Exceptional Views

1 December 2016
Exceptional Views - Featured image

 Australian exceptionalism is torn apart by the free market right in this stimulating collection of essays, writes Richard Allsop.  

One might think that there are four basic camps on the topic of Australian exceptionalism. Firstly, people can divide on whether Australia is in fact exceptional, or whether it is much like plenty of other places. Then, the pro and antiexceptionalism camps can further divide on whether the exceptionalism, or the lack thereof, is a positive or a negative for the nation.

This collection of essays is pitched in the negative exceptionalist quartile, so it might make you think it is a leftwing rant about Australians being boozing gamblers, exhibiting bad attitudes to women, uncaring about the natural environment, and displaying uniquely racist behavior to the Indigenous population and immigrants. It is not that sort of book.

Rather this is negative exceptionalism from the free market right, which probably proves that there can actually be more than four positions on Australian exceptionalism. The blurb on the back warns readers to expect a lengthy list of indictments against Australia, including ‘the tight regulation of labour markets, a heavy reliance on income taxation and means testing; the endurance of a cadaverous federation and a pervasive bureaucracy; and a readiness to resort to compulsion in contexts ranging from saving to voting’.

The individual chapters on many of these areas are excellent. The one on industrial relations by Phil Lewis not only explains the history of Australia’s unique way of arbitrating industrial disputes, but crucially how a body whose initial purpose was to settle disputes evolved into one which set awards for every minutely different category of worker. He highlights the fateful decisions to establish penalty rates—first for Sundays in 1919 and then extended to Saturdays in 1947—a feature of our system which has persisted despite the enormous change over the past couple of generations in how we spend our weekends.

Lewis also offers a succinct critique of why the Howard Government’s WorkChoices initiatives failed, arguing that they lacked ‘the thoroughness and preparedness’ that had gone into previous reforms and that the absence of ‘reasoned argument and detail’ made Howard vulnerable to union attacks.

Chapters by Jonathan Pincus and Nick Cater capture the way Australia’s economy was retarded by a combination of its industrial system and its penchant for government-owned public utilities, looking at the railways and the grain industry respectively. In both areas, we can see how innovation was stifled, perhaps best illustrated by Cater’s comparison between the United States and Australia in the bulk handling of grain.

Many of the aspects of Australian exceptionalism highlighted in the book date back to colonial times, and to the socalled Australian Settlement of the first decade after Federation. One exception is the more recent development of compulsory superannuation which, as Adam Creighton observes in an excellent chapter, fails to solve the problem it was designed to fix—our reliance on the old age pension.

However, it could also be argued that the very fact that compulsory superannuation had become a key Labor Party policy in Australia by the 1990s was a positive part of Australian exceptionalism. Having union hacks ganging up with the financial services industry to push a paternalistic approach to savings is hardly ideal but, in much of the western world, supporters of the freemarket would be delighted if that was the worst policy position of their nation’s major leftwing party.

Likewise, while the protectionism and compulsory arbitration of the Australian Settlement were clearly detrimental to the Australian economy, the rest of the world was hardly immune to collectivist trends for much of the 20th century. As Peter Yule describes, Henry Bourne Higgins generously paid for his nephew Esmonde to go to Oxford and was repaid by Esmonde writing scathingly of Higgins’ Arbitration Court as a body that ‘emasculated’ unionism and made workers ‘mutely content with a subordinate status’. There is certainly an argument that aspects of the Australian system provided something of a bulwark against even more left wing approaches. Perhaps, it was only once the intellectual climate began to shift in the late 1970s that dismantling the Australian Settlement became a realistic option, as the political centre of gravity shifted towards more freemarket solutions.

This is a highly stimulating collection of essays, enriched by some divergent views between chapters, such as the impact of Benthamite ideas on 19th century Australia. There are also occasions when claims of Australian exceptionalism are rejected, such as the view that we have been ‘an almost uniquely secular country’.

The collection is set up well by an early chapter written by Geoffrey Blainey, who demonstrates his unique ability to pinpoint key moments in the historical journey. He does this across the full canvas of the consequences of assisted migration in the 19th century. Some of the topics he introduces, such as the early democratic features of the colonies and our role as a pioneer in spectator sport, are considered further in other chapters.

This book captures a lot of the mediocre public policy that has been a blight in Australian history. However, when it comes to public policy, mediocre performance has tended to put a country near the top of the comparative league tables. And one gets the impression that if several of the authors were presented with a negative leftwing critique of Australian exceptionalism, they would leap to the barricades to mount a vigourous defence of much of our national history, which perhaps goes to show that exceptionalism, like many other contentious issues, really is in the eye of the beholder.

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