Distinctively among the nations of the world, Australia was founded as a populist democracy, committed to egalitarianism between individuals and majoritarianism in government. This dual commitment has led to the development of a state that, as W.K. Hancock famously noted in Australia, is treated by Australians as a “vast public utility, whose duty it is to provide the greatest happiness to the greatest number”, which in practice means exercising “collective power at the service of individualistic ‘rights’”. Yet as Hancock’s scare quotes indicate, there is an unavoidable tension within that system of government, as the needs and wants of individuals are sometimes set aside in the cause of system efficiency. It would not surprise Hancock, then, that as individual possibilities and ends have diversified in Australia, an ever more sophisticated bureaucracy has developed to service them. Yet over time, this bureaucracy has increasingly become an expert class empowered to determine individual interests rather than to serve them. A system established to turn the equal exercise of individual liberties to the general advantage now serves only a narrow set of established interests, threatening Australia’s traditional egalitarianism.
The question is how and why bureaucratisation has had this effect – and it has renewed salience after the crisis of 2020. The government response to Covid-19 has revealed the authoritarian streak in our political class, and, perhaps more worryingly, the blind obedience of our people. Public health measures like the lockdowns have demonstrated the tremendous power of our bureaucracy, to which our politicians are happy to defer. Moreover, that bureaucracy is increasingly becoming a privileged class, which has grown in number and seen its wages rise even as the private sector faces tremendous job losses and hardship. This is on top of wages and superannuation contributions which were already far above what many private sector employees could hope to earn.
But the problem is much older than all this. Alexis de Tocqueville anticipated the tendency of a democratic state to eventually become “an immense tutelary power, which assumes sole responsibility for securing [the people’s] pleasure and watching over their fate … [and] provides for their security, foresees and takes care of their needs, facilitates their pleasures, manages their most important affairs, directs their industry, regulates their successions, and divides their inheritances”. To understand whether Australia is fated to live out Tocqueville’s prediction, we need to trace Australia’s instinct for populism and practical reliance on expert rule to their common source.
Russel Ward’s radical Australian Legend popularised the image of Australia as fundamentally egalitarian, majoritarian, and democratic. There is considerable evidence for the proposition. The Australian colonies were some of the first places in the world to give every man the vote and they were also some of the first places to give women the vote. Our colonial parliaments were characterised first by the fulfillment of the Chartist program – the seemingly forlorn hopes of working-class Britain made a firm reality in the antipodes – and then by the populism of the land laws, as the people demanded that squatter estates were broken up and made available to them at a reasonable price. Our egalitarianism is perhaps best embodied by the concept of ‘mateship’, a national order that admits no entrenched deference of any kind.
Australian egalitarianism is a distinctive offshoot of Australia’s British heritage, which continues to exert a powerful influence over our country and its government. While a 2010 book dubbed post-British Australia an Unknown Nation, gripped by an existential search for identity, defining what it means to be Australian still primarily involves trying to differentiate the country from other Anglosphere nations. Australia’s language, political institutions, and legal system are defined by our colonial heritage and will be for the foreseeable future. Our intellectual culture was and is extensively British. We have been shaped by ideas formulated by British intellectuals like Adam Smith, Edmund Burke, Jeremy Bentham, and John Stuart Mill. Benthamite utilitarianism – roughly, the proposition that what is moral is that which promotes the greatest happiness for the greatest number of people – has been particularly central to our pragmatic and extensive use of the state, to the point where Hugh Collins dubbed Australia a distinctively “Benthamite Society”. A bureaucratic legacy was imparted by the fact that we were for a long time administered by the Colonial Office, a department of the British state.
Indeed, Australians thought of themselves as being ‘more British than the British’, constructing a nation where British egalitarian ideals that emerged as a critique of the British class system could be enacted without the strictures imposed by that kind of stratification. For example, celebrated Australian innovations like the secret ballot had been advocated in England for decades, but we were able to enact them first because we did not have to resist an ancient and entrenched elite. Wealthy landlords like the Macarthurs had plans to set themselves up as a colonial aristocracy modelled on England, but while their little English villages can still be found dotting the rural countryside around Sydney, the designs of these petty aristocrats were never realised, defeated in part by enlightened Governors like Lachlan Macquarie and Richard Bourke.
But Australian egalitarianism was not entirely idealistic. It was also a pragmatic response to our unique circumstances. The original intent of the British was that the settler population would live off the produce of public farms under military rule. But they soon recognised the failure of compelled work and were forced to embrace incentive, with ex-convicts permitted to set themselves up as successful landowners. The result of this decision and the later defeat of the ‘exclusives’ was an enduring distaste for class distinctions. In the mid-nineteenth century Scottish-born Presbyterian Minister and political agitator John Dunmore Lang described Australia as “a land where already perhaps more than in any other part of the world ‘a man’s a man for a’ that”.
Similarly, our egalitarianism was also a product of a severe labour shortage combined with resources like pastoral land and mineral wealth that could produce great export value from that labour. The result was great social mobility combined with economic prosperity. Australians enjoyed the highest wages in the world from around 1850 until the 1890s and colonial parliaments tended to be filled with self-made men who had risen from comparatively humble backgrounds. John Hirst describes the powerful impact that the high value of labour had on the Australian psyche:
Bush life was unique in that the age-old disdain for manual labour disappeared. Working men’s skills were highly valued, and in this world there appeared little else to value. Working men were not simply more independent, that is less beholden to their masters, they were amazingly assured and self-confident.
Australia’s native egalitarianism came to inform every aspect of the young society. In Victoria, universal manhood suffrage was partly the product of the Eureka rebellion and the wealth of the goldfields, which were accessible to any man with a pick or pan. On the goldfields, men from various backgrounds and social standings wore the same clothes. They began to call each other ‘mate’, the origin of the ‘digger’ legend which would later be galvanised on the battlefields of World War One. In New South Wales, high wages overwhelmed and ultimately destroyed the property qualification on the franchise, which in England had kept power in the hands of a wealthy middle class. Since the early days of the Bulletin, founded in 1880, Australia celebrated the larrikin, the man who takes an irreverent attitude towards authority, and thus undermines any attempt to impose a rigid social hierarchy. Egalitarianism also fed into the tall-poppy syndrome, the cutting down of people with high and erroneous pretensions, a generally positive quality that sometimes degenerates into a rejection of earned success and individual effort.
AUSTRALIAN MAJORITARIAN POPULISM
Australian egalitarianism found expression in democratic and majoritarian government. By the early 1860s most of the Australian colonies had established popular control of government, which was directed towards the implementation of a unique mix of Chartist liberalism and a home-grown populism that sought to entrench egalitarian values.
The populist agenda centred on breaking up squatter estates and placing people on the land as a new democratic property-owning yeomanry. The ‘land question’ dominated nineteenth century politics, producing cult heroes like John Robertson and villainising the supposedly greedy squatters. These policies were of dubious success in breaking up large estates, and were ultimately undermined by exploited loopholes and economic realities. But echoes of the desire for widespread land ownership can be seen today: people still speak of ‘owning your own home’ as the Great Australian Dream. As early as 1870 the Sydney Morning Herald reported that “the working classes are purchasing largely of suburban lands for building purposes, and if they require money to complete their homes, it is readily obtained”.
Australia’s populism could also be seen in the federation campaign. Federation started as a top-down effort, even though it was led by men who had risen from poor backgrounds, like Henry Parkes. Parkes, who had resisted the pre-existing Federal Council, was essentially goaded into attempting to accomplish federation by a dare from the Governor Charles Carrington. Much like the later republican campaign, derided as the ‘politicians’ republic’, this elite-led movement failed. It was only resurrected by a more grassroots approach, appealing to a fledgling Australian nationalism, and the democratic proposals of John Quick. Quick called for a series of conventions where the delegates of each colony would be directly elected by the people to produce a draft Constitution which would then need to be approved by referendum. The emphasis this process placed on popular control provided an enduring legitimacy which was further cemented by the fact that the Constitution as it emerged could only be changed by further referendums.
Yet it might be seen as curious that this popular movement eventually produced a Commonwealth that featured significant constraints on majoritarian rule. The double majority needed in a referendum and the senate giving equal representation to each state regardless of population are both brakes on the popular will. These limitations prompted significant contemporary backlash, including the opposition of the Labor Party, which was committed to a unitary state and a unicameral parliament that would minimise the barriers to popular control. It was also one of the main reasons why Sydney twice voted no to federation; Premier George Reid was even burned in effigy as “the strangler of majority rule” for campaigning for ‘yes’ during the second referendum campaign. To some degree, then, Australia’s federal structure seems to be at odds with our country’s underlying populist majoritarian tendency.
But this is not the whole story. Properly understood, Australia’s federalism always contained within it a centralising tendency. As Alfred Deakin put it, the states were left “legally free, but financially bound to the chariot wheels of the central Government.” In practice, this has meant that outside of some state parochialism and occasional ‘new state’ movements, localism is relatively weak in Australia. In New South Wales a comprehensive system of local government was not introduced until after federation. Local governments remain entirely subordinate to the states and attempts to protect their position by enshrining them in the Constitution have so far been unsuccessful. Australia evinces no ideological commitment to the diffusion of power; our federalism is an expression of our pragmatism, it is largely majoritarian in practice, and it has been gradually shaped by the populist impulse.
All of this is quite intuitive: a culture that allows the average person to rise produces a politics that puts a premium on the opinion of that average person, and, since it believes that people are basically the same, it sees no real objection to simply tallying up preferences and giving effect to the majority view. The central question of Australian politics has generally been how we can use the state to ensure that it benefits as many people as possible. Egalitarianism at the individual level plays out as populism in government.
Yet, if it is understandable that egalitarian values lead to populist politics, it is also evident that populist politics can create an unhealthy, and ultimately self-undermining, reliance on, and faith in, the state.
Indeed, it is a basic fact of Australian history that our people fundamentally trust the state. Hirst argues that this tendency coexists with a lack of respect for our politicians, individually and as a class. This unusual conjunction is also, in part, a function of our egalitarianism. Many of the rough and tumble men elected to parliament failed to live up to British notions of decorum; the New South Wales parliament even earned the moniker the “bear pit” for its frequent “abusive language, personal invective, and occasional physical assault”. The enduring distaste this kind of behaviour engendered was demonstrated by the 1967 nexus clause referendum, where the populist slogan of ‘no more politicians’ easily overwhelmed the institutional strength of both major parties.
For all this though, and despite the larrikin image of an irreverent attitude towards authority, we are an incredibly obedient people, something the Covid-19 lockdowns highlighted.
This trust in the state is due, at least in part, to the fact that Australia has little history of domestic tyranny. On the whole, the early autocratic colonial governors were not tyrants and were willing to empower ex-convicts and keep the ambitions of would-be aristocrats in check. On this point, we contrast strongly with Americans. While they are taught to revere the revolutionary leaders who had to risk life and limb to break away from George III, Australians have had democracy since before the popular consciousness can even remember. Britain gave us our free political institutions without any need for armed conflict. Australians never fought a war of independence, and do not maintain a right to bear arms in case liberty needs to be defended against a new form of despotism. While waves of immigrants have brought with them memories of the evils that a state can inflict on its population, and Indigenous Australians suffered cruelty during settlement, the modern Australian nation has never experienced despotism and seldom entertains the thought that it might.
Our trusting attitude towards the state is perhaps best represented by our lack of a Bill of Rights, a situation which is increasingly rare around the Anglosphere. This is an embodiment of the Westminster principle of parliamentary supremacy, but Westminster itself has not stuck to it. Hewing to the older principle is an expression of our commitment to majoritarianism, the idea that a government embodying the collective will of the Australian people should be able to express that will. Those opposed to an Australian Bill of Rights look to the American Supreme Court and the tremendous power it wields beyond the reach of Congress and argue that we do not want that here. In 1988 the Hawke Government, marking the completion of Labor’s shift away from its populist majoritarian roots, attempted to enshrine a small number of rights in the Constitution. More than two-thirds of voters rejected the proposal.
Australians’ trust in the state is also built on the active role the state has taken from the very beginnings of our history. British parliamentarian Edward Gibbon Wakefield argued that new countries would require “ample government” to set up, and developed a scheme of rational colonisation whereby land would be sold at a high price, which would then be used to subsidise migration and build public works. The Wakefield scheme was only carried out in full in South Australia, but government assisted migration became a cornerstone of Australia’s national development, making it possible to compete with the far shorter and cheaper trip prospective British migrants might take across the Atlantic. Immigrants brought over by the government expected