August 2010


The states of the nation

By David Malouf
Australia's first prime minister, Edmund Barton, addresses the nation, Sydney, 1901. From the book 'Souvenir of the inauguration of the Australian Commonwealth', circa 1901. Courtesy of the National Library of Australia.
Australia's first prime minister, Edmund Barton, addresses the nation, Sydney, 1901. From the book 'Souvenir of the inauguration of the Australian Commonwealth', circa 1901. Courtesy of the National Library of Australia.

Back in 2000 when the Centenary of Federation was looming, I was inclined to joke that we had to make a song and dance about it because the thing itself had never really happened.

It had of course, in history and in the history books, and we had a constitution to prove it, but not in the many places where Australians actually live: in Cunnamulla or Queenstown or Port Hedland, and not in those even more numerous places, the hearts of those of us who, without hesitation or doubt, call ourselves Australians, and have a vivid sense of what the country itself is, but in our daily lives, and in the place where our feelings are most touched, have little interest in the idea of nation.

The day of the Centenary came and went like any other. Flags were raised, medals struck and distributed, speeches made, but there was little excitement. The country returned next day to life as usual. Boat people arrived and asked to be taken in, life-support systems were turned on or off, a new generation of five-year-olds posed and were photographed in their school uniforms.

Federation may have established the nation and bonded the people of the various states into one, but nations and peoples, unless they arise naturally, the one out of the other, rather than by referendum or by edict, are likely to be doubtful entities, and the relationship between them will be open to almost continuous question. Of course when they arise too naturally – that is, when they claim to belong to nature rather than human choice – they are dangerous.

Our Federation is on the whole an easy one. We take it lightly as suits our cast of mind, which is pragmatic (anti-theoretical), wryly offhand, and sceptical of big ideas and their accompanying rhetoric. The union works, and we can be proud of the society it has created, but we don’t care to talk about it, and unless the country is under threat as it was in 1941, or involved in conflict overseas, we take it as given– and even then, as with Vietnam, the Gulf War, Iraq and Afghanistan, there are some who will remain doubtful, or embarrassed, or openly hostile. We are easiest with “Australia” when what we are referring to is a national team.

To quote the authors of The Oxford Companion to Australian History (2001 edition), the states remain “set in their ways and as suspicious of one another as they were before the union was declared” – though we should be as wary of making too much of the suspicion as of the union.

These days the suspicions between the states are as low-key, except when it comes to water management, and as intermittent, as our sense of nationhood. A lot of the rivalries are joking ones and when they are formalised in such institutions as the State of Origin rugby matches between Queensland and NSW, might just as easily be read as bonding. Most people, like men and women everywhere, are concerned with local questions and local affairs. Their lives take place within a few square kilometres and are determined by local conditions: local needs and customs and habits, local opportunities for schooling and shopping and entertainment, local forms of speech. They turn to community rather than nation when they ask themselves where they belong, and think of those they share their days with as neighbours rather than fellow Australians. “Fellow Australians” carries with it an air of fake familiarity that belongs to the political platform, the political speech. “Fellow Queenslanders”, on the other hand, or “fellow Tasmanians”, is another matter.

Federation, as we might expect, came to us in a very Australian way, one that is consistent with the rather offhand manner in which it has been received and is still considered. Not the flowering of a great utopian ideal, or the coming together, after a long period of yearning, of a people that had known the anguish of division, or the achievement, through national unity, of a “manifest destiny” – though there were some, especially in the latter case, who felt that way.

After 35 years of intermittent lobbying and resistance, and a lot of bickering over such non-idealistic questions as preference versus free trade, the opposition lapsed and the Federationists took advantage of a moment of unexpected agreement to pop the question. The popular election that voted for union was not based on universal suffrage, was not uniform throughout the states, and the turnout itself was low: 30% of eligible voters actually went to the polls in 1898, 43% in 1899. The areas of control granted to the new federal government were limited, chiefly to defence and trade; the rest remained reassuringly with the states. Of course, the central government was expected to evolve over time and has done so. In the 109 years since 1901, the Commonwealth government has replaced or duplicated state powers to the point where it can be argued that in our present, three-tiered system state governments are not only redundant and wasteful but also obstructive, and should go. The federal government alone would be left to govern, with a system of regional bodies beneath it. The states, with no effective powers, and no visible reason to exist, would wither away.

Given our preference for practical solutions, and the tendency these days for all problems to be presented and resolved in terms of economy and good management, it is inevitable, I suppose, that this question too will be reduced to what is the best value for money, and the most efficient way of bringing uniform practice to what is now a set of multiple authorities: roads, railways, social welfare and health systems, and seven different police forces and courts of law – as if the real goal of Federation had all along been uniformity, and the only criteria needed for justifying it were efficiency and cost. But if uniformity from ocean to ocean is what we are to have, then that represents a radical change from what the fathers of Federation intended and what the people of the various states, with their strong histories and their “set ways”, believed they were getting. And what about us? Is this really our preferred choice?

If the argument is couched solely in economic and management terms, then clearly there is no argument at all. But perhaps we need other terms altogether that have to do not with efficiency and cost but with the sometimes untidy and diverse and contradictory needs of those who are to be managed.

So what does it mean to be a nation, and how is that large concept related to place and land – or, as we experience it personally, on the ground as it were, as locality, a particular tract of land: a town or a few streets in a town; a church hall, a local pub, a school, a football ground, a shopping precinct? And how is nation related to that other large and emotionally charged concept, a people?

In most places, the transition from people to nation is clear, or is at least presented as clear. A single people, inhabiting a particular tract of land, is at last politically united and becomes a nation.

It is never quite clear of course. The borders of the land may be open to dispute, and no people is entirely pure. But this is how it happened over three or four centuries among the Greeks, when a scatter of independent city-states became an empire, and among the Romans, the French, the Russians and, in the mid-nineteenth century, the Germans and Italians. Australia, like other settler nations, did it in reverse. Having declared that we were a nation, we had still to attract the people to fill it and decide who those people might be.

What defined our nation was not people but geography. The various states – all settled at different times by different groups and classes, and, within the British political system, under different conditions and with different aims – happened to occupy a continent whose borders were fixed because it was an island. Once the British eastern-half of the continent and the Dutch west were declared a single possession under an undisputed (British) claim, political unity became first a possibility and then an imperative, though a mild one. For all the talk in some quarters in the late-nineteenth century of a New Britannia that would carry forward the torch of British civilisation when the old country had fallen into decay, there was little of the fervour here, or the passion for political theory, that characterised the great constitutional conventions of 1786–87 in America. We produced no political thinkers of the quality of James Madison or Thomas Jefferson or Alexander Hamilton or Benjamin Franklin. Our fathers of Federation, practical men of the late-nineteenth century, level-headed traders and politicians and lobbyists, good Christian gentlemen but of a secular bent, did want to create a free and fair society but, unlike their counterparts in a more radical and utopian age, they had no feeling for rhetoric of the French or American variety. A ‘fair go’ is a very down-to-earth version of ‘Liberty, Equality, Fraternity’, and no one here expected, or wanted, the ‘tree of liberty’ (or the wattle) to be refreshed even occasionally with blood.

This down-to-earth quality extends to the land itself.

In other places, and to other peoples, the land has presented itself as sacred or holy. This, as we know from Russian novels, is the way Russians have seen it, how Indigenous people, including our own Indigenous people, see it and how the Nazis saw it when they articulated the philosophy of Blut und Boden: as a deep ancestral tie between a people and the soil they inhabit.

A settler population can hardly make such a claim. I have suggested elsewhere that the Roman and British imperial cultures, with their founding myths of an arrival from ‘elsewhere’, offered a different model: one in which nation was transportable and national identity or citizenship transferable. If Australians see in the land something they might feel as transcendent or mystical, it is land in its form as space rather than soil, an almost infinite openness; and that is a very useful notion if you are a settler. It suggests that there is always room. That just as the land made room for you, so, with no threat or pressure, it will find room for others.

The idea of nationhood was embodied, in 1901, in a constitution, but the question of who the nation’s people were to be remained open. White and British in the first draft: no more Chinese; the Queensland Kanakas to be sent back to the islands; no black Africans of any kind, no Muslims; a language test (European) to be applied against the rest. Then, increasingly, after the wave of European, including southern European, migrants after World War II, it was to be a mix; then, after the lapse of the White Australia policy in the late 1960s, a multi-ethnic mix, then a mix that would be both multi-ethnic and multicultural – an interesting experiment, but not so easy to make work. Just as well that the idea of nation was a light one, and that lightness in the approach to difficult questions, an anti-theoretical stance, easygoing and humorous, should be the temperament of the people who had to live with it.

I called the imperative to nationhood geographic, as if the continent itself, once it found a single name (“Australia”, in 1804) made the emergence of a single nation the obvious next step. But this is about as far as our notion of the “gift outright”, as Robert Frost called it in the case of the US, would ever get. Very few of us here have ever fallen for the notion of manifest destiny; it’s not our style.

The odd thing in our case – but odd things are apt to be the most revealing – is that our earliest appearance as a single people was on the sporting field, as a team rather than a nation. “Australia” first presented itself to the world (that is, to the British) in the form of the combined cricket teams that toured Britain in the 1880s (the earlier Aboriginal team was too exotic to be representative) and created the myth of the Ashes. What they brought news of was a new tribe, a new ‘type’, a new society. The qualities they represented were ones the British could recognise and respect because they were looser versions of their own, the product of a later and different history in a new place, and it helped that sport, and especially cricket, was already seen as the proper sphere for the creation of a moral and social elite – the challenge in this case being that these “colonials” were not an elite. The other sphere of course was war.

Following on from what the cricket teams had created in the national consciousness, the image of Australians as a single tribe and a new and original ‘type’, it might be best to ignore the usual evocation of our national coming of age in 1915–16 as a baptism of sacrificial fire and blood, and consider the diggers at Gallipoli and in France as a team rather than an army. Once again, what was being demonstrated, this time on the larger stage of history, was a national character and style: courage, certainly, endurance – the extended campaign at Gallipoli, the 53 continuous days in the frontline trenches at Villers-Bretonneux – but also a licensed indiscipline that was not quite anarchy, the “civilian” triumph among the professional army generals of John Monash, and at home the refusal, in two referenda, of conscription.

The observers of all this may have been the world at large, but when we speak of it as the moment when nationhood itself was confirmed, what we are really registering is the reflection back from outsiders to the players themselves, and even more importantly to their people back home, of what, against all the usual class and colonial prejudices, Australians were now seen to have achieved.

That is the original Anzac story, but it is only half the story.

The other half has to do with something else altogether: the understanding that war is not sport. That it involves injury, trauma, death, and to wives and parents and children and fiancées, in hamlets and towns and working places all up and down the country, a sense of irreparable loss that was made actual, in the years after the war, in thousands of war memorials, small and large, from one side of the continent to the other.

These are mourning places that mark a national tragedy: a recognition of loss and grief as being central both to the community or nation – 62,000 men, mostly young men, lost from a population of fewer than 4 million – and to individual families and lives. That, a binding of the people at every level in a shared grief, is what “coming of age” might be about, and explains the power of Anzac Day, and how it has come to be chosen, by the people themselves, as our day of national unity.

When young people these days are drawn to Anzac, it is partly, I think, because they are moved by the drama of youthful death, and partly because, in a nation that makes so little of public ceremony, this day offers a larger and more solemn view of what life may be than is general in a culture whose norm is chatter, noise, almost continuous sensation.

What Anzac Day offers is quietness, contemplation. It appeals, in the young, to what is serious in them. Asks them to attend. Invites them to take part in an occasion that speaks, at both a personal and communal level, for continuity. And this may be what attracts another group that might otherwise see this day as an occasion from which they are culturally excluded: recent migrants.

What Anzac Day offers them is the possibility, which may be rare, of seeing what it is that these people they have attached themselves to are moved by. As an occasion whose commemoration of loss is something they too feel for, Anzac Day becomes, for recent migrants, a way of entering emotionally into the life of the community at large. As WH Auden puts it in the very last of his poems: “Only in rites / Can we renounce our oddities / And be truly entired.”

These are delicate matters. At an individual level, difficult questions of identity or belonging, of what it is that might bind us as fellow citizens, may be resolved more simply than we believe. Where argument, however open and enlightened, may get nowhere or lead only to complications without issue, a moment of ‘drama’, of empathy and understanding, will simply annul the question at a stroke. And one might add here – and by no means as a mere footnote – that a wounding sense of loss, and a perception, deeply felt, of the place of the tragic in our lives, does not strike a community only in one place or on one occasion. We already have a Sorry Day. It is meant to mark the sufferings inflicted on Indigenous people in the establishing of a nation whose existence we, as I said, take lightly, but which has been a heavy fact in Indigenous lives. If this were to become, over time, like Anzac Day a moment of shared identity and real understanding, we might find in it yet another point of national unity.

It is the fragility of such moments of cohesion, of shared emotion and presence, that alerts us to equally fragile but no less significant moments of difference. It is not only unity that characterises a nation or a people.

For most of the time what distinguishes a nation, like any other community, is the variety provided by difference; variety of need and interest, of response to such local factors as climate and land and water use; forms of domestic architecture and language, local custom and lore – even local forms of suspicion and potential conflict; all those conditions, that is, that will have grown up over time among people who live in a particular place and have created their own version of the nation’s history.

Nations, as I suggested earlier, grow out of the desire of a single people to be one. It is a historical imperative driven by ties of language and culture but also of shared experience. Federation on the other hand is a political union made on practical grounds, though the hope is that state loyalties and affiliations will in time be supplemented at least by national ones, and may even grow to replace them.

In a federation where separate tribes and people come together, as in most African states, and as has happened in ex-Yugoslavia, ex-Czechoslovakia and Belgium, the two loyalties will often pull against one another and the tension between them may not be capable of resolution.

Our case is unusual, because for all the difference in class and style of their founders, the different environmental conditions they faced and the economies they created in response, the Australian colonies had for the most part the same demographic make-up, spoke the same language, inherited the same culture and legal and political system, and were accountable, in the matter of aspiration and restraints, to the same authority, the British Colonial Office. There is little danger here of the Federation’s collapse. We have none of the deep-seated cultural and religious divisions that broke the old Yugoslavia and, in a less violent way, threaten Belgium. Our threat is the more insidious one of a tidy uniformity.

Is it only, I wonder, because I grew up in what I hear referred to as one of the “outlying states” – outlying from where, I ask – that I am so keenly aware of the different styles of our state capitals? The subtle or not-so-subtle difference in the way people deal with one another in Brisbane and Melbourne, for example, or Brisbane and Adelaide, and what this represents of different ways of thinking and feeling. The variation from place to place of building materials and domestic habits that have created the houses people live in, the way they move about and dress. The turn of mind that has created our various education systems. The demographic mix that has shaped not only the forms of speech we use but our different ways, from state to state, of addressing one another and establishing intimacy and ease or the opposite. It isn’t sentiment alone that might make us want to preserve these distinctions, but a belief that variousness is also richness, and that different ways of solving a problem or meeting a difficulty might make possible a new or a more original or creative way that would otherwise fail to emerge.

We need to be discriminating here.

It is entirely proper that control of all cross-border issues – interstate highways, railway links between the capitals, water management of our river systems, workplace conditions, banking – should be in the hands of a single authority and that decisions in these areas should be made on a national basis and in the national interest, overruling if necessary the interests of individual states. But I wonder if those parts of our lives that involve individual needs and are shaped very largely by local conditions – distance from a major town or city, availability of transport, weather (seasonal floods for instance) – or by local ways of doing things and word-of-mouth contacts that are socially or culturally based, are really best managed from a centre that may be thousands of kilometres off, and by decision-makers who, however well-intentioned, may have little grasp of how differently people see things in Lindsay Tanner’s electorate in inner Melbourne, Wilson Tuckey’s O’Connor in Western Australia and Bob Katter’s Kennedy in far north Queensland.

Cost and efficiency cannot be the only consideration here. These are bureaucratic criteria that speak only for one side of the contract. The other, the human side, is about how close people feel to those who are dealing with them; how comfortable they feel with the style and language of the transaction. People act in ways that suit their needs, and follow the unpredictable and sometimes irrational lines of their own nature and habits. They live in places within themselves that know nothing of jurisdictions or borders. This is not necessarily a perversity. It is a fact, and a society of the kind we mostly support, and would hope to achieve, should remain open and flexible enough to make provision for this, so long as it is not obstructive to others. The last thing we want, however gratifying a vision it might be to a federal minister for education, is an entire generation of five-year-olds singing sweetly from the same page.

David Malouf
David Malouf is an award-winning Australian author. His latest novel, Ransom, is inspired by Homer's Iliad.

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