History by Numbers
Dean of the
Faculty of Education,
we have for numbers has just landed us in 2001. And this number tells us
it’s time to remember an Australian event of a century ago—the Federation
of the Australian Colonies. For a few years in the nineties of the twentieth
century, it seemed we might have been able to make something of the numerology.
We thought we might be able to make the number 2001 iconic of another moment
of historical transition. But, for reasons which don’t bear repeating,
the push to redefine Australia as a republic came unstuck before the anointed
Having a moment
for national reflection reduced to a mere number is, I suppose, appropriate
to our times, metaphysically speaking, as everything in our cultural world
is progressively reduced to an invisible base code in which zeros and ones
are expanded into multiples of ten before they become words, sounds and
images. Despite the rapidity with which we are propelled into the future
by the forces of the digital age, paradoxically we seem to have stopped
thinking much about the cultural qualities of the present compared with
those of the past, let alone about how we might achieve more sociable futures.
of Federation was a moment which promised us the opportunity to reimagine
ourselves and take pride in our achievements. But, by and large, we have
done little more than attempt to retouch the image of Federation, to retell
the story within its original terms of reference. The newspaper stories
have been half-hearted. And we have tended to doze off in front of our
TV screens when the Federation story comes on, only to be woken by cricket
scandals, horror stories from our very own concentration camps, and the
tale of the tennis star who defected from an Australia in which she and
her family could no longer feel at home to a Yugoslavia in which, it seems,
What a lost
opportunity. For by remembering in this purely celebratory but inevitably
half-hearted way, we have really been forgetting. Deliberately forgetting.
We are forgetting
that the primary motivation for Federation, the only issue on which Australia
really wanted to maintain an independent line from London, was race. Federation
set in place three distinctively local initiatives: White Australia, protection
of the industry and trade of White Men, and a regime of racial separation
for Aborigines. The first two provided the new Commonwealth with some of
its finest and most impassioned public rhetoric. The last was a new way
of still not having to speak about historical processes which could, had
one chosen to talk, with justification have been called invasion and genocide.
Had it been
possible in this moment to remember truly, we would have been able to take
enormous pride not only in what’s the same about Australia in 2001 as in
1901, but in how much we’ve changed, and we would have been able to take
heart also in the promise inherent in this self transformation, the promise
of what we could still be. This would have been indeed an interesting story.
Sad to say,
I don’t think we’re good at knowing our history in Australia.
Take one emblematic
site in another country with a troubled history—Germany. And whether today’s
Germany is a country which should be more troubled or less by its history
than today’s Australia, is an entirely irrelevant question. The site I
want to mention is the new Federal Foreign Office, opened in Berlin a year
ago. This building is modern Germany’s point of contact with the world,
a Germany which is today the economic and political linchpin, as well as
the future geographical centre, of a Federated Europe. It also houses the
new office of the highest ranking Green politician in the world, Foreign
Minister Joschka Fischer. But it is a building with a terrible and still
palpable history. Constructed as the Nazi Reichsbank, the design was personally
chosen by Hitler in 1933. The modernist Mies van der Rohe had submitted
an entry to the design competition, but the one which was chosen epitomised
the emerging Nazi aesthetics.
And then the
building lived up to its aesthetics. Not only was this where financing
of the Nazi war machine was planned and executed, but reportedly where
the gold teeth of Nazi victims were melted down. Then, after the war, it
was rebuilt as the offices of the Central Committee of the East German
Communist Party. In the 1959 reconstruction, another heavy aesthetic layer
was added, the aesthetics of the Stalinist Third International. When the
decision was made in 1999 to make this building the new Foreign Office,
a furious public debate erupted. The debate was not about whether either
of the meanings of the two former layers of history should in any sense
be restored, but about how to start history afresh. Were the ghosts in
this place so repugnant that it should be demolished?
No, it was
decided that the future be made through an act of historical transformation
of the old structure, yet an act which is at the same time one of always-having-to-remember.
The solution was to leave both of the two former layers of historical meaning
partially intact and to add a third layer of meaning to the building—and
the ultimate act of aesthetic defiance, the Mies van der Rohe furniture.
The hope for the future is in the consciousness of this layering, in the
deliberate juxtaposition of motifs from 1933, 1959 and 1999, in remembering
the past and deliberately contrasting the past with the present.
This is not
the stuff of guilt, or of younger generations having to take personal responsibility
for the sins of older generations. Rather, it is an act of moral self-definition,
and the insistence that always, history should be remembered. And this,
as the only guarantee that the future will be better.
But what of
our capacity to remember?
Past as Prologue
In fact, there
are two Australian Federation stories. In the first, our history is entirely
different to Germany’s. And in the second, we have been similarly modern
Story Number One runs like this. The first nation to be founded at the
ballot box, Australia is arguably one of the oldest and most stable of
liberal democracies. The Federation compact was built on the politics of
peaceful compromise rather than bloody revolution. Coming at the end of
a decade of virulent class struggle, Federation represents the moment of
class accommodation. It was the moment in which the world’s first government
of the working class was elected—and this with the consent, albeit begrudging
and temporary, of the ruling class. It was a moment in which unions were
institutionalised as part of the fabric of society, and skirmishes of class
conflict regulated through legal processes of industrial arbitration. It
was the moment of social welfare, the creation of a basic, living wage,
the eight hour day and regulated working conditions. The result was standards
of living not rivaled anywhere else in the world, with less disparity in
wealth between classes than any other place. This is how Australia averted
the communisms and the fascisms which plagued other parts of the world—Germany,
also, in this story, been a peaceful place. No wars have been fought on
Australian shores. We have fought in other people’s wars, to be sure, but
provoked none. So, too, we have become a place where our history is not
characteristic of our geography. We have been a shining light of Anglo-European
progress and civilisation in a region of gross underdevelopment at worst
and horribly uneven development at best, governed mostly by authoritarian
and often corrupt regimes.
This is the
story of the Australian nation on its own terms. By world-historical standards,
it’s not a bad story, and it’s true.
this story in this year of remembering, we have chosen to ennoble the Founding
Fathers—and the leading roles they played in the processes of drafting
the Constitution, voting for its adoption, and the inauguration of the
Commonwealth of Australia. We’ve found these men to be decent, if uninspiring,
another Federation Story. Only eleven per cent of the adult population
was both eligible to vote and bothered to vote in the referendum which
created the Commonwealth. The Constitution document, drafted in Australia
and subsequently enacted in the Westminster Parliament, is purely procedural,
dividing powers between the Commonwealth and the States. It is not even
a document that could be called democratic in its fundamental character.
There was no mention of universal franchise (because there wasn’t such
a franchise; women couldn’t vote until the Franchise Act of 1902, an act
which at the same time explicitly barred Aborigines from voting). There
was no mention of voting as a right (because these rights could be determined
in a racially discriminatory way, and were). There was no mention of the
rule of law. There was no mention of citizens and their rights (because,
Australians were still subjects of the Imperial monarch). There was no
mention of freedom of speech or association. And the pinnacle of the Constitutional
system was an all-powerful unelected head of state and whose Australian
representative could ‘at his pleasure’ appoint an Executive Council to
This was hardly
a moment which could be called the making of a ‘nation’ in the sense of
an independent power whose sovereignty rested in the people. Australia
was unequivocally a part of the British Empire, and its people subjects,
not citizens. ‘We are not disposed to give any countenance to the novel
doctrine that there is an Australian nationality as distinguished from
a British nationality’, the High Court said in 1906. In fact, Federation
was not even an act of independence on the part of Australians. Federation
was what the Imperial Government had wanted for Australia as early as 1846,
a suggestion for local and more consistent self government in the interest
of Empire and a suggestion which the colonists had, from London’s point
of view, been painfully slow to take up.
The one point
of difference with the Imperial Government was on the question of race.
This was only thing distinctively Australian about Federation, and if there
was an Australian nationalism, albeit a relatively weak nationalism, this
was its essence. Within the idea of race were the issues of immigration,
trade and Aborigines.
had been, in a practical sense, almost unrestricted until the closing decades
of the nineteenth century. This was not just a matter of imperial pragmatics,
although it was that—the pragmatics of open borders and open labour markets
in the era of laissez-faire capitalism, and a pragmatics in which Pacific
Island labour was used in the sugar plantations of the tropics and near-tropics,
Afghans to drive the camel trains across desert interiors, Chinese to work
over the goldfields and set up market gardens, Malays and Japanese to dive
for pearls. It was also a matter of Imperial principle. At the Intercolonial
Conference of 1896, Mr Chamberlain, Secretary of State for Colonies, reminded
the Australians who at the time had resolved to adopt the ‘dictation test’
to restrict coloured immigration, of their greater imperial responsibilities:
‘We ask you also to bear in mind the traditions of Empire, which make no
distinction in favour of or against race or colour’.
in favour and against race the Australians nevertheless were to make, and
make in no uncertain terms. The first major pieces of legislation in the
Commonwealth Parliament were to be the Immigration Restriction Act banning
coloured immigration, and the Pacific Island Labourers Act to repatriate
the South Sea Islanders working in the Queensland sugar plantations.
was replaced by distinctively Australian principle, described, by our first
Prime Minister, Edmund Barton, in one of his finer rhetorical moments thus:
doctrine of the equality of man was never intended to apply to the equality
of the Englishman and the Chinaman. There is a deep-set difference, and
we see no prospect and no promise of its ever being effaced. Nothing in
this world can put these two races upon an equality. Nothing we can do
by cultivation, by refinement, or by anything else will make some races
equal to others.
The leader of
the party of the working class, J.C. Watson, agreed. And on the primary
objective of Federation, Alfred Deakin, the first Attorney General, was
clear, that, ‘we should be one people, and remain one people, without admixture
of other races’.
difference with the Imperial Government was on the issue of trade. In the
mid nineteenth century, at the height of British colonial rule, Australia
was a place of laissez-faire economics and free trade. Federation marked
a sharp turn away from these imperial principles, a turn founded on the
idea that the interests of the national economy were antithetical to the
interests of international economy in which inferior and lowly paid races
might unfairly complete against Australians, whose industry was based on
So, the Australians
erected high tariff walls. After the class conflicts of the 1890s, it was
agreed that the state should interfere in the market for the mutual benefit
of both classes. Race was the lynchpin in the compromise between classes,
the agreement to civilise capitalism. The material benefits of industrial
arbitration could only be afforded with the protection of high tariff barriers.
It was only possible to replace the South Sea Island labourers on the sugar
canefields of northeastern Australia with better paid white labour if there
was a tariff on sugar imports and a bounty on sugar production.
Federation was a moment of nation-making, and insofar as there was something
happening which was different to simply being Subjects of Empire, it was
around a package of compromises to regulate the market, and this for the
benefit of a nation personified as ‘Australians’. Tariffs protected not
the rights of man, but the rights of ‘Australians’ against the unfair competition
of other races.
The other main
difference between Australians and the Imperial Government was over Aborigines.
In the relative silence which continued to veil the processes of invasion
and genocide, Federation marked a new way of not speaking about the fate
of formerly sovereign indigenous nations.
Or, at least,
barely speaking about them, or speaking about them only in order to state
how they would not be spoken about. Aboriginal people were only mentioned
twice in the new Constitution—and both times to legislate their absence
in Section 51 (xxvi), and Section 127 .
for not speaking about Aborigines was quite new, and locally devised. For
at the height of British colonial rule a serious effort had been made,
if not always successfully, to ensure that Aborigines enjoyed certain rights
and, at the very least, these were the rights of people who had become
British subjects by virtue of conquest. They could not be murdered indiscriminately;
their lands could not be taken without compensatory measures; their lives
could not be disrupted without assuming some kind of duty of care. This
tradition began with Governor Phillip’s instructions to negotiate with
the inhabitants of the continent in Sydney in 1788. It was an approach
that continued through to Colonial Secretary Earl Grey’s instructions in
the late 1840s that the colonies were to establish large-scale reservations
for Aborigines so they could continue to provide for themselves. Grey also
insisted that the pastoral leases, which recognised the expanding squatter
settlement, were for pasturage only and that Aboriginal people had ‘mutual’
property rights. The reality, however, was an unspoken war on the part
of the frontiersmen who couldn’t be further away from London, geographically
speaking as well in their own intentions and actions. The truths of invasion
and the destruction of Indigenous nations during the Colonial period were
the silent and mostly illegal modus operandi of the so-called ‘settlers’.
imperial framework of rights was abandoned in the era of Federation. A
new way of not having to speak about Aborigines, called without irony ‘Aboriginal
Protection’, emerged around the time of Federation and was to last half
way into the twentieth century. This evolved into a system which institutionalised
Aboriginal people on reserves—a system so authoritarian as to amount in
many cases almost to incarceration. Aborigines were put into the same category
as prisoners and lunatics in a society which was, at the time, busily setting
up ‘modern’ institutions to remove every manner of social evil and such
evils out of sight and, therefore, out of mind. At the same time, ‘mixed
race’ children were removed from the reserves and from their families.
It was thought that interbreeding with whites would at least give them
a chance. For the remaining Aborigines, however, it was a matter of ‘smoothing
the pillow of a dying race’—to quote a phrase in common use at the time.
As an inferior race and a primitive culture, modern rationality held they
were destined to disappear. Racial segregation, removal of citizenship
rights—this was the new nation’s new solution to the burden of a history
which had begun with invasion and ended in genocide.
True to Ourselves
When we dare
to tell this second, more difficult story of Federation, it’s a modern
story which is in its fundamental shape is not dissimilar to Germany’s.
The big picture ideas are no different to those of the German thirties
and forties: of the necessity to create ‘one people, … without admixture
of races’ (to use Deakin’s words again); of unbridgeable racial inferiority;
of races destined to die out; and of the eugenics of progress. Nor were
the technologies of race management so dissimilar: the enforced separation
in concentration camps; the petty regulation of freedoms of movement and
association. Nor too were the effects so different—in the Australian case,
a genocide in which ninety per cent of the Aboriginal population died over
the period of a century, and the wholesale destruction of peoples with
distinctive languages and ways of life.
In the first
story of Federation, 1901 represents a high point in Australian history.
In the second story, it is probably the lowest. Told on its own, story
one is a way of using the process of remembering in order to forget, of
selective memory as a way of forgetting through omission.
Story two is
of course a much harder one to tell as it is bound up with the problem
of how to remember things which you don’t want to remember, of recalling
things which are painful to remember. The problem, of course, is that there
are not really two stories. The logic of Federation in the second version
of events was inseparable from the logic of the first. To be true to ourselves,
we must struggle to tell both stories as one.
This is not
for the sake of wallowing in angst, or using the sins of past generations
to visit the consciences of present generations. This is no black armband
view of history, no uncovering of truths which require us forever to mourn.
If race was the primary motivating force for Federation, it is hardly worth
asking whether the Australian solution was right for then. The only point
it is that it is wrong for now, an utterly unconscionable means to achieve
any contemporary or future end. When it comes to the past, guilt is of
no use. We just need recognition, and perhaps even retrospective forgiveness
for those who were creatures of their time and who did incidental, collateral
harm rather than premeditated harm.
The good thing
about the Federation story, the whole story in which version one and version
two of historical events are inseparable, is not just the version one continuities,
but the version two transformations. This is how even version two of the
story can become a source of pride
Over the second half of the twentieth century, we have had the largest
immigration program of any country in the world relative to the existing
population, bar the peculiar case of Israel. This led to the enactment
of the Australian Citizenship Act in 1948. The population has grown from
seven to nineteen million, half the consequence of immigration. Forty-one
per cent of the Australian population has one parent born overseas. It
has also been the most diverse program of any country in the world. The
society that has been created can only be described at multicultural, a
term now used universally, but which slipped into the lexicon in Australia
before any other place in the world, bar Canada, where it meant something
less than its Australian and now contemporary international meanings. The
multicultural idea came to be used as a policy prescription from the mid
seventies, as a series of cultural rights and as a framework through which
government would relate to civil society. This development coincided with
the first large scale influx of non-white immigrants since the nineteenth
century, and the definitive demise of the practice of White Australia.
progressively shifted our view of the world, from being an alien place
populated with hostile outsiders to a place of exchange and opportunity.
As a percentage of national product, Australia is one of the most export-oriented
countries on earth. The basis for this exchange has also changed. Whereas
the Federation compact quarantined Australia in order to protect the living
standards of white men, we now set out to exchange things on the market
because they are things we are particularly good at making or doing. And
we have progressively shifted our exports away from commodities and raw
materials towards value added products and high contact quintessentially
intercultural industries such as education and tourism. You are what you
do, and the frame of reference within which you do it changes your sensibilities.
From being a parochial country which fears the outside world, we have become
a cosmopolitan nation which reaches out and engages with the world.
peoples. The 1967 referendum removed the sections of the Constitution which
excluded Aborigines from the Commonwealth. The 1992 Mabo decision recognised
residual rights to Crown Lands. The 1996 Wik decision recognised overlapping
rights of Aboriginal people in the pastoral leases which cover forty percent
of the continent. The ‘Bringing them Home’ report of 1997 documented and
recognised the iniquities of removing so-called mixed race children from
their Aboriginal parents, and the racial theories upon which this practice
was based. In 2000, the Reconciliation movement brought out the largest
crowds to support any social or political cause in Australian history,
in a statement of support for an accommodation between Indigenous and settler
societies. And now, there’s serious discussion of the possibility of a
Treaty which recognises the sovereign rights of Aboriginal and Torres Strait
the progress we have made, there can be little doubt that the bonds of
our civil society have become frayed in recent years—the disengagement
of government from the Reconciliation process, the retreat from multiculturalism,
the paranoia about immigration and refugees, the anxiety about our neighbours
We need urgently
to renew our civic soul, to engage seriously and honestly with Indigenous
issues, to appreciate how immigration contributes to our economy and remaking
of our local identity, to define who we are in Asia, facilitate our global
economic interests and to create a modern democratic constitution that
truly represents what we have become and still can be.
On the question
of our Constitution there is an enormous amount to be done; a question
which is much larger than deleting from the text mention of a completely
ineffectual Head of State. We have a de facto democracy but not a de jure
democracy, a country which functions like a democracy but without a democratic
constitution. The Australian Constitution is a profoundly flawed and inadequate
document, a document which does little service to any of the principles,
rights and responsibilities of democracy. In fact, we have a constitution,
which in places includes shameful legacies, which continue vividly to express
the spirit of the time of its drafting. Section 25 which still makes ‘provisions
as to races disqualified from voting’, is a case in point.
Nation without Ethnos
At root, the
men of 1901 were facing the same issue we face in 2001, the issue of identity
and the dynamics of belonging. It’s just that in one respect, our response
to this issue today is—and must be—diametrically opposed to theirs. This
opposition turns on one word: diversity.
Fathers responded to diversity in the process of forging Australian identity
and creating a sense of belonging to the new nation with the formula: one
people, one culture, one nation. It drew a neat boundary which defined
who could belong and on what terms.
But how must
we respond today in an era of ever more intensely localised identity politics
and globalised structures which promote rapidly increasing intercultural
this conundrum have already been created, tested and reworked in Australia,
more usefully in the second half of the twentieth century than in the first.
In our workplaces, we have developed a kind of productive diversity in
which differences are the wellspring of energy and creativity, and diversity
is used as a resource to reach into local niche and dispersed local markets.
In our civic lives, we have created the idea of multiculturalism, not just
as a description of the brightly coloured wallpaper that is our contemporary
cultural reality—the stuff of festivals and street parades—but also as
a series of local agreements, founded on a new social contract, to live
together in our difference. And in our personal lives, we have become new
people, more outward looking, more cosmopolitan, more tolerant.
A lot is bundled
into this idea diversity. It’s not just based in differences in ethnic
origins, or the differences between Indigenous and settler experiences.
It’s also captured in the spirit of the Gay and Lesbian Mardi Gras, the
biggest event in the Australian calendar as well as the biggest event of
its kind in the world. And, more broadly, the way we live in and with our
diversity is the sign of a deep epistemological and moral a shift, a shift
in the way we understand our identities and the ways in which we make the
accommodations that add up to sociability. We have, in short, managed in
fits and starts to build a new ethics, as well as a new pragmatics, of
represents a kind of historical journey, and by following the direction
of that journey, we can perhaps divine our country’s destiny. We have been
on the way to creating a state without ethnos, and a community without
nation. We have been developing a post-nationalist civics, after a world-century
which was wracked by selective inclusions and often vicious exclusions
on the basis of ethnos or race. This destiny, both as an ideal and as a
pragmatic reading of the flow of our history, I would call a state of ‘Civic
diversity is now the only way to produce social cohesion. Pluralistic citizenship
is the most effective way of holding things together; and that an outward
looking, internationalist approach to the world is now the only way to
maintain the national interest. This requires a paradoxical new universal
in which negotiating differences becomes the national essence. And the
state needs to assume a dual task: to develop community whilst securing
diversity; and to create pathways for all whilst respecting differences.
This won’t happen automatically. Indeed, it might not happen at all. But
it is something that needs to be imagined as a possibility, an ideal for
which we can strive.
We have not
yet been sufficiently clear-sighted to write down what it is we have achieved,
not in a constitutional sense and not even in our contemporary retellings
of the Federation story. Hope lies in the everyday, in the inchoate flows
of civil society, in organic processes of self-transformation which often
slip our attention.
We’re a lucky
country, as Donald Horne famously has told us, prosperous and comfortable
despite our leaders. And, from this truth, will surely emerge a modern
democratic constitution, a flag which includes all of us, affinity with
our region, inclusive symbols of belonging and a treaty with the sovereign
nations which were displaced without negotiation by the British Empire
and its successor, the Commonwealth of Australia.
In the first
week of the new Australian century, I attended a wedding in Townsville.
The marriage was between a young woman of Irish Catholic background and
a young Aboriginal man. Her parents are academics, and they had brought
up their children the Kimberly and the USA before moving to Townsville—Celtic
people of the world and Australians through and through. His family was
from Palm Island, tropical paradise and, not so long ago, hellish concentration
camp. He had played Rugby League for the North Queensland Cowboys, then
become a plumber. Both were now students at the University, the young woman
studying business and the young man medicine. These achievements went barely
remarked in the many speeches. This is Australia, and achievement sometimes
come easily. The cultural heritages were interwoven: clapsticks and brolga
dancing; larrikin exuberance and Irish irreverence; all mixed with lace
and flowers and pale blue bridesmaids. This is Australia, a place of sometimes
white dresses, tiered wedding cakes. And other Australian touches, like
the bonbonairies—those fancy little parcels of sugared almonds traditionally
distributed at Greek and Italian weddings as a symbol of fertility. No,
not Greek or Italian any longer, but near-universal in North Queensland,
where the migrants in the sugar industry have turned something exotic and
strange into something ordinary and touching. Something for everybody.
This is Australia,
one hundred years after Federation.
is Professor of Education and Executive Dean of the Faculty of Education,
Language and Community Services at RMIT University. Her most recent book,
with Bill Cope, is A Place in The Sun: Re-creating the Australian Way of
Life, Harper Collins, Sydney 2000.