Brave new world

June 26, 1998

TO CONSTITUTE A NATION. A cultural history of Australia's constitution. By Helen Irving. 253pp. Cambridge University Press. Pounds 40. - 0 521 58417 5.

THE AUSTRALIAN NATION. Its British and Irish roots. By Geoffrey Partington. New editionm 347pp. New Brunswick, NJ: Transaction; distributed in the UK by Book Representation and Distribution. Pounds 28.95. - 1 56000 295 6.

As the centenary of Australian federation nears, and the republican debate gains speed, the historical relationship between Britain and Australia has once again become an issue. These two books deal with the formation of an Australian national culture in the nineteenth century, but offer very different views of that process and its outcome. Geoffrey Partington emphasizes the continuity of this culture with its British origins. In Helen Irving's view, the federal fathers imagined a new community, largely the result of cultural differentiation, which would be authorized by a written constitution. Alternative ideals of an imperial federation were, therefore, abandoned in favour of a racially and territorially exclusive commonwealth. The new constitution did not, however, inhibit Australians from seeing themselves simultaneously as patriotic nationals and loyal subjects of the British Crown.

Irving shows that the federal fathers, influenced by a tradition of utopian, and occasionally dystopian, literature, saw themselves as embarking on a brave experiment in democratic nation building. They took from Britain the Crown, the parliament and a responsible ministry, and from America the division of powers and the High Court to interpret them. In their adoption of a written constitution, the fathers followed American precedent, but defended their document as incorporating the organic growth that was seen as central to the nature of the British constitution. The word "commonwealth" allowed for the republican leanings of those who looked to the American example, but had sound royal precedents in British history. From Switzerland came the practice of the referendum, and from Canada the example of a unitary constitution (which was eventually rejected). The final constitution was a compromise between those who equated its adoption with the emergence of a new nation and those who viewed it as a compact between the existing states. Each party, however, saw it as distinctively Australian, even if their Australia remained British.

Both Partington and Irving suggest that the quality that distinguished Australians most clearly from the British, or at least the British ruling class, was their racism. Partington traces this to an unbridgable cultural gulf between settlers and Aborigines, and to economic fears of the Chinese at one end of the financial spectrum and Jews at the other. He acknowledges the contradictory philosophies of men like Alfred Deakin, who believed in universal traditions of tolerance but thought that only those "capable of being anglicized without delay" should be allowed to immigrate. Irving takes her analysis further, showing how those who created the constitution sought to distance themselves from the racism of their electors while maintaining the popular policies of exclusion. In their desire to be British they were determined not to share their community with anyone who was not.

At the time of the first Constitutional Convention, women in Australia did not have the right to vote, and only in two states did they obtain it in time to vote at the constitutional referendums. No woman was elected to a convention, and only one, Catherine Spence, stood as a candidate. Nevertheless, Irving shows that women played a major role in those public debates. Their failure to have all their concerns recognized led such doughty campaigners as Rose Scott to oppose the constitution as a whole, but the work of female supporters seems to have been crucial in eventually gaining a yes vote in New South Wales, and in the magnitude of the affirmative vote in Western Australia. They did gain concessions, on such matters as reserving legislation on divorce for the commonwealth and on temperance for the states, and the guarantee of existing state suffrage made the extension of the vote to all women inevitable.

Throughout her book, Irving shows how the legalities of the constitution were based on politics, and how the politics arose from the culture. The outcome was a constitution that combined utopian hopes with pragmatic realism and provided a basis for the political and economic consensus that has underpinned Australian life for the better part of this century. This consensus rested on the protection of industry and labour and the provision of social welfare.

The federal fathers' desire to guarantee freedom through the machinery of parliamentary government and popular referendum undoubtedly prevented their racist assumptions becoming explicit in the constitution. But, as Irving demonstrates, Australians were fortunate that a utopian moment in their history coincided with practical utility to give them a constitution that could develop with them rather than constrict their growth. Most importantly, she shows that, despite its acknowledgement of the Crown, the constitution in practice enshrines the people as sovereign, even if it avoids the vexed question of citizenship.

The Australian Nation provides a complete contrast. Partington's introduction suggests he wishes to remind us of Australia's Britishness, thereby reasserting the belief in "national progress and unity" against "the millennia of Aboriginal experience", and countering what he believes were malevolent images of Australian history promulgated by Thomas Keneally and Paul Keating. To this end, Partington demonstrates the continuity of British institutions in Australia, shows the ambivalence of colonial radicals and Irish-Australian patriots towards English traditions and examines how dominant English influences were in nineteenth-century Australian education, literature, art, music and sport. Finally, he considers the record of conflict between Aborigines and settlers, deciding that the record shows similar violence on both sides, that the destruction of Aboriginal society was inevitable at the hands of a stronger culture, that government intentions were generally benevolent and that the ultimate consequences for the Aborigines have been largely beneficial.

Partington has consulted a vast array of primary and secondary sources, but uses them to illustrate rather than to support his thesis. Nuggets of information or rhetoric are provocative, but the thesis remains scattered. The implied enemy of political correctness is neither clearly identified nor engaged. The evidence is cited but not interrogated and the reasons for contradictions in colonial attitudes to the mother country are unexplored.

In the sallies where he vents his prejudices Partington is at his liveliest: Australian artists fled to Europe because "standards remained considerably lower in the colonial capitals than in London or Western Europe"; Marcus Clarke is rebuked for a "lack of self-discipline", while his later radicalism is excused since it arose "not because he found the masses any more attractive but because their self-styled betters seemed ever more odious". The Bulletin and other republican organs were able to get away with their disloyalty because "it was a lot safer for Australian republicans to vilify their monarch than for even mild criticisms of the head of state to be offered in most countries in the world, including those in Australia's region".

Partington describes the wayward history of two notable nineteenth-century New South Wales controversialists, the Scots-born preacher and politician, John Dunmore Lang and the Australian-Irish lawyer and parliamentarian Daniel Deniehy. Both radical republicans, they nevertheless believed strongly in the value of British institutions. He outlines the British influence on the establishment and character of Australian schools and universities, on the later development of government-education school systems, and on the progress of curricula with some local content. But he does little to explain or explore the changes that occurred in these institutions in their translation to the colonies. His history is consistently linear, excluding any consideration of dialectic, material or otherwise.

Partington's picture of colonial Australia is unflattering: a vulgar, materialist, bigoted and racist society that, despite its material progress, is redeemed only by the presence in its midst of a significant number of the British-born or their immediate offspring. This minority, fortunately, prevailed, and the "value of the social order they created is attested by the continuing pressure of peoples from every other continent to become part of it". While Helen Irving notes that, if the celebrations of federation included a reaffirmation of British heritage, they were even more a declaration of an independent, egalitarian, religiously fractious and multicultural citizenship, Geoffrey Partington effectively subsumes this complex identity within a single British heritage.

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