The Null Device

A nation in authority's grip

The Age has an article, excerpted from a recent Quarterly Essay, about how, despite all their protestations of "larrikinism", distrust of authority, and the rambunctious convict spirit, Australians are, as a nation, obedient, compliant and eager to conform, as demonstrated by the past 10 years of the Howard government's erosion of democratic institutions:
Since 1996, Howard has cowed his critics, muffled the press, intimidated the ABC, gagged scientists, silenced non-government organisations, neutered Canberra's mandarins, curtailed parliamentary scrutiny, censored the arts, banned books, criminalised protest and prosecuted whistleblowers.
We haven't been hoodwinked. Each step along the way has been reported, perhaps not as thoroughly and passionately as it should have been, but we're not dealing in dark secrets here. We've known what's going on. If we cared, we didn't care enough to stop it. Boredom, indifference and fear have played a part in this. So does something about ourselves we rarely face: Australians trust authority. Not love, perhaps, but trust. It's bred in the bone. We call ourselves larrikins, but we leave our leaders to get on with it. Even the leaders we mock.
David Marr argues that this is so because Australia's defining historical events, unlike, say, America, did not involve abstract ideals loftier than pragmatism:
We've never fought to be free. Vinegar Hill was a convict break-out easily and brutally suppressed. The officers who overthrew Bligh spouted liberty to trade in rum. Shorn of the colour, Eureka was a bunch of miners who didn't want to pay tax. The great issue that drove self-government for the colonies was seizing control of land. We were as much a part of the British Empire after Federation as we were before. And each step away from Britain had to be forced on Australia until the great Mother of the nation finally turned her back on us and walked into Europe. Australia surprised itself by refusing to accept Menzies' tyrannical plans to ban the Communist Party. But only just. Referendums opposed by any of the big parties always lose, and usually heavily. Liberty was preserved in 1951 by 50,000 votes in a nation of millions. The barricades have rarely been manned since.
The historian John Hirst writes: "Australians think of themselves as anti-authority. It is not true. Australians are suspicious of persons in authority, but towards impersonal authority they are very obedient. This is a country which for a long time closed its pubs at 6pm and which pioneered the compulsory wearing of seatbelts in cars. Its people since 1924 have accepted the compulsion to vote. Its anti-smoking legislation is so tough that smoking is prohibited in its largest sporting stadium, the Melbourne Cricket Ground, though it is open to the skies."

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