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States of Exception

The Cloister and the Chamber: In search of Australian political philosophy (by Marion Maddox)

For decades now, we seem to have been living in “end”: the end of history, the end of ideology, the end of theory. Parties nominally of the left (“New Labour”, “Wall St Democrats”) joined those of the right to enforce “democracy” abroad and a “third way” of free market reliance at home. Ideologues and theorists had ceded decision-making to technocrats, and no one need worry about such esoteric matters as justice or fairness, since all we had to do was sit back and let a properly-tuned market deliver optimal outcomes to everybody.

This is the first post in a series on religion and political thought in Australia.  See introduction here.

By Marion Maddox, Macquarie University.

For decades now, we seem to have been living in “end”: the end of history, the end of ideology, the end of theory. Parties nominally of the left (“New Labour”, “Wall St Democrats”) joined those of the right to enforce “democracy” abroad and a “third way” of free market reliance at home. Ideologues and theorists had ceded decision-making to technocrats, and no one need worry about such esoteric matters as justice or fairness, since all we had to do was sit back and let a properly-tuned market deliver optimal outcomes to everybody.

Such “end of …” narratives are variously dated to the aftermath of historical events: World War Two, the Cold War, “9/11”, and each brings a counter-narrative in which it turns out that (surprise!) ideology, theory, history or whatever was merely napping (at least in its supposed haunts), while a new development was stirring elsewhere.

Few polities embraced the “no theory, please, we’re pragmatists” narrative more enthusiastically than Australia. And this should be no surprise; because Australia has been celebrated for over a century as an ideology-free zone, experimental playground of econocrats and opportunists, an observation made by locals and international observers alike. Australia had reached the “end” ahead of time.

Yet this narrative omitted to mention that Australia has played host to a number of streams of political thought, often distinctively Australian and regularly reflected in political practice. These streams are nevertheless easy to miss, because they have often been produced not in universities or newspaper columns but through the deliberations of churches and other religious organisations. Over recent decades, such streams have contributed to Australian political thought about, for example, the nation’s relationship with Indigenous peoples, the rights of asylum seekers and the place of humans in the natural environment. In the nineteenth century, a major preoccupation, for both churches and parliaments, was religion-state relations, especially in the context of efforts to provide universal public education.[1]

The end of ideology at the arse-end of the world

Ask Australians when their country leapt into the arms of the econocrats and many would nominate the Labor government of Prime Ministers Bob Hawke and Paul Keating (1983-1996). That record period of Labor dominance was known both for its leaders’ faith that ideals of social justice could be delivered through market mechanisms mediated by neoliberal “reforms”[2] and for their colourful turns of phrase. Keating, who memorably described his country as “the arse-end of the world”, served as Hawke’s treasurer before successfully challenging him for the prime ministership in 1991, and is the figure most closely associated with Australia’s neoliberal turn. One of that period’s most striking achievements was to depict the national conversion to a specific ideology, variously called classical liberalism, neoliberalism or economic rationalism, as a rejection of ideology, claiming instead such terms as “common sense,” “sound management” and “best practice.”

But the idea of Australia as theory-averse, pragmatic and ready to seize on opportunistic solutions to pragmatic problems goes back much further. Whether read as a preference for the cold calculations of technocrats over the romantic fire of revolutionaries, or for a rough-and-ready “she’ll-be-right” pragmatism over the prescriptions of theorists and ideologues, Australia’s leap onto the neoliberal bandwagon is consistent with observations about the so-called “lucky country”, its character, people and institutions going back over a century.

Even before the Australian colonies joined into a single federation in 1901, international visitors had noted a shared tendency. Edmond Marin la Meslée was a French soldier and teacher before sailing, at the age of twenty-four, for Melbourne, where he served, initially, as private secretary to the French consul-general. From 1878, he served in the NSW public service, dying in a boat accident on Sydney harbour after having spent about half of his truncated life in Australia. He published a book and several articles about Australia in French, tirelessly spruiking Australia as a destination for emigrants and as a social laboratory.

In an article for the Revue des Deux Mondes,[3] he described “the colonisation of Australia” as “essentially and purely a Britannic work”, yet unique when compared to all other heirs of the British colonial legacy. In contrast to nations burdened with histories of blood and glory, Australia was “the fruit of the efforts of an intelligent and laborious democracy, of which until now the tendencies have been conservative rather than revolutionary, guided as it is by men more remarkable for their good sense and calm judgment than for more brilliant but also more superficial qualities.” They were overseeing a struggle between capital and labour, but of an entirely new kind:

The Australian democracy has conceived of this struggle in an essentially practical manner: she has not lost her time in philosophising and makes no claim to have new theories to promulgate. …  The conflict once engaged on the political terrain now passes onto the economic terrain, and it is there that it is now necessary to prepare reforms.

This grand social experiment of solving “the great social questions” by tweaking economic levers made Australia an object of interest to  “our old societies”  comparable to the “interest that was attached a little over a century ago to the republican and revolutionary movement in America.” Australia’s practical men, with their good sense and calm judgment, were, he sensed, “called to play a very important role in the next economic reform.”

In eighteenth-century Europe, oppressed and oppressor had faced off in a “war of a numerous proletariat against a handful of the upper class.” The oppressed had been peasants, and their antagonists the old aristocracies. But in his own time that question had been settled; and anyway, in Australia “there are no peasants.” There were certainly farms, but “the owner who employs any manual worker, even if he be a farmer himself, is still a boss like any other industrialist.” In place of “a brutal fight between the serf and the aristocrat,” Meslée looked forward to “an intelligent struggle between the capitalist and the worker for a more equal and equitable distribution of the results of their respective labours and risks.” The struggle would never descend into wholescale revolution, however, because the workers aspired eventually to join the plutocracy, and overthrowing it would undermine their own “dearest hopes.”

Meslée saw the colonial parliaments’ “little assemblies” as preoccupied with “parish pump” concerns and avoiding the philosophical questions that occupied legislators in the “old societies”. Yet they produced polities with a remarkably consistent political position. Though their “ultra-liberalism” differed in degree, according to their “more or less advanced social state”, all the Australian colonial legislatures had set about repealing British statutes, replacing them with local versions “whose liberalism would make the majority of Englishmen turn pale.” The result was recognisably Australian political institutions, characterised by “the absolute separation of church and state; free, compulsory and secular public education; the secret ballot, the electoral principal applied to all organisations having any public purpose, and many other provisions of the same ultra-liberal character.”

Ideological Australia

In Meslée’s account, the Australian colonial legislatures sound like nineteenth-century Paul Keatings: autodidacts (the future Member for Blaxland left school at 14, while Meslée several times wonders at the colonies’ quick ascent from England’s prison overflow), wedded equally to economic and social liberalism but more comfortable articulating street slang than abstract political principles.

But principles were being debated and articulated—if not primarily in the parliaments. A prominent example, which preoccupied colonial legislators through the second half of the nineteenth century, was the relationship between church and state, whose separation Meslée pronounced by 1892 to be “absolute”, accompanied by “free, compulsory and secular” [libre, obligatoire et séculière] public education. Meslée’s essay in Revue des Deux Mondes is presented partly as a tribute to “an Australian statesman: Sir Henry Parkes.” And Parkes was, on the question of secular education as on so much else, a consummate pragmatist.[4] That does not mean, however, that philosophical debate was not taking place elsewhere. It took on different flavours in the different colonies, depending not only on what Meslée called their degree of advancement, but also on their populations’ varying ethnic and denominational mixes, and the historical circumstances in which the public education bills came before the respective parliaments.

NSW, where Parkes was premier, was the last of the colonies, in 1880, to legislate to end state aid to denominational schools and to mandate secular education in the public schools. Its relative lateness compared to the other colonies, and the heavily qualified interpretation of “secular” education that it inaugurated, reflected the difficulties of passing the act at all: religious politics in NSW were bedevilled by fierce and long lasting sectarian divisions with strong class overtones.[5]

Advocates ready to articulate a philosophical defence of secular education were not unknown in NSW. One was Rev. Henry Carmichael, a Presbyterian minister who moved to Sydney in 1830 to assist at a non-denominational private school, the Australian College. While preparing for the move, Carmichael met, and was inspired by, Jeremy Bentham (so inspired, that he named one of his sons Jeremy Bentham Carmichael). After the Australian College became embroiled in sectarian politics, Carmichael broke away to form his own school, the Normal Institution, where he modelled Benthamite educational principles, including secular instruction, and founded the Sydney Mechanics Institute for adult education, where he elaborated his theories of educational philosophy.However,the continuing sectarian rivalries in NSW saw his arguments sidelined.

In South Australia, by contrast, the higher proportions of Nonconformists, with their traditions of strong church-state separation, meant that several denominations debated among themselves, spelt out in their internal documents, and lobbied hard in their representations to parliament, for a sharp religion-state separation, including in education. South Australia ended state aid to denominational schools in 1851, and removed religious instruction, including Bible reading, from public schools’ formal class time in 1875. The passage of the 1875 act was preceded by letter-writing campaigns, sermons and public meetings in which clergy headed both advocates and opponents of religious instruction.

Notable in the minutes of Nonconformist denominational meetings’ discussions of the education bill was an aversion to any claim to exclusive ownership of the truth—either for their own denomination, or for Christianity in general. This perspective spilled over into public debates. As a correspondent wrote to the South Australian Register on 12 July 1875, “a good teacher, like a good citizen, may be a Christian, a Jew, a Mahommedan, a Deist, or an Atheist, or he may be utterly irreligious,” meaning that a religious curriculum could not reasonably be imposed. A speaker at a public meeting in September 1873 imagined a future Education Minister “who might perhaps be a Jew, a Mohammedan or a Roman Catholic,” and so could not be asked to preside over a school system that favoured only one tradition.

The concern with religious diversity was shared by defenders and opponents of secular curriculum. Arthur Lindsay, Member for Encounter Bay, told parliament on 25 September 1873 that excluding religious texts from South Australian classrooms could have unintended consequences, since surely, for example, geography required teaching about nations’ religion as well as their location. But he emphasised that his concern was not about the Bible alone: the new Education Act “would extend … to the Northern Territory,” where “there would probably be a large number of Mohammedans and Buddhists” who would want their own sacred texts taught. Indeed, Lindsay, who had attended a Catholic school in Europe, regretted that his own education had left him “ignorant of what the Koran contained, as also of what was contained in the sacred books of the Buddhists; … he was sorry for that, as in them, he had no doubt he could learn much.”

A more minimalist solution was proposed by Vaiben Solomon, who began his public career as Adelaide’s first Jewish Lord Mayor, later becoming (briefly) South Australia’s twenty-first Premier. He told a public meeting in 1870 that he supported a public system where “Jews, Mohammedans, and Christians should all mix together in the school.” That way, “the children should learn to love and respect each other, apart from all religious questions.” The only practical way to achieve this, he argued, would be to keep instruction “secular,” though he maintained that the Ten Commandments, shared by all the traditions he had named, could form the basis of moral instruction.

The argument that carried the day, however, was articulated by the treasurer in the Legislative Assembly on 5 September 1873. He put it to the house that “in a year or two” the colony might receive “thousands of Chinese and possibly Mohammedans and pagans of all sorts” as “fellow-colonists.” But, rather than the religious free-for-all advocated by Lindsay, he proposed that “the only fair way to meet the difficulty was by saying – ‘We will have nothing to do with religion in our State schools.’”

Similar arrangements, with variations of detail, were passed in Victoria and Queensland. In this, Australia led the world: three decades before France passed its 1905 “Law for the Separation of Church and State” and some 70 years before Vashti McCollum persuaded the Supreme Court of the United States that Bible lessons in schools violated the First Amendment, these Australian colonies had settled the question.

International debates featured only in passing in colonial parliamentary debates, but were discussed in church minutes (sometimes with motions of approval or disapproval), especially the UK Education Act of 1870, whose hybrid system of denominational “voluntary schools” and non-denominational “board schools” the South Australian Nonconformists congratulated themselves on having avoided. The Australian system’s founders also knew about the US First Amendment. They also knew that, as Henry Bournes Higgins would later explain to the Federation Conventions while arguing the case for a similar provision in the Australian constitution, it had not been terribly successful at ensuring religious freedom. While colonial parliaments were debating the “secular system” and clergy expounded the same messages at public meetings, in sermons and through pamphlets and letters to the editor, school children across large parts of America were trooping into schoolrooms to start the day with prayers and Bible readings. Although isolated cases would soon end such practices in some places, many would continue to do so for the best part of another three-quarters of a century: America’s full-blown romance with strict religion-state separation in the classroom did not erupt until the mid-twentieth century.

Several of the seminal figures in Australia’s early debates maintained formative long-distance friendships with American thinkers (Alfred Deakin with Harvard philosopher Josiah Royce[6]; Andrew Inglis Clark with fellow-Unitarians Moncure Conway and Oliver Wendell Holmes); but Australia developed an independent approach on religion-state relations. The Australian colonists were keenly aware that they were establishing a new system for a new nation, free of the historical weights on Europe or the United States.

The education debates reveal one area in which Australian debates transcended economic preoccupations and opportunistic solutions. If the 1870s education acts did not “make the majority of Englishmen turn pale,” they certainly embodied a degree of church-state separation beyond anything the English parliament had seriously considered, surpassing even the “non-sectarian” aspirations of the Birmingham-based National Education League.

That the philosophical advocacy for and articulation of this “ultra-liberal” position came first and significantly from within religious bodies, leaving mainly its practical organisation as the subject for parliaments, tends to bolster the impression of colonial parliaments as parish-pump affairs uninterested in philosophical questions. But it also hints at a hidden vein of Australian political thought, pulsing away beyond the purview of mainstream academic and journalistic commentary.

[1] These efforts are explored in detail in chapter two of Marion Maddox, Taking God to School: The End of Australia’s Egalitarian Education Sydney: Allen & Unwin 2014.

[2] For discussion, from various points of view, see Graham Maddox, The Hawke Government and Labor Tradition Ringwood: Penguin 1989; Carol Johnson, The Labor Legacy: Curtin, Chifley, Whitlam, Hawke Sydney: Allen & Unwin 1989; Michael Pusey, Economic Rationalism in Canberra: A Nation Building State Changes its Mind Cambridge University Press 1991.

[3] All quotations from Meslée are from Edmond Marin La Meslée, “État social et politique de l’Australasie britannique – Un homme d’État australien : Sir Henry Parkes et la fédération des colonies australasiennes” Revue des Deux Mondes 111, 1892, available online at http://fr.wikisource.org/w/index.php?title=%C3%89tat_social_et_politique_de_l%E2%80%99Australasie_britannique_-_Un_homme_d%E2%80%99%C3%89tat_australien_:_Sir_Henry_Parkes_et_la_f%C3%A9d%C3%A9ration_des_colonies_australasiennes&printable=yes. Translations are mine, assisted by Claire Durand.

[4] Catherine Byrne, “‘Free, Compulsory and (Not) Secular’: The Failed Idea in Australian Education” Journal of Religious History 37(1) 2013: 20-38

[5] Jill Roe, “A Tale of Religion in Two Cities” Meanjin 40(1) 1981: 48-56; Gary Bouma, “Australian Anglicans and Religious Plurality: Exclusive Theologies vs Theological Affirmations of Diversity — A Tale of Two Cities” Journal for the Academic Study of Religion 26(2) 2013.

[6] Marilyn Lake, “‘The brightness of eyes and quiet assurance which seem to say American’: Alfred Deakin’s Identification with Republican Manhood” Australian Historical Studies 38(129) 2007: 32-51


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