Australia Day editorials

One of the set pieces in the editor’s armoury must be the Australia Day editorial which needs to be dusted off each January and polished around the edges a bit to distinguish it from the editorial the year before, and the year before that.

I was interested to compare the editorials of The Australian newspaper in 1841 and today.  The Australian as we know it today was founded in 1964 and is part of the Murdoch empire.  It’s not a paper that I read regularly, except for the Australian Literary Review which is issued on the first Wednesday of every month, and even there the paper’s centre-right stance seeps through. It shares the name but not the lineage of the Australian newspaper founded by William Charles Wentworth as New South Wales’ first privately-owned newspaper in 1824.  Wentworth’s Australian newspaper in 1841 acted as a mouth-piece for Wentworth’s own politics at the time where he was agitating for representative government and independence from the twin and paradoxical evils of Colonial Office oversight and neglect.  It published its last edition in 1848.

The Australian 2010

So, The Australian’s editorial of 25th January 2010 on the eve of Australia Day-  what did it have to say? Well, there’s plenty to celebrate apparently:

Australia Day marks the real start of the year in this country: once tomorrow’s holiday is out of the way, the nation gets down to the serious business of work and school after the summer break. This year, the celebratory mood is likely to linger longer thanks to the upswing in the economy and a growing confidence in the future after a year of living anxiously in the shadow of a global downturn.  The year begins with real hope that economic stability and strength will nurture the social coherence and health that must be the core goal of any modern society.

The paper notes the financial emphasis of Rudd’s speeches over the last week leading up to Australia Day (productivity, deficits, infrastructure blah, blah, blah) but then warns us:

There’s more to life of course, and the Australia Day celebrations draw attention to the less tangible questions of community, social tolerance, and national identity…But our national holiday becomes an empty affair if we ignore the real challenges facing many of us.

The editorial then goes on to speak about “Twenty-two years ago, at the Bicentennial celebrations on Australia Day” when “the nation was trapped in a painful historical debate that denied the real issues facing indigenous people, particularly those in remote areas.  The often fruitless arguments over whether the country had been invaded or settled 200 years earlier served to polarise rather than educate white and black Australians over their shared history.”

I find it interesting that the touchstone date in this editorial (and in commentary generally)  is now 1988 rather than 1788.  In the last twenty-two years, the editorial says, we have ” come a long way in recognising the rights of indigenous Australians to decent housing, education and jobs” and “there is room for optimism…”.  Twenty-two years ago the population was 16.6 million; now it is 22 million and projected to be 35 million mid-century and The Australian is “excited by the potential for vibrant social and economic growth” although cautioning of the need for clear plans.  “The integration of more ethically diverse Australians must be carefully guarded” and “racism has no role in Australia which, since the abolition of the White Australia Policy in the mid-1970s, has built an enviable reputation as a tolerant and welcoming nation”.

Australia Day- marked by citizenship ceremonies around the nation- is a perfect time to affirm belief in a mature and single society that also accomodates difference.

The paper notes the affection for Prince William at his recent (fleeting) visit and the respect for his grandmother, but asserts that “those feelings would seem to have little or nothing to do with Australians’ support for a republic”.

The Australian 1841

Why 1841? Because Judge Willis was still in Sydney in January 1841, although it was well-known that he had been appointed to Melbourne and his house, horses and phaeton were being advertised in the newspaper.  In a few days, he would make his farewell speech from the bench- in itself a matter for controversy as might be expected.  But given that Anniversary Day celebrations were most conspicuously celebrated in Sydney compared to the other colonies, it seems fitting to look at Judge Willis’ last Anniversary Day in Sydney.

The editorial of 26th January 1841 (published on the actual day) starts off with a blaze of optimism:

On this 26th of January 1841, the Colony of New South Wales commences the fifty-third year of its existence.  What striking and gratifying recollections does the reoccurrence of this, our natal day, recall to our mind? Where, in the whole range of ancient and modern history, can an instance be found of a similarly rapid advance towards wealth, importance, and respectability, under circumstances so singularly discouraging, under the pressure of obstacles of such peculiar magnitude?

The Australian was very much Wentworth’s creation, and the next very lengthy sentence goes on to criticize the Colonial Office, and the influence of the South Australian lobbyists, with their Wakefieldian agricultural-based ideas, who were pushing an alternative to the squatter-based, pastoral future that Wentworth was agitating for:

Labouring under all the odium which has naturally attached itself to a penal colony, systematically disdained and neglected by the Colonial Office, the only quarter to which we have been enabled, and indeed are still able to look for assistance and sympathy, with out financial resources misapplied, our most earnest prayers for free institutions disregarded, autocratically governed at the caprice now of this, now of that minister, with enemies avowed, and enemies concealed, handed over with indifference within the last twelve months to the tender mercies of Colonel Torrens and the Land Board…

This gargantuan sentence continues with a look to the past, going back fifty, even twenty years to the penal origins of New South Wales.  As with the editorial of 2010, there’s an element of bringing observations within the scope of living memory.  The bleak environmental picture painted here sits at odds with the more benign environment portrayed in Grace Karsken’s recent book The Colony, and the reference to Aborigines is very much of its time:

we yet can exhibit, where half a century, nay twenty years since, gangs of lawless convicts laboured upon a limited and uncleared desert, where the hallowed names of religion and justice were unknown, where the wandering savage, lowest in the scale of humanity, and the wretched English criminal, scarce gained a scanty subsistence from an ungrateful soil, where unblest sons poured their angry luster upon the thirsty sand

Now the observant eye of Englishmen beholds:

far-stretching districts, hundreds of miles in extent, covered with flocks and herds, teeming with convertible wealth, the fertile banks of numerous rivers producing abundant supplies of agricultural produce…

and a maritime industry that is “sending home annually in the place of hundreds, no less than eight millions of pounds of wool…verging upon the annual value of a million of money…” and “importing British manufactured produce to the amount of twice this sum.”  It seems a little incongruous to us now to think with pride on the amount we import (as distinct from export), but in 1841 it was a matter of pride that New South Wales was now a sophisticated and modern consumer society, proud of its place within the broader imperial marketplace.

But the life of an upstanding member of society has its responsibilities as well and so,

We trust that our readers will permit us to remind them without offence that the joy and the festivity with which they so pleasingly celebrate this birthday of their country, should be tempered with reflections of a higher and a somewhat more thoughtful nature.  These they are bound to entertain for their own sake, for the sake of those who come after them, for the sake of vindicating for themselves that high and leading position in this hemisphere, which it is in the order of things that they must, and that at no distant day attain. We would urge upon all, whatever may be their condition in life, to give their individual efforts for upholding and still further exalting the standard of integrity and of morals in our social community.

In particular, the Australian deplored “with reluctance and with grief” that “an avowed selfishness, the bane of all young communities, is to a very large and engrossing extent, prevalent throughout this country”. The editorial called upon

everyone who occupies a position which gives him influence over his fellow-colonists, to promote these views fearlessly and cordially, if he has any true or forward-looking desire for the welfare of his native or adopted country.

Note that this was leading by example, and a call to the leaders of society rather than to “the people” as a whole.  The political winds were stirring, but nobody was agitating for democracy as we know it today- and would even less so in coming years with the rise of Chartism and the 1848 revolutions to follow.

…if you do your duty at this now early hour of the political day, when the seed can be sown and the tree of virtue planted, you will indeed be “remembered for good”, for upon a nation such as by your wise efforts may be constituted, one in honour, one in high and unswerving principle, one in their passionate love of liberty, one in their disdain of everything that is mean, and sordid, and cowardly, it is not too much to say, that the feet of tyranny, foreign or domestic, shall NEVER trample.

The Australian was confident that representative democracy- limited though it was- would be just around the corner but we know that the drip-feed of a form of self-government would take over a decade.

The eyes of Britain are more and more intently fixed upon you.  The importance of this Colony is being rapidly appreciated at home.  Representative institutions of on the eve of concession to us.  May we so wisely and temperately use them, as to convince our worst enemies that we are worthy of the boon granted.

And now for the important thing- what’s on? Sydney always put on a bigger bash for Anniversary Day than the other colonies did, so here’s what’s happening:

And now, with reference to the sports of this day- His Excellency will be present at Macquarie Point with a numerous party.  We perceive that many excellent boats, several of them newly built for the occasion, will contend for the prizes.  All the available steamers will ply about the harbour during the day with bands of music, to enliven the scene.  The shipping will hoist their colours and be decorated with all their flags.  In the evening Mr Wyatt will present, at the Theatre, the owner of the successful vessel with a silver cup of the value of thirty pounds; and a numerous party of Australians will dine together at the St John’s Tavern, to celebrate the auspicious occasion.  In fact, nothing will be wanting but the sun to shine brightly to complete the happiness of our towns men.  We hope that no accidents may occur to damp the festivities of the day.

I’ll let you know how the day went off, tomorrow.

2 responses to “Australia Day editorials

  1. Fascinating stuff, Janine!

  2. Pingback: How my Daddy saved the Birthday Beacon | The Resident Judge of Port Phillip

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