Living in an Age of Packages: 'Economic Rationalism' and 'The Clever Country' in Australian Political Thought

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It has been argued recently that such fundamental changes have occurred within Australian politics, culture and society during the past twenty years that it is possible to describe them as "the end of certainty" or "an age of redefinition".(1) In reference to the Australian Labor Party in the 1980s and 1990s, for example, Peter Beilharz has written of the process of "Transforming Labor".(2) Those who write about this period in Australia often note a growing fragmentation, diversity and heterogeneity, especially when compared with the apparent unity and homogeneity that characterised the earlier years of the twentieth century.(3) One may be tempted to describe these transformation as simply an Australian manifestation of something termed "postmodernism". To do so, however, would be to ignore the specific context within which cultural, social and political development has taken place in Australia.

That context is, I believe, best described by the use of the idea of the Australian settlement which denotes a set of policies that defined the cultural, social and political fabric of Australia for the sixty years after Federation. The term "Australian settlement" was coined by Paul Kelly to describe the policies of White Australia, New Protection, Arbitration and Concillation, State Paternalism and Imperial Benevolence. Its central proposition, however, that the early years of the Australian Commonwealth saw the establishment of a number of "settled policies" dates back to Keith Hancock's Australia.(4) More recently lan Marsh has taken up the concept to explain the way in which the two party system in Australia was created around these policies.(5) I would describe the sort of Australia that the Australia settlement attempted to bring into being as modern Australia. Modern Australia was marked by an attempt to create a nation that embodied the principles of unity and homogeniety. During the years of modern Australia the policies of the Australian settlement aimed to consolidate an Australia culture based on a unifying nationalism that provided a national identity and, in turn, a certain sense of security and belonging for the average Australian. I have argued elsewhere that its distinguishing feature was a desire to create a single unified culture that would bring all Australians together.(6)

Modern Australia and the Australian settlement are useful terms for describing, not only the policies that defined early twentieth century political culture, but also the ideals and aspirations that animated that culture. They are also useful as a reference point to consider the changes that have transformed that culture in recent years. Since the 1960s it is possible to argue that the slow dissolution of the Australian settlement has taken place as the forces of cultural diversity, the new individualism, a changing global economy and policies, and the deregulation of the Australian public culture have eroded its foundations. The erosion of the Australian settlement has meant that the public culture which underpinned its foundations, and provided the principles that were the source of its supposed unity, is no longer able to maintain itself. The decay of the Australian settlement and its accompanying public culture coincided, not unnaturally, with a time of economic decline and upheaval. Faring massive change and economic uncertainty, the resources of the established British/Australian culture were increasingly found to be inadequate and that culture was portrayed as tainted. The apparent unity of modern Australia has largely evaporated under the pressure of these changes within Australian culture. Unity, or at least the desire to achieve some sort of unity, has been succeeded by a sense that Australian society and culture are now fragmented, that there is no longer a public culture that provides some set of core values bringing all Australians together.(7) In this very limited sense it is possible to speak of a postmodern Australia, as describing those social, cultural and political developments that have come in the wake of the dissolution of modern Australia. …