Defining our values is a struggle for the nation’s soul
With debate in some quarters moving from ‘greed is good’ to ‘more greed is even better’, historian Marilyn Lake says it is time to refocus the attention of politicians and young people on the nation’s foundation ideal of Australia as ‘a land of equal opportunities’.
Young Australians, she says, know little of ‘our founding political traditions and the people who shaped our values’.
Writing in national newspapers, Professor Lake, who is also President of the Australian Historical Association, takes further the debate started by Treasurer Wayne Swan in his article: ‘The 0.01 per cent: vested interests versus social democracy’, published recently in ‘The Monthly’ magazine.
‘Many forget,’ she says, ‘that the founding ideal of the ”common good” was expressed in the very name of the Commonwealth of Australia – and that the reforms of universal suffrage, old age and invalid pensions and compulsory arbitration were enacted during the first decade of the 20th century.’
National ideals preceded Anzac myth
‘For those who believe the Australian nation was born at Gallipoli and that Australian values are to be found in the Spirit of Anzac, it must come as a surprise to learn that our nation builders – women and men, liberal and labour – were laying down our national ideals during the long peace that preceded World War I.’
Professor Lake quotes one of our federal fathers, Henry Bournes Higgins, who in an essay called ‘Australian Ideals’ wrote of a conflict of values evident again today in the struggle over the mining tax:
‘Whatever may be the case in other parts of the world, it is clear that in Australia there is a struggle being waged between two conflicting principles … the principle of the special or private interest against the principle of the common interest.’
The dispute Higgins had in mind in 1902 was ‘that between employers and employees over wages and working conditions and the right of the state to intervene to support minimum wages and maximum hours – but he regarded this conflict as having larger significance’.
‘It was a struggle to define Australian values, a struggle for the Australian soul.’
Natural abundance a shared inheritance
Higgins, Professor Lake says, reminds us that the ‘commitment to equality of opportunity – and state intervention to secure it – was once a shared national ideal, espoused across party political lines, promulgated by radical liberals, such as Alfred Deakin, Vida Goldstein, Charles Kingston and Catherine Spence, as well as Labor leaders such as Fisher, John Watson and Billy Hughes.
A campaigner for increased emphasis on teaching Australian history, Professor Lake says ‘It is timely to recall these discussions about national ideals, because many young Australians know little of our founding political traditions and the people who shaped our values.’
She says Higgins believed that ‘our aim must be to guard this continent for the highest form of civilisation, to secure that the produce of its soil, and of its appliances, shall not become the property of the few; to make it a land of equal opportunities for the coming generations’.
‘Natural abundance, he believed, should be the inheritance of all Australians. More than 100 years on, however, the vision of ”a land of equal opportunities” seems no longer a shared national ideal,’ says Professor Lake.
‘Perhaps Australian politicians need an improved education in Australian history so that they too can engage with national traditions and freely quote our founding fathers and mothers.’