Puzzling Out Australian Exceptionalism

A staple of American political rhetoric is an appeal to the “middle class”. It is hard to imagine such an appeal in Australia. The only time “middle class” appears in Australian political discourse is as the butt of “middle-class welfare”. But there is no middle-class welfare in Australia.[1] Australia has perhaps the most targeted welfare system in the world, with extensive means testing, and a highly progressive income tax schedule. And, unlike some countries, the middle class can find no refuge from these high rates in income-splitting between spouse and spouse, or relief in the deductibility in mortgage interest on the family home.[2]

The Australian middle class is one of the casualties of the enduring Australian resolve to wrench egalitarian outcomes from the facts of social life by state action. The tools in this endeavour include: labour market regulation of an intensity unmatched in the rest of the world; an usually heavy reliance on direct taxation; a bureaucracy of a prestige and presumption elsewhere afforded only central bankers; compulsion in activities ranging from voting to saving; a massively centralised government education system that dispenses a “basic wage” of education while demanding ever greater “funding”; a facade federalism that misconstrues federation as an exercise in equalisation and as a bureaucracy in three layers.

These policy configurations possess an extremity, a rigidity and a force that distinguish Australia from the United States and other obvious comparator countries. It is not difficult see these configurations as constituting an Australian Exceptionalism.

Is this an over-strong claim? Isn’t each society exceptional in its own way? Guns are much more tightly regulated in Australia than the US, but alcohol consumption is more tightly regulated in the US than Australia.[3] The use of both aggravates violence, and partisans of deregulation and regulation of both use similar arguments. It seems that guns achieved an emblematic status in the US, while in Australia alcohol has (or did). The key reply to this appearance is that the existence of an Australian exceptionalism is not inconsistent with the existent of other exceptionalisms. It behoves any society to be aware of its idiosyncrasies, and for Australia not to be oblivious its own.

Another parry of the claim of an Australian Exception would contend that this exceptionalism really refers to the remnants of a largely left-behind past. Australia once, indeed, had its own peculiar institutions: a court of conciliation and arbitration, a dictation test, a tariff board. But Australia, it is said, has since the 1980s disavowed the “Settlement” of Alfred Deakin, and normalised. The reality is that several strands of the Settlement have been only moderately modified in substance, and in terms of sentiment the Settlement is back in. The Left, its most ardent devotee, is resurgent; a simple indicator of this is the strengthened position throughout Australia of the Labor Party’s Left factions. Here Australia makes another contrast with obvious comparators. In the 2014 New Zealand election the Labour opposition ran, calculatingly, on a Left platform. It lost seats and votes, managing just 25 per cent of the total. In the same year the Labor opposition in Victoria, under Left faction leadership for the first time in decades, won seats, votes and government. “The unions were decisive in the Coalition’s defeat” said the Age, and it is not completely surprising to behold an entirely unexplained 20 per cent discrepancy between the cost of public sector salaries and wages as stated in Victoria’s 2015-16 budget, and as stated in the budget update just some months later. In 1891 “Charles Fairfield” charged of Victoria that “state socialism there dares not present a genuine balance sheet”, and protested the “imaginary surplus” that its governments were wont to report.[4] In November 2014 the acting Auditor-General of Victoria issued a rare “qualified” audit opinion of the 2014-15 budget, on the grounds that the announced budget surplus was actually a deficit.

In Australia there is a lot of “changing same”.

Why has Australia defied “normalisation”, and stuck to a path it struck out along so long ago?

The location and construction of the immovable foundations of Australian Exception have been previously pondered. They were implicitly inquired into by the remarks and queries of a string of visitors a century and more ago—John Martineau, Trollope, Dilke, J.F. Fraser. The inquiry was repeated with more intent by mid-twentieth-century explicators of the Exception—Hancock, Hartley Grattan, Ward, R.N. Rosecrance. Since about 1970, however, interest in the question has declined, almost to the point of extinction. This decline is not hard to fathom. The inquiries of earlier periods were always premised on the existence of a “national community”[5], and that notion has since about 1970 incurred disbelief, distrust and hostility. But I will venture that in matters of consciousness a national community exists and flourishes in Australia. One illustration is the bipartisan acclaim for such a hackneyed nostrum for failing government schools as “Gonski”.[6] For all the country’s apparent fractures, there exists in Australia a national community in term of mentality.

Australia’s inertia in the face of movement in other societies, and in defiance of the omnipresent rhetoric of “change”, makes it timely to renew the investigation of the Australian Exception (henceforth AE). This paper scrutinises past attempts to do so, and brings to the bar one relatively novel suspect.

An account of past attempts to explain AE can be usefully cast into a “nature” and “causes” format. That is, it is useful to distinguish “the wherein” of AE— the characterising aspects of the Exception—from “the wherefore” of it—the underlying causes of that which characterise it.

Theorists of AE have stressed three candidates for wherein lies its characterising aspect. Let me call them Social Egalitarianism, Mateship and Bureaucracy.

Social Egalitarianism. In a society so new and so peculiar in its origins, the allocation of status faced difficulties in Australia. The customary trophies of status were scarce, and agreement on what might replace them was lacking. The result was a levelling out in Australia of status gradient, which was repeatedly remarked upon by British observers: “They were all dressed alike and there was nothing of master and man in their conversation”[7]. The significance of this flatness of the status gradient lies in the plausible, if not irresistible, suggestion that status differentials are a legitimator, and preservative, of economic differentials. The lack of differentials, in other words, makes wealth differentials vulnerable. A wholly different way of using the premise of a flat status gradient to yield economic egalitarianism would argue that in a society with a steep status gradient life is not “all about money”. But in a society without such a gradient—such as Australia—it is; there is nothing much else to contend about. (And I have noticed that you have more than I do …)

This use of social egalitarianism to explain economic egalitarianism suffers, however, from a massive counter-example: the United States is more socially egalitarian, but (of course) less economically egalitarian. The conjunction of social egalitarianism and economic inegalitarianism is no puzzle in itself, as traditional status systems frequently inhibit the pursuit of wealth. We are left with the possibility that it was the endurance in Australia of fragments of the traditional status system that are explanatory of Exception. Australia was not exempt from the Anglophone world’s rush for gentlemanly status in the latter part of nineteenth century; and perhaps that worked with more effect in the society where the least gentlemanly form of wealth making—manufacturing—was so puny. Australian manufacturing as late as the 1920s has been characterised as “Victorian-era tanneries … bicycle assembly ‘lean-tos’ in inner-city Sydney, and the small-scale boot factories first developed under Syme’s tariff wall in Collingwood”[8]. And Australian historians have carefully accounted the near absence of manufacturers from the half-dozen state legislatures in the Federation period. In 1911 not one manufacturer held a place in Victoria’s Legislative Council. In 1914 ninety-four members of the House of Commons were manufacturers. In 1913 there stood for the House of Representatives Australia’s most dynamic manufacturer (and future founder of Australia’s first commercial airways), H.V. McKay. He lost.[9]

The case of the US might be differently interpreted: not as the dissolution of a traditional status system, but as simply the replacement of one status system (where status was conferred by proximity to rule) by another (where status was conferred by wealth). This may be true, but it only begs the question why such a replacement did not take place in Australia. “In Australia there is little respect for wealth as such”. [10]

The second candidate for the “wherein” of AE invokes “mateship”. It invokes, in other words, that sphere of life that comprises, not the sorting of people into superiors and inferiors, but the recognition of counterparts, compeers and comrades; and realising that recognition in various social rituals. This is probably a less active and more circumstantial pressure system in any social weather map than the quest for status, but it seems to blow stronger and wider in Australia than many places else. In this approach to the “wherein” of Australian exceptionalism, it is not the absence of hierarchy that is characterising, but the presence of a sense of brotherhood. So if social egalitarianism amounts to a lack of classes, mateship bespeaks of one class. Such an abnormal enlargement of this sphere of life would seem to have an immediate explanatory value of AE, and the sceptic of this hypothesis is really put to denying its enlargement, rather than its potential relevance.

A sceptic may submit that some of the supposed manifestations of mateship (unions, say) are really just a matter of the collusion of individual interests. But it may be replied, in turn, that collusion is a difficult feat to sustain in the absence of any genuine sense of solidarity.

A sceptic may also count against “mateship” the fact that civic society in Australia has been feeble—providing, again, a contrast with the US, where, historically at least, the impulse to associate has been so well remarked: AA, Rotary and so on. But it might, in turn, be replied that Australian society does pursue voluntary associations: football clubs, the RSL. But the most effective counter-reply to the (supposedly disconfirming) poverty of Australian civic society is that mateship should not be confused with some (American-style) Rotarian civic-mindedness, a phenomenon much more tied up with the strength of ideals. Mateship looks inward, and casts disregard, and not rarely contempt, on the outsider.

The third leading candidate for the wherein of AE is captured by Alan Fraser Davies’s apercu, in his book Australian Democracy, that “the characteristic talent of Australians is not for improvisation, it is for bureaucracy” and “the gift is exercised on a massive scale”.

The significance of bureaucracy for Australian dirigisme needs no explication; but it is worth noting that “the rule of the rule” of any bureaucracy fosters uniformity, which inevitably spells the equality that so preoccupies Australia.[11]

To sum up: the previous investigators of AE have provisionally identified a national motto: Bureaucratie, Égalité, Fraternité; a triptych invisibly but indelibly inscribed in the Constitution.

Yet these three principles need not always have the same impact, and may sometimes press in different directions.

Mateship and bureaucracy may be antithetical. The first elevates “common sense” over the second’s “expertise”. And the first—not sharing the second’s impulse to predict and control—puts as much faith in fate and fortune as the second puts in humankind’s computations. Mateship, then, assumes a demeanour of acceptance or nonchalance, and consequently, has constituted a counterweight to bureaucracy in Australia. Its humanising impact was most palpable in the “old”, pre-1960s, Australia, which, for all its rigorous social organisation, was easy-going in a raffish way.[12] Since then its humanising impact has faded, as the “Commonwealth of Mates” recedes to vanishing point. From For Gorsake, Stop Laughing to Smoking Kills. [13]

And yet policies may do tribute to both bureaucracy and mateship. Thus the compulsory peace-time military training introduced in Australia in 1910 was a literal organisation of humanity never before seen in the Anglophone world. And yet its terms were lenient (only boys were liable, and attendance occupied only some weeks a year), and it was built around the ethic of the citizen-soldier.

But the supreme example of doing tribute to both spheres, bureaucracy and mateship, is the elaborate wage fixation by various courts and commissions, that have over the past century compulsorily organised Australian economic life in detail. This system was moderately relaxed in stages in the twenty years from the mid-1990s. But in the past decade it has been re-applied with fresh energy, and with the complete agreement of all major parties.

This system of wage fixation is, of course, all in the name of “fairness”, but is pregnant in offences against justice. Is unemployment “fair”? Australia in 2016 has an unemployment rate higher than the US, the UK or New Zealand, in spite of its almost complete exemption from the Global Financial Crisis. In addition, and more importantly, the joint operation of bureaucracy and mateship has annihilated in Australia any sense of “productivity ethics”; the sense that what makes a payment to a factor of production right is its correspondence to what the factor has added to production. Productivity ethics is not a completely satisfying theory of a “just” factor income—what theory is?—but there is a good deal to be said for it, and certain nineteenth-century socialist parties were not misguided in thinking that “exploitation” is a matter of the violation of its injunctions. One consequence of this annihilation of productivity ethics is that Australia’s exploitative rates of income tax are deemed “fair”, instead of “unfair”.[14] And there is a second consequence: the disconnection of one’s income from what one has actually done has cleared a space for one epitome of injustice: fraud. Or, in Australian parlance, the rort. After all, some of the country’s most senior judicial officers have declared that one’s income from labour should have nothing to do with what one has added in value, but is solely a matter of what one is “entitled” to. This doctrine was favourably received by the electorate, unsurprisingly; and the electorate has returned the favour to public authority by its complaisance of corruption in that authority, both the formally illicit and the sanctioned. Everyone is “in it”.[15]

But if bureaucracy and mateship capture the wherein of AE, there remains the question of how these phenomena acquired such significance in Australia.

The putative underlying causes of AE can be organised into two types of explanations, the “economic-environmental”, and the “cultural-historical”.

As one of the least densely populated countries in the world, the key candidate of the economic-environmental type of cause is Australia’s abundance of space and scarcity of population. A small population may signify on account of it facilitating collusion. With fewer people it is just simpler to organise “action in concert”; the stitch-up requires fewer stiches. Additionally, the smaller the number of players in any collusive agreement, the smaller the reward from breaking ranks, as there are fewer “mugs” left keeping ranks to free-ride on by so breaking. As AE may be construed as a sweeping anti-competitive machination, by these logics a small population takes on a potential significance. But, obviously, many countries are smaller still than Australia, including New Zealand, which in the past generation has so radically departed from the Australian model. Perhaps New Zealand is just too small, just too incomplete, to suffer from what Davies called the Australian “illusion of completeness”. It cannot hope to get away with construing itself as a complete society, and so—to illustrate—has never absurdly made its public service a closed shop to its own nationals. Perhaps Australia has just large enough a population to suffer from a small one.

Great area attracted more attention from theorists of the Exception. Russel Ward invoked pastoral Australia as a Turneresque forcing house of the Australian outlook. The “sundering distances” of the frontier, he claimed, demanded a fraternal ethos, and that was realised most intensely amongst shearers. The critic may respond that the US, too, had a frontier. But that frontier, said Ward, was agricultural and not pastoral; sod busters, not sheep shearers. At about the same time as Ward was writing, Joan McKenzie aired a further supposed difference between the two frontiers: the American frontier was a matter of family, while the Australian outback was “no place for a woman”. As a family is never a brotherhood, the absence of family makes a space for mateship. That absence also eliminates the role of the father. Thus pastoral Australia is implicated in the “slaying the father” noted by historians of nineteenth-century Australia, and in that incongruous Australian conjunction of mateship and matriduxy.[16] Perhaps the most effective criticism of Ward’s thesis is found in more recent historical investigations that have, in effect, debunked Ward’s vision of shearing mateship.[17]

W.K. Hancock used the same physical reality that Ward did—space—but without Ward’s fancy of the New Fraternal Man being forged on the banks of the Barcoo. In Hancock’s telling, Old Adam in a young country, now emancipated from the low expectations of a former low status, was more assertive than ever in bettering himself. But Australia soon afforded him the palpable lesson that individualistic processes—the market—under-provide key public goods (river systems management, for example). Nor would such processes provide necessary competition in the context of “natural monopolies” (utilities, communications, transport). And, possibly, they may not enable private providers of infrastructure (railways?) to fully annex the social benefits of such infrastructure, and yet still leave them stuck with their social costs. Homo australiensis rationally responded by instituting extensive collective provision, and its necessary attendants, bureaucracy and the state.

One upshot of Hancock’s vision of the Australian Exception is that its collectivism amounts to a strategy rather than an ethos; a strategy to fill each swag to the full. (“A fair go means money,” as Donald Horne observed). Above all, Australian collectivism is, in Hancock’s account, a rational strategy; a rational adaptation to circumstances. To the extent that Hancock was right, the AE is normalised.

But (again) the United States provides a counterexample. It, too, has a massive, dry underpopulated West, where the state is extensively deployed. But the many particular uses of collective action there evidently have not reconciled the American public (in its West especially) to a general creed of collectivism. Hancock’s infrastructural vision of the Australian Exception also furnishes nothing to account for other aspects of the Exception, most notably labour market regulation. On that topic Hancock resorts, after all, to mateship—but with a twist. Australian society is certainly homogenised, Hancock seems to say. But it is not integrated. It is a fluid mass of identical atoms. And that social “state of matter”, says Hancock, fosters not fellow-feeling, but jealousy; the resentment by one identical atom of any preference shown for another identical atom. The market might seem a device little vulnerable to such resentment of preference; for in an unregulated and competitive market Farmer Dan and Farmer Dave will receive exactly the same price for their wheat. But, alas, they receive the same price regardless of the distance of each from the buyer! This evidently constitutes an unendurable implicit preference for whoever is the more proximate to the consumer. Thus, with the passage of every eight years, Australia now spends about one billion dollars on the Tasmanian Wheat Freight Scheme, and companion schemes, in order to compensate Tasmania for the existence of Bass Strait. Introduced by Whitlam government, the schemes have recently been renewed and extended by the Coalition government.

If even the competitive market can be construed as a preferential device, then the actions of the state will be far more vulnerable to such resentful imputations. In 1860 one British visitor found Tasmania had imposed a tax on wine imports that appeared to be of prohibitive size. This situation of a tariff yielding no revenue would seem to promise a “free lunch”: by reducing that tariff wine drinkers would be better off, and, with now positive revenue, governments could both increase spending while still reducing the tax burden (somewhat) on other taxpayers. But beer drinkers demanded that any reduction on the tax on wine be matched by an equal reduction in the tax on beer. The prohibitive tax remained. This sort of jealousy incited by the use of executive power may account for some of the weakness of the state in Australia, despite its permeation of life. Jealous of its use, Australians have gladly resorted to the delegation of executive power to “independent” statutory authorities.

A third difficulty with Hancock’s infrastructural vision of the Australian Exception is that the collective action that he deems so productive was, in fact, often so disastrous. Above all, railways—that, uniquely to Australia, were built, owned and operated by government—were wasteful of labour and capital; deliberately fostered an anti-social multiplication of gauges; and continued to expand after the advent of motor transport, in defiance of any economic calculation. Additionally, the Railways Commissions that were instituted in the late nineteenth century provided a template for the commissions that soon multiplied far and wide throughout the land. These railways bureaucracies were also huge: one in sixteen employees in Australia in the 1920s worked in the railways—and were in consequence politically powerful. For one quarter of the century that the Eveleigh railway workshops in Sydney operated, the position of the Premier of New South Wales was filled by its former operatives.

We are led to the thought that bureaucracy is not to be explained as a rational adaption to physical circumstances, but instead by the enculturation of an historical context. We are led to “cultural-historical” explanations of AE, and Australia’s experience is suggestive of such theories.

Thus Australia’s penchant for bureaucracy might be traced to the fact that Australia was once a colony:

Possibly the most enduring feature of any colonial regime, one of the first to appear and the last to leave, is the administrator, the colonial bureaucrat, high, middle and low. [18]

The highest stratum of the original bureaucratic management of Australia was yet another bureaucracy, the Colonial Office, presided over in the key years 1825 to 1845 by James Stephen, a “strict legalist” with a “passion for system and uniformity”.[19] The next stratum consisted of the governors, who, too, were public servants, in as much as they were accountable to the Colonial Secretary. The example of elevated and conscientious colonial governors—Macquarie, Bourke, King—may have provided archetypes for the procession of industrious and overweening public servants that have been so conspicuous in Australian life. The third stratum was the local staff. The excellence and profusion in Australia of that useful tool of government—government statisticians, or “statists”—may be ultimately traceable to the recurrent tyre-kicking by Great Britain of her doubtful colonial asset.

Perhaps the authoritarianism with which social organisation is implicitly laden may be traced to the parade-ground character of the original European settlement: for its first thirty-five years the military officer governors of New South Wales, unlike North American governors, ruled as might an absolute monarch. Thus E.O.G. Shann—surely the most eloquent critic of Australian exceptionalism—wrote that more of Australia than the crooked streets of Sydney can be traced to the period’s military rule. But this command-society vision of the first generation of European settlement has been challenged. In John Hirst’s conception New South Wales was a “convict colony” rather than a penal colony; one which barely had a prison to speak of for its first thirty-five years, and in which there reigned the rule of law, not the rule of man. Yet its texture was highly authoritarian, as the rule of law sanctioned one man to make the rules. A governor could (and did) ordain thirty-one lashes for any deserting (free) seaman, separate mother and child without compunction, and require every free person to present themselves at an appointed place and time for each “population muster”.

Alternatively, the strength of social organisation in Australia might be traceable to the very legality that characterised both the original military society and the liberal civilian society that succeeded it. In the beginning was the law: within six months of the establishment of Sydney, “There was not … even a bridge over the Tank Stream but there was already a flourishing legal system”.[20] In a new society such as this, lawyers, as Tocqueville stressed, will constitute its sole aristocracy. No aristocratic class is renowned for its humility, and the bench in Australia has been ready to “slaughter” legislation under various principles of judicial review, with a “devastating effect … on the balance of constitution” (Hancock); on occasions to virtually claim the right to choose a Chief Justice[21]; to subject entire dimensions of economic life to judicial legislation; and several times to construe the mere criticism of a court decision as contempt of court, while at the same time bearing “contempt for the judgement of parliament and Executive” (Sawer).[22] Perhaps most signal of judicial pride is the readiness of the bench in Australia to annexe for itself the ancient right to decide guilt or innocence, while extirpating the Constitution’s forlorn guarantee of a right to trial by jury.[23] The pitch of glory to which the law has been lifted in Australia is surely reflected in the rampant profusion of law students. Australia today has forty-one law schools; Canada has sixteen. Australia annually graduates, per head of population, five times the number of law students that the United States does.[24] There are now two law students for every employed lawyer. In 2011 Gifford Chance had 200 applicants for six summer clerk positions, and, by 2015, 600.

Australia, then, has proved a rich field for the “empire of law”—the cultivation of the prerogatives, refinements, extensions and ramifications of the law. But any “legalism” defined in these terms hardly constitutes a social philosophy. One may imagine a legalism of contract, of property, and of tort; a legalism of individualism; the legalism characteristic of the USA, which is indisputably a legalistic society, but one where legalism serves individualist values. In Australia, legalism has done otherwise. It is legal constructivism that captures best the bite of “legalism” of Australia; the presumption that the law is the best tool to make the world a better place. So, whereas positivists might pin their hopes on science in making the world a better place; and moralists on morality; and liberals on freedom; in confronting any problem, legal constructivists will reach for a new law.

But whence legal constructivism? It is tempting to trace legal constructivism to Benthamism, a social philosophy flourishing in Europe at the very time of the European settlement of Australia. But this hypothesis faces a difficulty: the consequentialism that is essential to Benthamism would have been a powerful solvent of any cultural-historical current, even legal constructivism. The truest modern heir of Benthamism is “law and economics”; and that body of thought that holds the law to account beyond legal canons. Tellingly, “law and economics” is barely taught in Australian universities. Tellingly, “law and economics” was created in the United States, and flourishes there.

The point is that consequence looms much larger in the United States than Australia, and this diminution of consequence is one of the underpinnings of AE. This neglect of consequence is perhaps traceable to one of the possible “whereins” of AE that has not greatly interested its theorists, despite being (inevitably) remarked by them. I am referring to what I will call an “impoverished sphere of meaning”. By such a sphere is meant that range of human activity born of an itch to find point and “meaning”; to discover in the here and now signs revealing hidden purpose and function. This sphere may be shrivelled or swollen. At one extreme we can imagine a state of consciousness reduced to an animal sense of particulars; an extreme probably only approached in persons of abnormally low intelligence or abnormally restricted life experience. At the other extreme we can conceive of a consciousness excitedly seeking function, purpose and the manifestations of something beyond. From such a pinnacle various states of mediocrity in this sphere can be reached, and by several paths. The state of mind that results from a successful search for meaning (typically confidence or certitude), can detach from the means of search, and float freely in an attitudinal stratosphere. Alternatively, the reasoning that reveals and makes links can decay into fallacy and fancy (“star signs”). Third, the sense of sign can degenerate into ritualism, the incantational, and the ceremonial; mistaking numerals for numbers; meaninglessness and mystery for meaning.

This impoverishment of the sphere of meaning in Australia produces a perpetual frustration of critics at the marginality of “intellectuals”. But it extends way beyond their plight to encompass the (less admitted) “poverty of discourse” in the country (John Hirst); the awfulness of Australia’s universities; the valuelessness of an arts degree in elite recruitment; right up to the tomfoolery of Australian public life.[25] Australians, it was long ago observed, have a taste for dressing up, but little talent for drama. It all betokens a weak sphere of meaning.

The relevance of the impoverished sphere of meaning for the present inquiry is that the pre-eminence of rituals and mystique over protean principle has had a settling and stabilising impact on Australian society. Thus the immobilising spell cast by the mystiques of law and labourism, so closely intertwined in Australia,[26] so united in their disregard for consequence. Thus the various fetishes of Australian history: “free, compulsory and secular” (intoned through deserted Parents and Citizens meetings throughout the land); one pound an acre; seven shillings per day; the two-and-a-half-inch-wide wool comb. It is tempting to describe these fixations as “ideological”; yet they are not ideological insofar as that term conveys any rootedness in ideas. Ideas are the adversary of all such inflexible formularies.[27] Perhaps it is on account of a sense of this antagonism that, in Australia, “ideology” is the instant reprimand that ideas receive from the devotees of these fixations.

In the impoverished sphere of meaning we have a fourth candidate for the endurance of AE. Australia—pharisaical rather than prophetical—lacks that agitating aspect of ideas that would have broken moulds. Instead it prefers to strike attitudes in the shallower reaches of meaning: the incantational and the ceremonial. Thus the Dawn Service; thus Australia’s naturalisation ceremonies (what country spends more energy on them?); and the excruciating “welcome to country” (where else in the world …?).[28]

But why this weakness of ideas? It is easy to hazard some facilitating factors. The lack of urgency of Australia’s problems—at least to those capable of thinking about them—is doubtless contributing. And the very stability of Australia discourages social thought, as first principles in social matters are only sought in earnest when things go topsy-turvy. The inevitable spectatorialism of intellectual life in a marginal society must sap its intellectual vigour. All these conjectures are in some measure captured by a cultural-historical explanation of AE in terms of its intellectual stasis that Louis Hartz presented two generations ago.

Hartz saw Australia’s inertness as amounting to a lack of ideological combustion, which he traced to the homogeneity in the social materials of Australia’s foundation. That homogeneity was in turn explained by it being a settler society. For as souls need bodies, ideas need social formations; and Hartz maintained that the social complexity of European society never survived the voyage from embarkation to frontier. A simulacrum of that complexity may appear, but not its reality, and the upshot of this social simplification was that the dynamic of European culture was lost; the thesis had left its antithesis behind in the Old World, and in the New World history ceased the moment it began, with the one successfully transplanted section of society in solitary and sterile possession. In the application of his theory to Australia, Hartz held that the one successfully transplanted section was the working class, which was left with an inert but stable ideological ascendancy.

Much is unargued or dogmatic in Hartz’s theory. (Why can’t social complexity be transported? Why doesn’t complexity re-establish itself? Must ideas be borne by, or map into, elements of the social complex?)

And there are other explanations of New World societies in terms of the social contents of their origins, which ignore Hartz’s theory of ideas, but instead simply invoke the traits of foundation immigrants. Such explanations of New World societies in terms of ethnic origins have seen a revival in recent decades, but with a new stress on the complexity of these origins. Delving into the complexity of Australia’s relatively simple national origins reveals that the one difference from the Anglosphere was the heavy strain in Australia of Irish immigration. But what was the upshot of this? Perhaps the most conspicuous distinguishing contribution of Irish Catholic immigrants, and their immediate descendants, was violence.[29] (Correspondingly, Sir Roger Therry, of the Supreme Court of New South Wales, opined that he never saw a Methodist in a law court.) But such a distinguishing contribution can hardly make for the Australian difference, as the “quiet continent” is not unusually violent by the standards of obvious comparators. Rather the opposite. And, more generally, any ethnic category must, in the face of variation within the category, be a frustratingly insufficient explanation of what it purports to explain; scooping up (in this case) everyone from Ned Kelly to Sir Roger Therry (born in Cork, an associate of Daniel Connell, and a pre-eminent lay Catholic of New South Wales). Further, the presumption that traits of an ethnic category are simply those displayed in their country of origin is made doubtful, at least in this case, by the seeming absence in the descendants of Irish immigrants of supposedly typical Irish characteristics. “In Australia they are grim, purposeful and successful in most walks of life—not conspicuously Celtic, not a people of poets and orators, but of organisers”.[30]

The Irish, then, may illustrate how an environment can dissolve a cultural inheritance. A common feature of economic-environmental explanations is that culture won’t make a difference in the long run. In other words, quite different cultural starting points will yield the same ultimate destination. By contrast, a common feature of cultural-historical explanations is that only somewhat different starting points can lead to very different long-run outcomes, even in similar environments (New England v New France). It appears that the categories of “economic-environmental” and “cultural-historical” seem to correspond with “stable” and “unstable” systems. In the “economic-environmental” the impact of a disturbing shock is temporary and fading over time; in the cultural-historical the implications of a cultural bequest are amplified over time.

But there is a third conception of the relationship between historical necessity and contingency that may be relevant to AE. In this conception, there exists no long-run destination that supposedly defies all incident along the journey; but neither is there some original shock that, defying any subsequent erosion by context, just grows and grows. This conception might be called “inertial”. In this conception, shocks will have an impact; and that impact will neither fade over time, nor amplify, but persist. The underlying logic of the inertial being, not that that the shock was a matter of indifference, but good or bad it can’t be undone at a cost that is worth the benefit.

For the sake of clarity, let me reach for a concrete illustration of this inertial conception of history: railway gauges. The arbitrary decision in 1853 to use the “standard” railway gauge in New South Wales was not overwhelmed by the use of other gauges; but neither did it overwhelm them. Australia was left stuck by that decision with both a “broad” and “standard” gauge. Other “fateful” decisions might be found in Australian history. The decision in 1786 to annex to the British Crown all land east of the 135th meridian—so much more than the “Coast, Bays, Harbours Rivers and Islands situate” of Captain Cook’s claim—may be held responsible for two centuries of agonies of land tenure in Australia; and yet is impossible to undo. Another, if lesser, “fateful” decision was the creation of the Northern Territory in 1910—ultimately resulting in a pseudo-polity that would be hard to invent, and even harder to uninvent.

For the purposes of explaining AE, perhaps Federation most exemplifies the inertial thesis. Federation was a “shock”. It almost didn’t happen. New South Wales was hostile, and in 1899 Greater Sydney voted No (by a narrow margin). Perhaps Federation would not have occurred if New South Wales politics had had the equal of Sir John Robertson (who died in 1891), instead of lightweights (Barton), mediocrities (Lyne), shape-shifters (Reid) and show ponies (Wise). The contingency of Federation is further underlined by the surprise that greeted Parkes’s “Tenterfield Oration”. And by the fact that, as John McCarty argued years ago, there was something gratuitous about Australia’s decision to federate; it lacked the pressing circumstances that forged Canada’s.[31]

Second, Federation had a huge impact, rapidly producing White Australia, protection and compulsory arbitration.[32] The Constitution does not prescribe any of these, but it made them possible. In particular, the Constitution’s licence to the Commonwealth to legislate for compulsory arbitration—admitted to the draft constitution on the third attempt, at the meretricious entreaty of H.B. Higgins, and by a margin of twenty-two to nineteen following the gratuitous defection of Western Australia—seems deeply fateful. And once such possibilities had become realities, the Constitution impeded escape.

Federation also created the High Court of Australia, touched upon so lightly by the Constitution itself, but with huge import. It is a commonplace that within twenty years of its creation the High Court became an active agent in the replacement of a genuine federalism by Australia’s bizarre facade federalism. Further to AE, by monopolising income tax power in the Commonwealth, the High Court destroyed income tax competition between the seven legislatures. And it massively strengthened compulsory arbitration by lending it its own prestige, and by undermining competition between the states in industrial relations. All these decisions being “constitutional”, they were difficult to undo, however bad or good they were. Constitutions are by design difficult to change. And the constitutional leaps that the High Court has made under extreme circumstances—thus the upholding two days before the Battle of Midway of the plainly counter-constitutional annexation of income tax powers by the Commonwealth—presumably could only be reversed by other sufficiently extreme circumstances.

Perhaps the claim about federalism might be best aired by entertaining the counterfactual, and envisioning the variety and flexibility that six omnicompetent parliaments might have yielded in its stead. But is this vision an illusion? The centralisation of twentieth-century Australia is pre-figured long before Federation by the readiness of the six parliaments to legislate uniformly in the nineteenth century. One historian of education has judged it remarkable that “six quite independent, self-governing colonies” could conclude in making “identical arrangements for themselves”.[33] But why, then, this impulse of the states to play “Simon says” with one another? Perhaps federalism was a thing outlandish to Australians of the late nineteenth century: each colony, after all, had conducted itself as a unitary state, in unconscious imitation of the parent polity. Their historical inheritance left them reaching for a unitary state. And the geographical obstacles to such a unitary state might have seemed mild compared to those of Canada and the US. Perhaps in Federation there meets the three underlying explanations of AE—the inertial, the cultural-historical, and the economic-environmental.

How The three categories of explanation of AE are differently suggestive of the prognosis of Australia’s state. Economic-environmental explanations tend to be optimistic; all the emphasis in such explanations is on AE as an adaptation. But to view AE as adaptational in current circumstances seems untenable. The renewed strength of AE over the past decade has coincided with a seeming complete incapacity of Australia to adapt to the mildest challenges: despite growing economically in every year since 1993 Australia’s fiscal position is now worse than that of the US, and unemployment is higher. Cultural-historical explanations, by contrast, do not commit themselves to an optimism of adaptation: enculturation is a blind bequest of history, not a choice of the present day. The inertial category of explanation fosters neither optimism nor pessimism, and appears to sit most easily with quietism. But quietism seems psychologically intolerable. Quietism, however, is not strictly entailed by the cosmology of inertia. That cosmology commits to the futility of trying to hammer the present mould into a better shape, but it is not committed to seeing that mould as invincible. It holds out, then, the consoling possibility of a sufficiently dislocating shock that shatters the cast of past decisions. But like all consoling possibilities, this possibility needs to be regarded with some circumspection.

Only in Australia: The History, Politics and Economics of Australian Exceptionalism, edited by William Coleman, will be published by Oxford University Press in July.


[1] The middle class was, of course, the object of Menzies solicitation in his “Forgotten People” address. The title was well chosen.

[2] The private health insurance rebate will be cited as evidence to the contrary. But the rebate is (what else?) means-tested, and vanishes at $140,000 p.a. for a single person. And it is part and parcel of the penalty on those who choose to rely on free-to-user government hospitals. This penalty is devised to deter those of above average earnings from using the hospitals they so largely finance, and amounts to $1750 pa for a single person on $140,000 p.a. The concessional taxation of superannuation will also be cited. But it is worth noting that Australia’s undeniably anomalous taxation of superannuation may be traced back to the resolve of the Hughes Labor government to shield the superannuation payments to railway workers from the newly instituted income tax. It is possible that the National Disability Insurance Scheme will prove to be the greatest piece of “middle class welfare” Australia has seen.

[3] “Random breath testing” is circumscribed by constitutional considerations in the United States. “Safety” is an Australian fixation.

[4] A Plea for Liberty : an Argument Against Socialism and Socialistic Legislation¸ T. Mackay ed, 1891.”Charles Fairfield” is a pseudonym.

[5] A.A. Phillips expressed this presumption forthrightly: “I believed that … national communities displayed distinguishing characteristics almost as individual as those which marked human beings” (in Intellectual Movements and Australian Society, B Head and J. Walter eds,1988 ).

[6] Real Commonwealth spending on schools increased 55 percent between 2003/4 to 2012/13. Over those years Australia’s ranking in the PISA test of schools maths fell from 8th place amongst OECD countries to 12th; from 4th to 10th in science; and 4th to 8th in reading.

[7] Anthony Trollope Victoria and Tasmania, 1875, p178

[8] Greg Moore, “Millmow on the Australian Response to the 1930s Depression”, History of Economics Review, 2012.

[9] And McKay was representing the Commonwealth Liberal Party in a seat that the party had previously held.

[10] F. Eggleston in The Australian Way of Life, G. Caiger ed., 1953, p. 11. Thus D.H. Lawrence’s aperçu about the Australian outlook—that the “better off” are not “better than” – might be more sharply distinguished from the American as “not “better than” on account of being “better off”“.

[11] Unlike mateship, the acutely bureaucratized flavor of Australian life is not as a general phenomenon widely acknowledged, even if it excesses, fatuities and cruelties are protested. Perhaps because it is the least flattering to Australia, it is most remarked by visitors. From 1875: “everything is centralised” (Trollope, Victoria and Tasmania). From 2015: “Nanny state rules making Australia “world’s dumbest nation”“, (T Brûlé in Sydney Morning Herald, 28 May, p. 4).

[12] N. Brennan, Dr Mannix 1964.

[13] Subsequent to the 50 percent increase in tobacco excise legislated by the Rudd government, it seems likely that Australia will be extracting three times as much such tax from each smoker as does Canada; and five times as much does the United States.

[14] In 2015/16 a graduate, who had not acquitted their HELP liability, would pay 46.5 cents in income tax on every extra dollar they earned if their annual income was $95,000 (not even 20% more than average earnings). Only in Australia could this rack-renting of energy, intelligence and self-command be called “fairness”.

[15] John Whiting, Be in It, Mate! 1969.

[16] See D.L. Adler in Australian Society: A Sociological Introduction, A.F. Davies and S Encel (eds). And see Ronald Conway in The Great Australian Stupor on the “psychologically fatherless community”.

[17] J. Merritt “Shearers, mountain stockmen and the Australian legend”, Journal of Australian Colonial History 2008. R. O”Malley, Mateship and Moneymaking: Australian Shearing: The Clash of Union Solidarity with the Spirit of Enterprise, 1895–1995. 2013.



[18] S.J. Stein and B. H. Stein, The Colonial Heritage of Latin America: Essays on Economic Dependence in Perspective, 1970.

[19] D. Pike, Paradise of Dissent: South Australia 1829–1857, 1957.


[20] B. Kercher, Debt, Seduction, and Other Disasters: The Birth of Civil Law in Convict New South Wales,1996.

[21] There are recent examples, but, as ever, it is not hard to find earlier parallels. Thus in 1886 the bench of NSW forced the resignation of Sir Julian Salomons as Chief Justice before he took the oath. Salomons had the support of the legal profession at large and the organs of public opinion.

[22] G. Sawer. Federalism: An Australian Jubilee Study, 1952.

[23] Justice H.B. Higgins opposed this provision. Are we surprised?

[24] In 2014 Australia graduated about 14,600 law students; the United States 37,894.

[25] For some corroborative material see Shelley Gare’s The Triumph of the Airheads 2006.

[26] For many interesting details of this conjugality, see Michael Kirby’s paper, “Industrial Relations Law—Call off the Funeral”.

[27] See R.D. Putnam “Studying Elite Political Culture: The Case of “Ideology”“, American Political Science Review, 1971.

[28] The flavour of these poses doubtless reflects the weakness of the middle class, à la Hartz. Without any greater strength of ideals, but with a stronger bourgeois presence, bourgeois realism might have produced instead a suite of Benjamin Franklinesque rituals.

[29] See R.B Walker, “Bushranging in Fact and Legend”, Historical Studies, 1964.

[30] F. Eggleston in The Australian Way of Life, G. Caiger ed., 1953

[31] “Australia as a region of recent settlement in the nineteenth century”, Australian Economic History Review, 1973.

[32] The fact that all these measures were taken before the first majority ALP government (in 1910) underlines how inessential to the strength AE has been a predominance of a Labor party. The national capital had also been located, in Canberra, prior to that Labor government; a classically inertial decision. The decision to locate, for its first quarter century, the capital of the new Federation in Melbourne also had a long-lasting impact. In 1965 the biographer of the son-in-law of Alfred Deakin wrote “the initial quarter century of federation have given the temporary capital permanent financial and industrial advantages. Even 40 years later they do not seem likely to be overcome”. R.D. Rivett Australian Citizen: Herbert Brookes.

[33] P. H.Partridge, Society, Schools, and Progress in Australia, 1968.


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