A significant part of my career as a writer of non-fiction has been—at editorial request—explicating my two nationalities to each other, and then both to Americans. On no issue have entreaties been more frequent than with Brexit and Covid-19.
Covering the former was obvious and necessary, and not just because Brexit was one of the major news stories of the last five years. If you’re a political tragic—interested in intellectual history, constitutional law, and parliamentary procedure—then Brexit was like Christmas morning.
Explaining how Victoria Police came to use rubber bullets against protesting trade unionists outside a war memorial, by contrast, involved me doing the rounds of various British studios and repeating myself ad nauseam. Each time, I’d point out to stunned talking heads that the popular image of Australia as a land of anti-authoritarian larrikins is about as genuine as a pile of three-dollar bills.
One interview (with Neil Oliver of Coast and Vikings fame) went ‘viral’ (as the kids say), improbably wending its way to a home I have not seen since 2018, as well as crossing the pond. Whereupon came complaints that I’d made Australia (or at least Victoria) out to be some sort of police state.
To which my response (and the response of every British person who saw the footage, regardless of politics) was: ‘rubber bullets’. The Met does not use rubber bullets; no police force in Britain ever has. Associated in the public mind with colossal historic policing failures in Northern Ireland, the reactions attaching to their use in the most prosperous bit of the Commonwealth evinced incredulous horror. I mean, Boris Johnson was famously hung out to dry when he purchased water cannon while mayor of London. Said water cannon—never used—were quietly disposed of when no one was looking to assuage his embarrassment. And as is well known, Boris does not embarrass easily.
For their part, American interlocutors engaged in a fantasy common among those who view bearing arms as a right. The real problem, apparently, was in how protesters from the CFMEU were unarmed. This of course forgets that a significant reason for hair trigger behaviour from US police is the reality that each individual police officer is at a disadvantage unless he assumes most ordinary members of the public have guns.
Threading the ‘explain Australia’ needle was also made difficult because it has long been considered a well-governed country with policies other places seek to copy. Hardly a week goes by without discussion of ‘points-based immigration’, for example—one of the few programmes raised as a matter of routine in UK focus groups over the last 20 years—or, in the US, Australia’s gun laws. Before that little rubber bullets exercise, admiration centred on Australia’s status as a prosperous, open, liberal democracy somehow able to manage Covid-19 given no prior experience of Sars and yet with many Chinese immigrants.
This meant I had to discuss how Australia is well-governed in addition to its authoritarianism. Australian commentators (among them Quillette editor-in-chief Claire Lehmann; I was not alone) became somewhat belligerent when replying to international media coverage in order to make this basic point. If it comes to successful responses to Covid-19, Australia—despite Victoria—is still well ahead of the UK, US and EU. I have rejected well-paid American job offers because it seems that, every time I go there, nothing works properly. I have spent nearly half my life in the UK and am familiar with the standard Britstralian view of the NHS: when in pain, take a plane.
If John Locke is the father of the US Constitution and John Stuart Mill and Adam Smith the fathers of British approaches to governance, then Australia’s dad is Jeremy Bentham, the bloke who described natural rights as nonsense upon stilts. He rejected the idea of natural or divinely given rights preceding the establishment of state authority, arguing that rights are creations of law, and without government there are none.
The contrast with John Locke is immediate and obvious: for Locke, individuals and their rights come first, and government comes afterwards. The state for Americans is a bottom-up creation where citizens transfer to it by social contract only so much authority as is strictly necessary for mutual benefit and protection. The Australian approach produces electorates that see the nation-state as a vast public utility; great care has been taken to ensure it works well. This means Australians trust government in a way Americans and even Brits do not.
There is something to the criticism, though. Australia’s high state capacity carries a cost. Most of the time, its orderly, form-filling, communitarian culture is attractive, commendably egalitarian and efficient. But competence can cross the line into genuine authoritarianism. It did so, obviously and dramatically, in Victoria. It may also have done so in other states, particularly given widespread vaccine compulsion.
That does not mean American criticisms are always properly informed or fair. I do think it means milder British alarm at heavy-handed policing in a Commonwealth cousin is warranted. Australians do not appreciate how their country is governed profoundly differently from close allies with which they share both language and legal system.
In 1897, Mark Twain observed that ‘Australian history is almost always picturesque; indeed, it is so curious and strange, that it does not read like history, but like the most beautiful lies’. Whether this still applies to history is a moot point. Post-1897, Australia has had a rather less dramatic experience than many places producing too much history for local consumption.
That said, Twain’s observation, lightly re-jigged, is true of governance. It is something of which Australians should be aware. Other people can see us now.
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Helen Dale won the Miles Franklin Award for her first novel, The Hand that Signed the Paper, and read law at Oxford. Her latest novel is Kingdom of the Wicked, which was shortlisted for science fiction’s Prometheus Prize. She lives in London.
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