Politicians and Australia’s Progress

This project has several related aims. One is to convey the richness, distinctiveness, and intellectual and emotional roots of ideas aired and debated in Australia’s Federal Parliament. We start from a position that certain developments have conspired to give an impression that history-mindedness has only recently been a feature of Australian political debate. The so-called history wars of the 1990s, featuring notable contributions from John Howard and Paul Keating, and stirring historians and other commentators into voice, have gone a long way towards creating this impression. They triggered debate and new research into history textbooks – most notably by Anna Clark – but this also reinforced the sense of unique moment by starting from an assumption that the incursion of history into the political realm was a novelty. Similarly, in the early 2000s, Stuart Ward’s work on Australia’s slipping from its ‘British embrace’ in the 1960s and then James Curran’s book on Australian prime ministers defining Australia’s national image directed attention to political leaders within the realms of a debate about Australian Britishness and the unraveling of this Britishness. As is often the case with strongly-put arguments, this line of thinking relied for its impact on the exclusion of other features of Australians’ national identikit gleaned from political debate. For Curran, Australian leaders’ articulations of identity before the early 1960s were simply variations on the theme of Australia’s Britishness.

We suggest that the ‘history’s appeal’ in Australian politics is long-standing and tied to challenges of particular times. We use the word ‘appeal’ deliberately, for its three main meanings, all of which have come into play as politicians have deployed history. It suggests in its different uses:

  • Entreaty
  • Reference to authority
  • Attraction

History’s appeal is a working title that attempts to allow for all three. If the title were, instead, ‘the appeal of history’, we would only logically capture history’s attraction (as a source of compelling narrative) and possibly entreaty. If it were ‘the appeal to history’, we would logically be signalling a preoccupation with history as a source of authority. ‘History’s appeal’ enables us to consider the three elements of entreaty, the sense of authority and legitimacy that can be invoked in deploying history, and also the attraction of a narrative interpretation of the past as a means of locating and framing current policy issues.

In the sense that politicians logically invoke precedents or point to their successes and their opponents’ mistakes, the past is always close to surface of parliamentary debate. But our focus is on those whose interventions are couched in ways that make Australia part of a bigger story. They sometimes explicitly referred to the teachings of history or the lessons of history – with parliament as an extension of a school classroom you could read history, make history and fail at history. All of these claims were thrown around, especially in the first half of the century. Less explicitly but more pervasive, the fate of civilisations, the deeds of great men, and the state of Australia’s progress were historical tropes of note, again especially during the first half of the century, but with echoes that persisted during the second half. Unpacked further, the historical references beyond these broad themes might be grouped under headings of:

  • Identity formation, including the composition of the population, migration, Britishness, citizenship and the place of Aborigines
  • Ways of governing, including alternative political philosophies, the role of the state between tyranny and freedom, the nature of federation, and the roles of parliament and the executive;
  • and Australia in the world, including empire and decolonisation, rising and falling powers, great allies, wars, relations with Asia and challenges such as communism and the Cold War

Some brief notes on theoretical and methodological positioning:

This kind of work is not totally uncharted territory. There has been a trend by historians to explore more deeply how politicians can rely on historical references for their legitimacy and power to persuade, or sometimes even seek to shape the parameters of historical inquiry.[1] Political speeches are major occasions for policy pronouncement and persuading listeners that a particular version of the past is relevant to contemporary affairs. If anything, historians have been taking greater notice of this in the last two decades.[2] To study this phenomenon then, also takes up the related project of exploring ‘speech-making as history’, championed by historian Ken Inglis in the 1990s.[3] The value in understanding the role of rhetoric in ushering in change is clear in studies of Australia’s Federation published at the time of Federation’s centennial celebrations. John Hirst, in particular, argued persuasively that without emotional support, without mobilisation of a romantic ideal of an Australian Federation, it would not have come to pass. Some of those playing leading roles, including politicians, committed their hopes and visions to verse. ‘It was poetry’s role’, writes Hirst, ‘to deal with what was noble, profound and elevating.’[4] That historians have mostly struggled to know what to do with such poems, of varying quality, is evidence of the need to find a suitable framework in which to explore their significance.

In 2002 Alan Atkinson challenged us to recall and do justice to the power of voices if we are to deepen our appreciation of how intimacy and emotion play out in the human experience of modernity.[5] In The Commonwealth of Speech, Atkinson invokes Benedict Anderson’s concept of print capitalism – the advent of widespread printing in books and the media in a common language form, or vernacular – as the basis for further research needed in Australia. As a starting point for Australia’s age of print capitalism he points to the conjoint growth of bureaucracy, newspapers, and postal system during progress towards responsible government at State level in the middle of the nineteenth century, and accelerated by people traffic associated with gold rushes.[6] More recently, Atkinson features the voices of parliamentarians and others in the last volume of his trilogy of The Europeans in Australia published in 2014. And again recently, Peter Cochrane, in his prize-winning study of the emergence of self-government and democracy in nineteenth-century New South Wales, wrote that ‘political history must conjure the elements of performance, resurrect the great speeches – as well as the feisty editorials and the satirical broadsheets – and try to revisit the chemistry between speaker and audience.’[7] Taken in conjunction with the work of Curran and others, it is as though Australian parliamentary language has been held to be illuminating up to and just after Federation, and then again from the 1970s, but, with the possible exception of Judith Brett’s work on Menzies, not much of guide to things that happened in between.

The second influence comes from the United States where George Lakoff’ has risen to prominence as a cognitive scientist-linguist teaching liberals how to reframe debates that have been shaped by label conscious conservatives. His wonderfully-titled short book, Don’t Think of an Elephant: Know your Values and Frame the Debate, was printed in Australia by Scribe with an Introduction by Sydney Morning Herald journalist, Julia Baird, who wrote that the left in Australia had fallen into the same trap as liberals in the US had managed – ‘the left has been panting to keep up with the right and has now adopted their way of seeing the world’.[8] She endorsed Lakoff’s suggestion that voters will respond to language that addresses identity and values, at times more than calculating appeals to self-interest, and thereby endorsed a Lakoff-led inquiry into the state of Australian political language. Our approach is equally interested in the framing of debates and policies, especially where that framing involves historical references.

And the third line of thinking is one that picks up on earlier work on which we have, in different ways, been wanting to build. From Jim’s earlier writing we suggest that it is usually the case that the public advocates for a political position draw upon and are influenced by less visible ‘organic intellectuals’ who articulate the bases of their cause. It is illuminating to relate the work of these political thinkers with the spruikers who tend to figure more largely in the public record. And from my work we argue that political speeches provide invaluable glimpses into how the reactive responses meet the more imaginary and visionary elements of thinking about Australian destiny in world affairs. More than other Australians, parliamentarians have tended consciously to locate themselves in the historical streams of continuity and change. They have looked back and sometimes forwards in their efforts to navigate through the currents of world affairs; they have drawn on historical markers for guidance and on both past and possible future sources of conflict.[9]

By way of illustration, and hopefully by way of connecting past debates with recurrent, indeed present political debates, I am considering in this paper the theme of unshackling Australia – enabling progress in ways best suited to Australian circumstances, and drawing on a range of mostly European and North American thoughts and practices. At its most basic, I’m trying here to convey that Australian politicians have been better than we think at pausing and asking ‘where are we going’ with reference to diverse historical and geographical glancing. Not all of the glancing has been of equal quality, but it has been frequent and it has displayed those three characteristics associated with history’s appeal – the sense of entreaty to act, the sense of authority that comes from relating what has or has not worked in another time, and the power of the narrative story to capture the attention of the listener.

It is clear, for example, that the great Victorian vs. NSW tussle over protectionism vs. free trade lived well past the act of Federation, as politicians grappled with the right model for the new federated Australia they had created. In the immediate aftermath of federation, in the very early debates of the twentieth century, it was not surprising to see this issue as a prominent theme of unfinished business. Freedom in trade, said Sir William McMillan, was what liberals in England had fought for, for 100 years:

I feel that underlying this principle of free-trade is the principle of freedom which has made us, the people in Australia, what we are, that principle of freedom which animated English statesmen, taught by the occurrences in America 100 years ago to leave us to our own natural development. That same principle has acted on us in leaving us to freedom in the development of our national manhood, and it has resulted in the great consummation of this Commonwealth to-day. I carry this principle of freedom through all my political life and through all my political thought, and I say that, in dealing with a great people like the people of Australia, and in dealing with a great continent like this, of enormous natural resources, you must be sure that you do not divert industry from natural channels, and put it into unnatural and restricted channels. [10]

The very first debates of the new parliament featured animated exchanges on interpretations of English history, and the relative strengths and weaknesses attaching to England’s transition in the middle of the nineteenth century, from a protectionist trade stance to one of free trade. In measuring strength, there were some common indices: population growth, volumes of exports and imports, the accumulation of wealth, expansion of industry and expansion of empire overseas, assisted by breakthroughs in communications and the growth of naval power.[11] In measuring weaknesses, there were glances at other nations who might have gained by virtue of doing differently, and there was, especially for Labor members, inequality. This was the dark side of free trade: ‘irresponsible wealth which stagnates, and the starvation wages of the labour market.’[12] ‘The university professors who teach our young men’, cried McColl, ‘are free traders. They have been suckled on the doctrines of Adam Smith and, English as they are, they will not open their eyes to the actual condition of affairs.’[13] Of course, the ideal of development and growth with a fair distribution of wealth was not surrendered easily by free traders, who found that trade tariffs had a way of protecting the millionaires, the Vanderbilts of the US, more than distributing wealth evenly.[14] And, to draw a long bow, they continued in deep historical vein to suggest that it was only after the Romans started to import duties that their empire began to decline.[15]

Perhaps the bow was not so long in the context of the Australian embrace of history taught in schools and of Spencerian logic when it came to the fate of empires and nations. They rose and fell. Those that did not realise their potential by subjugating native inhabitants and exploiting their country’s natural resources to the fullest extent were destined to be overtaken by a stronger race.[16] When Japan defeated the Russian fleet in 1905, thereby transforming the geopolitics of the Pacific, Alfred Deakin urged fellow members to include the Japanese in this meta-narrative of nations/empires:

We should, above all things, take cognisance of what is passing in the world around us. We cannot, ostrich-like, hide our heads in the sand, in the hope that no outside invader will ever attack us, and in the belief that none of the so-called inferior races will ever ascend the scale of civilisation, and so far adopt the methods of civilised life, and above all, of civilised warfare, as to be a menace to us. No doubt many of us have lived in a fool’s paradise in this regard for some years past. I make the free confession that I have done so, to some extent. Until recent developments took place, I had no idea that a certain eastern nation had so far adopted western methods and customs, and acquired western means of destruction, as the late war has proved it to have done. When such a nation suddenly springs into prominence, and shows itself entitled, by the valour and skill of its people, and their recognition of the standards of our civilisation, to a place at the table of the civilised nations of the world, it is time for us to inquire if our relations with it are such as to be likely to provoke reprisals, and also whether those relations make it possible for us to continue to live in amity with it.[17]

In terms of Australia ‘turning’ to the US, a phrase most commonly associated with Prime Minister John Curtin and the dark days for Australia at the end of 1941, Australians had been turning well before then. Politicians across the spectrum watched and admired the model offered by US development of railways, agricultural research and irrigation. At the level of emotional and philosophical connection Marilyn Lake has highlighted Alfred Deakin’s attraction to the American set of ideals, Californian irrigation, and to the thinking of philosopher Josiah Royce. Deakin was also much-taken with the American Monroe Doctrine – the presidential declaration in 1823 that any efforts by European nations to colonise or interfere with any parts of North or South America would be regarded as acts of aggression; and he hoped that Australia’s restrictive immigration or White Australia policy would one day be regarded in a similar manner to the Monroe doctrine – it would come to be recognised around the world for its strength of purpose and correctness.[18] Other less cerebral Australian politicians turned repeatedly to history lessons of what the Americans had been able to achieve by way of making a nation of their large patch of a continent.[19] Equally, others turned to it for lessons in what not to do – one of the better-known examples from Labor’s point of view was the American preparedness to roll out the armed forces to deal with striking unions.[20]

These examples, and my summaries, all derive from the first decade after Federation. It is perhaps logical that a self-consciousness of being part of a new political entity is accompanied by a high, perhaps even an exaggerated level of measuring Australia and outlining Australia’s options according to historical precedents. While my methodology is not quantitative in any systematic manner – I don’t count the number of references that appear historical as a percentage of the whole of Hansard – it is clear that for many members, a sense of history and a capacity to debate historical interpretations was a matter of pride.

In the 1920s, another slice of parliamentary language that we are considering, the impact of the First World War and the sense of a dangerous postwar world accentuated the admixture of racial pride and anxiety. The history of wars and conquest grew in volume in parliament. In the hands of several members, including Labor’s Frank Brennan in 1926, historians confirmed that the Australian story was one fit for self-congratulation and perpetuation in terms of its racial correctness and its moral authority. British stock had made success of a land that no-one else had wanted.

We have been told that we must increase our population if we are to hold this continent. I have previously asked, on the floor of this chamber, who has established the best title to this country. No nation can claim from necessity a right to invade this country. Who, then, has a greater right to hold it than have we? Historians know that this fertile continent lay unused for many centuries during which the primitive sailing crafts of various nations cruised about its shores. Those early navigators took away with them nought but unfavourable reports about the inhospitable nature of the country, and no people could be induced to settle here until the flag of Great Britain was planted on Australian shores, and the pioneers of British blood came here to make their home. The sacrifices which have built up Australian civilisation to what it is today were made by people of the same stock, and I give them all honour for it. Who was it bore the brunt and burden and great adventure of early settlement on the goldfields and elsewhere? Who went into the back-blocks and opened up the pastoral and arable lands and converted what appeared to be an arid desert into smiling cornfields? Who but people of the same stock as those who now occupy it bore all the hardships of pioneering this country? And who has any moral claim to the ownership of it other than those who are already in possession and have established in it a system of government and a standard of civilisation unequalled in any other part of the world?[21]

Other constants were recurring arguments about the histories of tariffs and their successes/failures in other parts of the world, and the ongoing tussle between Labor and non-Labor as the rightful inheritors of English liberalism in Australia. In the wake of a bitter Labor party split, it became all the more important for survivors to position the labor movement as providing the engine room for progressive change since the age of industrialisation. As anti-union legislation ramped up from the middle of the decade so too did references to Magana Carta, habeus corpus and the best signifiers of freedom in English history. In the midst of one stoush in 1925, Labor member Charles McDonald proudly quoted former British Prime Minster William Gladstone as having said: ‘We should reflect that in nearly all the political controversies of the last 30 years the wealthy class, the leisured class, and the titled class have been wrong. It is well to remember that it is to the common man of the ordinary working class we are indebted to-day for almost all the political reforms which are now accepted by the world.’ [22]

And, to comment briefly on the middle years of the twentieth century, there were features of parliamentary debate that were familiar – especially the contest along party political lines for the most virtuous strands of British history, including the struggle between capital and labour – and there were some extraordinary tussles over the nature of the Cold War and the meaning of the nuclear age. The great postwar immigration program unfolded in the midst of this, and intersected with familiar views on Australia’s need for development. According to Labor’s Lesley Haylen in 1948, migration underlined the racial element of Australia’s challenge:

‘There are 1,000,000,000 coloured people to the north of this continent. We are certainly not bringing migrants here to fight our battles for us, but we seek an aggregation of people who would be of value in the defence of Australia should it be challenged again. This is the greatest and most significant chance for Australia to amount to something in the eyes of the world. If we do not recognise our responsibilities to the rest of the world, history will record in 500 years time that there was once upon a time a white race in Australia … our safety lies in numbers. Therefore, we should not be pernickety about how a migrant wears his tie or how an Englishman appears when he arrives here. They can give to us production, culture and the safety of numbers.’[23]

By the mid-1950s, the success of communism in Asia and the advent of hydrogen bombs unnerved members to the extent that several of them felt that the normal processes of history had been upturned. Wilfred Kent-Hughes declared that the ‘past was dead’ and of little guidance to the dilemmas Australians faced;[24] his colleague William Wentworth claimed that ‘The processes of history have become accelerated’ in Asia, especially in China;[25] and soon after the French collapse in Vietnam Roy Wheeler seemed to be losing his confidence the Australia could cope with an apparent telescoping of time frames:

‘A century in the history of China is of little consequence to a nation of that age, but    Australia is presented with the facts of the present and the immediate past, and we cannot afford to take a long-term view of the situation. We are living on borrowed time and year or two may determine the future course of our history.’[26]

These were the troubled comments of politicians whose mental maps had been torn up – history had been overthrown and they were indeed struggling to find their bearings.

History’s appeal has been consistently strong in the Australian parliament, the chamber where politicians have lined up to perform along lines of tribes, conscience and to persuade listeners. The habit of historical comparative has been marked, more marked than many commentators have found, and we can suggest a number of reasons for this. One is the sense of creating something new, with federation, as I’ve mentioned. There is an unfortunate corollary to this, best put by Stanley Melbourne Bruce in 1924: ‘We are a new nation, without a history, and without the inherited hatreds and antagonisms of older nations. It is very fortunate that we have no past.’[27] The canvas that is blank is all the more welcoming of exciting suggestions from elsewhere. An Australia without an indigenous past was all the more ripe for history’s appeal. Secondly, part of history’s appeal was way in which it contextualised the great concerns of the time utilising all three qualities attaching to the notion of appeal – the drive and structure of the narrative so suited to a parliamentary performance, and the sense of authority and entreaty that could be wielded to persuade others.

Some politicians, of course, were better than others at invoking history, but there was a strong preparedness by many to offer a mild disclaimer about having no historical expertise but then plunging on in any case. At times, politicians argued over who were the greatest leaders of the Western world, over which books were the strongest authority on historical subjects and over which historical metaphor was the most apt for the issue under consideration. Some put a lot of work into the detail of their metaphors, and one can imagine the Parliamentary Librarians beavering away on behalf of determined members. Above all perhaps, is a sense of historical self-consciousness, of members locating themselves and their challenges in the context of historical streams – ‘time-streams’ was the term used by American commentators, Ernest May and Richard Neustadt in their 1986 book, Thinking in Time on the metaphors that American policy-makers deployed in crisis situations. Seeing time as a stream stressed the predictive power of the past, the importance of recognizing how the present was similar to or different from it, and the need to compare constantly the past, present and likely future.


In looking for signs of historical consciousness in Australian public life some have found it the activities of collectors and antiquarians, others have found it in popular forms of remembering past events; and I’m suggesting that our Federal Parliament is another arena in which history’s appeal has taken root.


[1] Stuart Macintyre and Anna Clark, The History Wars, Melbourne, 2003, p. 123.

[2] Stephen Mills, ‘The Making of a Prime Minister’s Speeches’, in Julian Disney and J.R. Nethercote (eds), The House on Capital Hill: Parliament, Politics and Power in the National Capital, Annandale, 1996, pp. 165-77. This is also the conclusion of Curran in his The Power of Speech.

[3] Ken Inglis, ‘Men and Women of Australia: Speech Making as History’, Barry Andrews Memorial Lecture, 7 October 1993, University College, Australian Defence Force Academy, UNSW, Canberra, 1993; and Inglis, ‘Parliamentary Speech’, Papers on Parliament, Occasional Lecture series, Department of Senate, Canberra 1996.

[4] John B. Hirst, The Sentimental Nation: The Making of the Australian Commonwealth, Oxford University Press, Melbourne, 2000, p.15. See also same source, pp. 15-25.

[5] Alan Atkinson, The Commonwealth of Speech: An Argument About Australia’s Past, Present and Future, Australian Scholarly Publishing, Melbourne, 2002, pp. xxii, 12.

[6] ibid., pp. 4-5.

[7] Peter Cochrane, Colonial Ambition: Foundations of Democratic Australia, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 2006, p. xiv.

[8] Julia Baird, ‘Introduction’, in George Lakoff, Don’t Think of an Elephant! Know Your Values and Frame the Debate: The Essential Guide for Progressives, Scribe Short Books, Melbourne, 2005, p. ix.

[9] Lowe, ‘Australia’s Cold War’, p. 362.

[10] Governor General’s speech reply, 22 May 1901, CPD, vol. 21, p. 219.

[11] See McColl, 30 May 1901, CPD vol. 21, pp, 520-22.

[12] ibid, p. 522.

[13] ibid, p. 525

[14] Brown, 4 June 1901, CPD vol. 21, p. 602.

[15] Conroy, Ibid, p. 634.

[16] Eg W.H. Irvine, CPD, no. 41, 7 October 1908, p. 878.

[17] Deakin, CPD, no. 49, 6 December 1905, p. 6309.

[18] Deakin, re Immigration Restriction Bill, CPD, no. 37, 12 Sept. 1901, p. 4805.

[19] E.g. see Isaacs, CPD, no. 28, 12 July 1901, pp. 2499-2515; and Sir William Lynne, ibid, 17 July, pp. 2671-2.

[20] See Billy Hughes, CPD, no. 31, 31 July 1901, pp. 3296-7.

[21] CPD, no. 27, 6 July 1926, 3802-3.

[22] CPD, no. 29, 14 July 1925, 992-3.

[23] Haylen, CPD, no. 44 H of R, 26 October 1948, pp. 2111-2.

[24] Kent-Hughes, CPD, H of R, 5 August 1954, p. 132.

[25] Wentworth, CPD H of R, 17 August 1954, p. 340.

[26] Wheeler, CPD, H of R, no. 11 August 1954, p. 197.

[27] Bruce, CPD, vol. 26, 27 June 1924.

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