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CHAPTER LII: characteristics of australian democracy - Viscount James Bryce, Modern Democracies, vol. 2. 
Modern Democracies, (New York: Macmillan, 1921). 2 vols. Vol. 2.
Part of: Modern Democracies, 2 vols.
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characteristics of australian democracy
The reader who has followed this outline of the trend of Australian legislation, and particularly of the policies of the Labour party, often the chief factor in legislation even when not holding a majority in Parliament, will probably ask, What is the attitude of public opinion towards the questions and schemes now in issue, and what are the characteristics of public opinion itself in Australia? Opinion is not necessarily the same thing as voting power, and may be imperfectly expressed in parliamentary elections or by parliamentary action. Large issues, going down to the foundations of economics as well as of politics in the narrower sense, issues fateful for the future, are being pressed forward in Australia more boldly than elsewhere, perhaps with less realization of their gravity. What is the nation's mind regarding them?
Public opinion is in all countries produced by the few and improved and solidified by the many. If we leave out of account the very few detached thinkers, and the very large number who do not care about public affairs at all, it consists in practice of the aggregate of the opinion of sections, local, or racial, or religious, or ocupational, or politically partisan. National opinion results from the intermixture of these sectional opinions, which on some few subjects coincide, in others modify and temper one another, in others sharpen one another by collision. Since the chief topics on which Australian opinion is practically unanimous, such as a White Australia, and the wish to make Australia a good place for the average man, have been already dealt with, we may go straight to the points on which opinion is sectional rather than general, first noting some facts which influence the formation of Australian opinion.
In Australia, considering its vast size, there is singularly little localism in ideas and ways of thinking. Local pride there is, and local jealousies, but that is a different matter. The types of opinion are class types, social or occupational types, not State types, for though each State is chiefly occupied with its own interests and politics there is less difference of character between them than between the four component parts of the United Kingdom. Even in isolated agricultural Tasmania, even in far-off Western Australia, called the most “radical” of the States, the same classes hold everywhere much the same views.
These types are three: that of the wage-earners and the poorer part of the population generally, that of the landowners and richer part of the commercial class, — merchants, manufacturers, large shopkeepers, — that of the professional men.
The hand-workers, clerks, shop-assistants, persons of limited means, are all educated. Illiteracy is practically unknown. Nearly all are what would be deemed in Europe comfortably off, i.e. they are well fed, well housed, except (to a slight, and rapidly diminishing extent) in some few city slums. “Sweating” practices have been eliminated, and there is no pauperism. Nobody need want, unless he is hopelessly unthrifty or addicted to drink; and drunkenness, once a grave evil, has been greatly reduced of late years. But though educated and blessed with more leisure than their brethren in most parts of Europe, the hand-workers of Australia are, as a rule, uninterested in what are called “the things of the mind,” reading little but newspapers and light fiction, and more devoted to amusements, sports, and open-air life, particularly enjoyable in their climate, than the corresponding class in any other equally civilized country. Sunday is recognized as the day of pleasure to an extent unknown elsewhere in the English-speaking world. An Australian said “The sun is the enemy of religion.” The average citizen cares less about public affairs than does the average Swiss or (native) American of the same class, and is less theoretically interested in democratic principles than are those two peoples. Civic responsibilities sit lightly upon him: nor does party feeling, except among Socialists, do much to stir his interest. Among the leaders of the Labour party one finds persons of natural shrewdness who understand politics from the practical side, having acquired experience in the management of trade-union affairs; and there are also some few man of marked intellectual gifts, who have educated themselves by reading, have thought out political projects, and can defend them by argument. But the mass do little thinking for themselves, and take their cue chiefly from their leaders or their newspapers, not out of deference or self-distrust, for they carry independence to the verge of indiscipline, but because, taking no thought for the morrow, they are content to fall in with views that seem to make for the immediate benefit of their class. The same remark applies to the rest of the less wealthy sections, such as clerks and shop-assistants, perhaps even to elementary school teachers and the lower ranks of the civil service, and likewise to that politically unorganized stratum of the middle class, such as small farmers and shopkeepers, which has not gone over to Labourism.
The richer people, pastoralists, merchants, and manufacturers, form a class rather more sharply cut off from the wage-earners than is the like class in Switzerland or Canada or Norway, though it largely consists of those who have risen by business talent, for Australia is a land of opportunity, where talent quickly tells. Among them, too, intellectual interests are not keen; business and pleasure leave little time for learning or thinking. The commercial man may keep an eye on politics, in order to resist what he considers the attacks made by Labour upon realized wealth; he may even subscribe to electoral anti-Labour campaigns. But he conceives that he would lose more by neglecting business than he would gain by spending time in defending business from the onslaughts of Labour. From this class there have come some few political leaders of conspicuous capacity, but on the whole, it contributes little either to the practice or the theory of statesmanship, and does not seem to have realized, any more than the leaders of the Labour party, how much thinking is needed if the problems before Australia are to be solved.
The professional class, which includes lawyers, physicians, engineers, clergymen, men of letters, and the teachers in the higher schools, is very small outside the four great capital cities, and within those cities belongs socially to the mercantile class. Some leading politicians not of the Labour party, and several within that party, have been barristers or solicitors. As in all countries living under a Rigid Constitution where a legal instrument defines the respective powers of a superior and an inferior legislature, legal questions arise, which have to be argued in Parliament as well as in courts of law, and these ought to secure an important place for the possessors of judicial learning. But the legislatures contain few such persons. The men of high scientific and literary attainments, who are found among physicians, journalists, engineers, and in the Universities, enrich the mind of the community, but take less part in public affairs than does the corresponding class in the United States, France, or Britain; and they also are most scantily represented in the legislatures. Altogether, the men occupied in study, thinking, and teaching contribute less to the formation of a national opinion than was to be expected, considering that they hold a position less obviously affected by personal interests than do either the rich on the one hand, who are threatened by progressive taxation, or the middle and poorer classes on the other, who desire to pay little to the State and receive much from it. They might therefore, to a larger extent than heretofore, exert a mediating influence between capital and labour, recognizing what there is of reason and justice in the claims of the opposing sections.
There remains that great and pervasive factor in the formation of opinion, the newspaper press, through which each type of doctrine can speak to the others. In Australia it stands high as regards both ability and character. It is above suspicion of corruptibility or black-mailing, is well written, gives an efficient and a generally fair and honest news service, is not, so far as I could ascertain, worked by politicians behind the scenes for their own purposes. It has not (with a few exceptions) lapsed into that vulgar sensationalism and indifference to truth which belong to an increasing number of organs in some older countries. One does not hear of its publishing interviews which put into the mouth of public men words they never used, and refusing to publish contradictions of stories proved to have been false. Australian criticisms of politicians are often bitter, but not more unfair than those to be found in the French or English press. In the later decades of last century, the three or four greatest newspapers in Sydney and Melbourne exercised more power than any newspapers then did in any other country, being at times stronger than the heads of the political parties. Moments are remembered at which they made and unmade ministries. Till the fusion of parties in 1910, the controversies of Free Traders and Protectionists were fought out in their columns, and while they served to enable each party to argue with the other, they exerted a restraining influence on both. The Labour party has had no considerable daily organ in the press, and its victories, won without such an organ against most of the great journals, proved what skilful organization can accomplish. It makes slight use of the newspapers to expound or defend its policies, and their criticisms tell little on its members. Though the working classes in the cities read the papers for the sake of the news, chiefly to be sure for the racing intelligence and athletic sports reports, the rural folk of the “back blocks” usually see only small local papers containing local happenings, so journalism does less than could be wished to help the antagonistic sections to comprehend and appreciate one another's position; nor is this gap filled by the weekly or monthly magazines, which, however, cannot fairly be compared with those of Europe or America, so much smaller is the population which they address.
In Britain and France the legislatures do much to form, clarify, and formulate public opinion. In Australia, though there are seven of them, they do comparatively little. Neither are there many associations, such as abound in the United States, devoted to the advocacy of particular doctrines or causes.
The types of Australian opinion I have sketched seem to run parallel along the lines of class rather than to blend in a unity within which they are mere variations. Except in matters appealing to patriotic sentiment, there is less of a general national opinion than in the United States and Canada, perhaps less than in Switzerland. In Australia certain elements needed to form breadth and to give variety, or to form a mediating influence between sharply opposing interests, have been wanting. The opinion of the richer sort as well as that of the masses runs in a groove with far too little of a sympathetic interchange of views. Class antagonism divides the people into sections almost as much as such antagonism, coupled with religious enmities, has divided France. Neither social equality nor the standard of comfort, much above that of England, which the workers enjoy, has softened the clash of economic interests. Each section, distrusting the other, sees its own case only, and it is hardly a paradox to say that the more the condition of the wage-earners rises, the more does their dissatisfaction also rise. The miners, for instance, receiving wages undreamt of in Europe, are always to the front in the struggle against employers, whether private companies or the State. Where other distinctions are absent, and a few years can lift a man from nothing to affluence, differences in wealth are emphasized and resented, deemed the more unjust because they often seem the result of chance, or at least of causes due to no special merit in their possessor. The people are gathered into a few large centres, where they lead a restless life, in which leisure means amusement, and there seems to be little time left for anything but business and amusement. Equal in inborn capacity to any other branch of the British stock, they have that want of intellectual curiosity and deficient love of knowledge for its own sake which foreign critics often note in that stock, as compared with the Italians, for instance, or the Celtic peoples, or the Norsemen, so the enjoyment of leisure tends less than was expected either to widen their intellectual interests or to stimulate their sense of civic duty. A distinguished Australian observed to me: “If our people had an intellectual vitality comparable to their physical vitality they might lead the world.” All this is doubtless true of most European countries, but it strikes the observer most in Australia, because comfort and leisure have grown faster there than elsewhere. Moreover, leisure from work does not mean quiet and repose, for the life of Australians is preeminently a life in cities. “The world is too much with them.” Men love to escape from the lonely inland plains where only the clumps of Eucalyptus break the uniformity of wide-spreading pastures, into the seaports, where ocean breezes cool the summer heat and the excitements of life are most attainable, a fact the more regrettable because along the eastern coast and in the mountains which border it, there are, especially as one approaches the tropics, many charming pieces of scenery.1 There are, moreover, too few centres in which opinion is made, and these centres are far from one another, so that the leaders of thought in each are not in close touch. Sydney is New South Wales, Melbourne is Victoria, Adelaide is South Australia. Some one has compared these cities, with their “back blocks” of forests and far-stretching grasslands, to Athens dominating and almost effacing her Attica, as Home did her Campagna, and Carthage her circumambient wheat fields and olive yards. Vast as New South Wales is, one thinks of its thinly peopled rural areas as a mere appendage to Sydney; for it is the urban population which impresses on the State its political character. No similar primacy is yielded to the capital in Britain, where Lancashire or Yorkshire or Scotland contribute as much to national opinion as does London; one must go to Buenos Aires for a parallel. Yet the four Australian cities are less efficient in stimulating thought, and in focussing and criticizing its results, than were city republics like Athens, or than are the greater cities of Continental Europe. Compared to Paris, Vienna, Berlin, Rome, they must needs have with their smaller populations fewer well-informed and powerful minds, but neither have they the intellectual vivacity and variety of those ancient cities which like Rhodes, Croton, or Syracuse, did not approach them in point of population. In Australia it is material interests that hold the field of discussion, and they are discussed as if they affected only Australia, and Australia only in the present generation. Nobody looks back to the records of experience for guidance, nobody looks forward to conjecture the results of what is being attempted to-day. There is little sense of the immense complexity of the problems involved, little knowledge of what is now being tried elsewhere, little desire to acquire such knowledge. Yet economic problems are no simpler here than they are in Europe, the chief difference being that errors may not so swiftly bring disaster to a new and naturally rich and thinly peopled country. The average Australian, apt to think first of how a scheme will affect his own household, takes short views and desires quick results. With few data drawn from the past, the past means nothing to him; if he thinks of the future his pride in Australia makes him sure that all will go well.
It has been a political as well as an economic misfortune that an element conspicuous in the Northern United States and Canada is here scantily represented, viz. the occupying owners of small agricultural properties. This element has begun to grow, especially by an increase in the number of dairy-farms co-operating in the making of cheese and butter, but its growth needs to be quickened; it might have grown still faster in the interior had the railway system been better laid out. The rural areas fit for tillage are still insufficiently peopled, for immigrants come slowly, the growth of population is lamentably slender since the birth-rate is extremely low, the drain from the country into the towns, where life has more variety and amusements, seems irresistible. Moreover, the wool-shearers, a considerable section of the rural population, are migratory, not settled in villages but following their work from one sheep-run to another.
It may be thought that a country gains politically by having comparatively few subjects to think about and deal with, as Australia has only domestic and economic questions, with no foreign or ecclesiastical distractions. But is this really so? May it not be that the mind of a nation is stirred and widened when it has other problems to solve besides those that touch its business life? The Australian horizon is narrow and politics too much occupied with the consideration of results directly measurable in money. This may be a reason why, though all Australians are alike unfettered by theoretical dogmas, alike proud of their country, alike desirous that it shall be a good place for everybody, classes seem unduly suspicious of one another, and fix their minds upon those matters in which interests seem to conflict rather than on those which all have in common. It was hoped that the fervour of feeling aroused by the Great War, and the pride in the dashing valour of Australian regiments, would have created a sense of national unity drawing classes together. But this does not seem to have happened.1 The rich give scant sympathy to the reasonable aspirations of the workers; the latter assume the opposition their plans encounter to be due only to the selfishness of the rich, and themselves betray an exclusive spirit when it is a question of admitting immigrant workers from England herself.
The Australians do not show in politics that fickleness of which democracies have been often accused, for many of their statesmen have through long and chequered careers retained the loyalty of the masses. But though it is well that a statesman whose honesty has once won their confidence should retain it, their indulgent temper is apt to forget misdeeds which ought to have permanently discredited an offender. Memories are short, and it might sometimes be well if they were longer. Tergiversation, and still more severely pecuniary corruption, are censured at the time, yet such sins are soon covered by the charitable sentiment that “Bygones are bygones.”
Though parliamentary debates are acrimonious, and though class antagonism prevents men from comprehending and making allowances for the views of opponents, public opinion is on the whole kindly, free from bitterness and rancour against individuals. Here one sees a marked contrast between the English-speaking democracies and those of the ancient world, where intestine seditions often led to ferocious conflicts, or, as in the later days of the Roman republic, to wholesale proscriptions. The long-settled habit of respect for law and the provision of constitutional methods for settling disputes have stood the children of England in good stead. However high the waves of party strife may ever rise, one cannot imagine a time at which such things could happen among them as happened in the Parisian Terror of 1793, or as we have seen happening recently in Eastern Europe. Nor must the traveller omit to note an undercurrent of prudence and self-restraint among the working masses, who are by no means so extreme as many who profess to speak for them. The notion of Direct Action by strikes and the scheme of one all-absorbing combative Union have not won the approval of these masses.
In forming their impressions of what Australia is and does, Europeans and Americans must never forget that the settled parts of this wide Continent have a population less than that of Belgium, with a number of thinkers and writers small indeed when compared with the old and large countries of Europe, and even with such countries as Switzerland and Holland. All these countries, moreover, are in close touch with one another, and profit by one another's writings and practical experiments in statesmanship. Australia lies so far away that, although the best books reach her and the great world events produce their impression, that impression is fainter. No such constantly flowing and bubbling stream of free criticism and debate upon all political and economic issues as one finds in Europe and North America can be expected here, so the stimulus to thinking is less keen and constant. Nor is it fanciful to add that the isolation of this continent has induced a half-conscious belief that it can try its experiments without fear of suffering from the disapproval or competition of the distant peoples of the northern hemisphere. Schemes are the more lightly tried because there is less sense of responsibility and a more confident faith in the power of a new country to make mistakes without suffering for them.
To wind up this survey of Australian conditions let me try to answer two questions — First, What has democratic Australia achieved both in the way of good administration, and by that kind of moral stimulation which, in ennobling national life as a whole, raises the thoughts and enlarges the horizon of individual citizens? Secondly, What conclusions regarding the merits of popular government does its record suggest?
The conditions which have affected politics have been already described. There is a homogeneous population, isolated, left free to shape its own institutions and steer its own course, protected from foreign interference by the naval power of Britain, to which it is now adding its own, with no old animosities to forget, no old wrongs to redress, no bad traditions to unlearn. Inequalities of wealth have grown up, but there are few monopolists and no millionaires, and nowhere does wealth exert less influence on legislation or administration.1 Social influences count for little or nothing in politics. Australia and New Zealand have provided, better than any other civilized countries, an open field for the upspringing of new ideas, new institutions, new political habits.
Democracy has given the people the thing for which government primarily exists, public order and laws steadily enforced. Except for the rioting frequent during strikes, less serious latterly than similar troubles were in 1890, disturbances are rare, and lynch law unknown. Convictions for serious crime diminished between 1881 and 1912 from a percentage of 69.3 per 10,000 of population to a percentage of 26.2, though the police service was certainly no more efficient forty years ago than it is now.2
The administration of justice has been in upright and competent hands, enjoying the confidence of the people.
The permanent Civil Service is honest, diligent, and tolerably capable.
Direct taxation presses pretty heavily upon the richer people, who, however, seem able to bear it. Indirect taxes, especially high import duties, affect all classes by raising the price of commodities, but the consumers do not greatly complain, thinking they recoup themselves as producers. Financial administration is honest, though far from economical. The public debt, both national and local, was too large for the population even before 1914, but much of it is represented by assets, such as railways, and it was not, when the Great War came, more than the resources of the country were then enabling it to support.
For education, elementary and agricultural, ample public provision is made, and the four greater States possess excellent universities. Tasmania and Western Australia, both comparatively small in population, are trying to follow. Secondary education has been hitherto less well cared for, and the buildings of the elementary schools need to be improved.
The railways are pretty well managed, and the roads good, considering the difficulties of maintaining them over immense stretches of thinly-peopled country. Public health is duly cared for, and the death-rate low in cities as well as in the country, in some States only ten per thousand. Intemperance has notably diminished, less through legislation than owing to a general improvement in the habits of the people.1
Great irrigation works have been undertaken in New South Wales and Victoria, whereby the cultivable area has been increased by many hundreds of square miles. Forestry, however, has been neglected, and little done in the way of replanting in districts where fires have wrought widespread devastation.
The machinery of government works smoothly. Elections are quietly conducted, ballots taken and counted with no suspicion of fraud. Bribery is practically unknown; public meetings less disturbed than in England.
The administration of some government departments is unsatisfactory and often wasteful, not merely from want of skill, but largely because political considerations have weakened disciplinary control and caused high wages to be paid to slack workers.
In the legislatures, as in all legislatures, there is selfishness, intrigue, and factious spirit, but little corruption, and no serious abuses connected with private Bills have arisen, such Bills being indeed few.
Local government has been imperfectly developed, for the difficulties it encounters in the thinly-peopled areas are obvious, but it is reasonably efficient as well as honest. There is some little jobbery, but only in one or two great cities have scandals arisen.
State industrial enterprises (other than railways), if not conspicuous failures, have not been successes, and do not seem to have so far proved helpful to national progress. They are generally believed to be wastefully managed, with an output below that obtained under private management.
The number and extent of strikes were at first reduced by the system of compulsory arbitration, but they continue to break out from time to time, sometimes spreading widely, and involving heavy losses to all concerned.
Monopolistic and other combinations have scarcely yet become, but might become, a public danger requiring to be restricted by legislation or taken over by the State.
Except in bringing to the front some few Labour leaders of ability, democracy has done less than was expected to evoke talent or to awaken among the masses any keen interest in public matters other than wages and the conditions of labour, nor has it roused members of the richer class to take that active part in public life reasonably expected from educated citizens.
That the standard of comfort is nowhere higher over a whole people, if indeed anywhere so high, as in Australia, that nowhere is life more easy and leisure for amusements so abundant, cannot be set to the credit of democratic government, for it is largely due to the favours of Nature. It has, however, a significant influence on the national mind, encouraging a self-confident optimism which enters bodily on experiments.
Parliamentary debates do little to instruct or guide the people, nor do the legislative bodies inspire respect. There is singularly little idealism in politics.
What are the peculiar characteristics democracy here presents? To what sort of a future development do the existing phenomena point? What are Australia's contributions to the stock of the world's experience? What lessons does it teach fit to be learned, marked, and inwardly digested by those who are constructing popular governments elsewhere?
The Labour party, having in 1911 obtained a majority in both Houses, formed a Ministry and ruled the country for some years. Thus for the first time in history (apart from moments of revolution) executive power passed legally from the hands of the so-called “upper strata” to those of the hand-workers. Australia and the world saw a new kind of government of the people by a class and for a class. Instead of the landowners or the richer people governing the landless or the poorer, the position was reversed: the latter imposed the taxes and the former paid them. Class government, which democrats had been wont to denounce, reappeared, with the material difference that the governing class is here the majority, not the minority, of the nation. Yet this new rule of the working masses showed fewer contrasts than might have been expected with the old rule of the landed and moneyed class in England before 1832, or the rule of the middle class that followed. Hardly any political and few large economic changes were effected. There was nothing revolutionary. The stream of change continued to flow in the well-worn channels of parliamentary constitutionalism. The bulk of the Labour men have not been Socialists, and few of them extremists in their radicalism. Theoretic doctrines had little charm, and the common-sense moderation of the majority restrained the impatience of doctrinaires or fanatics. There was no passion, because there were no hatreds, no wrongs to avenge, no abuses to destroy, like those which have often roused ferocity among revolutionaries in countries that had never known, or had lost, constitutional government.
The power of a Class party has been built up on a local and vocational foundation which covers the whole country with a network of closely knit and energetic organizations, working incessantly for common aims. These local organizations culminate in a parliamentary caucus in each of the legislatures, State and Federal, which concentrates the full strength of the party upon its legislative and executive measures. Whenever a Labour party holds power, the parliamentary caucus, itself largely controlled by central Labour organizations outside the legislatures, supersedes the free action both of representatives and of Executive Ministers, and thus ministerial responsibility to the electors is for the time reduced, since it is to the caucus that the Ministers are responsible. This caucus system has not been violent in its action, but it works in secret, substituting a private conclave for public debate, depriving the people of that benefit which open discussion coming from both sides was expected to secure. All this has been made possible by the British system of parliamentary government, a logical result of the principle which concentrates power in the majority for the time being, however small it may be, of the representative assembly.
The action of State authority, both in limiting freedom of contract between individuals and in taking over industries previously left to private persons, has gone further than in any other democratic country except New Zealand. Australia shows the high-water mark, so far, of collectivistic or socialistic practice, though with very little of avowed socialistic doctrine. In particular, there has been a further advance than elsewhere towards the provision of employment by public authority and increasing the payment made for it, as well as towards the compulsory regulation by State authority of wages and other conditions of labour. This has been effected not only by direct legislation, but also through the judicial department of government, which has received functions partly legislative, partly administrative, that seem foreign to its normal sphere.
Let me note once more that these changes have been effected:
Without violent party struggles or breaches of the peace. “All things have been done decently and in order.”
Without attacking the institution of private property as an institution, or doing any conspicuous injustice to individuals.
Without, so far, seriously affecting the prosperity of the country.
Without, so far, reducing the individual energy and self-helpfulness of the Australian people.
It need hardly be said that the time during which these novelties have been in operation has been too short, and the scale of their operation too small, for any change in this last-mentioned direction to become manifest. The present generation grew up under an individualistic system. They are the children of the bold and enterprising pioneers who first explored and settled the country. It may be forty or fifty years before the results of State control and State socialism can be estimated.
The evidence I gathered enables me to say no more than this, that the results so far obtained do not encourage the extension of the experiments tried, and that these results are due to tendencies permanently operative because inherent in human nature, known long ago and likely to appear wherever a democracy may embark on similar policies.
Happily exempt from many causes of strife that have distracted Europe, Australian legislatures have been busy with land questions and the respective claims of squatters and” free selectors,” with tariffs, with taxation, with such industrial subjects as strikes, wages, and conditions of labour — all of them matters which touched not the imagination or the heart, but the pocket, and which were discussed not on grounds of economic principle, but as bringing gain or loss to some one class or group in the community. They were important but not inspiring themes. Chatham once enthralled a listening senate when he spoke of sugar; and silver once roused frantic enthusiasm at an American Presidential election. But the men and the occasions that can work these wonders come rarely. They have not come in Australia. Though its politics have not been dull, for they have been strenuous and changeful, they have been prosaic. What room for idealism among tariffs, trade marks, and land taxes? Patriotism no doubt there has been, a patriotism proud of the strength, the self-reliance, and the prosperity of Australia, and which glowed with bright hues when in 1914 the youth of Australia volunteered to fight in Europe not for Australia only, but also for a cause in which the fortunes of the world were involved. But this patriotism, this vision of a great Australia, Queen of the Southern seas, belonged to a different sphere from that of politics and did not tell upon the politicians. Thus there has been a sort of commonness in political life, a want of that elevation of spirit and that sense of dignity in conduct that should belong to men charged by their fellow-citizens with the affairs of a nation growing rapidly to greatness.
It might have been supposed that in such conditions of political life the standard of honesty would have declined, and many Australians say this has happened. But though the air of Australian politics has neither an ennobling nor an intellectually bracing quality, it is not, broadly speaking, corrupt nor corrupting, While in playing the party game against adversaries every advantage that the rules permit is taken, it rarely happens that a statesman abuses his position for his own private profit. Constituencies are not bought, nor are newspapers; the permanent Civil Service is upright: one hears less said about the pernicious power of money than in any other democracy except Switzerland.
No one would desire that causes of strife such as those which made politics exciting in England and France during the nineteenth century should exist in any country merely for the sake of stimulating men's minds to higher flights than the conflict of material interests has produced. As well desire war because it gives opportunities for heroism and supplies themes for poetry. But there are human aspects in which material interests may be regarded that have failed to receive due consideration in Australia. There might have been more sympathy on the one side and on the other more comprehension of the difficulty of economic reconstruction, and on both sides an attempt to reconcile the claims of different classes in the spirit of a wide-minded philanthropy, together with a keener appreciation of the need for adjusting legislation to habits and motives that are a part of human nature.
What light do the facts here set forth throw upon the probable future of government in Australia?
The longer a man lives, the more is he surprised at the audacity of prophets, of the foretellers of evil no less than of the visionary enthusiasts of progress. I can well remember the gloomy forecasts in which not only European travellers but Americans themselves indulged in 1870 when they contemplated the political evils which then afflicted the United States, and which made municipal administration, and in some States the judicial bench itself, a byword and reproach among the nations. Most of those evils have now disappeared. Never despond: unexpected good arrives as well as expected evil. Less than twenty years ago a friendly and very intelligent French observer1 predicted that if things continued in Australia to follow the course they were then taking, capital would disappear, the spirit of enterprise would be destroyed, employers would be terrorized, confidence would vanish, and at last there would come a revolution. Things have continued to follow the same course, at an accelerated pace, but none of these calamities seems appreciably nearer. Those who hold that certain economic laws operate as inevitably as the laws of nature are entitled to say that some of the causes already at work will produce certain effects, if conditions remain the same. But conditions never do remain quite the same, and who can tell which of them will change, and in what direction? Much may happen in Australia, a land which has seen many changes since 1890. Parties may break up; their tenets may be developed in one or another direction. In English-speaking countries parties are less fissiparous than in continental Europe, yet they are from time to time rent by differences of doctrine or by the rivalries of leaders. The caucus system, though it has given less offence to the general public than might have been expected, might by abusing its power induce a reaction, lose the confidence of sections among its supporters, and collapse. The secret of the effectiveness attainable by a pledge binding every member of a Parliamentary party, discovered by the Irish party in the House of Commons under the leadership of C. S. Parnell, was most successfully used, yet that party broke in two before his death, though national sentiment, the main factor in its cohesion, had remained unbroken. So a caucus system like that of Australian labour may be loosened if new issues arise, if mistakes discredit the leaders, if personal jealousies drive in a wedge of disunion and break up the party into sections.2 Some observers expect a popular disappointment with paternalism, and a recoil from it should the defects continue which the management of governmental undertakings have shown.
The plan of raising wages by law, and then proceeding to raise duties on imports in proportion to the rise in wages, cannot go on indefinitely. It is possible, though hardly probable, that, before the limit has been reached, large further advances may have been made towards the supersession of private enterprise through the absorption by the State of a constantly increasing number of industries. The question of wages would then pass into a new phase; for when most of the workers are paid directly by the State, they can fix their own wages through their control of the legislative machinery, voting to themselves whatever wages they please. To make up what the State would lose by the difference between expenditure on wages and the value of the product of labour, further progressive taxation would be needed, if there were fortunes left to bear it.
Other possible economic changes lie in the lap of the future. A succession of dry seasons might bring bad times for all classes, with results unpredictable in their effect upon present labour policies.
Constitutional development, which, though perceptible only at intervals, is unceasing, being indeed as unavoidable in States as are growth and decay in a tree, may show new forms. Representative government, transplanted from the mother country, lost its old character when power passed from Parliament as a whole to the parliamentary caucus, and even from that caucus itself to a body standing outside and controlling the caucus, the Trades' Hall. A demand for the direct action of the voters by the Initiative and Referendum, devices which have won favour in the United States and Switzerland, might then arise. The Australian Labour leaders have hitherto been satisfied with a system which has brought them many triumphs, but the idea of direct popular legislation is more conformable to the democratic principle that the whole people should rule than is the domination of one class through a legislative caucus.1
New questions may emerge if the Commonwealth, already called to deal with high matters beyond its own limits, takes a more active part in world-politics than it has yet done.
Much may moreover depend on the unpredictable factor of the personal quality of the statesmen who will come to the front in the two parties within the next twenty years. Maladroit leadership on the one side, skilful and stimulating and inspiring leadership on the other, might make a great difference where class interests and the forces of opinion are so nearly balanced as they have been in Australia during the last twenty years.
Finally, there may be intellectual changes. The diffusion of higher education may raise the level of knowledge in all classes, may enable them to realize that neither statutes nor those who administer them can prevail against the facts of human nature, may cause the people, who have more leisure than any other people, to spend more of it in reflecting upon the conditions and principles which determine political progress and national well-being. The more highly educated class in particular may arouse themselves to take a livelier interest in public affairs, and to send more of their best men into a political career. Public opinion may become wiser and wider, riper, more truly national and less controlled by class feeling than it has latterly been.
Should any one of such changes occur, it would of course come slowly. In the United States the return of the more educated classes to activity in the field of state and municipal government began thirty years ago, and has not yet gone so far as reformers trust it will. Of the other changes indicated as possible, none seems likely to deflect the main stream of Australian ideas and wishes. The trend of sentiment and the political habits of the masses are already so clearly marked that the tendency to throw burdens upon the richer sort, and to use State power for objects that promise to benefit the citizen even at the risk of limiting his freedom, may hold its ground for some time, suggesting further experiments, the success or failure of which will accelerate or arrest the march towards communism. With its present prosperity the country can afford to lose money upon experiments tried at the expense of the few, even if failure may ultimately injure the many. Each of these will deserve to be studied by itself, and judged on its own special merits or demerits in working. Older countries will look on and be grateful for what Australia can teach.
Among the general lessons for democratic governments which Australian experience affords, that of widest import bears upon the character which Party government takes when Party coincides with Class, and upon the consequences to a representative assembly when it passes under the control of a pledge-bound majority of its own members, each forgoing his own liberty and owning the authority of an extra-parliamentary organization. It is hard to keep popular government truly popular, for power seems inevitably to slip back into the hands of the few, however strictly constitutional may be the forms. Australia has got no nearer than has any other country to solving the problem of government by the whole people with fairness to the whole people, but has given one more proof of what needed no proving, that a class dominant as a class will always govern in its own interest.
The Australians, like the Americans, may not have used to the best purpose all the gifts of nature, and especially the great gift of a new land in which they could make a fresh start, delivered from the evils that afflicted the old societies. They have committed some serious mistakes and tolerated some questionable methods. But they have a great recuperative power. The maxim that nations must not presume too far upon their hereditary virtues is one that no nation can venture to forget. Some have suffered from forgetting it. Yet in Australia it is hard not to be affected by the youthful vigour and optimistic spirit of the people. We may well wish that there were more of them, for they are an asset precious to the world, as well as to that Commonwealth of British nations whereof they form a part, a virile and high-spirited race, energetic and resourceful, a race which ought to increase and spread out till it fills the vast spaces, so far as habitable by man, of the continent that is its heritage.
Papua has now become a sort of dependency on Australia, through the mandate given to Australia after she had been recognized as a member of the League of Nations.
Many travellers in the British Antipodes, struck by the splendid snow mountains, valleys, lakes and fjords, of New Zealand, where the grandeurs of Switzerland are combined with those of Norway, have done less than justice to the quieter beauties of Australia; and few have spoken of its wealth of brilliantly coloured flowers.
It has been suggested that this failure to attain the expected unity may have been partly due to the controversy which arose over the question of compulsory military service and to the way in which that controversy was handled.
The only other democracies known to me in which money has counted for so little in politics are the Orange Free State (as it was before the war of 1899), Switzerland and Norway, all of them countries in which there were hardly any considerable fortunes.
Here as elsewhere it seems sufficient to give pre-war figures, because the conditions from 1914 to 1919 were exceptional.
So far as I could gather, it is not so fertile a source of crime and poverty as in Great Britain, where the failure of Parliament to deal effectively with it has been for many years a serious reproach to democratic government.
M. Voisson in his book La Nouvelle Australie; M. Biard d'Aunet, in his L'Aurore Australe, is almost equally pessimistic.
Signs of such schisms were visible in 1920.
Queensland has already adopted a plan for referring to a popular vote the decision of conflicts which arise between the two Houses of its Legislature.