Essay: Australia Have a Bill

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[. . .] The very smallness of the Australian dream is an important part of our particular value-system: there is no vision of creating a society that can be a model for the rest of the world, as in the U.S.A., nor of upholding revolutionary ideals, as in France, nor even of traditional community, as in Great Britain. This lack of an idealist tradition, as reflected in the prosaic language of Australian politicians, is a particular disadvantage for those who would bring about change (Patapan, 1997).

To sum up: Australia is, indeed, a conservative country if by this is meant that there is a highly developed consensus on basic values, but these values seem more accurately described as liberal. (Louis Hartz has characterized them as radical, (Hartz, 1964) which is misleading because of the particular way that word is used today.) In any case what is clear is the extent to which Australians have by and large accepted and acquiesced in the institutions and ideologies of liberal capitalism. Over the past thirty years or so Australia has experienced relatively little political turmoil, and those issues that have excited passions -- communism in the 1950s, Vietnam in the 1960s, even the sacking of Whitlam in the 1970s -- have been fairly easily dealt with by the existing political process (Rowse, 1978).

The single most significant way in which the triumph of liberalism reveals itself in Australian thought is the manner in which Australian society is almost universally depicted as classless. Tim Rowse has written a whole study of Australian intellectuals between the 1920s and the present day around this theme, summed up by A.D. Hope's remarks in 1956 that: 'Australians now for the most part form a homogeneous middle class. It [sic] has little in the way of a real proletariat or a wealthy leisured class' (Rowse, 1978). This view has been echoed by almost all popular commentators on Australia -- Donald Horne, Craig McGregor, John Pringle, Ronald Conway -- by a large part of our social scientists and, above all, by the media who constantly decry appeals to 'outmoded class politics'. The constant use by politicians of the term 'the community' is part of the attempt to deny that there are any significant divisions in Australian society (Patapan, 1997).

The role of women in consolidating this bourgeois hegemony was central: denied a chance to participate equally in political and industrial life, and resented by men who found a common radicalism in the mateship of work relations, women became dominant in the home where they firmly established the hegemony of middle-class values. In his study of mateship, Harry Oxley has suggested that men can behave in an egalitarian way together and 'safely leave the defining and symbolizing of [their] status position to [their] wives'. Thus the subordination of women -- perhaps greater in Australia than other Anglo-American countries -- became a way of enforcing the allegiance of men to the dominant middle-class order. This has been argued by John Power, who identifies a particularly strong division in Australia between public and private life, and sees the dominance of women in the private sphere as 'surely the most effective of all supports for cultural conservatism' (Rowse, 1978).

This argument may well be overstated; by and large men have remained dominant in Australian families where they both reproduce the authority structures of the larger society and compensate for their own powerlessness in the wider world. Observers have often stressed that Australian families are less participatory and place more emphasis on discipline and obedience than do American ones. (The same comment is even truer of our schools.) The evidence of domestic tyranny, bullying and often wife -- and child -- abuse is quite considerable.

But equally it is true that the heavy emphasis on the familial ideology is an important restriction on men and women alike. I have heard stories of strikes that have been ended because of pressure on the strikers from their wives and even children. Belief in the centrality of the family is a crucial part of Australian values, and it acts, more perhaps than in other Western societies, to maintain political life as an almost entirely male activity.

The problem with such assertions is that we do not have any real evidence that Australians are more sexually repressed than are other Western cultures, and without a huge research team of psychoanalysts I am not sure how such evidence would be collected. Indeed, the rapid decline of rigid moralism in Australia over the past ten years or so, so that, for example, our television seems less encumbered by censorship than that of the U.S.A., Great Britain, or France, suggests we should reconsider the stereotypes of Australian Puritanism. It may be that Australians are in practice freer in their sexuality than many comparable peoples. The dominant cultural values do, however, promote a sense of guilt, a feeling that sexual expression outside the framework of marriage -- whether it be outside because it is homosexual, adulterous or without emotional commitment -- is inferior. And it is certainly a frequent observation that Australians are particularly inept and ignorant sexually; libido is too often redirected into sport, alcohol or general dissatisfaction (Conway, 1971) (all, by the way, conservative and acceptable -- if not very satisfying -- means of sublimation).

The existence of a comparatively well-off working class, the early creation of a suburban life, and the influence of notions of respectability and the church combine to create a paradox in Australian culture, namely that this is a society which exhibits a constant contradiction between a very conservative, privatized and home-centered life-style on the one hand and a strong radical tradition on the other. (The organization of large parts of the working class into unions and the founding of the Labor Party occurred very early, and by and large our unions remain comparatively strong and militant even today.) The latter is the basis for the radical interpretations of Australian history, of which Russel Ward The Australian Legend is the best known; the former explains why despite this radical tradition our political, social and cultural life has been dominated by conservative forces (Patapan, 1997).

The ability of workers to live a minimally decent life in material terms was a crucial element in forming this seeming consensus, as was the development of the single house-and- garden as the norm, however great the differences between workers' cottages in Richmond or Port Adelaide and mansions in Peppermint Grove or Vaucluse. Australia was a sufficiently small and homogeneous society -- except for the Aborigines who were defined out of consideration -- for the economic gap not to become as obvious a cultural one as was true in the more overt class divisions of Europe. To this must be added the influence of Australia's isolation and the inhospitality of the land. Xenophobia and fear of the natural environment were common characteristics that cut across class lines in forming basic Australian values, even if the middle classes have traditionally looked to Great Britain as a source of legitimation for their values (Rowse, 1978). Compared with the U.S.A. Australians are notable for the lack of a sense that theirs is a bountiful land -- it is not for nothing that Patrick White Voss, the story of an explorer who dies in the inland, is perhaps his best known work -- and for a feeling of disquiet vis-a-vis their geographic environment. If conservatives have tended to respond to this by seeking 'great and powerful friends' (calling in the Old World to redress the balance of the New, to reverse the dictum of Canning) while radicals have tended towards a suspicious isolation, both of these are products of a similar fear of the alien peoples who in the popular imagination surround and covet Australia.


The value of liberal political institutions is too deeply imbued in popular belief to make such an attempt doomed to failure. Indeed, attacks on liberal democracy are very dangerous, for they are likely to benefit only the right who are often suspicious of the idea of popular government. Rather the traditional broad left strategy of seeking to extend the nature of liberal democracy (e.g. To include provision of a Human Rights Bill or the legal requirement for one vote one value in the Australian Constitution) is far more sensible. It is the extension from the political arena of these demands to the economic and social order that is the basis of a radical strategy.

The originators of the 1901 Australian Constitution intentionally avoided the U.S. Bill of Rights model: first, a bill like that could have been used to confront the prevailing White Australia Policy not including the Chinese and others and, next, it might also have created problems in… [END OF PREVIEW]

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Australia Have a Bill.  (2012, September 20).  Retrieved March 26, 2019, from

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"Australia Have a Bill."  20 September 2012.  Web.  26 March 2019. <>.

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"Australia Have a Bill."  September 20, 2012.  Accessed March 26, 2019.