Weekend reading: John Hirst

Having read Morag Fraser’s review of John Hirst’s collection of essays I went hunting for the essays mentioned in the review. I found only “The Distinctiveness of Australian Democracy” which I’d put on my ‘must read’ list. A really interesting and in various respects contrarian telling of democracy in Australia – in Hirst’s telling phrase which is not intended to be belittling “a democracy of manners”.

There seems to be (well I’m hoping there is) a thirst for those capable of making an original contribution by trying hard to assess issues on their merits rather than to begin and end with ideological priors. Another reviewer Tony Stephens quotes Hugh Stretton, describing Hirst, his former pupil as “Conservative for the culture, liberal for the polity and social democrat for the economy.”

I like the idea of someone who is highly sceptical of the various liberal fantasies behind our approach to aboriginal issues who is at the same time scathing about Windshuttle’s footnote witch hunts and body counts. From Tony Stephens’ review

The point is, Hirst says, that 40 years after European settlement, “a people and their way of life had been destroyed. Compared to the starkness of that fact, how many had been directly killed by settler violence seems a matter of lesser consequence.”

Here are some highlights, from though I recommend you read the lot.

Australian democracy is first of all a democracy of manners.

Some people claim that Australian society is not egalitarian because there are wide differences of income, which may now be getting wider. This misses the point of Australian egalitarianism. It is the way Australians blot out those differences when people meet face to face. They talk to each other as if they are equals and they will put down anyone claiming social superiority. It is the feel of Australian society that is so markedly egalitarian, not its social structure. The democracy of manners was established when differences in income were much greater than they are now.

The democracy of manners developed slowly ¢â¬â and for most of its history it was a relationship among men; only recently have women been part of this equality. The democracy of manners owes nothing to democratic politics, but it has implications for politics. Politics is necessarily about power, about inequality. . . . That inequality Australians are reluctant to recognise. Their egalitarianism is a bond of equals, in part directed against the disruption of authority. Australians will recognise that a boss or a military officer must have power, though they will respect him only if he exercises power properly. But politicians have no excuse for wanting power; they have wilfully put themselves above the rest. They will have trouble therefore in gaining respect, no matter who they are or what they do. Many Australians seem to think politics exists only because there are a few egomaniacs wanting to be politicians.

The democracy of manners is a precious achievement. One of the reasons people fought for democracy was that they wanted respect for ordinary people, that they should not be humiliated and scorned. Australians achieved that outside politics and their egalitarianism is more deep-seated and genuine because it is not a political doctrine. But so that all men can be equal, politicians have to be dishonoured. . . .

Then there’s a really interesting set of reflections about the development of the Australian state, which took on board some of the best of the British Government (though often improved upon it – as for instance in accellerating the acceptance of an independent and salaried bureaucracy.

The early Australian governments were actually better than the British. The British government was run by the aristocracy and gentry who rewarded their followers with government jobs. . . .

This system was being reformed just as Australia was settled and so the new rules applied here from the beginning. All jobs had to be real jobs; the work could not be done by a deputy; the reward would be a fixed salary rather than fees. So the British officials who ruled under the governor’s control were efficient and honest.

Government did not begin with taxation. The funds of the first governments came from the British taxpayer. The job of the Colonial Office was to get the governor to limit his spending and to raise money by local taxation. It was some time before the colonists in Australia were paying the full cost of their government. For the first hundred years they never really did that because their defence was provided free by the British navy. For most of human history defence spending has been the biggest item in government budgets. In the Australian colonies it was one of the smallest, which allowed government funds to be spent on the internal development of the colony.

Usually in empires, governors of colonies taxed the people and sent the proceeds back to the mother country. In the Australian colonies taxes were not sent to Britain. After the revolt of the American colonies Britain resolved not to tax its overseas settlers. Britain got its benefit from the colonies through the increase of its trade and the returns on the private funds invested in Australia. The governor’s job was to promote the development of the economy, which would enable the colony to pay its way and bring more benefit to Britain. There was a basic harmony between what the British government wanted of the governors and what the settlers wanted.

Governors and their officials built roads and bridges, improved ports, encouraged exploration, surveyed land for settlement, and provided settlers with their labour force, at first convicts and later free immigrants. The British government which sent the governors did none of these things in its own country. So the function of government changed in Australia; it was not primarily to keep order within and defeat enemies without; it was a resource on which settlers could draw to make money.

Like I said – fascinating reading.

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Should be an interesting read. We are looking to get our hands on our own copy soon.

derrida derider
derrida derider
15 years ago

“[Australians} talk to each other as if they are equals and they will put down anyone claiming social superiority.”

Ah, if only that were so. It used to be so – it was the best feature of that traditional (white) Australian culture that is fading fast, under the impact of economic change. Look at those sickening eulogies to Kerry Packer (ironically, aggressive no-bullshitism was one of the big fella’s few redeeming features).

Of course, those with pretensions to social superiority prefer to refer to this as the “tall poppy syndrome”. They forget that gardeners only cut tall poppies down because it makes the rest flower.

Stephen Bounds
15 years ago

Yeah, but who believed those eulogies?

There’s a big difference between running a propaganda event and having that propaganda accepted by the population. Over 40 years of knowing Kerry as a hard-nosed bastard isn’t going to be overturned by a flowery gala event.

On another point: I’ve always understood that “tall poppy syndrome” wasn’t about anti-elitism, but anti-achievement, and particularly overachievers with a burning desire to succeed at all costs. Thus, John Elliott is cool; Eddie McGuire is not. Dick Smith’s millions offend less than those of Henry Kaye or Jodee Rich.

15 years ago

I haven’t read Hirst, but isn’t this the origin of our statist culture?

So the function of government changed in Australia; it was not primarily to keep order within and defeat enemies without; it was a resource on which settlers could draw to make money.