SYDNEY — Egalitarianism has always ruled here, ever since the first white settlers arrived in Sydney Cove from their London jails in 1788. One of the first convicts off the boat became chief magistrate and another chief architect. Jack is not only as good as his master; here he considers himself a damn side better. Hence a “tall poppy” syndrome that cuts the heads off even the likes of early Prime Ministers Edmund Barton and Alfred Deakin.
When Queen Victoria, having graciously consented to the colonial wish, sent Lord Louis Hope to swear in Barton’s first ministry, Sydney’s nationalist journal, The Bulletin, described his lordship as “puny and wan.” Needless to add, Hope, the first governor general, is another of the forgotten heroes.
Earlier, The Bulletin had been fanning flickering flames of republicanism within the far-flung outpost of the British Empire. Jingoism was never an Australian trait, then or now, so rabid nationalism got short shrift in the constitution.
The descendants of convicts, described by Deakin as independent “Australian Britons,” were, however, quite happy to share the motherland’s heritage and laws. Until recent times, the majority of Australians could carry with much pride passports headed “British subject, Australian citizen.”
Rabid republicans still get the finger from most Australians. Irish-descent Paul Keating, a recent prime minister of turbulent memory, tried to divert attention from economic failures by waving a new flag for a new republic. Put to the ballot box, the republic was thrown out; it is still out.
Flag-wavers we are not. Home-bred critics say that’s because the flag is an embarrassing mix of Britain (the Union Jack in one corner) and Australia (the Southern Cross of stars in the Southern Hemisphere). Born of a design competition, the flag took half a century to earn formal adoption as the official emblem. Change will have to await a republic.
More controversial than the flag is the national anthem, “Advance Australia Fair.” “Australia’s sons let us rejoice,” it begins. In these days of feminist power, it begins “Australians all let us rejoice.” Now it is the national anthem, edging out “God Save the Queen.” Many people wanted “Waltzing Matilda,” long a much-sung ballad about a swaggie (wanderer) stealing a jumbuck (sheep) beside a billabong (oxbow river). Only in translation from Austral-English could that one be understood abroad.
Women are out in front in current birthday celebrations. They rightly point to the constitution’s women-empowering provisions insisted on by pioneering feminists. The colony of South Australia was only second in the world — the first was New Zealand — in granting women the vote. The Founding Fathers could not disenfranchise (though some tried) women and the first Parliament gave all women equal voting rights. Getting them into power took another 20 years, when Edith Cowan won a seat in Western Australia.
A tub-thumping triumphalism that some older nations like to flaunt in their anniversaries is notably absent this week across Australia. That has never been the way on this island. Oddly, the ceremonies of a century ago sported the gaudy colors of Britain’s armies, such as the Queen’s Own Hussars and the Imperial Life Guards, not to mention those of our own troops marching off to South Africa to help London defeat the Boers as we have helped in Britain’s wars ever since.
War, happily for this faraway spot, has never blighted these shores. The closest we came to suffering widespread war damage was in World War II. Japanese bombers sank eight ships in Darwin harbor, killing 243 people,and Japanese mini-submarines sank a ferry in Sydney harbor with a loss of 19 lives.
The United States saved us from that would-be invasion, and Australians have held warm feelings for Americans ever since. Back in pre-federation days, the colonies were also appreciative of the U.S. Our Senate and House of Representatives, operating on the Westminster system, owe a debt of example to the Washington model.
Like the purpose-designed Washington, D.C., Canberra is a model of planned national administration. Alas, it is showing some strains of age in administering a country of huge diversity and growth.
Today with five times the population, Australia is a far different nation from the one the Founding Fathers forged a century ago. To say they would barely recognize the place and the people is to state the obvious.
Yet those wily politicians with the long white beards and their business-minded pragmatism managed to get it right. They knew this land held immense natural resources waiting to be traded in the outside world. With a century of sound governance and laws behind them, they knew they could form a sound basis for centuries of progress.
Descendants of convicts some of the fathers might have been, pragmatic dreamers all of them, yet those founders sensed they were adding a superstructure that would stand the test of time. All for coming generations who, different from themselves only superficially, would make Australia an example to the world.
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