Politics

History of Australia

Australian idle
Fifty years after ‘A New Britannia’, whatever happened to the revolution?

Has Donald Trump’s preposterous presidency of the United States come to an end? Maybe. But even if Trump himself is no longer in the White House, his millions of supporters – fed an endless banquet of alternative facts, venomous opinion, and bilious rage and resentment – are still in the towns and suburbs, still tuning in to Fox News and logging onto Breitbart, still as committed as ever to making America great again. America, that great bastion of liberty where slavery was an institution. Whoever emerges as president, restaurant wait staff will continue to earn as little as US$2.13 an hour (as long as they make $30 in tips each month), and people will continue to apply for jobs not because they want them but because they want half-decent health insurance. The conservative revolution, which has seen the gradual mainstreaming of formerly marginal alt-right ideas, is counterbalanced by institutions – bureaucracies, media, universities – that are built on a more constitutionally recognisable liberalism. But the institutions have no defenders as passionate as the right’s culture warriors. Will their sheer size, inertia and incumbency be enough to withstand the right’s now-constant assault?

These are troubling questions in Australia, too, where Rupert Murdoch has successfully imported the Fox News format into a cable channel, Sky News Australia, which has become the local televisual vanguard of the new right-wing revolution. It’s qualitatively different from earlier movements – the New Right of the 1980s, for instance – because it doesn’t merely have its own interpretations of facts. As plenty have noted, it has its own facts. If you believe whatever Donald Trump tweets, then last night (Australian time), Trump had already won the election. Sky’s Australian viewers learn that coral always recovers from bleaching events (so there’s no need to worry about the Great Barrier Reef); that Lake Alexandrina was historically a saltwater lake (so there’s no need to maintain flows down the Murray); that global temperatures are cooling rather than warming; that COVID-19 is not really all that deadly; that hydroxychloroquine really does help people recover from it. Viewers also learn how the exponentially increasing the wealth of the wealthiest is actually trickling down; how taxation and redistribution is actually making all of us less free.

Until about 50 years ago, there was a belief among Australians who leaned left that nonsense like this would never really take root here, because Australians were more or less “naturally” democratic, or even socialist – hence the egalitarian ethos of “mateship” that, apparently, transcended social class. That’s why the Eureka Stockade led, apparently, to Australia having one of the earliest popularly elected parliaments in the world. That’s why Australians had made “Waltzing Matilda” – Banjo Paterson’s ballad of Samuel “Frenchy” Hoffmeister’s suicide south of Kynuna in 1894, when the striking shearer shot himself rather than be captured by police after he and others had burned down a woolshed at Dagworth Station – the unofficial national anthem. That’s why Australians were so typically irreverent and anti-authoritarian: a legacy, perhaps, of their convict heritage. Writers, historians, artists and politicians perpetuated and were sustained by this “radical nationalism” and its embodiment in the character of the “Australian legend” – the bushman, the battler, the digger. In line with much socialist theorising, Australia’s history showed that capital’s defeat Down Under was more or less inevitable.

But in October 1970, Penguin published a book that exploded these long-cherished leftist myths. A New Britannia: An Argument Concerning the Social Origins of Australian Radicalism and Nationalism by Humphrey McQueen became an unlikely bestseller. Its author was a Melbourne schoolteacher who, radicalised into Marxism (and, for a while, Maoism) by the events of the ’60s, had been installed at the beginning of the year by Manning Clark as senior tutor in his new Australian History course at the Australian National University. (Indeed, Clark’s first professorial lecture at the ANU in June 1954 had called for precisely the kind of “re-writing” of Australian history that McQueen ultimately delivered 16 years later.) While teaching at Glen Waverley High, McQueen – born into a Labor family in Queensland – needed to know why Australian voters had overwhelmingly rejected Labor at the 1966 election. Robert Menzies had just retired as prime minister after introducing conscription for Vietnam, but Labor, running on an anti-conscription platform, was trounced in a landslide. “None of this was supposed to have happened,” McQueen told me, when I interviewed him in 2009. “We’d all, in one way or another, swallowed the [Arthur] Calwell line that we were anti-conscriptionist as a people, we were anti-imperialist, and therefore we would vote for him – and this lot [the Liberal Party] would get thrown out. But, of course, the reverse happened.”

Beginning in 1968, McQueen began launching grenades at Labor and its radical nationalist ideology at every forum he could find. Many of the papers he delivered – with titles like “Convicts and rebels” and “A race apart” – became chapters of A New Britannia, its own title taken from William Wentworth’s 1823 poem, “Australasia”. Far from a natural socialism, settler Australians had mostly exhibited the kind of “acquisitive competitiveness” characteristic of capitalism’s “bourgeois hegemony”. Convicts weren’t working-class revolutionaries; they were petty thieves. Gold rushes legitimised the pursuit of individual wealth. The Eureka Stockade was a minor outbreak of discontent among get-rich-quick miners, not a working-class democratic revolution. Migrants “hoped to escape from the oppression of industrialist capitalism”, sure – but only to become independent and wealthy. McQueen famously used the piano, a popular instrument in 19th-century households, as a symbol of this bourgeois hegemony and upward respectability. Far from being merely “the preserve of the middle classes”, the piano was “the pinnacle of working-class aspirations.”

McQueen’s project was, at the time, fashionably Gramscian: account for the capitalism that exists and the culture that it creates, rather than for the socialism of dreams and fantasy. Built as it was on a structure of imported and stolen capital, Australia’s national culture was militaristic, imperialistic and, above all, racist. That last truth bomb – how else to explain the White Australia policy, or the British race patriotism of the 19th and 20th centuries, or The Bulletin’s long-time slogan “Australia for the White Man”? – is perhaps McQueen’s most enduring contribution to progressive thought in Australia. There is practically no university-educated Labor or Green voter, now, who does not believe that Australia’s history, and its national culture and identity, is fundamentally racist.

McQueen included in Britannia a short chapter called “Invaders”, in which he reminded his readers that whatever democratic innovations and egalitarian ethos existed in Australia, it was all built on the initial invasion by an imperialistic Britain and the subsequent dispossession of the people who lived here first. This central and fundamental fact of Australia’s history has the status, now, of an original national sin in progressive thought, particularly as its legacy is painfully experienced by Aboriginal communities whose economic deprivation and traumatic stress is a direct consequence of it. But in 1970 most white people – including most people who considered themselves progressive or left-wing – weren’t all that conscious of the fact, or its importance. The Freedom Ride that set out from the University of Sydney in 1965 provided McQueen’s generation with its first real exposure to Aboriginal poverty and endemic Australian racism. Bill Stanner’s Boyer Lectures, in which he pointed to the “great Australian silence” about Aboriginal experience in the national discourse, had only been delivered in 1968.

Conservatives have been frustrated by the growing consciousness of Aboriginal dispossession in progressive thought ever since. Mining executive Hugh Morgan organised a major backlash against the land rights movement during the 1980s. After Paul Keating acknowledged – for the first time by a prime minister – that it was “we who did the dispossessing” at Redfern Park in 1992, historian Geoffrey Blainey complained about what he called the “black armband” view of Australian history. Keating’s successor, John Howard, took up this complaint, and preferred instead to focus on the magnificent achievements of settler Australians. By then, progressives had practically abandoned their radical nationalism, leaving Howard and the right to gladly pick up its tropes, including the Australian legend. For many on the right, progressives’ insistence that the original sin and its consequences are the most urgent problems in contemporary Australia is akin to a kind of absurd betrayal.

And that’s where things are at today: the national culture is now organised around the question of how to respond to the dispossession. One “side” can only see it as the most fundamental question, the question that needs addressing before anything else. The other side, which prefers to deny the significance of the question and any historical facts that provide it with significance, has now organised into a loose collective of defensive and denialist settler opinion. The format (and, increasingly, much of the content) this collective has adopted is American. But I suspect the appetite for the output of Sky News Australia, News Corp and Spectator Australia would be markedly diminished if it weren’t for the continuing need for settler Australia to deny the dispossession.

It has often felt as if US politics and its media innovations provide Australians with a glimpse of our future. If we can expect, in Australia, anything like the Trump presidency and the quack media that supports it, then A New Britannia was even more prescient – and disturbing – than it seemed when it first appeared.

Russell Marks

Russell Marks is a lawyer and an honorary research associate at La Trobe University. He is the author of Crime and Punishment: Offenders and Victims in a Broken Justice System (Black Inc., 2015). 

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