Volume 1 Number 5
The Politics of Unmoderated National Interest Lie Outside Our Tradition
01 January 1988

The blend of voluntary and compulsory effort which built Australia produced its own distinctive culture of daring, enterprise, skull-duggery, bravado and basic achievement. So began great cities - Sydney, Melbourne, Hobart, Brisbane and later Perth and Adelaide.

The project was as hare-brained as it was bizarre. Only an ambitious imagination could justify its social and economic value.

In colonizing Australia with convicts and marine guards, the Royal Navy entertained a secret wish. Until 1776, North America's stands of Douglas firs had provided the Navy with masts for its ships. With British rule in America gone, they hoped that Australia's Norfolk island pines would fill the gap.

The idea of a penal colony had other advantages too, to an England whose justice system barely distinguished between petty and major crime. It provided a 'humane' alternative to the death sentence and conveniently solved the prisons problem too.

The ships sailed in May 1787 with some 700 convicts. On 18 January 1788, they arrived off Botany Bay, a landfall which appeared on Captain Cook's charts. In spite of the ill omens, no ships were lost.

Botany Bay proved an unsatisfactory place for settlement, but, uncharted by Cook, a magnificent harbour lay a few miles to the North - Port Jackson. The settlers raised the Union Jack on 26 January, pre-empting any ambitions of the French, whose ships stood just off Botany Bay.

So an initiative peculiar in both ambition and cruelty came to terms with a more sympathetic destiny. The fledgling settlement, 10,000 miles from its base of support, was sheltered by a remarkably beautiful and hospitable environment.

The blend of voluntary and compulsory effort which built Australia produced its own distinctive culture of daring, enterprise, skull-duggery, bravado and basic achievement. So began great cities - Sydney, Melbourne, Hobart, Brisbane and later Perth and Adelaide.

And the largesse of Providence continued. John MacArthur, a foresighted and abrasive soldier, had discovered that Merino sheep developed fine wool in the grasslands of Australia. MacArthur saw a pastoral future and demanded an expansive land grant policy to ensure it, proving his point in rebellion. The nation opened its vast expanses to a new economic culture.

Then came instant wealth - gold was discovered.

Meanwhile a strong wind, gathered in the peaks of the Wesleyan awakening, was changing the political conscience of Britain. Among its first exponents was Wilberforce, who won the abolition of slavery. When this wind reached Australia, the penal colonies were doomed.

Sitting at the bedside of the dying Wilberforce was James Stephen, who was to become Secretary of the Colonial Office in 1837. Largely through his work, the colonial administration set itself to anticipate social change. In the past, an authoritarian approach had led to blood, in the Rum Rebellion and at Eureka Stockade. Now, as the colonies achieved self-government, the politics of liberal democracy prospered. A century of consolidation culminated, in 1901, in the foundation of the Commonwealth of Australia.

Social issues then found ingenious solutions. A system of arbitration for wage disputes was designed, for instance. J C Watson became the first worker in the world to be popularly elected Prime Minister. When war struck in 1914, Australians joined the armed forces with the same careless sense of adventure as their contemporaries in England. Australians survived the war with a sense of special identity - the Digger had discovered an affection for his culture.
Several decades later, in World War II, Australia found rescue in collaboration with the United States. This bond of survival and the legacy of the Commonwealth of Nations still govern the present and future.

Enlivened by migrations from Europe and Asia, Australia's culture is rich in thinkers, artists, poets, writers, musicians, scientists and sportsmen - and possesses a questioning social conscience. This conscience now seeks to restore for acts of cruelty to the Aboriginal people, swept aside by the rush of settlement and the crush of modern life, and demands a non-racist society.

Australia's geography positions her to work at the frontier of regional and global problems which require dynamic and constructive international cooperation. On our western beaches break the waves of the Indian Ocean, and eastern and northern coastlines look to the Pacific. Beyond the Pacific reaches lie the Americas, and across the Indian Ocean lie Africa, the Middle East and South Asia. The problems of human need, together with the complexities of wealthy nations like Japan, shape a neighbourhood vitality.

One of the smallest nations in the world - Malta - initiated the processes which led to a new international Law of the Sea. This ushered in a revolutionary system of legal relationships for maritime nations, which enabled Papua New Guinea and Australia to resolve equitably the long-standing problems of their territorial boundaries.

The politics of unmoderated national interest lie outside the Australian historical tradition. The future lies in a community of friendships where national interests accommodate the concerns of others. Underlying the imbalance in the world economy today are the statistics which disclose that the Third World is selling its commodities at the lowest level since the war. Compensatory financial mechanisms cover only a tenth of the loss.

In developing an attack on this problem in the late 1970s, Australia formed many friendships in the Third World. These new bonds led to an initiative which reshaped the political map of Southern Africa through the creation of Zimbabwe. Despite all the difficulties, Zimbabwe remains an encouraging symbol that a white minority, with its skills and experience, can find a place in building a secure future for black and white alike.

The call is to enlarge the global culture of understanding and care. Australia has a mature experience to contribute to that task.

.Allan Griffith has served as special foreign policy adviser to Australia's Prime Ministers.

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