The Long Search for Australia’s Elusive Identity

Boosterism was satirised by Member J. Proctor Knott in his 1871 Speech “The Untold Delights of Deluth” in the United States Congress; and by Sinclair Lewis in his novels Main Street (1920) and Babbitt (1922). It was common in the middle to late decades of the twentieth century in Australia, where the field of “public relations” linked up with the agonised quest for “Australian national identity”. Wilfred Sheed (1930–2011) writing in Frank and Maisie, his memoir of his parents, the publishers Frank Sheed and Maisie Ward, had this to say about Australia in the 1950s:

In some respects, Australia reminded me of a good Edwardian school cut adrift in the Pacific, using the same library and the same chapel, but stranger and farther from the source every year. The famous Sydney Bulletin, with its nineteenth-century layout, had a weird aesthetic attraction: it was old-fashioned and yet it had never happened before. On the floating school, it had developed a manner that belonged to no time or place …

And the same was true of Australians in general. Being so far away from so many world capitals, they were free to pick and choose among the goods that washed up there. One poet, for instance, the splendid James McCauley, [sic] wrote hauntingly in the manner of John Dryden; a jazz man called Spike Hughes so identified himself with Jelly Roll Morton, down to a slight and painful-looking stoop, that it was beyond imitation: it was duplication. In his heart, mind and voice, the Sydney boy was Mr Jelly Lord playing up a storm in a New Orleans whorehouse … Even Patrick White the novelist gets some of his strength from the fact that you don’t know where the voice is coming from. Again it is old-fashioned and completely original. And that is, or was, Australia …

Great virtuosity could come out of this freedom, but there was necessarily something secondhand about it, as if the boys in the prop room had decided to combine Restoration wigs, Elizabethan ruffs and business suits. Not that the effects were necessarily calculated: Frank [Sheed], for instance, was always completely himself. It was just that some of his parts were made abroad and assembled along unusual lines in Australia. For this reason perhaps, Australians have a special fascination with their own identity: “Who are we anyway?” was a burning question in 1954 and I’m told it burns on today. One could always turn a quid writing pieces called “What Is an Australian and Whither?”. [1]

Some of those observations were of continuing validity; and certainly there was, in the period roughly from 1960 to about, let us say 1988, taking the Australian bicentennial year as a convenient point, a more or less constant flow of print by Australians pondering upon Australia, its people and their “national characteristics”, its “progress” and its trajectory in the world. This type of thing became a “hardy perennial” indeed; and one could instance many titles, which in themselves tell the story: The Australians (Goodman and Johnston, 1966), The World and Australia (eds. Zeigler and Turnbull), Australia: This Land These People (ed. Fraser, 1971), Life in Australia (eds. McGregor and Beal, 1968), The Australians (Hall, 1984), The Oz Factor: Who’s Doing What in Australia (Edwards and Coyne, 1980). Some of these are discussed below. They built upon a successful pattern established in Farwell and Johnston’s This Land of Ours: Australia published by Angus & Robertson as early as 1949. Other, earlier, books took the plainer approach in titling: hence, Australia: A Camera Study (Frank Hurley, 1955) and Australia (Maurice Berney, ed. Cyril Pearl, 1965), both of which were distinguished by excellent colour photography and accompanying essays. Then, there was Russel Ward’s rather polemical text The Australian Legend in 1958, which had a considerable vogue and led to plenty of debate. Donald Horne’s The Lucky Country (1964), which is so often instanced in this genre, became perhaps the best-known and most-quoted, (and also inevitably much misquoted) book in this field. In 1967, Horne teamed up with David Beal to produce the perhaps even more interesting Southern Exposure, a book of photographs from across the gamut of Australian life, with accompanying essays. It said and showed some sharp and provocative things, which rather belied its “coffee table” format; and it therefore achieved, on a wider front, an overall effect rather as Robin Boyd’s The Australian Ugliness (1960) had done in respect of Australian architecture and design. In 1962 came the fine series of essays edited by the late Peter Coleman and published as Australian Civilization, which provided a mature and considered overview of what had by then been achieved in the arts and letters in Australia and other aspects of national life. Amongst other things, it included James McAuley’s pungent essay on “Literature and the Arts”, as well as Peter Coleman’s piece on “The New Australia”. In 1963, we had The Pattern of Australian Culture, edited by A.L. McLeod. Earlier, in the 1950s, Australia Writes and Australian Signpost (ed. Hungerford, 1956) had appeared as anthologies for the Canberra Fellowship of Australian Writers. And in 1956, of course, came the signal foundation of Quadrant. In the 1970s, a good series of large format books on Australian public and domestic architecture and historic places, published under the auspices of the National Trust of Australia from 1969 onwards, more widely disseminated themes which had occupied architectural writers and artists such as Morton Herman and W. Hardy-Wilson, and started a major vogue for books on matters relating to what came broadly to be termed the Australian “national heritage”.

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In the decade or so leading up to the 1976 Bicentenary of the United States of America, there had been in that country a similar upsurge of interest in national history and national heritage matters.[2] In Australia, there was likewise a plethora of publications, too numerous to mention here, in and around 1988. The Captain Cook Bicentenary in 1970 had already brought its own anticipation of “commemorative” publications in Australia; and amongst the most notable of these was Two Centuries: Australia 1770–1970, published by the Australian News and Information Bureau. It was an impressive effort, attractive yet informative, largely a picture book but with some descriptive texts. It followed in many ways the by then well-established formula of an appeal by striking photographs, many in vibrant colour, of Australian scenes and manners. (Incidentally, its twelve-inch-square, medium-thickness format has long since made it an ideal “spacer” as used by collectors of LP recordings! But that was a bonus.) Another and larger such book was Australia 200 (Zeigler, 1970).

It should be noted both here and in the wider scholarly context, the appearance in 1958 of The Australian Encyclopaedia in ten volumes with index, published by Grolier and edited by Alec Chisholm, had been another notable influence which no doubt provided a stimulus and a resource that became in the 1960s and 1970s a spur for many of the more popular publications of the kind under review here, as well as providing useful references for the more serious and academic works. This set of red volumes reached many Australian homes in the 1960s. It had been preceded by The Australian Junior Encyclopaedia, first issued in 1951, but published in a revised, much expanded and very attractive version in 1961. One should add here mention of the appearance in 1955 of Australia: A Social and Political History, edited by Professor Gordon Greenwood, which had a wide circulation in the universities and may be regarded as initiating a new trend. R.M. Younger’s The Changing World of Australia (1963) was a documentary effort aimed at informing Americans about Australia; its author had been Publicity Director for the Olympic Games in Melbourne in 1956. In that connection, the Australian Publicity Council published Land of the Southern Cross with suitable keynotes from Prime Minister Menzies and Premier Bolte. Amongst many other works portraying Australia for a wider audience, the art historian, scholar and adventurer John Bechervaise’s remarkable and delightful Australia: World of Difference (1967) particularly stands out.

However, much of the writing in the lesser and more popular works was pitched at the level of the unabashed boosterism of the tourist brochure, the trade delegation booklet, or the “house journal” of a newish nation. Some of it was in a more reflective tone, although a great deal of that now reads as having been in a self-satisfied, or even a complacent, vein. Only a comparatively few writers sought to go further and into any more serious examination or questioning of the then contemporary nostrums about Australia. Of course, it was not only a matter of Australians commenting upon their own country. Many visitors had done so, both in the more distant, as well as the more recent, past. Examples of the latter included Arnold Haskell’s Waltzing Matilda: A Background to Australia (1940) and Australia, a set of serious essays edited by C. Harley Grattan (1947); and in 1953, just before the 1954 Royal Visit, Ian Bevan edited The Sunburnt Country: Profile of Australia, a collection of essays by Australian writers in Britain, introduced by Gilbert Murray, President of the Society of Australian Writers. This small book was illustrated with black-and-white photographs and a striking cover by the London-based Australian scenic artist Loudon Sainthill. It would have been very useful reading for both the Royal Household Staff and also the Australian officials concerned in that historic progress. Indeed, from a note on the dust jacket, it appears that the Queen read the book. Incidentally, it is remarkable how many Australian commentators, then and now, failed to recognise that this was not merely a royal visit just to Australia, but was in fact part of a wider tour of Commonwealth countries in the Pacific region, including New Zealand, Fiji and Tonga. This in itself was a sign of the inwardness and the localism, which “informed” (that is, limited) so much of the Australian commentariat. However, by 1961, we see in John Douglas Pringle’s Australian Accent a very astute observation of Australian society, by an urbane and cosmopolitan writer who was well placed, in serving as editor of the Sydney Morning Herald, to provide a good appreciation and a vivid sketch of Australians and their ways, given from a modern European perspective.

Soon after this, during the 1960s and into the 1970s, there followed a series of books, most frequently of the “coffee table” variety, with some of them including what were at least thoughtful texts, upon similar general themes. Perhaps the best example was The Australians, which came out in its first edition in 1966; and, if the frequency with which it turns up in second-hand bookshops even now is an indication, it had a very wide circulation indeed. It is both useful and in some instances, very telling, to revisit some of these texts and to notice just how right, and sometimes so very wrong, the views and the hopes and prognostications turned out to be. In some cases, it is not only a matter of quaintness or of period flavour; often, writers were expressing egregious, patronising, or simply “boosterish” views. Such works are at a remove from formal academic studies in the fields of history, government, sociology or political philosophy. They do partake of a certain “trickling down” effect from such formal studies; but they can have a much wider influence on public perceptions and judgments. This article takes a look at some examples from the range of such publications; and poses the questions whether so very much has changed in Australia’s image of itself in the decades between what Wilfred Sheed recalls from 1954 and until now; and of what that tells us about Australia as a nation in the contemporary world, not just at the level of those fortunate enough to have a high level of education, but at the broader level of the general population of only limited or “middlebrow” reading. As in so much else, it is the “great middle” which is traditionally identified as the element in any polity which mediates between the “elites” and the populace; and which imparts or articulates the broadly held beliefs and basic values within a nation.


WE might take that as a starting point and note an interesting observation by Grattan in his essay contribution to the collection he edited as Australia (1947) published in the United Nations Series of studies under the general editorship of Robert J. Kerner, Sather Professor of History in the University of California. Grattan’s observations seem to have been based largely on his visit to Australia in the immediately pre-Second World War years. He wrote:

In the perspective of history Australia is a creation of nineteenth-century world capitalism. The peculiarities of its history, attributable to purely local developments, have had a profound influence on the circumstances of life in the country. Perhaps the outstanding factor is the absence of a strong middle class able from its own strength to define a social ideal which is acceptable to the majority of the people. It has rarely, if at all, acted independently. Its characteristic role is that of a buffer between the contemporary group with oligarchical tendencies and the working class, favouring now one side, now the other, thus affecting the social balance, but not defining what it should be. Since 1890 the social initiative has been passed between the working class, which seeks a social-democratic ideal, and the moneyed class and its allies, seeking to advance producer interests. The future of the country depends on the compromises between these two formidable groups, or the clashes which the absence of workable compromises may bring about. [3]

Grattan has been aptly described as a “New Deal Intellectual”, but leaving that aside, one wonders whether, if those observations were based upon Grattan’s observations and views as expressed whilst in Australia during the late 1930s, it could be that they and their implications were well noted by Robert Menzies when he made his plea for the “Forgotten People” and the foundation of the Liberal Party of Australia.

Grattan’s edition was an impressive collection of papers by eminent Australian scholars upon the geography, history, political life, public administration, foreign policy, economic life, and the social and cultural life of Australia; as well as containing essays on Australia’s “Native Peoples” by A.P. Elkin, on “Australia’s Interests in the South Pacific Islands” by Gordon Greenwood, on “Australia in the Second World War” by Gavin Long, and on “The Pattern of Reconstruction” by H.C. Coombs. It also included a useful select bibliography. Other contributions came from Kenneth Bailey, Eris O’Brien, John Ward, L.F. Fitzhardinge, Ross Gollan, Sir Frederick Eggleston, Colin Clark, Brian Fitzpatrick, S.J. Butlin, Lloyd Ross, T.H. Kewley, Bernard Smith, Clive Turnbull, Ernest Burgmann and F.A. Bland. Grattan’s edition has to be considered a strong leader in the serious studies made and published of Australia and its development up to and just after the Second World War; and it was a book which had a wide international circulation. It also probably inspired the approach taken by some of the later collections of major essays on Australia and the Australians, which were to appear in the 1960s, notably Australian Civilization edited by Peter Coleman. Indeed, the “symposium” format was to become very much the vehicle for many ruminations upon Australia; and these often, in the 1960s and 1970s, took the form of seminars, symposia or summer schools at our universities that were even sometimes broadcast.

Turning then to Australian Civilization, it is a book which is now something of a collector’s item; and a very good and refreshing thing it was (and is) too. It proved so popular and was at the time so controversial that it went into a second printing within three months. Of it, John Douglas Pringle, who was well qualified to comment, said in a review: “Freed at last from the national myths in which they grew up, Australians can see their country honestly and see it whole.” The line-up of writers was Robin Boyd, Vincent Buckley, Manning Clark, Peter Coleman, Sol Encel, Max Harris, Donald Horne, Robert Hughes, K.S. Inglis, James McAuley, Douglas McCallum, A.A. Phillips, A.G.L. Shaw, Ronald Taft and H.A. Wolfsohn. It was a newer generation beyond the acknowledged luminaries who had featured in Grattan’s book of 1947. There had been very much a quickening of the pace and by 1962, it was clear that a great deal in Australia had changed and was changing even more. As Coleman wrote, “the ferment is real”. [4] He was referring in particular to changes in Australian historiography, but the point was equally applicable to developments in the wider cultural field. Hughes’s essay on “Painting”, Boyd’s on “The Look of Australia” and Buckley’s on “Intellectuals” were indicative. It was also applicable to changes in economic and political life, as indicated by Horne’s piece on “Businessmen”, Encel’s on “Power” and Inglis’s on “The Daily Papers”. Tellingly and usefully, it also included McCallum writing on “The State of Liberty” and Taft on “The Myth and Migrants”. Here was much food for thought.

Coleman remarked, in his introductory essay:

The Australianist attitude to literature is indicated by its use of the summary word “yarn”, which limited the imagination to tales that were amusing, exciting or sentimental but always trivial, and by its obsession with Australianity and bushwhackery as themes—or perhaps as techniques to glamourize the lives and prejudices of the urban masses who demanded this literature.[5]

The book exploded many like obsessions. The flavour of this invigorating exercise is well provided in the following passage from James McAuley’s essay on “Literature and the Arts”, where, after noting that amongst others, Martin Boyd “has explored the tensions between Australian and English social experience”, Patrick White in particular, “stands alone” and:

White’s work so offends the canons of trivial realism prevalent in Australia, and—though so deeply Australian in any real sense—is so out of keeping with the so-called Australian Tradition, that it is probably only his great success overseas that has imposed him on critics whose formula for the great Australian novel runs thus: A.W.U. organizer meets boarding-house-keeper’s daughter; they come together in Chapter 4 under the coolibah tree down by the lagoon; and in Chapter 9 she gives birth to twins named Angus and Robertson. [6]

McAuley was also vigorous, in a friendly and civil way, to correct what he saw as error by John Douglas Pringle pon the matter of the poetry of A.D. Hope and McAuley himself:

Pringle, however, classifies us as upholding an eighteenth-century Augustanism, a comment which has been made in other places. When I look at Hope’s poetry, I see quite an astonishing facility in the adopting of period manners and set styles: baroque, romantic, symbolist and, amongst others, neo-classical … After all, precision and control and form are not merely Augustan ideals …[7]

Here, McAuley rather answers Wilfred Sheed as cited above. A later book taking up such themes and illustrated with good photography was Geoffrey Dutton’s very thoughtful Patterns of Australia (1980).

It is not practicable, even if it were possible, to go into a detailed discussion of all the books typical of the more popular and illustrated genre, which reflected so much of Australians’ views of themselves in the 1960s, 1970s and into the 1980s. Considerations of space limit me to just two such: Goodman and Johnston’s The Australians (1966); and Horne and Beal’s Southern Exposure (1967). First, it is important to note that The Australians came to have a wide appeal and had very good sales. In part, this was because it was a solid and well-crafted production, well bound in hard covers with an attractive impressed linen weave finish and a dust jacket featuring a photograph of a quintessentially Australian felt-hatted bushman or stockman. This was that last golden glow of a period when the standards of book production were still quite high; both in Australia and overseas, they were to decline rapidly after about 1970. Rigby must also have marketed the book very well. It was to be seen on all the best coffee-tables, in the reception rooms of the higher public offices and Australian diplomatic posts, as well as in the lounge rooms of humbler citizenry. The text was by the accomplished Australian writer George Johnston, whilst the production and photography were by Robert B. Goodman and design by Harry Williamson. The first edition came out in September 1966 and for many, it may well have been their first major book purchase in the new decimal currency. It was such a success that a new edition was required by March 1967, followed by reprintings twice that year. Johnston’s introductory essay, “The Land”, runs for the first twenty-three pages, and thereafter, the small blocks of text provided captions to or commentary upon, the many colour plates and black-and-white photographs. The tone of Johnston’s approach is suggested in his very first line of “The Land”: “It was never really intended as a place for people.” The emphasis was upon the continent’s weathered “outcrops of Pre-Cambrian rock” and “the lonely immensities of Australia where one is overwhelmed by an essence of the primal and a silence so heavy that that it is more than silence”. The landscape imagery, well conjured by Johnston, is akin to something out of Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, which was released soon after. The nine succeeding sections, on “The Land’s People”, “The Cities”, “The Mixture”, “The Land Builders”, “The Economy”, “The Sciences”, “The Arts”, “The Sporting Life” and finally and fittingly, “Anzac”, all follow a similar format.

Yet the story is fairly well told, in compact form—and Johnston gets down to the essentials:

From the early and intensely masculine conditioning imposed during stubborn attempts to settle and subdue even a beachhead on this monstrous continent, there evolved a strong sense of social solidarity and general mistrust of imposed authority. With this came a detestation of the “pimp” or informer, of the “crawler”, the “skite” or boaster, of the man who “whinged” or complained of his lot … each was entitled to his fair “go” and until proven otherwise any man was as good as the next one. It was perhaps a crude class of ethics, but no other country ever succeeded in creating virtually a classless society in so brief a time from such very dubious beginnings.

Some of this approach was familiar from Ward’s The Australian Legend, but of course, Ward had started the revisionism. Others would query whether the assertion of a general anti-authoritarianism was really true—after all, some observers had pointed to an actual strain of a strong authoritarianism in Australians, at least often at certain levels, and also a talent for bureaucracy, perhaps due to the early military government. No doubt, Johnston succeeds best where he is emphasising the aridity, the harshness and the hazards of the Australian inland—communicating to say, any European or North American readers, some of the realities of the Australian life in such a landscape. Details such as the heat statistics for Marble Bar in Western Australia “from October 1923 until April 1924, the shade temperature never dropped below 100 for 160 consecutive days” cannot have failed to impress such of his readers. Likewise, “there is an odd, almost dreamlike quality to the Australian explorer stories. They are always faintly Kafka-esque, dislodged from everyday reason.” He quotes Mark Twain on this odd feature: “It does not read like history, but like the most beautiful of lies; and all of a fresh new sort, no mouldy old stale ones.” Johnston sums it up with: “Fitting then, that Sidney Nolan, the painter, and Patrick White the novelist are almost surrealistic in their separate approaches to the explorer stories. Birds are upside down in bizarre landscapes and men are mad.” One wonders, though, whether rather too much had been made of the “explorer trope” in Australian history, art and literature?

A word on the photography—a large measure of the appeal of books like this lay in their photographic presentations. And here the quality was good, both in the quality of reproduction and the striking and often quirky images. They may not have all been obviously Australian (some could well have been pictures taken elsewhere); but many were quite distinctive, even if the fashions were derivative—for example, two “cowboys” at the Warwick Rodeo could be Texans, although the physiognomies were Australian; and they are juxtaposed next to a shot of the strange pseudo-American-Indian “teepee” which stood for many years by the roadside between Brisbane and Toowoomba. Or, the contrasts between the grey pinstripe-trousered and morning-suited male racegoers in the Members Stand at the Melbourne Cup, with the garish colours of the hats and dresses of lady racegoers in the paddock; and photographs of freckled young people at various sports venues and beaches, contrasted with shots of a Government House garden party in Canberra, a meeting of the monthly gourmet dinner of the Escoffier Society in Sydney and some photographs of matrons in fur stoles and orchids arriving at an opening night of grand opera at Her Majesty’s Theatre in Melbourne—the latter much reminiscent of the work of the American actuality photographer “Weegee”. The Sydney Opera House, of course, was still very much only under construction. Science is well portrayed, with the usual shots of antennae arrays and test tubes enlivened by a portrait of Nobel Prize winner Sir Macfarlane Burnet amongst others. In the Arts section are photographs of Sir Russell and Lady Drysdale (complete with cans of beer, cigarette tray and matches) of Sir Robert Helpmann, Dame Joan Sutherland, Judith Wright and Mary Durack. Of special significance are two sequences of telling photographs with their accompanying texts: first, the shots of apprehension on the faces of immigrants arriving at Australian ports, mixed with others showing the emotions of happy family reunions at the dockside, such as the grandfather and Australian-born grandson and a mother and son reunited; and second, the wonderful images in the Anzac section, taken at the Dawn Service at Martin Place in Sydney.

Southern Exposure (1967) by Beal and Horne took a considerably different approach. There was here an even sharper sense of contrast, and indeed of the ridiculous, in the photography and the juxtaposed text by Donald Horne, which dissected the Australian psyche and lampooned its many oddities and byways. Thus, for instance, the photograph of a forty-three-foot yacht squeezed into the forty-four-foot backyard of a house in Sydney—it is hard to see how it was ever moved in or out. Then, “London weather in Melbourne”, a photograph of a couple at the Cup meeting, he in morning suit and top hat, looking miserable, and both sheltering under a shared umbrella. Next, shots of the “visual pollution” by congested signage down a street in Surfers Paradise, and one of cast-iron lace and power poles on an inner Sydney street (just like one of the drawings from Robin Boyd’s The Australian Ugliness). But the most interesting are other “social commentary” photographs: of a barrister, appearing under the heading “Colonial Edwardian”—(as if black-and-white legal garb dated from 1910, rather than about 1710); and another of a lady just managing, with some difficulty, to execute a curtsey before the Governor of New South Wales at a garden party in Sydney, whilst clutching her umbrella. One is reminded here of that grainy genre of “shattering close-ups of public figures caught out or in distress, or of princesses inelegantly climbing over stiles” which is still part of the stock-in-trade of the British tabloid press. It is—momentarily—humorous perhaps, but ultimately rather juvenile in its intention and its tilt. However, Beal’s “Blue Rinse Set” matron with horn-rim glasses, pearls and cigarette, playing a poker machine at a Sydney leagues club, is worthy of Barry Humphries. Beal and Horne carry things to a different level, capturing, for instance, a Neo-Nazi sloganist protesting at a demonstration for Equal Rights for Aborigines; and the discomfiture of a querulous lady with handbag, who seems to be looking for her missing husband, at another Government House garden party in Sydney, while in the background are the still uncompleted sails of the Opera House. There is a delightful shot of a dignified and elderly gentleman with his walking cane, carefully descending the front steps of a well-known private club; but it is marred by a mocking ideological caption: “Precinct of Power”. Some flavour of the book’s approach is given by the titles to its ten sections of text by Horne: “A Transported Civilisation”, “Deserts of Disaster” (those explorers again), “The Same but Different”, “Life in the South Seas”, “Boxes of Brick” (with photograph of Sydney house-roofs surmounted by the monumental masonry of Rookwood Cemetery and noting Robin Boyd’s critiques), “Mates” (of course), “Non-Mates” (again, of course), “Bosses” (inevitably), “The New Australia” and finally “The Existential Australia”. In this latter, Horne concluded:

Australia was once the country of socialisme sans doctrines. It may now become the country of a kind of existentialisme sans crise. The highly sceptical quality of Australians was never a purely class characteristic … Anyway, as it is, both wowserism and Britishry are dying … Most Australians see little point in the search for identity, the tragic tension in which the seeker is also the sought.

One must be in some doubt about that—there was still plenty of angst expressed over “national identity” in the late 1980s and even the 1990s, from certain politicians. Horne ends on the note of predicting (remember that this was in 1967) an increasingly “successful society of multi-racial origin” but “‘western’ in its social, cultural, economic and political activities”. One further telling image in this book was that Beal and Horne chose to include, in addition to the more or less compulsory shots of Australian artists and musicians, a photograph of Igor Stravinsky on his visit to Sydney—this in itself bespoke a change, a certain broadening of outlook, beyond the local and particular, and without any “cringe”. But then perhaps it was just that Stravinsky was thought “safe” because he was sufficiently “modernist”? Still, on the very next pages, were more stock photographs of matrons at “gala” (or, as some Australians say, “galah”) events.

One of the recurring themes in these 1960s texts with their potted accounts of Australia’s origins in British penal colonies, is the supposed lack of enthusiasm by the Australian people for monarchy.[8] This was expressed in an endless variety of ways and expressions, most based around Marxist (or the like) conceptions of “class” and “oppression” and ultimately, the supposed trump card in this repertoire, the “apron strings” argument. It is often also tied in with echoes of the unjust treatment of Catholics in penal and pre-emancipation times and more particularly, of events in Ireland. Yet, the failure thus far of repeated republican initiatives calls into question whether Australians (and in particular, our large numbers of immigrants) really want a Constitution that lacks the Crowned Sovereign at its apex. Australians seem rightly wary of any republican proposals which lack even the checks and balances of the kind found in the United States Constitution and particularly, those civil rights as enshrined in its Bill of Rights. In the United Kingdom, there have long been—and still are—many Labour peers. How many Australians, even amongst our lawyers or historians, know or realise the significance of the point that Her Majesty’s Privy Council met at Government House in Canberra in 1954 (and with the then Labour leader Dr H.V. Evatt PC QC, amongst several other Australians sworn of the Privy Council, in attendance) and upon other occasions in Australia? Nor is a privy council distinctive to the British monarchy—Tonga has one and so do other countries. Here again, the argument is pre-empted or hijacked by the notion that the institution is “British” and is thus intrinsically “un-Australian”.[9]

Whilst books like Horne’s The Lucky Country and Russel Ward’s The Australian Legend played particular variations upon the themes of Australian egalitarianism or exceptionalism (real or perceived) and thus attracted many imitators writing on the same themes (often from a broadly left-wing perspective) there were counterblasts from the other direction. Professor Blainey’s The Tyranny of Distance heralded a new impetus for the reconsideration of Australian history. Amongst the many publications appearing at the time of, and in the lead up to, the Australian Bicentennial in 1988 (which our very own Nobel Laureate Patrick White—he of an oldish Australian landed family—had so abhorred) was an Australasian Debrett’s. It even included a section on the peerage in Australasia. Hence (if he saw it) this work must have set White’s teeth well upon edge, if one recalls his most curious description of his visit aboard the Britannia and presentation to Queen Elizabeth at Sydney in 1973.[10] However, it in fact represented a new and wider and more mature view of things from the grown perspective of two hundred years of European settlement in Australia. There have been some odd juxtapositions. In 1986, during the Hawke government, and in the very same year as the Australia Act, new creations of Knighthood and Damehood in the Order of Australia were discontinued. Yet, by 2004, an Australian “commoner” had married into the oldest European royal house, and in the presence there of the Governor-General of the Australian Commonwealth. This event, if anything, should have served to show the important point that constitutional monarchy, and its traditional apanages, is not just “something that Britain imposed on its colonial settlements”, but has a much longer and wider European history, tradition and significance. This point is one upon which there has been much historical amnesia in Australia. Recently, on ABC television, commentators and historic filmed images made the important point that in 1954, many Australian Aboriginal community leaders sought to be involved in the Royal Tour events, because they recognised the significance of, and the various ceremonial rituals associated with, the sovereign’s visit.

Clearly the social, political and cultural outlooks of Australians have undergone major shifts and changes since the days of the 1960s coffee-table books extolling at once both our “vast mineral and agricultural resources”, as well as our “laid-back lifestyle”. However, these may be just changes in the externals; whether there has been much truly fundamental change—beyond a general relaxation (or degradation, according to taste) of social mores—is still debatable. Overall then, we might conclude that it is very much a matter of “plus ca change” at least as far as social, political and cultural outlooks and attitudes may go. Yet when one turns to the economic and foreign policy fields, and the challenges and threats that face Australia in 2019, much has altered, and much endangers “the Australian way of life” as it has evolved steadily since 1788. Indeed, the period since what might be termed the “apotheosis” of “’Stralia” at the time of the boisterous days of the Bicentennial, has seen the sharp emergence of new issues and problems arising from global influences, from new forms of electronic communications and from the waves of terrorism that have killed Australians amongst many others in the period since 2001. Any “Australian exceptionalism” daily becomes harder and harder to argue. The civil “settlements” which can make for a reasonable life and standard of living in the nations of the West, need ever closer attention to their underpinnings; and they are ultimately not given, much less guaranteed, by any mere local “identity”. One has only to peruse the pages of Quadrant to see these issues and to hear the Cassandra voices saying things many people do not want to hear. A colleague recently reported to me that a highly educated lady from Europe, a diplomatic spouse, was overheard at a reception in Canberra to remark (not unkindly) that “Australians are simple people”. This was not said in a condescending way, but rather in the French sense of gens simple, meaning “uncomplicated”, but we have to be ever on guard we do not revert to “gullible”.


[1] Sheed, W, Frank & Maisie: A Memoir with Parents Chatto & Windus, London 1986 at pp 234-235

[2] eg., Colonial Williamsburg Foundation, The Williamsburg Collection of Antique Furnishings, Holt Rinehart & Winston, New York 1973; and Adams J (ed) Album of American History (5 Vols) Charles Scribner’s Sons, New York 1961 passim.

[3] C Harley Grattan “Social Structure” in Grattan (ed) Australia University of California and by Cambridge University Press, London, 1947 at page 275.

[4] Coleman P “Introduction: The New Australia” in Coleman P (ed) Australian Civilization Cheshire, 1962 (rep 1962) at page 9.

[5] ibid at page 4

[6] McAuley J “Literature and the Arts” in Coleman P (ed) Australian Civilization at pages 130-131.

[7] McAuley, loc cit at pages 132-133

[8] This view was noted by Don Whitington in Dutton G. (ed) Australia and the Monarchy Sun Books Melb. 1966 at p 145; which included essays by Zelman Cowen, Stephen Murray-Smith, Max Harris, Donald Horne and also Peter Coleman, whose very thoughtful piece on “The Phoney Debate” closed that book. Horne’s essay on “Republican Australia” contained this passage which recognized (but severely underestimated) the folly of boosterism: “I suppose we would have to steel ourselves against some of the Australia Unlimited boasting, Perhaps at the end of a movie we could stand loyally to attention as we saluted the Snowy River Scheme on Cinemascope: we could open formal dinners by toasting our export figures.”. Syndromes like “WA Inc.” provide cautionary tales.

[9] A related canard that frequently turned up in these 1960s “potted histories” is the mistaken notion (very persistent among the Left in Australia, this one) that a Knighthood or a Damehood is an “aristocratic title”, rather than just what it is, namely and simply, admission to a membership in an Order of Chivalry. This seems to stem from the fact that formerly in Australia, the Colonial Governors, and later State Governors and Federal Governors-General, were usually officers who were knighted by the Sovereign. Few of them were of an aristocratic degree. One has the impression that much of the Leftist complaint (especially from those who, like Patrick White, from his own origins and his time in England, could not help but know the realities of a constitutional monarchy) was often based more upon a distaste for a certain type or class of Australian who, out of sheer provinciality, tended to be “plus royaliste que le roi”. Nevertheless, the Left in Australia has always exploited this “issue”, time and time again over the decades.

[10] Marr D Patrick White – A Life Random House Australia, Sydney 1991 at pages 411-412

  • Doubting Thomas

    It’s startling, but perhaps reassuring, that the lumpen Left’s attitudes seem to have changed not one noticeable iota in the past century. They, like cynics everywhere, know the price of everything and the value of nothing.

  • Les Kovari

    An extremely well researched literary work.

  • Les Kovari

    I am having recurring nightmares. In the last one Australia just became a republic, the President was Malcolm Turnbull, the Prime Minister a little guy whose name I did not catch, he was wearing a red tea towel pulled tightly over his head. There was only one political party, they called it the Republican Democrats Party. The Australian flag with the Southern Cross had been replaced by a much simpler orange/black flag with a large red blob in the middle. All the intelligencia, scientists, teachers, bank managers, writers and poets have disappeared, government buildings were staffed by people all wearing blue coloured shirts, unkempt beards and they all smelt of BO. The law books have all been revised, the term “without reasonable doubt” removed and replaced with “in the interests of the people”. I dare not go to sleep tonight in case it continues.

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