December 2021 – January 2022

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Did Federation compromise our democracy?

By Alan Atkinson
Illustration by Jeff Fisher
How the advent of Australia’s national government separated power from people and place

“Oh, you men, you men, it is we women that know the least and the worst of you.” That was Rose Scott, the great Australian feminist, in 1898, and she was speaking just before the six colonies of Australia joined as a single nation, struggling with her deep fears for her country should it come about. “I broke my heart over federation”, she said, when it was all over.

Scott thought that, under this new pyramidal regime, working for common justice in everyday life was going to be even harder than it was already. Federation was therefore a bad idea.

When men and women talked about democracy in Scott’s day, they usually meant justice of this ground-level sort. Widespread voting rights were a crucial part of it, but only part. Truly democratic government had to be continuously exposed to public opinion, public need and public view. It had to be housed among great bodies of population, face to face with crowds, close to universities, newspaper offices and other workshops of opinion and expertise. It had to be set up for listening.

In that sense, federation seemed to compromise democracy. There was no democratic usefulness in centralising power so far from the old capital cities. Others were also wary, even while they were drawn to the general idea. “I would like to know”, asked John Alexander Cockburn, former premier of South Australia, “since what time have centralisation and democracy been associated?” “[A]s a Queenslander”, said a Brisbane MP, “I do not desire to give any power away that would keep us out of touch with the people.”

Democracy was about continuous to and fro, citizens and government. That meant there had to be structural arrangements permanently in place that encouraged the interactive process, continuously building up, mending and reinforcing mutual trust. How could trust, from top to bottom, be guaranteed in a system so vast as all Australia?

Rose Scott’s thoughts centred on two words: “individuality” and “freedom”. For her generation those words had a distinctive meaning. In our day they might mean something like selfishness but in Scott’s time, as the English philosopher T.H. Green put it, they were all about the lifelong “realisation of self”, the right to think freely, find our particular strengths and make the best of them.

Scott’s understanding of these words was shaped by her experience as a woman who had deliberately avoided marriage. She was more than usually alert to the way men imposed themselves on women, intellectually, emotionally and physically, and that awareness shaped her feeling for all sorts of human power. She understood the way power can work in intimate, insidious ways to diminish lives.

Women, said Scott, must refuse to merge their individuality with that of others, men must learn “to encourage the individuality of women”, but governments must foster individuality wherever their power reached. Federation seemed to point in the wrong direction.

With federation, the “genius of the man-politician”, Scott said, backed up by special interests – militarism and big money – had found a new way of taking control. Democracy was being pushed aside. Australians were dazzled, in other words, by what Scott called “false and elusive ideas of national glory”. They were infected, as a north Queensland journalist put it, with the frenzy of adolescent nationalists, “very ardent young men … screaming to be born again”. They were seduced by a single mighty impulse, by a need to share in what a Victorian parliamentarian called “the spirit of the manhood of Australia”.

Scott called it a bushfire. “[L]awyers, politicians and orators are throwing fuel on this fire which, unless you stamp it out … will go on burning, burning … till it has consumed the people’s money and melted away their liberties, and the voice of the people … [is] smothered in the ashes”.

Scott was far from reactionary. She spent years advocating votes for women, but while she waited for that she worked on other reforms. She had a lot to do with the New South Wales Early Closing Act 1899, the Infant Protection Act 1904, the Crimes (Girls’ Protection) Act 1910, which raised the age of consent from 14 to 16, and the creation of a separate women’s prison at Long Bay, run along the best available lines.

She made up a credo for herself: “Be bold, be bold, be bold. How else are reforms won?” Her remark during one of her campaigns – “The whole system is wrong” – sums up the way she worked.

As a reformer, she was far from alone. It was an age of inventive government, much more so than today. The very size of the Australian landmass, “the grand silent expanses”, as Joseph Furphy called them, seemed deeply exciting – an excitement, of course, born of wilful ignorance. Those expanses had been speaking to their ancient owners for tens of thousands of years. Cattle and sheep were now driven in large numbers across enormous distances and the ownership of such a fluid, promiscuous, self-willed asset could be a vexed question in courts of law. Long before federation, a big shift in legal principle fixed that by giving livestock some of the characteristics of freehold land. And then the branding of stock was reorganised, with a central registry of every brand – a world first. And there were stock routes, another local invention – long ribbons of reserved land laid in intricate patterns across the countryside, so that animals could be driven safely from place to place.

Water was redefined in law. Compared with English precedent, it became much more obviously a type of common property, managed, say, by local trusts. Alfred Deakin, who got this reform going, called it a “new movement”. From colony to colony, new movements were everywhere. It was a period of significant innovation.

Human order was experimental too. There were several cooperative settlements, especially along the lower parts of the Murray River, in which land was held in common. They were authorised by law and, according to Elsie Birks, a young woman who lived in one of them, they were designed to appeal to the “inherent good in human nature”. Many towns had cooperative retail outlets, owned and managed by the customers, and shared household budgeting was tried by copper- and coal-miners. There were cooperative dairies and sugar mills. Some such ventures lasted and some soon failed, but they all followed Scott’s prescription – “Be bold, be bold” – with a willingness to try things out.

In drawing up the federal constitution, considerable effort was made to deal with fears like those of Scott, and to accommodate the collaborative spirit. The title “Commonwealth” signals the sharing of power. Frederick Holder, former South Australian premier, thought federation was a good thing, but, he said, it had to be organised so that “every personal unit of the population shall be recognised and his individuality preserved”.

That could be done if questions relating to the daily life of the people were managed mainly at the state level, where the use of power was fully accountable. ­Education and public health were two obvious examples. The federal parliament was given power to regulate marriage, divorce, and invalid and old-age pensions, but even that wasn’t an exclusive power. Generally, such matters were to be worked out on the ground, consulting the needs of individuals and households so as to draw them into the business of government as far as possible.

Recently in The Monthly, Margaret Simons said that the Australian Constitution is “a bureaucratic document, largely about taxes”. On the face of it, and from a lawyerly point of view, that’s accurate enough. But when Rose Scott said, “it is we women that know”, she was trying to build up an understanding that was larger and deeper than that. She was questioning the infrastructure of government, the crucial impulse of power. She was reaching beyond established opinion, then and now, and, as I say, she wasn’t alone. Hear Scott – “Oh, you men, you men” – and it’s possible to read the Constitution in larger terms. It’s just that we’ve forgotten.

It pays to listen, not only to those who drafted the Australian Constitution but also to the ebb and flow of public opinion within which the drafters lived and which they tried to combat and/or translate. Look at the collective anxieties, including those barely articulated, that went into the writing and the cross-current of risk felt by the lookers-on.

With federation, according to the Tasmanian Andrew Inglis Clark, co-author of the Constitution, everyone would be “a citizen of two distinct governments”. Each of the two governments, federal and state, would have its own kind of sovereignty and its own imaginative appeal.

But Scott seems to have sensed that in time the federal government would overshadow the others. She might well have felt the imminence of war – which broke out, in fact, less than 14 years after federation took place, shifting priorities exactly as she had feared. Over time, in Australia, the workings of democracy at ground level would begin to seem contingent on the federal system and on “national identity”, a structure with scant room for conscience.

Federation was all about “Australia for the Australians”, but just as it created clumsiness in dealing with human individuality so it must be inept with individualities of place – with attachment to place and the use of place. That ineptitude really shows today. For instance, “[i]n my view”, writes Tim Flannery in The Climate Cure, “the Federal Government has proved itself incapable of properly administering drought funding and many other sorts of funding”. It’s the same in climate management. It’s hard to be precise about cause and effect, but in setting net-zero emissions targets, state and local governments are certainly running far ahead of Canberra; action of that kind can be easiest at that level, using methods of democracy in the old sense. Thirty-two Australian local governments subscribe to the Global Covenant of Mayors for Climate & Energy, through which such governments set progressively higher standards and learn from each other. The federal government, meanwhile, might be called Australia’s single greatest obstacle to effective climate action.

Scott’s arguments were anchored in a strong sense of place, and she was sure that such individuality attached to places – even to rivers and trees – so that each was worth preserving for its own sake. She had an organic, ecological understanding that fits neatly with many aspects of climate action. Let the colonies coexist in peace, she said, as with members of one family, each attending to its own needs, cooperating where it helps to do so, and leaving room for “the natural growth of brotherhood unhampered by written laws”. This is much in the spirit of the Global Covenant.

Federationists such as Frederick Holder wanted something simultaneously hands-off and hands-on, the kind of careful coordination that Alan Finkel talks about in his Quarterly Essay Getting to Zero, where he gives an account of distributed energy resource management. The national electricity grid appears not as a centralised source of power but as an arrangement of independently created, multiple sources – solar panels, wind turbines etc – coordinated for the common good, with minimal drama and remarkable skill.

A straight line can be drawn from Scott’s anxieties to Canberra’s method of governing by algorithm, to robodebt and to the failures of the National Disability Insurance Scheme. Here, as glaring as you like, is conscience abandoned and individuality overruled. Here is listening deliberately stopped, as in the prime minister’s refusal to meet with fire chiefs in 2019.

In 2017, Australia’s First Nations issued the Uluru Statement from the Heart. Its proposal for Indigenous input at the federal level matched precisely the prescription for democracy so much valued in Australia in the 1890s – a structure deliberately created so as to bring government into conversation with expert opinion and human need – but it too was rejected out of hand. Altogether, there’s something about the deep challenges of the 21st century that exposes “the least and the worst” of the system of 1901.

It would be useful if Australians were occasionally more like Americans, with an alert sense of their collective past and the lessons it can teach. In the United States, that can mean hanging on to arguments that can do more harm than good, but it can also mean that useful ideas are remembered, prodded for new meaning and recycled, even for generations. The declarations of the revolutionary period, the writing of Alexis de Tocqueville, the thoughts of Abraham Lincoln, Martin Luther King Jr and Ruth Bader Ginsburg are bearing fruit still. In Australia, everything has to be reinvented over and over, from scratch.

In the US, but in many other countries too, there’s an instinct for the long term such as we don’t seem to have. It might be bigoted, it might be inexpert. It might not be informed by facts at all. But it is there to be turned to good, and it’s something Australians appear to lack. Whether it’s regarding the long-term past or the long-term future – the climate-change future – that’s surely a pity.

Alan Atkinson

Alan Atkinson is an Australian historian and the author of The Europeans in Australia.

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