By chance, I picked up a copy of Manning Clark’s History of Australia as abridged by Michael Cathcart. I paid only $10 for it at the local flea market, but I had trouble putting it down. I have read the original six volumes – twice. I am a fan of the author. He knew his job was to tell a story. The raw materials are hardly inspiring. The history of Australia has the same problem as the French Revolution – heroes are hard to come by, but there is plenty there to make you blush, if not hang your head down.
When I reread Strachey’s Eminent Victorians a while ago, I was struck by how much work God had to do with each of those lives. Manning Clark was concerned with the phenomenon described as the death of God. His language is frequently biblical, but the whimsy comes with compassion. For me, the apotheosis of both style and story comes with parts of volumes four and five – the period from, say, 1851 to 1915– that included marks on our canvas like Eureka, Lambing Flat, Burke and Wills, Ned Kelly, White Australia, and Gallipoli.
Let us look at how we got off to a bad start on education and why it has remained a mess ever since. The problem for the ‘reforms’ of the 1870’s was not so much God, as schism. The latter is man-made.
The reforms entrenched the sectarian divisions they were designed to overcome, not least because the Catholic Church withdrew its children from the public system. The question of whether or not the government should subsidise denominational schools remained a bitter source of conflict into the following century. [And this century.]…..The children of the rich did not meet on common ground either in the classrooms or the playgrounds of the Australian colonies. In some schools a room was set aside for the children of the rich….In this way the parents of the gentry and the upper ranks of the bourgeoisie ensured that the fine edge of gentility should not be dulled by familiar intercourse with common children, until the time came to attend a private school such as Melbourne Grammar School or the Presbyterian Ladies’College, where the prejudices they had inherited from their parents were consolidated into the habits of a lifetime.
We buggered that right up, and that very English divide is still with us. We also buggered it up with help from another part of our schizoid mother country.
In the national schools, the children were taught to venerate Her Majesty Queen Victoria; in the Catholic schools the children learned to venerate the Holy Father, and to adore the Holy Mother of God. In the national schools, the children learned of the glories of British arms, and the spread of a beneficent British civilisation over the whole world….;in the Catholic schools, Ireland was presented as the centre of the universe, and England as a place from which had come the men who had reduced the loveliest island on God’s earth to a land of skulls……In the national schools, the classroom walls were decorated with the likenesses of Queen Victoria, and of civil and military heroes of English history; in the Catholic schools classroom walls were decorated with prints of the Sacred Heart of Jesus, the Virgin and the Pope. Yet they had much in common. Both school systems enforced a strict segregation of the sexes; both urged their pupils to mortify the flesh; both taught a morality pleasing to the ears of men who held the purse strings in the colonial parliaments.
So, we not only inflicted social division on the children; we also gave them religious hate. The second has evaporated, but the first lives on as a national disgrace. Have we also allowed a ‘strict segregation of the sexes’ so that ‘the prejudices they had inherited from their parents were consolidated into the habits of a lifetime’?
We are reminded that the poet Henry Kendall thought that Australia belonged to ‘clowns, liars and charlatans.’ Boy, just look at us now. One local newspaper was ‘Australian because it treated life as a cruel joke. Its mockery was Australian.’ You find the word ‘mockery’ a lot in Manning Clark. Clark was not a mocker, but the mockers waited until he was dead to move in on him. A man who looked on others with an eye of pity was cruelly betrayed by people who should have known better. Those mean and jealous people cruelly foreshadowed the jeerers, sneerers and leerers inflicted on Australia by a Flash Harry who checked out for the United States.
This was just another upswing of that petty mediocrity that so sadly disfigures what passes for our national character. As Clark remarked, ‘in Australia, the upstart conservative, the mean man, often defeated the generous man and the visionary.’ As it happens, on the next page, we get the ‘money-changers had begun to set the tone of public life in Australia.’ These are truths that have sadly endured, and are not seen by those who best exemplify them. Well, as Billy Hughes reminded our national parliament, at least Judas had the decency to hang himself – and throw away the thirty pieces of silver.
The Labor movement got off to a mean and rocky Australian start.
Writing and talking as though the love of all mankind distinguished them from all previous political groups, articulate Labor spokesmen inflamed their followers with hatred against the Chinese, the Jews, the English, the Pacific Islanders, and indeed almost all strangers in their midst. Mouthing the platitudes of the Utopians about a new society in which all hatred would cease, and God’s destroying angels would disappear off the face of the earth, their candidates for election to the colonial parliaments represented themselves to be reformers rather than revolutionaries, preservers rather than destroyers.
We know about those people who love all mankind. The man that Carlyle called the Evangelist of the French Revolution, Rousseau, loved all mankind – he just abandoned all his children to the Foundling Home. ‘This arrangement seemed to me so admirable, so rational, and so legitimate, that the only reason I did not boast openly of it was to spare the mother ….All things considered, what I chose for my children was for the best for them, or so I genuinely believed. I could have wished, and still wish, that I had been reared and brought up in the same fashion.’ Would Stalin have approved of the solicitude for the mother?
Those who came to federation had to deal with ‘the inexhaustible inertia of the people as a whole.’ That’s what we are – inert. In no colony did more than 46.33% cast a yes vote. We could also be crudely nationalist. The Bulletin urged Australians to turn their backs on ‘Queen Victoria’s nigger Empire.’
Our first PM was ‘a middle of the road man, an Australian bourgeois politician.’ Toss-pot Barton believed political issues could be resolved by chaps over Scotch. Some idiot referred to ‘the good revolutionist of Nazareth.’ Then in March 1901’the Reverend Mr Edgar electrified his congregation by giving permission to the men during a Melbourne heatwave to remove their coats.’
But the Victorian Chief Justice, Sir John Madden, feared that a darker purpose was at work. Taking his stand on the Bible, he warned that women’s suffrage would abolish soldiers, war, racing, hunting, football and all manly games. The Bulletin worried that intermarriage with niggers could lower our national type. Australians ‘had descended from their lofty eminence as a society of peace and goodwill’ and ‘Australia had suddenly acquired notoriety in the civilised world as a centre of human barbarism’. Was the author of Ecclesiastes right? Is there nothing new under the sun?
In the 1950’s parents in Melbourne were horrified by the gyrations of Elvis Presley. How did their forebears handle the sex appeal of Wagner? ‘Inside the Exhibition Building, society women fanned their faces to hide their response to the sensuous music of Wagner. Men fidgeted in their seats as a trumpet, bassoon and a big bass drum inflamed their senses.’ Out of doors, politics stayed in the gutter. Billy Hughes ‘hissed and spat at his opponents like a cat defending its own territory against an invader.’
Here are some passages that go to the core of our political life, that show why we are so different to the United States, and why the words ‘conservative’ and ‘socialist’ are so very slippery in the context of Australia.
George Turner [Victorian Premier and first Treasurer of the Commonwealth] was also said to have ‘no horizon in his mind, no perspective in his politics, no proud surface upon which he rested.’ But where Reid [News South Wales Premier, later Prime Minister] often flirted with the Bohemian fringe in Sydney, to the scandal of the frowners in St Andrew’s Cathedral, Turner was always a model of British bourgeois propriety. Balancing the books was his great passion in life. By his great industry, his zeal and his deep conviction, he helped to raise that criterion into the standard by which politicians came to be judged in Australia.
The liberals wanted a compromise between the conservative insistence that property must enjoy special protection in any colonial federal constitution, and the labour call for one man one vote…..
On the role of the state in economic life, the liberals saw themselves as supporters of the traditional role of government in planting civilisation in the Australian wilderness. Government had played the major role in the supply, distribution and control of labour in the convict period. Government had performed a similar role in the selection, transport and distribution of free immigrants. Government had developed a network of country and suburban railways not on any abstract principle of the role of government, but because in Australian conditions, private or free enterprise could not or would not embark on such activities. Liberals believed in a continuing partnership between the two.
The Mildura experiment in irrigation was a model of that harmony of interests which the liberals detected between government and free enterprise. Alfred Deakin had been greatly impressed by the irrigation schemes set up by George and William Chaffey in California when he visited there in 1885. In 1888……the government of South Australia interested them in a similar scheme in Renmark. In Los Angeles, the Chaffeys had developed their schemes under the American practice of free enterprise – that, in American experience was what produced the greatest wealth, the greatest efficiency, the greatest service to the consumers and the highest material rewards to the people of initiative, drive and unbounded energy. That was what generated a lively society, a society with a great pulse of life, a people who were magnificently alive, and not characterised by the dullness and mediocrity of people mollycoddled by governments, churches, charity organisations, or those self-appointed improvers of humanity who made decisions for people, thereby depriving them of the exercise of the right to decide for themselves, a necessary condition for the flowering of the personality. The Chaffeys built their model villages….to the background of angry exchanges between conservatives very voluble on the evils of government interference and radicals clamouring for more government control.
Here is a warning about treating with barbarians – like Hitler.
The conservatives were in a dilemma. A barbarian was threatening the very foundations of society, but the barbarian might have his uses. He was offering to wipe Bolshevism off the map of the world: he was already destroying trade union power: in a most brutal and barbarous fashion, he was rooting out decadence in Germany. The barbarian has talked of the German need for Lebensraum (living space); perhaps he could find it during his crusade against Bolshevism. Hitler could be used and then dropped – monsters had their uses.
How different is the dilemma currently facing Republicans over Trump?
When Bertrand Russell quit our shores in 1950, he said, graciously, some might think:
Perhaps you are all too comfortable to take so much trouble. Perhaps you will be content with a moderate and humdrum success, but I hope not. I hope that….you will be content to take the risks involved in aiming at great success rather than acquiesce in the comfortable certainty of a moderate competence.
Manning Clark was not optimistic, and neither am I. We have settled for a safe, inert mediocrity. People who rock the boat make us very nervous.
Carlyle said that history was a collection of biographies. That is in large part just what this book of Manning Clark is. It’s not just that history can be entertaining – it does its job better when it is. I haven’t enjoyed a book so much for a very long time – at least as far back as when I last read The French Revolution by Carlyle. At least we got one thing right.