The states we’re in
From Griffith REVIEW Edition 19: Re-imagining Australia
© Copyright Griffith University & the author.
Written by AJ Brown
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AJ Brown's biography and other articles by this writer
We are the same people sprung from the same race. We bear allegiance to the same throne. Our ideas, our religion – everything, in fact – is common. There is nothing to keep us apart. We are all one people, and why should we be divided by imaginary lines drawn on a map, which in a great many instances are drawn haphazard?
– Sir John Forrest, Premier, Western Australia, 1896
Ever since Europeans began to show interest in Australia, this country has been a product of their imagination. The ability to conjure a picture of how to conduct its political affairs has been pivotal, driven by changing dreams and realities of colonial and national destinies. Australians' ability to imagine and re-imagine their political future has had a long history of pride and great democratic achievement. It is also a history of challenges, disaffection and ongoing unmet demands.
Political imaginings of Australia have worked in tandem with, and in advance of, social and economic reality. As early as 1797 Sir Joseph Banks told Governor John Hunter he saw ‘the future prospect of empires and dominions' which could not be disappointed. ‘Who knows,' wrote the great proponent of colonial development, ‘that England may revive in New South Wales when it has sunk in Europe?' Banks' was a vision of transposed civilisation and boundless economic prosperity, a cultural and political life-raft as Britain fought the Napoleonic tide.
The first important vision of governance that British leaders came to impose on their blank map was the great, expanding federal experiment of the United States. Directly motivated by its embarrassing losses in North America, from 1825 the Colonial Office began separating New South Wales into new colonies, planning that this time they would remain bound to the Empire as a loyal ‘dominion'. America's constitution propagated new states during and after independence and found great favour with British progressives. In 1849 J.A. Roebuck likened America's federal expansion to ‘a well-made watch [that] went from that moment [in the 1780s] and never ceased to go'. Three years later the future British Liberal prime minister William Gladstone insisted America remained ‘the great source of experimental instruction, so far as colonial institutions are concerned'.
The imagined political future did not play out as planned, but not yet because, as its original Indigenous owners already knew, the continent's ecological resources would simply not sustain it. The British vision itself faltered and changed. Trouble in Canada and the American Civil War caused a rethink. Britain came to favour strong central government, supported by regional governments rather than semi-sovereign states. Australian colonists continued to press for self-government, but the constitutional blueprint was left confused and half-baked. By the 1850s, when British policy-makers granted colonial demands for legislative independence, only a few colonies had separated from New South Wales.
Later, some governance experts would seek to impose an ex post facto explanation of this political geography, describing six jurisdictions as either politically or economically natural. In 1969 the constitutional lawyer Geoffrey Sawer described the ‘six metropolitan centres' at the heart of the colonies as ‘the natural foci of economic development around the habitable perimeter of an arid continent'.
But the reality could not have been further from the truth. The often accidental siting of early settlements itself led to, and then froze, the political structure. The economic sustainability of each was based mainly on the ‘geographic momentum' of ‘the proclaimed impulse' – in other words, the decision to make a specific site an official centre, in some cases without knowing of what. Colonial settlement was encouraged, but Sydney fought with other centres to ensure it remained the primary financial hub, especially in terms of export control. Perth did the same to Albany, Melbourne to Portland. Only Queensland bucked the trend. Until the late 1890s when Brisbane also turned, Rockhampton and Townsville were officially destined to become state capitals in their own right.
In addition, despite valiant efforts by the Colonial Office, nothing was done to overlay the separate colonies with a national structure. This was not because Australians did not already imagine themselves as a nation in the Empire. By the 1850s, national constitutions had already been drafted in London, Hobart and Sydney. The problem was not political imagination, but the retreat of colonial legislators to the immediate and practical issue of developing and consolidating their own power. In a pattern that still repeats, Sydney's political elites adopted the refrain that if the other colonies wanted national unity, they simply should not have separated from the first colony. The modern balladeer Tim Freedman immortalised this distinctive political culture: ‘You've got to love this city for its body and not its brain.'