Australia was created as a penal colony. Its beginnings are marked by the need to survive in a harsh environment by a group of convicts and marines whose only aspiration was to return to England. ‘Necessity and not vision founded Australia … for there was no escaping the fact that New South Wales was founded as a gaol’ writes historian RM Crawford in Australia. Australians do not have their own foundation myth. They cannot judge the current state of affairs by comparing it with the idealised beginnings, as in the US.
Another factor, of Australian institutions being modelled on British ones, is also important. A penal settlement in New South Wales could not be anything but an outpost of the British Empire. Its administrators were Englishmen, acting on orders from London. Their world view found expression in the way the colonies were organised.
The role of Lachlan Macquarie is particularly important. His enlightened policies, which he implemented as the fifth governor of New South Wales, shaped the future of the colony. Macquarie was an enlightened autocrat who provided convicts with incentives to become law-abiding citizens. Religion was not an important factor in the colony; Macquarie was a freemason. His emancipist policies fit well with the Zeitgeist of the late eighteenth century when people were motivated by the ideas of the Enlightenment such as deism, natural religion, meliorism, social progress and common humanity. Some mental effort is now required to appreciate how progressive the Scottish, French and American forms of the Enlightenment were. Australia was established in a period marked by the irreverence of picaresque novels of Henry Fielding and Laurence Sterne, the political radicalism of Thomas Paine, the revolutionary fervour in France, the philosophical scepticism of David Hume, the liberalism of John Locke, the economic self-interest of Adam Smith and the hostile attitude to Christianity of Edward Gibbon.
In his monumental and idiosyncratic history of Australia, Manning Clark puts the Enlightenment in the centre of colonial Australia:
the settlement would solve the overcrowding in the gaols, effect mundane benefits by an expansion of commerce, or even create a new society in which the great dream of the enlightenment would come to pass – the perfection of the human race … these victims of the overcrowding of the gaols were making the voyage across the oceans of the world as exiles of not only from their families and their country, but also from God.
God is indeed rather absent in Australia and Australians are reluctant to discuss religious matters. For historical reasons, Australians distrust idealism of the religious kind and are reluctant to talk about religion and politics as they fear sectarian divisions. However, historian John Hirst complains that avoidance of matters that are thought to be divisive contributes to ‘the vacuousness of our public discourse’ .
The fact that Australia is a British creation cannot be overstated. There are many signs that Australia is still, to a certain extent, a dependent country and its culture derivative. The head of state is the British queen and her representatives act as governors, or viceroys, both at the federal and state levels. The political system is based on the Westminster model and the legal system shows little divergence from British common law. Australia is a constitutional monarchy and its laws still require royal assent. For baby-boomers, being British was a tangible reality only several decades ago. Journalist Terry Lane recalls reciting in his school days in the early 1950s: ‘I am an Australian, I love my country the British Empire. I salute her flag, the Union Jack and I honour her king, King George the Sixth’. Australian citizens ceased to be considered British subjects only in 1984. The umbilical cord between Australia and the mother country has not yet been completely severed because, curiously enough, many Australians want their country to remain politically and culturally attached to England.
The prevailing mood among Australians is that of egalitarianism, mateship, democratic instinct, distrust of the authorities and disinterest in abstract thinking. ‘Not so much gentlemening, if you please!’ says a gold miner in HH Richardson Australia Felix, the first part of The Fortunes of Richard Mahony – ‘Men’s what we are – that’s good enough for us’ . Australians were satisfied with themselves and refused to be turned into gentlemen. For some observers, Australia was excessively democratic. D.H. Lawrence criticised its democratic spirit in Kangaroo.
For A.D. Hope, Australians were Nietzsche’s Last Men and Australia was
Without songs, architecture, history:
The emotions and superstitions of younger lands,
Her rivers of water drown among inland sands,
The river of her immense stupidity
Floods her monotonous tribes from Cairns to Perth.
In them at last the ultimate men arrive
Whose boast is not: “we live” but “we survive”,
A type who will inhabit the dying earth.
Australian literary culture is split into two streams. In literature, sentimental patriotism of bush nationalists such as A.B. ‘Banjo’ Paterson and Henry Lawson coexists uneasily with the cosmopolitan sophistication of expatriates such as Henry Handel Richardson, Christina Stead and Martin Boyd.
Australia is a thoroughly democratic society. In his essay Political Ideology in Australia: The Distinctiveness of a Benthamite Society, Hugh Collins asserts that Australia’s dominant political ideology is utilitarianism. In a Benthamite society, people are focused on striving to be happy and political institutions are charged with the aim of creating conditions conducive to the pursuit of happiness of the greatest number. Pragmatism reigns in such a society. Collins writes that ‘The expectations are mundane and unheroic; there is neither a messianic mission nor a return to a classical ideal. Utility imposes its own discipline upon reality and sets its own limits to imagination’. H.C. Allen observes that ‘the element of perfectionism, which is so marked in the American character, is conspicuously absent in the Australian’.
Collins warns that Benthamite societies have limitations that make them ill equipped to face challenges from outside. When he wrote his essay in the mid-1980s, the biggest challenge was Soviet communism. Since that time, new challenges have emerged that are more difficult to comprehend. New phenomena such as rising Asia, militant Islam and bellicose Russia require intellectual engagement; it would be irresponsible to escape from it into populism in politics, entertainment in the media and materialism in everyday life.
This is a fragment of “Carol Kennicott’s dilemma”, an article published in The Australian Library Journal, 2015, v. 64, no. 1, 48-56