Welcome to Oz, where no one rules

With no aristocracy or ruling class, Australia is a nation of lucky bastards who make their own luck, says Nick Cater in his new book.

Nick Cater
Columnist

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If there were an effective method of screening new arrivals for traces of social pretension, or an insecticide that could be used on aircraft to kill airs and graces, Australia’s assiduous quarantine service would have discovered it by now. The levelling instinct is woven thickly through the social fabric and Australians are forever on their guard against snobbery.

There is no place for deference in the Australian book of etiquette; the inheritance of wealth is tolerated but no one inherits privilege, and respect is not for sale at any price.

Egalitarianism is the nation’s primary operating principle, the key to its success and its saving grace. There is no other country where egalitarianism is held in such high regard, nor where any hint of an aristocracy has been so firmly slapped down.

For people like me who grew up in Britain, ever mindful of one’s place in the social pecking order, something particularly refreshing hangs in the egalitarian breeze as soon as you step off the plane. Customs and immigration officers command respect, not because they are wearing uniforms, but because they are earning an honest living, just like the taxi driver you sit next to, not behind.

There is no recourse to status, and therein lies the promise, repeated so often that it ought to be a cliché: in Australia ‘everybody gets a fair go’. There are no institutional barriers to success; the only restraints are personal deficits of imagination, energy and courage.

Australians instinctively understand the American metaphor of log cabin to White House; its egalitarian promise, abounding optimism and democratic embrace are common to both nations. In the Australian version, however, the pauper-to-president narrative is turned on its head: ‘Rooster one day, feather duster the next.’

Told this way, it is less a story of inspiration than one of caution; it is not an ode to Redemption, but a parable of the Fall. Yet it is no less powerful a statement of the egalitarian promise: every citizen has the power to change their life for better or for worse.

Egalitarianism is frequently, and sometimes deliberately, misapplied as a synonym for equality. Dollar-shop Marxists, who reduce the narrative of the nineteenth-century class struggle to an argument about postcodes, seize upon disparities in wealth and income as proof that Australia is not, and perhaps never was, truly egalitarian.

Democratic egalitarianism, however, is equality in manners, rather than equality of wealth. Paradoxically, egalitarianism is a force for financial inequality, since it offers an incentive to rise above the crowd, to achieve whatever your imagination desires. It is the motive force of personal and national progress, mining the inner resource Americans call ‘grit’, the British call ‘courage’ and Australians call ‘mongrel’. The obstacles to success are personal, not social; individual failings rather than institutional prejudice are mostly what holds its people back. As Alexis de Tocqueville discovered in America, ‘the chief cause of disparity between the fortunes of men is the mind’.

In Australia, aspiration is democratised; everyone has the chance to make something of themselves and to improve the lot of their family. It has become fashionable to regard aspiration as a vice, akin to greed and avarice. Consumerism has been redefined as a negative force in society, instead of simply an expression of the free market that drives a virtuous circle of economic growth for all.

Yet as Adam Smith noted, private and public ambition come as a package: ‘The natural effort of every individual to better his own condition, when suffered to exert itself with freedom and security, is so powerful a principle, that it is alone, and without any assistance, not only capable of carrying on the society to wealth and prosperity, but of surmounting a hundred impertinent obstructions.’

Australia’s collective postwar growth was driven by personal ambition not government central planning. In his famous 1942 speech, ‘The Forgotten People’, Australia’s future prime minister, Robert Menzies, looked to the ambitious middle-class home owner as ‘the motive power’ of progress.

The promise that the humblest migrant could through enterprise and energy earn enough to buy property and land was at the heart of the Australian dream from the beginning. Higher wages by themselves would not have persuaded an Essex ploughman to move his family to the Antipodes, wrote the Spectator in 1866, but ‘tell him that in three years he may own a house and farm, and the same man, if he be energetic and sensible, will slowly make up his mind to leave his village’.

John Stephens, the editor of the South Australian Register, wrote that an honest, sober and industrious man and three sturdy sons could count on earning at least £120 a year by taking up the offer of free passage from Britain

‘In a very short space of time, you may find yourself as independent as a “Lord of the Manor”‘, he wrote in the pamphlet Address to the Starving or Suffering Millions of Great Britain and Ireland in 1847. ‘Contrast such a state of things with your hopeless position in the land of your birth… Long and vainly might you toil and sweat, and groan, amidst insult, injury, and wrong, before one of you could, by any chance, become possessed of a single acre in the British Isles.’

Australians are not held back by the social rigidity that saps the British; they frown on the dispiriting nepotism that drains the energy from some developing economies; they would never succumb to the voodoo fatalism that disempowers the people of some cultures from changing their lives for better or worse; Australians (at least until recently) were not allowed to wallow in the mire of victimhood, which becomes a permanent excuse for failure. ‘Aristocratic nations are naturally too liable to narrow the scope of human perfectibility’, said Tocqueville. ‘Democratic nations, to expand it beyond reason.’

Australia, unlike America, was settled in the age of Enlightenment. When the Pilgrim Fathers sighted the Massachusetts coast in 1620, they gathered for a Bible reading; when the First Fleet arrived in Sydney Cove, the new arrivals knuckled down to work; it was eight days before the chaplain could organise a church service. It is not the hand of God or the hand of fate that built Australia but human ingenuity and human labour. There was no need to succumb to fatalism and just wait for something to turn up because something already had: its people.

The above is an extract from Nick Cater’s new book, The Lucky Culture (and the Rise of an Australian Ruling Class), published by HarperCollins this week in Australia. An e-book edition is available through Amazon. To order a printed edition in the UK, email Nick Cater {encode=”australianluck@gmail.com” title=”here”}. For more on the book, visit luckyculture.com.au and see this week’s spiked review of books published on Friday.

Nick Cater has worked as journalist for more than 30 years. He began his career in Britain as a studio manager at the BBC before joining News Limited in 1989. He worked in Adelaide, Canberra and as a foreign correspondent in Asia before joining the Australian Daily Telegraph in 1997. He has been a senior editorial executive at The Australian since 2004.

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