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September 01st 2008 print

Baron Alder

The Australian Legend Fifty Years On

It can’t have taken the first colonials long to realise that the social fabric of the Old World quickly disintegrated on this continent. And it can’t have been very long after that that the idea of an Australian attitude was born. Ever since, perennial agonising has underwritten seasonal attempts to recast the Australian identity to reflect changes in Australian society. Despite all this, it is what Russel Ward referred to as “the Australian legend” in his influential book of that name that has prevailed and endured.

The Australian Legend was first published in 1958, by which time the legend was the best part of a century old. Whilst the pull of the legend has waxed and waned over the years, the Australian “people’s idea of itself” that Ward sketched is by and large unchanged. The typical Australian is still an exemplar for those—usually politicians, sportsmen, film producers and advertising executives—who deal in national imagery. He is in 2008, as he was in 1858 and in 1958, “rough and ready in his manners” and disparaging of affectation. He is “content with a task half done” and, although he is capable of great exertion in an emergency, he generally feels “no impulse to work hard without good cause”. He swears, gambles and drinks. He is sceptical about “religion and of intellectual and cultural pursuits generally”. He is a knocker of eminent people unless they are sportsmen. Probably above all, he is fiercely independent and hates officiousness and authority. But these vices are in fact virtues that bespeak the Australian’s artless decency. His indifference to Old World hierarchies reflects his egalitarianism. His disregard for genteel manners and refinements reflects his practicality. The other side of his tribal wariness of newcomers is his loyalty to his mates.

Ward’s objective in The Australian Legend was to trace the historical basis for the Australian “national mystique” and he found it in the disproportionate influence of the mores and manners of the outback proletariat over the rest of Australian society. The working-class attitudes of the convicts (whom Ward referred to as Australia’s “founding fathers”), the plebeian self-consciousness of the native-born (which Manning Clark might have been referring to when he spoke of “New World vulgarity”) and the fabled rebellious spirit of the Irish immigrants, all went “up the country” and coalesced in the ideal of the bushman. According to Ward, through the trade unions, through publications such as the Bulletin in Sydney and the Worker in Queensland, through popular song and through the popular literature of Henry Lawson and Banjo Paterson, the attitudes and values of the bush worker became the “principal ingredient” in an Australian, as opposed to an imperial, nationalism. The “bushman was axiomatically more ‘Australian’” and those hoping to distinguish themselves as Australians affected his manners, dress and turns of phrase.

The Australian Legend is an overtly political book, which is not surprising. For a while, Ward had been a member of the Communist Party and occasionally The Australian Legend reads as though Ward saw the bush ethos as the consciousness of the outback proletariat, derived from its material conditions and relationship to the means of production:

“The plain fact is that the typical Australian frontiersman in [the nineteenth century] was a wage worker who did not usually expect to become anything else. The loneliness and hardships of outback life … taught him the virtues of co-operation, but his economic interests … reinforced [a] tendency towards a social, collectivist outlook.”

In spite of a Marxist past though, Ward’s temper in The Australian Legend is social-democratic and his historiography Whiggish. The Australian tradition that he wrote about is naturally radical and provided the ethos for the early Australian Labor Party. The characteristics that he wrote about were the characteristics of Australians who, “at the advancing edge of settlement, did rather more than their share to make our country what it is”. The Australian Legend is filled with progressive optimism and it is difficult indeed to accept Humphrey McQueen’s assessment that Ward’s is “a tale of decline, of a once radical people corrupted by their own victories”.

Ward acknowledged the “discreditable and dangerous component” of racism in Australian nationalism. He was also clearly conscious of the effects of European settlement on Aborigines. But, overall, he thought that the Australian legend was responsible for the triumph in this country of an especially agreeable version of collectivist democracy. Certainly it was preferable to democracy in the United States, which had evolved from the individualism born of conditions on the North American frontier as described by the American historian F.J. Turner.

In 1958, Australia had a government bank which was “consistent with the collectivist and socialist bias of mateship”. Also by that time, republican ambitions had taken hold; at least to the extent that the Labor Party had ceased to recommend Australian subjects for titles and the non-Labor parties were refraining from recommending that life peerages be bestowed. The welfare state seemed to have arrived for good and the “collectivist, egalitarian bias suit[ed] it admirably”. According to Ward, our democratic instincts meant that the Australian outlook was practically immune to the excesses of reaction:

“our profound suspicion of authority and pretentiousness provides some safeguard against
the main danger of our time: dictatorship from either the right or the left … it is possibly harder to imagine a Hitler, or a Stalin or even a Péron flourishing here than in any other country on earth, including England itself.”

The Australian Legend has been criticised over the years on many grounds and from all political angles. Conservatives are temperamentally averse to its populist nationalism (although as Judith Brett has pointed out, John Howard co-opted the “symbolic repertoire” of the Australian legend for his version of Australia). John Hirst notably argued that Ward was misleading when he suggested that the Australian Legend was the only national legend. Hirst proposed the Pioneer Legend as another aspect of the national ethos. This was the story of the pastoralists and farmers (rather than their employees) who first settled Australia and was openly “conservative in its political implications”. Writing from the Marxist perspective in A New Britannia, Humphrey McQueen questioned whether the attitudes of the outback worker were really as radical as Ward contended, particularly when the Australian frontier was placed in its imperialistic context as a frontier of European capitalism in Asia.

In 1962, Peter Coleman, who was then the editor of the Bulletin, edited a collection of essays by luminaries including Donald Horne, Manning Clark and Robert Hughes. Coleman and his contributors endorsed what they saw as a counter-revolution in Australian historiography that rejected the stultifying effects of nationalism on Australian culture and the view of Australian history epitomised by The Australian Legend as “the unfolding of Social Progress and the increasing initiative of the working class”. They addressed the importance of religion, free-thought, education, culture and business (effectively, the ideology of the middle classes) to a mature, liberal society. Not all of these elements had flourished in Australia, and Coleman’s symposium struck a pessimistic note when compared to Ward’s radical hopefulness.

But the criticism that most vexed Ward was that The Australian Legend did not give a true and realistic picture of the average Australian. From the “first page of the first edition”, Ward was at pains to point out that The Australian Legend was not “another cosily impressionistic sketch of what wild boys we Australians are”. Whilst the Australian national character has “a solid substratum” of historical fact to stand on, The Australian Legend was nevertheless a study of the growth of “a national self-image”—a set of manners and attitudes cultivated by Australians across the years to reflect a type. And here, although he did not go so far as to say so himself, Ward hit on one of the most abrasive features of the Australian national character: its self-consciousness. As Michael Davie, an Englishman who for a while edited theMelbourne Age, observed:

“Americans in London tend to become more British; Australians in London are prone to behave as if they really belong among the coolabahs and dingoes, exaggerating their accents, growing bushranger beards and practising mateship in Earls Court.”

This uncouth self-consciousness has a great deal to do with the fact that the Australian national character is really a product of our relationship with England. The first generation of colonials to disclose an awareness of being Australian were called the “Currency Lads” to distinguish them from the “Sterling” interlopers. The expression might initially have been used condescendingly: the domestic pound currency was inferior to the English pound sterling. And even if it was a label that came quickly to be worn with pride, the Currency attitude carried with it what Manning Clark described as “a sensitivity to criticism, and a touchiness which expressed itself in a species of bragging”.

The mother-child analogy has always pervaded discussion about Australian culture, and the national character is still affected by an adolescent self-consciousness that promotes qualities most likely to provoke imperial (parental) rebukes. The qualities that describe the typical Australian (informal, egalitarian, rustic, ribald) are the precise opposite of the qualities that might describe Englishness (ceremonious, class-bound, urbane, reverent).

Of course, there are other versions of the English national character. As John Hirst has pointed out, the influence of some of them can even be seen in some typically Australian attitudes. But, if The Adventures of Barry McKenzie, Gallipoli or Breaker Morant are anything to go by, the Australian national character crystallises in the censorious gaze of the popularly imagined English middle classes or caught up in the procedure-bound perfidy of the English military classes. Although most Australians today don’t actually trouble too much about what the British think of them, their national character reflects an ideal of how, not so long ago, they liked the British to see them.

In this sense, the survival of the Australian national character that Ward wrote about is an aspect of a lingering provincialism. In The Lucky Country, Donald Horne argued that Australia was provincial in the sense that it was an outpost of a more culturally, politically and commercially significant metropolis. Australians were provincial in the sense that their culture was derivative and they looked to the policies and trends of the British and Americans with more interest and knowledge than their own.

However, there is another side to provincialism to which Horne alluded when he referred to “the boastfulness and arrogance of the liberated province, parading its very provincialism as though it were home grown”. Instead of taking its cultural cues from the metropolis, this other form of provincialism, full of crude self-confidence, belligerently turns its back on the greater civilisation by which it feels overborne and from which it wants to secede.

This attitude courses through Australian self-awareness. It is there in Joseph Furphy’s famous description of his novel Such is Life as having an “offensively Australian” bias and in the cultural nationalism of P.R. “Inky” Stephensen, who exhorted the “historians and legend makers” to cultivate an Australian national consciousness that was “autonomous” rather than “derivative”. Today, it is not far beneath the surface of elements of the republican cause in Australia.

James McAuley thought that efforts to create an autonomously Australian culture (specifically, Stephensen’s) were just “a clumsy farce”. McAuley held the traditional Tory preferences for the universal over the particular and the continuous over the schismatic. His biases helped him to see that the more strident the effort to create a consciously Australian outlook, the more insular and parochial we become. But there are others who, although sympathetic to the idea of a distinctly Australian outlook, are also deterred by the nationalist tendency to dislocate Australian history and culture from universal themes. Manning Clark, whose history of Australia was presented as a struggle between the great European ideologies of Catholicism, Protestantism and the Enlightenment, was in this category. More recently, Richard Bosworth, the Australian biographer of Mussolini, has complained of a “national protectionism” in the study of history which leads to a mediocre, inward-looking localism:

“There is no special reason why Australians should not regard the history of Adolf Hitler or Ancient Rome as much theirs as are the history of the Swan Districts Australian Rules team or land tenure.”

The Australian legend appeals to a sense of ordinariness and the outlook that there is nothing particularly special about any of us. That it might almost be called suburban is perhaps why, according to Judith Brett, the modern cosmopolitan Labor Party has “loosened its grip” on the legend. At the same time, the attitude “that Jack is not only as good as his master but … probably a good deal better” can also sound in an ungracious self-assuredness that is responsible for a sense that Australians are special and infallible. It is an attitude that finds its loudest voice during sporting events, particularly when a controversial umpiring decision is involved. A.A. Phillips described this as the Cringe Inverted: “the attitude of the Blatant Blatherskite, the God’s-own-country-and-I’m-a-better-man-than-you-are Australian Bore.”

Baron Alder is a Sydney lawyer.