A year or so ago I was asked to write a chapter for a book on Australian ‘exceptionalism’ by the book’s editor, William Coleman, whose father Peter was my local MLA when I lived in Sydney. William is a well regarded reader in economics at the ANU. I was tempted, but I had a lot of other writing on my plate, and finally said he should try others. Well, he did, and they include Geoff Blainey, Henry Ergas, Nick Cater, Phil Lewis and John Nethercote. The book is out (Only in Australia. The History, Politics and Economics of Australian Exceptionalism, published by OUP), and a most interesting book it is, too.
What is ‘exceptionalism’? The authors aren’t talking about ‘God’s laboratory experiment with marsupials’, or the prevalence of the long weekend, or the likelihood that our indigenous people have lived in the one continent right through an ice age and its melting. Coleman says that the most salient features of our exceptionalism are a tightly regulated labour market, a transfer system that relies on direct taxation and means testing, a facade of federalism concealing a strong unitary state, the prominence and power of a bureaucratic elite, not only in our civil serve but in the multitude of statutory authorities we have, and a big set of ‘electoral peculiarities’. What is more, he thinks we are pursuing our own course while many other comparator countries are doing something else, and together. We might be better off looking hard at what they are doing.
One obvious response is something like ‘How much does it matter?’, or ‘Isn’t every country special in some way?’ Coleman dismisses these objections in what I thought a somewhat cavalier way, and in the end I decided that I would read to learn what I could about areas with most of which I used to be familiar. It was a productive and often enjoyable journey which I recommend to others. Coleman has a somewhat contorted style, but also the capacity to lodge an idea in your mind. To give an example, ‘Any system of proprieties reigns by silences as much as by pronouncements: some things are not to be spoken of.’ I liked that. He had in mind A. F. Davies’s remark that Australia is ‘acutely bureaucratised’. Coleman suggests that Davies has never been forgiven by some of his peers for that statement, just as the influence of unions is never mentioned in studies of public administration here, and that corruption in state utilities never gets reported in the academic journals. I’m not sure about any of this, but I’ve stored away the notion of reigning by silence. It is an aspect of political correctness, and as I delved further into the book I could see that the authors generally were rather tired of the current left/progressive account of contemporary Australia.
What do they offer? Geoff Blainey always writes well — for you the reader, not for the academics who by and large have criticised him, and in some cases ostracised him. If you had only one chapter to read, try this one. It is his personal view, and finishes with the judgment that Australia is one of the most experimental and most exceptional countries in the history of the modern world. But [he says] historians cannot readily agree on the question: which exceptional episodes should be applauded or regretted? William Coleman enlarges his account with a second chapter, about theories of Australian exceptionalism. If we are exceptional, then what is ‘normal’, and where do we find it? Good questions. Russel Ward, Louis Hartz both saw the exceptionalism as a consequence of the land and the new settlers’ reaction to it. W. K. Hancock wrote a book in 1930 about Australia, and for him what was characteristic was the tension between individualism and collectivism. Foo Davies took that a little further by proposing that the outcome was bureaucratisation, for which Australians had a strange talent. All this reminded me that when I lectured at the Australian Command and Staff College I used to start with the claim that the new society at Port Jackson was the world’s first modern state: it was highly authoritarian, one hundred per cent urban, and run by the state. What disturbs Coleman is that we seem to stuck in a way that is not to our advantage, and we are conservative enough to like it that way.
Greg Melleuish and Stephen Chavur provide a chapter suggesting that we were more Christian than we thought — not really secular at all — but that now Protestantism has declined as Britishness has declined: the old nexus of religion, politics, and culture has been effectively broken. I think they’re right. They don’t know where this will all end, and neither do I. Henry Ergas, for whom I have a lot of time, offers a long chapter on Hancock and de Tocqueville, which I enjoyed without quite knowing, at the end, where it was going. De Tocqueville’s Democracy in America is altogether a more substantial book than Hancock’s Australia. Hancock knew the other work well, and its themes recur in his own. De Tocqueville worried about where unbridled democracy would lead the new society, while Hancock felt Australians all too easily looked to government to sort out their problems, a popular theme today, at least on the right. They would therefore miss the opportunity to build what I called in my writings ‘the Australia project’, establishing a new society free from the cleavages of Europe. I may have got some of that from Hancock.
John Nethercote does get stuck into the failure of federalism to flourish, but gives good reasons for the failure, among them central revenue-raising, and the growing sense of ‘nation’, which leads to the demand that all problems be solved at a national level. Phil Lewis points our that both critics and supporters see our approach to industrial relations as unique (and therefore exceptional). While most (or at least many) economists argue that the Australian industrial relations system is a historical vestige in a modern free market, service-based economy, support for it is still very much entrenched in the Australian psyche and attempts at reform have, at times, meant political suicide for those attempting to change it. I can remember a time in the early 1960s when union membership included 62 per cent of the workforce; it is now at about 18 per cent. Yet unions are still seen as dominant players in the system. Lewis points out that they have all sorts of legal advantages that have grown over the past century. I infer that he thinks that they are more important that they ought to be. Malcolm Turnbull would probably agree.
Coleman has written a third chapter on electoral idiosyncrasies, which is probably the one I was asked to do. He has done it brilliantly, and it must have taken him good deal of time as well. Many of us think that compulsory voting, preferential voting and an independent electoral commission are signs of a highly developed democracy. Coleman wonders if the reverse isn’t true — that these rules actually stop us acting as concerned citizens (see Hancock, above). There is something in it. Jonathan Pincus has written a long and absorbing chapter on the importance of the state-owned railways in Australia’s economic and political development. I did some work on this matter fifty years ago, and I found his chapter quite fascinating. Adam Creighton has a no less interesting chapter on the role of compulsory superannuation in our society. Richard Pomfret writes well about the economics of sport, another aspect of Australian society that we see as special. Nethercote writes another chapter comparing Australia, Canada and the UK as examples of ‘Westminster’ styles in governance. I found this absorbing, since I know all three countries reasonably well. He says we are recognisably Westminster, but not very British.
There are other chapters, including one about the grain trade in North America and Australia, and another comparing Australia and New Zealand. At the end I thought I had learned a lot, but I wasn’t any surer than I had been at the beginning about Australia’s exceptionalism, let alone about whether it was a good thing or not. What I did gain was a lot of material that disputed the current orthodoxy in political science and history, and that gave me a lot to think about. There’s not much at all in the book about indigenous Australians, and most of it is in Blainey’s chapter. There is nothing about gender or women, even in the Index. Few of the issues that exercised the columnist I wrote about in my last essay even get a mention. For these reasons I expect that the book will get a drubbing in several of the academic journals.
But it’s a good read, it covers a good deal of the Australian history of the 20th century, and none of it is boring, which is indeed a recommendation.