’. As the presiding judge, HB Higgins famously declared, if a business could not pay decent wages they had no right doing business in Australia. US labor investigators crossed the ocean, visiting both New Zealand and Australia, to see for themselves and report on, the astonishing ‘democratic efflorescence in Australasia’, as journalist Henry Demarest Lloyd termed it. If only current leaders of the Australian Labor party found themselves similarly impressed and inspired.

For as it happens these founding achievements of the commonwealth are now especially relevant for today’s exploited workers – faced with stagnant, declining or stolen wages – and for women confronting new waves of assault, discrimination and harassment in the workplace with deepening economic insecurity and a growing gender pay gap. As progressive political leaders begin to imagine a new post-Covid social order, they should invoke Australia’s founding ideals of gender equality and higher wages – calling up the commonwealth vision of the public good in defiance of the clamorous voices of private greed – to bolster their calls for economic justice and greater social equality.

Once at the forefront of progressive democratic achievement, Australians have fallen far behind on almost every measure we like to name. Indeed Australians falling behind has become a common refrain of newspaper headlines. How has this happened? Who or what has been responsible? Government leadership and visionary action – not tax cuts – are now urgently required to take us forward. If national governments in the UK and US can propose increased taxes on corporate and personal wealth post-Covid with the aim of rebuilding education, child care, health, aged care and social welfare, surely Australian leaders can find the courage to do the same, knowing they have national tradition and popular support on their side.

In the US, President Biden and his supporters call for ambitious economic and social programs – and what Biden calls ‘good union jobs’ – in proposals that call up collective memories of their historic New Deal. So must progressive politicians in Australia demand a reinvigoration of the old commonwealth ideals of equality of opportunity and economic justice, but now re-framed in radical and racially inclusive terms, as no longer the prerogative of white men. To realise and reinvigorate the commonwealth ideals, Australian citizenship must now be re-imagined as a condition of class, gender and racial equality and economic, gender and racial inclusion.

The Anzac legend, in its first iterations, was by definition a celebration of white manhood, offering praise for the deeds of white men on the imperial battlefields of the Middle East and Europe. In recent years its custodians and interpreters at the Australian War Memorial have strenuously sought to bring Indigenous peoples and women into the ranks of Anzac – see the ‘For Country, For Nation’ and ‘Women in the Australian Military’ exhibits – to legitimate its claims to national representativeness – and justify increased public funding.

In submissions to government its management led by millionaire Kerry Stokes calls for ever-expanding resources, staffing and physical space, said to be necessary ‘to help Australians remember, interpret and understand the full Australian experience of war and its impact’. Already the AWM employs a dozen historians, more than many of our universities and around 300 staff in total. As a self-styled world class museum, the AWM pleads its pressing need for greater commemorative, exhibition, archive and storage requirements and recently has secured almost $500 million for a vast and controversial extension.

Meanwhile, across the lake at Old Parliament House another explicitly educational and historic national institution, the Museum of Australian Democracy is charged with communicating the rich contested history and current challenges of Australian democracy. With a much smaller annual budget and only a small fraction of the staff employed by the AWM, MoAD yet manages permanent and temporary exhibitions, events, collections, research and education programs, but with so much ground to cover – from the secret ballot to Black Lives Matter protests, from the Day of Mourning in 1938 to the Sex Discrimination Act of 1984 – it can only address but a small number of possible topics and themes, moments and movements.

Even as the Australian War Memorial and associated agencies spent millions commemorating Australian participation in World War 1, the Museum of Australian Democracy was unable to stage an exhibition on the war on the home front and the legendary battles over conscription, when Prime Minister WM Hughes told newly enfranchised women voters that their citizenship was provisional, that they had to prove they could put national duty before familial ties. As it happened Australian women helped defeat conscription, ensuring that the AIF, alone among allied forces was a completely volunteer army.

Thankfully the history of women’s political activism – of those who really fought for democracy and freedom in Australia – is about to be presented to schoolchildren and the greater public in a forthcoming exhibition at MoAd due to open later this year. It’s a story that brings us back to the collective achievements of Australasia. When Vida Goldstein from Victoria attended the first International Women’s Suffrage Conference in Washington DC she did so explicitly as the representative of the ‘women of Australasia’. New Zealand women were the first in the world to win full voting rights at the national level.

Australia followed in 1902, the year in which Goldstein visited the US. Clearly the history of women’s democratic participation in New Zealand and Australia followed parallel lines but also diverged in many ways since. To offer an obvious example: New Zealanders currently enjoy Jacinda Ardern as Prime Minister, while we have Scott Morrison. Australian citizens must look to the Museum of Australian Democracy rather than the Australian War Memorial to explain this perplexing Australasian conundrum. Clearly a transfer of resources is in order.

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