I’m with Jeff Kennett. I never thought I could say that, but I agree with him that Australia Day should be moved to 1 January – to commemorate the beginning of the Commonwealth of Australia, a new progressive nation, whose very name signified the ideals of collective commitment and communal wealth and a repudiation of old world aristocracies and inequalities. We didn’t thereby become a republic, but the name, voted on by constitutional delegates in the 1890s had a distinctively ‘republican ring’ as a number of disgruntled conservative constitutional delegates noted.
The new nation in the south west Pacific forged a distinctive progressive democracy. It became a beacon to democrats around the globe, who travelled from Europe and the United States in large numbers to see its ‘experiment stations’ for themselves. Victor S Clark sent by the US Labor Bureau in 1903 and 1904 declared that Australia was one of ‘the most interesting legislative experiment stations in the world … they experiment so actively because their political institutions are extremely democratic’. Another visitor, the journalist Henry Demarest Lloyd commented that Australian democracy was ‘so successful and progressive that Americans . . . could make a study of it and reap an advantage’.
Australian nation-builders included men and women such as Alfred Deakin and HB Higgins, Catherine Spence and Vida Goldstein, who were themselves invited to travel abroad to tell Australia’s distinctive story to the world. Interestingly the progressive reformers were mostly Victorians. Their generation built on earlier democratic achievements such as manhood suffrage, the secret ballot, free, compulsory and secular education, payment to members of parliament, land taxes and public ownership of railways and other vital infrastructure.
They added new reforms: womanhood suffrage, the first children’s court, motherhood allowances and pensions, a legal minimum wage defined as a ‘living wage’, old age and invalid pensions. Australian women’s achievement of the right to vote and stand for election across the new Commonwealth of Australia, in 1902, was hailed by American admirers as ‘the greatest victory ever won for women,’ an ‘object lesson’ that would surely ‘help the cause of human liberty throughout the earth.’
Theirs was a bold vision of equal opportunity and collective wealth secured through state initiative and paid for from general revenue. As Catherine Spence told an audience in Chicago payments to the poor, to the aged and invalid, to working mothers were citizens’ rights.
Though initially an imperial extension of Britain, the new Commonwealth of Australia created in 1901, and its novel institutions, represented an explicit repudiation of the economic and social order of Britain itself, a rejection of the class inequalities and aristocratic hierarchies that marked the Mother Country. Not until after World War 1 were manhood and womanhood suffrage extended to the working class in Britain. In that country, men were forced to fight in the great war and sacrifice their lives while still denied a vote. In Australia, by contrast, enfranchised men and women voted to defeat conscription – twice.
The commemoration of January 26 as Australia Day is completely wrong-headed. It is offensive to Indigenous Australians as it symbolizes their brutal dispossession and the destruction of their culture and community. It gives pride of place to the British empire, rather than recognize the distinctive Australian democratic achievement inaugurated on 1 January 1901. And it marks a local Sydney event – which was until recently how it was commemorated – rather than the birth of the new Commonwealth of Australia.
Rather than commemorating history, the naming of January 26 as ‘Australia Day’ is in fact profoundly anti-historical. It denies and disavows history.
It is also extremely ironic that conservative persistence with this wrong-headedness only serves to marginalize actual Australian history and ensures that the only historical event known to most Australians is the dispossession of Indigenous peoples in 1788.
Marilyn Lake is Professorial Fellow in History, School of Historical and Philosophical Studies, University of Melbourne. Her most recent book ‘Progressive New World ; How Settler Colonialism and Trans Pacific Exchange Shaped American Reform is published by Harvard University Press this month