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Thoughts on Australia

By Ian Nance - posted Friday, 25 January 2008


For most of this comment, I have drawn substantially on the article, “Thoughts On Australia”, written by Robert Manne in 1993 while editor of Quadrant magazine. I have done so deliberately, because the ideas he expresses about the history and reasons for our emergence are relevant to getting some understanding of today’s intolerance within Australia. Understanding intolerance is one matter; accepting it is another, and I feel that is important to view current ethnic intolerance from historical, economic and social perspectives.

Much hostility seems to come from an entrenched, bigoted, xenophobic, cluster of citizens professing an Anglo-Celtic culture, heritage and egalitarianism, who are incapable of accepting fellow beings from other nations, or our own Indigenous people for that matter, as equals.

It is important to look at the origins of those holding this kind of prejudice, and note how easy it is for them to reside now in a democratic society which allows them to vent their arrogant attitudes toward those they perceive as being inferior.

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In a democracy made up of people of all moral persuasions, there will always be political power plays directed against those seen as a threat. A counter to this is to understand how these persons are motivated by greed, anger and envy; understanding what drives them can help to minimise the effects of harm they try to cause.

If Australia had been first colonised by Chinese, Spaniards, Frenchmen, Germans or Russians, it would be, in almost every conceivable way, a different country from the one it is now. The Britons who settled in Australia brought with them, unavoidably, a complex, intricate and unique civilisation pattern which had evolved over hundreds of years on the other side of the world.

Non-Aboriginal Australia did not begin anew; it was, from the first day of settlement, already hundreds of years old!

The cultural baggage of Arthur Phillip and those who followed him included language (in some ways the deepest inheritance of all); literature; the understanding of the rule of law; a tenacious notion of private property; distrust of the tyrannical state; belief in, and experience of, a special form of parliamentary government; political parties; trade unions and social clubs; a passion for sports and hobbies; social tolerance including suspicion of fanaticism; a slight feeling of superiority to foreigners; a certain Protestant sectarianism and Irish Catholic anti-establishmentarianism; a self-deprecating humour; an expectation of ample food; the pub; and little interest in cuisine.

Notwithstanding the anti-British edge of some versions of multicultural ideology, the foundations of Australian civilisation remain, and will continue to remain, stubbornly British for a very long time. It is obvious that the British basis of Australia’s civilisation is one of its strongest attractions for most immigrants from Europe, the Middle East, or Asia.

Yet Australian society’s advanced state is more complex than this account suggests, leading to the source of what is central to Australian tradition. While immigrants to Australia carried with them much of what was British, in coming here they also shed a part of that cultural baggage. The Britain from which our settlers came was a hierarchical society where the idea of class remained a powerful force in social life. By contrast, Australia was settled by wave after wave of lower-middle-class or working-class British and Irish men and women who had no love of class privilege, and saw in Australia a means of escape from a deferential society.

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Through their influence, British cultural heritage was modified importantly by an attitude of egalitarianism.

Until recently Australia lacked the extremes of wealth and poverty known in Britain, Europe and the United States. Until recently it was, as a culture, instinctively hostile to social snobbery, pretension and privilege. More deeply, until very recently, Australia contrived a social system based around full employment, all-round protectionism, minimum wages and impartial arbitration of industrial disputes. This was the despair of both Marxists and laissez-faire economists, but underpinned the egalitarian side of the Britishness which flourished here.

Until the 1980s, this egalitarian ethos was shared by both Labor and non-Labor political parties. Indeed one of the peculiarities of our nation’s history is that this system was established by the great liberal, Alfred Deakin, and most effectively administered by the great conservative, Sir Robert Menzies. Although many would agree that aspects of this kind of “settled policy” need reform, it does not seem clear that we have yet come to understand how much of the traditional system must be thrown away, what balance of policies should take its place, and what we stand to gain or lose in the process.

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About the Author

Ian Nance's media career began in radio drama production and news. He took up TV direction of news/current affairs, thence freelance television and film producing, directing and writing. He operated a program and commercial production company, later moving into advertising and marketing.

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