What makes an Australian?

Uluru

An interesting discussion at a Federal Union seminar this evening on the experience of federalism in Australia. It was founded as a federation in 1901, one of a series of federations created in the British empire (although one place that federalism was not tried was, of course, Britain itself).

In the 1890s, when the key decisions to create the new federation were taken, how much of a sense of being Australian was there? What were the institutions of civil society that spanned the continent? The answer is that there were very few. The states of modern Australia were founded and governed as independent colonies, and public sentiment in each colony was focused on that colony and not on Australia as a whole. They shared a cricket team, and the trade unions in each colony had started to organise on an Australian basis, but that was about all. All the other features of society that might a common identity were largely absent. Australia did not get a national daily newspaper until the 1960s, for example.

However, despite this lack of a civil society fabric, Australia still worked. Its one constitutional crisis did not unfold until 1975. The logic of cooperation was powerful enough to make Australia work. The political institutions shaped public identity, and not the other way round (as the Eurosceptics sometimes insist must be the case).

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