The more things change, the more they stay the same…
I was reminded of this saying this morning while reading A Liberal State: How Australians Chose Liberalism over Socialism 1926–1966.
It’s the fourth book in a five-book series by David Kemp. It chronicles the history of liberalism in Australia. (I know, fascinating, right!)
As the title suggests, Australia has battled against socialism before. Given that we’re lurching down that path again, I thought it would be a timely read.
As an aside, with two school-aged kids, whom we are homeschooling, early mornings are about the only time I get to read uninterrupted (and before workday reading and writing kicks in).
This morning, I was struck by two consecutive passages from the book. The first was a quote from Alexis de Tocqueville, a Frenchman who travelled the US and observed its fledgling democracy in the early 1800s. He wrote a book about it called Democracy in America.
He wrote of these young Americans…
‘Our contemporaries are ever a prey to two conflicting passions: they feel the need of guidance, and they long to stay free. Unable to wipe out these two contradictory instincts, they try to satisfy them both together.
‘Their imagination conceives a government that is unitary, protective and all powerful, but elected by the people. Centralisation is combined with the sovereignty of the people. This gives them their chance to relax.
‘They console themselves for being under schoolmasters by thinking that they have chosen them themselves. Each individual lets them put the collar on, for he sees that it is not a person, or a class of persons, but society itself which holds the end of the chain.
‘A great many people nowadays very easily fall in with this brand of compromise between administrative despotism and the sovereignty of the people. They think they have done enough to guarantee personal freedom when it is to the state that they have handed it over…’
He could have easily been talking about modern-day Australia.
Throughout our history, Australians have generally had a pretty good relationship with their governments. There has been a level of trust that is absent in other democracies.
This relates to our democracy’s unique history; a product of the Age of Enlightenment and also a beneficiary of the birth of the US republic just 100 years before.
Moreover, as an initial dumping ground for the British underclass, the first (non-indigenous) generation of Australians wanted to create an egalitarian society. There was to be no ‘House of Lords’ in Australia.
Which is why we’re a largely ‘compliant’ nation. We trust our leaders, so we generally do what they ask.
But my feeling is this trust — built up over generations — is disappearing fast.
The coming election is going to be a doozy. Scott Morrison is largely seen as a sell-out to those who elected him in 2019.
He’s pandered to special interests and those who hate him anyway, while turning his back on any liberal principles he pretended to have in the first place.
As a result, you’ll likely see a fracturing of the Liberal vote next year. Whether this results in a Labor victory, or the balance of power being held by a centre-right coalition, is anyone’s guess. But I’d be happy to wager there will be a decent swing against the Coalition, resulting in another three years (at least) of a fractured political system.
Which brings me to the second quote. As I said at the start, the more things change, the more they stay the same…
‘By 1931 the Australian people seemed to be losing faith in existing political parties to represent them effectively in parliament and to produce policies that worked to achieve the employment and other opportunities they desired, or the assistance many needed in a time of distress. Satisfaction with the performance of their democracy seemed to have reached an all-time low, and national unity never seemed more fragile nor class, sectarian and racial hatreds more intense.’
While there is a historical rhyme 90 years later, the economic situation is very different. Back then, Australia was in the pits of depression. Now, the economy is booming…apparently. And most of the population has been anaesthetised by a steady diet of stock market and house price gains, Netflix, and the nightly ‘news’.
We’re all ‘staying safe’, ‘doing the right thing’, and ‘in this together’.
That’s what we’re told to think, anyway.
But my gut feeling is that we’re not that united. COVID has opened up big divisions in society. We’ve realised that it’s not really society ‘which holds the end of the chain’. We’ve succumbed to ‘administrative despotism’ and willingly put our freedoms in the hands of the State.
Whenever that’s happened in history, you can rely on the State to abuse that trust.
It happened in the US a long time ago. It’s happening now in Victoria, and to a lesser extent in most other states.
Yet, like sheep, we’re grateful for a haircut and a feed…
Editor, The Rum Rebellion
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