Australia, Empire, and the Deeper Exceptionalism

(Sydney) Ranking sixth among the world’s geographical behemoths—behind Russia, Canada, China, United States, and Brazil—Australia at 2.9 million square miles is almost identical in size and similar in shape to America’s original forty-eight states.

Very sparsely populated like neighboring New Zealand Australia’s population of twenty–two million is smaller than Texas. By reason of limited access to scarce water resources 90% of Australians are concentrated on just 2.6% of the country’s real estate.

Colonized more than two centuries after the Americas, and just 112 years old as an independent country, Australia’s late arrival to the family of nations was explained by an Australian historian thusly: “It was hot, dry, distant, and nobody wanted to go there.”

In fact the bulk of Australia’s early population was sent there involuntarily. They were convicts who were “banished” or “transported” from England often for fairly minor crimes. Prior to the American Revolution North America had been the principal destination for convicts; afterwards it was Australia where the practice continued until 1868. Accordingly Australia Day (Jan. 26)—the country’s National Holiday—commemorates the arrival of eleven convict ships in Sydney Harbor in 1788.

As harsh as was the lot of Australia’s convicts it was benevolent compared to the fate which befell the country’s indigenous people, the Aborigines. Decimated by pandemics of European diseases, notably smallpox, they were viewed through the then fashionable lens of Social Darwinism as a dying race, and mistreated accordingly. Only in 1967 did a national referendum empower the government to include Aborigines in the national census and make laws on their behalf. Today they are just 2% of Australia’s population.

Further illustrating the sensitivity of race, Australia’s Immigration Policy was “Whites Only” until 1974, and even today there are very strict requirements for aspiring emigrants.

Like the British Empire itself the settlement of Australia unfolded in a reactive almost random way as much a reflection of commercial interest as government policy and strongly influenced by competition with other colonial powers active in the region (i.e. Spain, Holland, and France). With the notable exception of Adelaide (founded 1836) most settlements were penal colonies surrounded by land grants.

Men—other than convicts—commonly “went out” to Australia to make a name, a fortune, or escape disgrace at home. Women often had no choice—15% of convicts were female. During Ireland’s devastating Potato Famine, destitute girls were recruited as brides—“Starve in Ireland or Marry in Australia”—as one Dublin newspaper delicately put it.

Despite these painful and sometimes dark chapters in its’ past Australia today has emerged as a vibrant and productive democratic society. Self–governing within the British Commonwealth of Nations since 1901, Australia is made up of six states (Queensland, New South Wales, Victoria, Tasmania, Southern Australia, and Western Australia) and two Territories (Northern, and Capital—Canberra). It is a Federal system similar to the U.S.A., but one where state governments are stronger and the federal government is weaker.

The structure of government basically follows British precedents, albeit with significant borrowings from the U.S. Constitution. There is a bicameral Parliament with a 64 member Senate (6 year terms) and a 125 member House (3 year terms).

Through most of its history the dominant political party has been conservative though under confusingly (to a foreigner) different names—Country Party, Liberal Party, National Party, and now the Liberal–National Party (commonly called the “Coalition”).

The principal Opposition has been the Labor Party founded in 1891 and closely resembling Britain’s Labor Party.

Labor was victorious in the 2008 national elections and the current Prime Minister is Julia Gillard, Australia’s first female P.M.

In terms of its newness as a nation, frontier spirit, and popular tastes, Australia has many similarities to the United States.

The people are remarkably open, friendly, and helpful to visitors. Some saw “Crocodile Dundee” (actor Paul Hogan) as a caricature but his like does exist in substantial numbers Down Under and Australians are proud of his global prominence as they are of actors Mel Gibson, Russell Crowe, Nicole Kidman, athletes Rod Laver, Greg Norman, opera legend Joan Sutherland, and many others from the worlds of entertainment and sport.

Speaking of Sport, Australians are even more “sports–mad” than Americans. Nearly half the television stations Down Under are essentially sports channels with Soccer, Australian Rules Football (something truly bizarre called “Footy”—18 on a side played on an Oval field 180 by 150 yards in size), Rugby, Cricket, Tennis, Sailing, and many others.

They also drink more beer per capita than Americans (my own “research” particularly commends “Victoria Bitter” and “Old Admiral Ale”) though in recent decades their wine industry has gained a world reputation as well.

Although the great majority of the Australian continent is a hot, arid, and unforgiving landscape much like portions of the American West there are nonetheless countless areas of extraordinary beauty and awesome majesty and a wondrous range of unique wildlife.

Even the seven weeks my wife and I devoted to exploring “Down Under” could not begin to capture the full variety of this special place any more than one could compass the United States in a similar stretch of time. Nonetheless here are some highlights we encountered in nearly 10,000 miles of internal travel by land, sea, and air:

Sea Traversing the 3,000 miles of Australia’s Southern coast by sea offers an opportunity to visit the island of Tasmania, the beautiful city of Adelaide, small lesser known ports like Esperanza, Albany and Richmond, and above all endless miles of some of the world’s most beautiful and unspoiled beaches.

Land Making landfall in the continent’s extreme Southwestern corner allowed a pleasant three day interlude in Perth and Fremantle before launching an eastward journey into the Outback via one of the world’s great trains—the Indian Pacific Railway. Though lacking the intrigue of the Orient Express, the amenities are quite equal to the Canadian National and far superior to the Trans–Siberian.

Bleak or “back of beyond” only hints at the forbidding and desolate character of the Nullarbor Plain. Occasional emus, wallaby, and red kangaroos bound away at the shrill sound of the train whistle. Gold Rush Ghost Towns rushing by in the night, bizarre geological formations dotting the horizon, and a few stops at inhabited places—Kalgoorlie, Broken Hill—punctuate the speeding four day transcontinental ride to Sydney.

Sydney, like Auckland, and Cairns easily justifies a full week. From an uplifting “La Boheme” at the city’s world famous Opera House to sailing on the vast and beautiful harbor, and countless other attractions that make it one of the great and most livable metropolises in the world Sydney is a prize on every level.

Air The 1500 mile flight North from Sydney to sub–tropical Cairns is highlighted by a breathtaking aerial view of the world’s largest living organism—Australia’s Great Barrier Reef and the adjacent green canopy at the Great Rainforest.

We had always regarded diving in the Florida Keys as very special, but diving on the Great Barrier Reef is a world utterly beyond that—doubtless the most transcendent experience of our time Down Under. And the magic of the Rainforest is to depart brilliant sunshine—90 degree temperature—and enter a twilight world—cool, moist and alive with a greater variety of living things than one can imagine.

For the history minded the World War II headquarters of General Douglas MacArthur is just outside Cairns, and near one of our dive sites was fought the decisive Battle of the Coral Sea where Admiral Nimitz on May 7, 1942 frustrated Japanese plans for a possible invasion of Australia.

Although the Founding Narrative of Australia is inextricably bound up with convicts and penal colonies the country’s real sense of unity and identity only emerged in the twentieth century during the First World War (1914–1918). As is the case in New Zealand where a similar consciousness predominates you cannot possibly understand the people or fully grasp the History of Australia without understanding that cataclysm which so decisively altered the course of World History.

Just as the American Civil War is the central event in our national narrative in Australia that event is what was long called “The Great War” or with tragic irony “The War to End All Wars”. The energy, enthusiasm, and heroism with which distant Australia responded to the call for sacrifice on behalf of “King and Country” were truly remarkable. The pride they felt as part of the world’s greatest Empire and the high price they paid was a prelude and catalyst to the pride and patriotism they feel as a nation today.

When President Theodore Roosevelt sent the “Great White Fleet” on a good will tour around the world in 1907, the newly independent Australians greeted them rapturously. Fully a quarter of all Australians came to see and cheer the American warships riding at anchor in Sydney Harbor. The declarations made by both Americans and Australians were clear evidence of strong feelings of Kinship based on common language, culture, and democratic heritage.

Just a decade later American soldiers would appear on the Western Front in France to fight beside Australians, New Zealanders, Canadians, Irish, Scots, Welsh, and English—the Anglosphere in arms. In the century since Australians have sent combat troops to every war America has fought up to and including Iraq and Afghanistan.

On a fine Sunday afternoon on a beautiful beach in Manly—a charming suburb of Sydney—I had an extended conversation with a young Australian soldier who had just returned from a second tour in Afghanistan. When I asked how he and his fellow soldiers felt about their service in that country and why they were there his memorable reply was at once simple and eloquent: “Anytime you Yanks get in a tussle, you can count on us. You’d do the same for us. That’s what mates are for”. In those words can be found important insights about our world.

“American Exceptionalism” is a phrase that has evoked interest and some controversy in recent years as our country has assessed its proper place in the world and its path to the future.

Properly understood the term is no claim of perfection or moral superiority but rather a valid observation that in America’s relatively brief time on the world stage no nation has been more of a force for good or defender of human freedom. To grasp this one need only imagine how differently the horrific upheavals of the twentieth century might have ended had America not existed.

What Americans often fail to fully appreciate is that their “Exceptionalism” owes so much to a broader current of historical development, the source of which is to be found in what we once unashamedly called the “Mother Country”. For their character, culture, and democratic values all members of the Anglosphere owe a debt to the labors, the learning, the suffering, and the sacrifice of “Those who went before”. Though the names may have faded from memory or understanding Magna Carta, the Petition of Rights, the English Bill of Rights, Shakespeare, Milton, Locke, Burke, and so much else are an integral part of who we are and what we do.

In 1912 the distinguished English statesman Joseph Chamberlain (not to be confused with his unfortunate son Neville) said this in New York City to an American audience:

“Your ancestors sleep in our churchyards. All that we have done and would be is what you have become and shall carry on into the future in this New Century, this New World”.

I shall always remember a small dinner at Oxford University in 1970 hearing the great historian A.J.P. Taylor make informal remarks concerning the end of the Empire and Britain’s receding role in the world. Looking at the two Americans present he said “You are all our tomorrows”.

The philosopher George Santayana said “If you would understand your own country, go among other peoples”. As heirs to the heritage of the English speaking peoples Americans should understand that and do that. Our lives shall be for richer for the experience.


William Moloney’s columns have appeared in the Wall St. Journal, USA Today, Washington Post, Washington Times, Philadelphia Inquirer, Baltimore Sun, Denver Post, and Human Events.

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