What’s so great about Australia?
Part of the New Guinea Commerce Winners Don’t Cheat Series.
By Sean Jacobs
‘There are far more tales of heroism and sacrifices in the penetration of the Australian outback,’ notes the eminent historian Paul Johnson, ‘than in the whole history of the American Far West.’
Such an accolade, from such a distinguished observer of history, is worth unwrapping for many younger Australians. Certainly, Australia is a unique nation. Few others in history have been as stable, prosperous or carry as special a heritage.
But we tend not to celebrate in a way that’s expected of people rising to such heights from such humble beginnings. Indeed, ANZAC Day and Australia Day aside, moments of national pride are rarely expressed loudly. Our patriotism, thankfully, is subtle and not boisterous.
By examining the past we see the reasons for this. And we see what makes Australia a unique nation with traditions worth replicating, sustaining and taking advantage of.
America, the most powerful nation in history, was founded in 1620. But Australia was founded a century and half later in 1788. A great deal happened in between that, arguably, set Australia up for a more successful start.
In 1687 Sir Isaac Newton – a candidate for the smartest person in history – produced Principia Mathematica, kick-starting the English Enlightenment and stoking an unmatched period of human innovation and enterprise. Under a spirit of progress and an expanding market economy the list of ‘game-changing’ inventions grew: telegraphy, photography, the rotary press, the telephone, the typewriter, the phonograph, the transatlantic cable, the electric light, movies, the locomotive, rockets, the steamboat, the x-ray, the revolver, and the stethoscope.
It was a unique and beneficial time to settle somewhere new. In 1788, the Sydney Harbour Bridge certainly didn’t exist. There were no buildings, no streets and no airports. Not even a jetty or pontoon welcomed the First Fleet. Australia, as put by one historian, was a place where ‘not a wheel had turned, no permanent structures existed and agriculture was unknown.’
But clearly the British, when arriving on Sydney’s shores, had come to know a great deal about science, maths and health. Early Australians, with sheer hard work and self-agency, used this knowledge to farm, cultivate and offset the continent’s jagged contours. Through inventions like the stump jump plough, rust-resistant wheat, the Sunshine harvester and the Ridley stripper, Australia could grow and prosper.
This was a stark contrast to the Pilgrim Fathers settling the United States. A slim relative knowledge of science, agricultural techniques and medicine made their new enterprise miserable. The Pilgrim’s first task, after a battering sea voyage without navigation, was to settle the land. But no seed and primitive tactics meant a terrible start. At least a third of the Pilgrims died.
But in Australia, as the journalist Nick Cater observes, ‘man’s reason, observation and the power of science were present from the beginning.’ While early life was still extremely tough Australia’s early years were largely more successful than America’s. It was, in many ways, an enlightened start.
And it wasn’t just on the land where Australia’s achievements were built. Our institutions, crafted by ideas of liberty and freedom, emerged as unique. Slavery had become an affront to humanity. The law, unlike other times in human history, applied to everyone regardless of race, background or income.
There are a few tough and early examples of this. In 1788 – the year of arrival – the first convict was hanged for stealing. A year later six marines were hanged for the same offence, sending a clear message that the rule of law applied ‘across the board’ regardless of social connection or occupation.
Within a few years the same message was received by anyone thinking that, because of a victim’s skin colour, a sentence could be any different. In 1797, for example, the first white man – John Kirby – was hanged for killing an Aborigine. A few decades later an appalled George Gipps, the Governor of New South Wales, ordered a retrial of the perpetrators of the 1838 Myall Creek Massacre. The offenders were sentenced and hanged.
While reigning in mob rule and applying the rule of law is now common the standard practice for centuries prior was one of arbitrary rule. Kings and Queens, just like a life in today’s North Korea, ruled by decree. The Magna Carta of 1215, however, established two radical but enduring ideas that would benefit Australia centuries later – due process and no taxation without consultation.
Such unbending commitment to these principles has been cited for Australia’s stability. ‘There were no revolutionary uprisings,’ writes Peter Cochrane, ‘no wars of independence, no fields of battle, no mud and blood, no great conspiracy or treason trials, no universe of practices and understandings swept away in a political whirlwind, and none of the attendant heroism called forth by such things.’
But without the turbulence Australia could pioneer world-beating reforms. ‘The eight-hour day,’ writes journalist Peter Hartcher, ‘the secret ballot, the right of women to stand for parliament, the first workers’ party to be elected to majority government – in these and the establishment of other rights for the common people, Australia was democracy’s champion and history’s pioneer.’
But Australia’s extraordinary characteristics, I feel, don’t ultimately lie in its government but in its people. Sir Robert Menzies, Australia’s longest serving Prime Minister, clearly understood the cascading and unique the character of the Australian people. ‘We have learned that true rising standards of living,’ Menzies famously wrote, ‘are the product of progressive enterprise, the acceptance of risks, the encouragement of adventure, the prospect of rewards. These are all individual matters. There is no Government department which can create these things.’ Even at times of sheltered industry and political patronage such values of character, industry and economy have been lurking not far from the surface.
Indeed, there was clearly something special about the sheer drive, self-agency and industriousness of early Australians. Duty and sacrifice translated into a wartime commitment that, again, speaks to the core character of a unique nation. ‘As a percentage of the population,’ reflects one historian on the Second World War, ‘almost twice as many Australians gave their lives as Americans, 0.57 per cent to 0.32 per cent. In the First World War it was more than ten times as many, 1.25 per cent to 0.11 per cent.’ Yet rather than reflecting on such raw statistics with inflated pride we find humility, modest tones and capped self-celebration – a trait found across the Western hemisphere amid the expected jubilance of wartime victory.
In other ways we see this manifest in Australia through a lack of desire for pomp and ceremony. One of the first US Senates, for example, took a month to deliberate on the question of ‘titles’. Australia, instead, opted for much more simplicity – a Crowned Republic. Today our political leaders, rather than celebrated with excessive flair, remain accessible custodians of the common will and everyday Australians.
In the realm of work and society, Australia’s unwritten egalitarian code ensures that, rather than a master-client relationship, we’ve tended to possess an attitude of ‘all hands on deck’. The reason for this, again, is found in our early years. ‘The boss is the boss, certainly,’ observes Geoffrey Dutton, ‘but if he is any good he never asks a man to do what he cannot do himself.’ Whether in the sheep yards, lamb-marking, cutting out cattle or bringing in a mob of sheep, Dutton writes of frontier life in the mid-1800s, ‘at work everyone is in together’.
So, amid such a rich legacy, what’s the message for young Australians today? I feel the biggest takeaway, among a very long list, is the ongoing reward for good and decent values. Regardless of the era ideals of hard work and character, just like previous generations, will continue to propel Australians forward. These are things that don’t have anything to do with race, skin colour, religion or income.
Nor are they related to excessive selfishness. Everyone, to echo Dutton’s words, ‘is in together’. Attachment, solidarity and the good bonds that exist between all Australians have shown that a sense of community is vital to taking advantage of success. In fact, the nation’s future entrepreneurs and opportunity creators will find that seeking ways to service fellow patriots remains the best way to build prosperity and affluence.
All young Australians have a stake in ensuring that, just like earlier generations, they progress not just themselves but build a brighter future for their fellow Australians.