HENRY REYNOLDS. The Fighting Retreat of the Anglo-Australians.

May 16, 2018

Australian budgets rarely make news in Britain. But the Sunday Times was moved to feature the Government’s decision to commit just under $50 million to mark the 250th anniversary of Cook’s arrival at Botany Bay in 1770. Two points were made. A new $26 million memorial was a token of Turnbull’s defiance of this year’s protests about Australia Day and the graffiti daubed on the Cook statue in a Sydney park. Of more substance was the observation that the fulsome commemoration of Cook’s voyage would re-affirm Britain’s importance to Australia. 

There is no doubt that the coming apotheosis of Cook will be a calculated foray into the ongoing culture wars at a time when the present cavalcade of war commemoration will be largely forgotten. The pre-budget announcement at the Botany Bay site by the Prime-Minister and Treasurer was an indication that the decision was seen as having both cultural and political potency.

But the striking feature of the conservative response to a changing and worrying world is to refurbish atavistic memories of the old Empire rather than draw on the history of the Australian colonies and the young federation. Their patriotism eschews the local and reaches back to Britain. They are the last of the Anglo-Australians. Hence their determination to maintain Australia Day on the 26th of January despite a swelling movement to choose a date commemorating achievements of our own history rather than the undoubted skill in bringing the First Fleet safely around the world.

The central question in contention is the role played by our British heritage in the evolution of our institutions and political mores. During the recent testy debates about Australia Day supporters of the status quo argued that we still owed a significant debt to the old motherland and our celebration on the 26th of January was an appropriate way to testify to it. There was much talk about the central importance of the Westminster System which was, it was argued, the archetypal pattern on which our own democratic institutions were based. Indeed the implication was that they were imported and then applied-locally by an essentially derivative society.

It is hard to know where to begin to counter this canard. When Australia was founded the Westminster System was a form of representative government, essentially oligarchic in nature, allowing the aristocracy and gentry to share power with the Crown. It was profoundly undemocratic. The Australian colonies diverged from the model from the start of their independent political existence in the 1850’s. To begin with they did not have a hereditary aristocracy or Houses of Lords. They also had written constitutions. The new parliaments adopted customs and procedures from Westminster but within a few years, they had broken with the aristocratic model forever, introducing manhood suffrage in the three major colonies. And the democratic reforms kept coming—secret ballot, payment of members—and in the 1890’s experiments with preferential voting in Queensland and proportional representation in Tasmania. Votes for women were introduced in South Australia and Western Australia. When the federal constitution was adopted the transition away from the Westminster Model was complete. Federalism and a written constitution were anathemas to British political beliefs. And the creative political and social reforms kept coming in the years before 1914.

The success of any democracy was, and remains, the capacity to run free and fair elections and then negotiate peaceful transfers of power. In this, the colonial parliaments had abundant experience. Collectively they held 80 elections in the second half of the C19th. Britain held 10.

Clearly, if our measure is democracy rather than representative institutions the views of the Anglo-Australians must be upended. It was Britain which followed in Australia’s wake and not the other way around. The colonial spirit was creative, not derivative. Our institutions are homegrown. Our heritage is not British but colonial Australian. 

But the Anglo-Australians are resourceful. The militarisation of Australian history during the last 20 years is a testimony to that. There is much more to the ongoing cavalcade of military commemoration than meets the eye. The subliminal political agenda remains hidden for most of the time. But if we consider its implicit priorities it begins to emerge. There is the preference given to war over peace and diplomacy; to military achievements over civic, social and cultural ones; to the authoritarian ways of the army rather than the democratic ethos of civilian life. Even more telling is the precedence accorded to events outside rather than those inside Australia. If you followed the narratives of our militarised history you would assume that foreign battlefields had more patriotic resonance than any place in Australia itself. The ANZAC legend carries this to its logical extreme. Children all over the country have been taught that Australia became a nation on the shores of the Ottoman Empire. They hear that it is at the War Memorial that they must learn what it means to be Australian. 

But military history is by definition Imperial history. The Australians fought under British leaders, against Britain’s enemies in places and times decided in London for strategic objectives they often knew little about. It is a clear indication how imperial-minded our Anglo-Australians still are long after the Empire disintegrated. They appear to be unaware of the anomaly of using Imperial campaigns to nurture Australian patriotism. It is an oddity of modern Australia that outsiders notice immediately. 

In the last six months or so we have been deluged with commemorative activity relating to battles in Palestine and France in late 1917 and early 1918 climaxed by the opening of a $100 million museum. The priorities are unmistakable. Very few people even knew about what, on any measure, were more significant developments in Australia itself. In December 1917 the country held the second of two referenda about conscription. It dominated public life for many weeks dividing families and communities. But what an inspiring story! It was democracy in action in a way that was unprecedented. One of the greatest questions of the age had been put to the people in one of the most democratic electorates in the world. It was inimitably Australian. And it was far more innovative and distinctive than all the battlefield achievements of the Australian commanders on the far side of the world. 

So for the moment, Imperial history trumps Australian history. Atavism is ascendant. But for how long and at what cost I wonder? The Anglo-Australians seem oblivious to the profound problems of facing a rapidly changing world with an English aristocrat as head of state, a British colonial flag at our masthead and a massively funded campaign of public history which celebrates the battles we fought in support of a long-lost empire. And now we are to spend tens of millions of dollars commemorating the voyage of a British ship along our eastern coast 250 years ago.

Henry Reynolds is an eminent Australian historian.

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