Wild Colonial Boy

Article excerpt

Wild colonial boy Richard Allsop reviews Colony: Strange Origins of One of the Earliest Modern Democracies By Reg Hamilton (Wakefield Press 2010, 312 pages)

In the 1850s, the colony of South Australia was a world leader in the development of modern democratic practices.

It was the first colony in the British Empire to establish the right of all men to vote; the first to ?permanently' end government funding of churches; the first in Australia, and probably the Empire, to settle on triennial parliaments as a compromise between the traditional seven and the radical demand for yearly elections; and the third, after Tasmania and Victoria, to adopt the secret ballot.

Reminding people of the leading role of Australia in developing radical democratic practice is important in itself, because the Old Left narrative which lauded these developments as part of their paean to the Australian working man hae been superseded, in recent decades, by the New Left one which tends to take a dim view of most happenings in nineteenth century Australia.

There is also an important task in asking why South Australia became the ?democratic laboratory' for not just the Australian colonies, but also the British Empire and hence the world.

Colony: Strange Origins of One of the Earliest Modern Democracies has a good crack at both these roles. The author is Reg Hamilton, who has a day job as a Deputy President of Fair Work Australia, and a personal interest in early South Australian history, as a descendant of an early colonist, Richard Hamilton, who arrived in the colony in 1837.

The Hamilton family came from Dover in England, and the author devotes a significant portion of the early part of the book to a study of the life, in particular the political life, of that town in the early nineteenth century. This section is the least successful part of the book because, while a lot of the material is quite interesting, it is too long an entree before the South Australian main course.

Of course, the developments in South Australia do have English origins and, away from the Dover detail, Hamilton demonstrates that it was the Chartist agenda which was largely adopted in South Australia, with just minor adaptations, such as the move from annual to triennial parliaments. He explains that those who drafted South Australia's radical 1856 constitution were almost all adult immigrants, who were clearly aware of contemporary British political ideas before they headed to Australia.

Of course, in a colony that was only two decades old, those old enough to be active political participants were less likely to be native born than they would have been in New South Wales at that time, but there is also the fact that those who emigrated from Britain often had a degree of dissatisfaction with the home country that helped trigger their departure.

While British Chartism was a major contributor to the rapid adaption of democratic ideas in South Australia, Hamilton also recognises that they were fertilised in other parts of the world, both in Europe and the colonies. For instance, he provides a good summary of developments in Canada, a source too often neglected when looking for comparable countries for Australia.

Another factor in the rapid democratisation in Australia was the very newness of colonial Australian society, which meant that there was an absence of an entrenched privileged class trying to retain power and status at all costs. What further distinguished South Australia from the other colonies ,was not just that it never received convicts, but also the fact that, under the system devised by Wakefield, land had been distributed in small parcels and hence there was no squattocracy.

In addition, Hamilton makes the point that Australian democrats had a pretty easy road to hoe compared to many others of their ilk. While there was opposition to some aspects of the democratic agenda from governors, or the Colonial Office, overall those with existing authority were far more tolerant than were the regimes that liberals in other parts of the world were trying to reform at that time. …