Federation: The Secret Story
Duffy & Snellgrove $19.95 pb, 364 pp
In 1995 Robert Birrell gave us an interesting book called A Nation of Our Own: Citizenship and nation-building in federated Australia. It traced the growth of a nationalist consciousness in the 1890s and the translation of that Australian nationalism into the forms of Federation and the early shape of the Australian Commonwealth. He argued that there was something distinctively Australian about the ideals and structures created between 1890 and 1910, that far from being a self-interested arrangement devised by lawyers and businessmen, the Australian people were actively engaged and committed to creating the Commonwealth. Now reissued as Federation: The Secret Story by ‘Bob’ Birrell, with a cover based on Arthur Streeton’s The Purple Noon’s Transparent Might, it has a new introduction and conclusion and some corrections to the text.
Among the achievements of the Federation decades that Birrell thinks have been obscured are an independent approach to defence, legislation to protect Australian industries and jobs, and the development of an egalitarian and participatory concept of citizenship. The ideas of citizenship pursued both by colonial liberals like Alfred Deakin, and by the Australian labour movement, led to the adoption of welfare as a universal right, but it also led William Morris Hughes to regard military service as a universal duty for men. Legislation to protect Australian industries and jobs created a high standard of living and an economy that was in part self-sustaining, but it also required a rigorously exclusionist immigration policy (the now much reviled White Australia Policy), and it led eventually to isolationism, complacency and a host of increasingly inefficient business and labour practices.