Marilyn Lake. fracturing the nation’s soul.

Oct 3, 2014

You might be interested in this repost. John Menadue.


During World War 1 Australia lost its way. Its enmeshment in the imperial European war fractured the nation’s soul.

Marilyn Lake

World War I had consequences for individuals as well as nations. HB Higgins’s life would be deeply affected by the British decision to invade the Ottoman empire in early 1915. As a member of the new federal parliament in 1901, Higgins had opposed Australian participation in the Boer War, fearing that this would set a terrible precedent for involvement in other imperial wars, whose purpose, goals and strategy would always be determined by other powers. He also doubted the legitimacy of the European war, writing to his friend Felix Frankfurter, Professor in Law at Harvard, ‘What do you think of it? … [T]here are higher ideals than attachment to a country because it is my country. I blame our British jingoes…’ Higgins was deeply troubled when his only child Mervyn elected to join British forces fighting in the Middle East.

When his son was killed in battle on 23 December 1916 Higgins and his wife Alice were devastated. Higgins poured his grief – and his bitterness over the imperial cant that had justified the war – into a new commitment to internationalism and disarmament. The only good that might come out of the war was not national pride, but a new world order. ‘Vengeance is a fruitless thing’, he wrote to Frankfurter. ‘I feel that the best vengeance my dead boy could hope for would be an integrated world, an organized humanity.’ No nationalist flag-waving or eulogies to the Anzac spirit for him.

We tend to forget the doubts and expressions of opposition to Australia’s participation in World War I in which in fact only 30 per cent of eligible men chose to enlist. The anti-war mobilisations have largely gone unheeded in official and contemporary accounts of the war, which have recast the widespread destruction as a creative experience, one that gave ‘birth to the nation’, conveniently forgetting that our distinctive Commonwealth of Australia, with its world famous democratic reforms, made its name on the world stage in the years before the war, between 1901 and 1914. Australian nation-building was a peace time achievement.

A decade before the outbreak of the European war, in 1904, an American visitor to Australia, Victor Clark, one of a number of investigators who journeyed south to Australasia, noted that ‘New Zealand and Australia are the most interesting legislative experiment stations in the world and they experiment so actively because their political institutions are extremely democratic’. The colony of Victoria had first invented the idea of a legal minimum wage in 1896, which was later elaborated as a living wage calculated to meet the diverse needs of workers defined as human beings, in the Commonwealth Conciliation and Arbitration Court by HB Higgins, in the Harvester judgment of 1907. Australia and New Zealand had pioneered industrial democracy and women’s political rights. ‘While the principles of democracy were first enunciated in the United States’, noted the historically-minded American suffragist, Carrie Chapman Catt, ‘Australia has carried them furthest to their logical conclusion’. Thus did we take our place on the world stage, not in fighting an imperial war.

In Australia, it was noted by numerous overseas commentators, the working man and the voting woman advanced together, during the first decade of the nation’s existence, which saw a steady increase in the Labor vote, until the Fisher Government was elected, with majorities in both Houses in 1910. By war’s end, however, the Labor Party had split, conservative forces had triumphed, and the British Empire had gained a new lease of life in Australia. In World War 1 Australia lost its way. Its enmeshment in the imperial European war fractured the nation’s soul.

Let’s look at this impact further through the experience of Higgins, now a largely forgotten Australian, but one of our unsung national heroes. Henry Bourne Higgins was a member of the Victorian Legislative Assembly in 1896, when it introduced the minimum wage. He became an opponent, as noted above, of the British imperial war in South Africa, a member of the federal parliament from 1901 and then, from 1906, President of the Commonwealth Court of Conciliation and Arbitration, whose path-breaking reforms, shaped by a profound commitment to social justice and the public good, won him renown around the world. In 1914, he was invited by the Harvard Law Review to contribute an article on his innovative jurisprudence which he titled ‘A New Province for Law and Order: Industrial Peace through Minimum Wage and Arbitration’.

By 1920, however, the conservative backlash unleashed by the impact of World War I and the fevered imperialism of Prime Minister WM Hughes, who sought to by-pass the Arbitration Court by setting up his own tribunals saw Higgins submit his resignation. It would seem appropriate to remember Higgins, the Australian idealist, and others of his generation, as we prepare to deal with the veritable tidal wave of military commemoration, funded already by $140 million, even as our universities face further funding cuts, increased student fees and the number of historians employed to teach students actually declines. Which funding bodies, one wonders, might finance commemoration of those who fought for Australia’s distinctive democratic and political ideals and support projects to carry their ideals forward?

My current research project on the international history of Australian democracy has highlighted Australia’s high reputation around the world before World War I as a distinctive, pioneering, bold, independent-minded democracy. It was the perspective afforded by distance that enabled American Professor Hammond of Ohio State University to write of ‘the most notable experiment yet made in social democracy’ established in Australia in the first years of the Commonwealth, in the years preceding the outbreak of war.

In 1902, in the shadow of the South African War, HB Higgins wrote an essay called ‘Australian ideals’ in which he asked prophetically whether the new Commonwealth of Australia was to become a militaristic nation or a progressive one: ‘Australia must make her choice between two ideals – the ideal of militarism and the ideal of equality’. Australians had to choose between the opposing standards of militarism and social reform, he suggested. He and his generation dedicated themselves to the latter, while we in our time seem to have committed to the former. Australian values we are now ceaselessly told are military values.

One hundred years on from 1914, Australia has seemingly become the militarist nation Higgins warned about. Rather than celebrate the world-first democratic achievements forged by women and men in the founding years of our nationhood, the years that made Australia distinctive and renowned, we are told that World War I, in which Australians fought for the British Empire, was the supreme creative event for the nation. But those who lived through it knew that our nation was not born in the carnage of the world war, which left the country divided, disillusioned, disoriented, desolate and dependent on a resurgent British Empire.

In the inimitable words of novelist Miles Franklin, writing to her American friend Margaret Drier Robins in 1924,

it seems to me that Australia, which took a wonderful lurch ahead in all progressive laws and women’s advancement about 20 years ago has stagnated ever since. At present it is more unintelligently conservative and conventional than England and I am sad to see the kangaroo and his fellow marsupials and all the glories of our forests disappearing to make room for a mediocre repetition of Europe.

Miles Franklin knew that although men could do many things they could not give birth to nations. Only women could do that. And in 1902, Australian women’s political ‘lurch ahead’ had made Australia the most democratic country on earth, an object lesson to humanity.


Marilyn Lake is Professor in History at the University of Melbourne. This is a revised version of a keynote address presented to the Annual Conference of the History Teachers’ Association of Australia, National Library of Australia, Canberra, 23 April 2013.


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