Academic journal article Melbourne Journal of Politics

Can't Wait for the Sequel: Australian Federation as Unfinished Business. (Centenary of Federation Special)

Academic journal article Melbourne Journal of Politics

Can't Wait for the Sequel: Australian Federation as Unfinished Business. (Centenary of Federation Special)

Article excerpt

Geography is a central organising principle behind federalism in Australia, providing indispensable material for historical analysis and future constitutional development. However, while federation was vital to the evolution of institutions for reconciling Australian society with its geography, a review of federation's first century suggests that since about 1917, this process has been inevitably overshadowed by at least three political `bogeys': `socialist', `centralist' and `fatalist'. Reappraisal of these at the centenary of federation provides an opportunity to revisit both the past role of geography, and the contemporary significance of `regionalism', in our ongoing if not epic constitutional saga.


The process of federation in Australia was, on any account, an epic tale. It took decades to achieve; was a moment in which mighty individuals climaxed on the back of global forces of history; and its "overwhelming majority of hairy men" (La Nauze 1972: 12) seemed able to hold up a farseeing gaze as well as any Charlton Heston or Russell Crowe.

As a liberatory struggle, Federation may not be able to claim the sweeping destiny of a parting of the Red Sea (e.g. Irving 2000), but it still rates as the single biggest step on Australia's long journey of decolonisation and entry into the modern world. The transition to a formal `republic' may yet engage and excite audiences, as an ex post facto celebration of that road, but even that seems unlikely to eclipse the significance of 1 January 2001.

In Australian political development, federation therefore deserves its reputation as a blockbuster. Nevertheless, there also comes a time to dream about the next big adventure. Hence: what about the sequel?

Of course, federation never stopped as a story; it is more an ongoing saga with many threads and many instalments. The hybrid of economics and politics we now call public sector management, for example, reveals at least six episodes in fiscal relations (II)--in 1999, the serving Prime Minister even called on Australians to think of public finance in terms or a "great tax adventure" (ABC 2000). Immigration; privatisation; environmental politics; feminism; indigenous rights; the separation of powers; all provide ongoing stories. However, there may yet be a single subject to deliver a sequel approaching the original blockbuster. This is none of the above, yet all at the same time: geography.

On one hand, the suggestion is unremarkable. Geography can be considered a central organising principle behind federalism in Australia, and as such already presents indispensable material for any new development. Accordingly, federation can also be seen as representing a vital and important stage in the evolution of the political institutions required to reconcile Australian society with its geography. The idea presented here, however, is that this was in fact an evolutionary process, but has been caught in a state of diversion and distraction through most of federalism's first century, in ways we might only now be able to appreciate.

The first part of this article recaps the significance of geography and territory in Australian politics, before going on to suggest three political `bogeys'--`socialist', `centralist' and `fatalist'--that might have dominated our somewhat circuitous constitutional road through the 20th century. Perspectives on the relative significance or seriousness of these bogeys may differ, but they lead to a final question: whether, having identified them anew, we might now be able to rethink the nature of constraints we frequently impose on our ability to pursue directions in constitutional development that are genuinely `homegrown'. If so, the federation epic may yet have a major new twist, capable of bringing its early audience back into the fold.


As highlighted by Blainey's Tyranny of Distance (1966), the role of geography in Australian cultural and political development is something of a given. …

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