It is widely accepted that the past can influence the future. This is the dominant discourse which surrounds the concept of an ‘Australian Settlement’. Posited as the ‘more or less enduring resolution of conflict’ (Stokes 2004a, p. 5) that created bipartisan support for particular ‘political ideas and policies’ (Stokes 2004a, p. 7), this ‘settlement’ seeks to define an Australian political identity which guided Australia from Federation through to the 1980’s. However, this ‘Australian Settlement’ has now crumbled, and our society is significantly different. While it is a relevant tool for studying political history, a genuine understanding of modern politics cannot be reached through study of the ‘Australian Settlement’ alone, because the forms presented have been decontextualised, are selective in features and its focus on the past does not assist to provide direction for the future.
Politics is not a distinct super-section of Australia. It is, according to our ‘style’ of democracy, theoretically representative of our population, by extension, politics should reflect the values of our society. This means that past policies cannot be accurately viewed, or fairly judged, exclusively from this angle. To obtain a genuine understanding of Australian politics, it is necessary to consider the societal context, discourses of assent and dissent, as well as the underlying beliefs and motivations for particular policy decisions.
In this, Stokes (2004a) attempts to be more flexible, however much is still judged based on current values, and neglects how ‘progressive’ much of the early years were, and is based on the authors own underlying values. As Melleuish informs, ‘… in an age which no longer accepts its values, we are apt to forget its positive aspects and its virtues’ (Melleuish 1995, p. 131). When approaching the ‘Settlement’ from a modern perspective, issues are seen with the management of race and gender relations, the inequalities in democratic institutions, increases in the role of the state, an increasingly insular country. However, in most cases, this modern perspective means these problems are considered in conjunction with persuasive discourses, positive or negative, towards neo-liberalism, and globalisation (Conley 2004). If viewed from the perspective of the makers themselves, the view would likely be quite different. The context, intent and outcomes should be judged holistically.
Selective in features
The governments of federation, and still today are, to varying degrees, ‘social liberal’. Many of the ‘settlement’ policies were not, as Kelly appears to assert, purely economic, but had significant social basis, which Stokes incorporates, albeit at a reduced importance (2004a, p. 15). Also, as seen in the symposium, the ‘Australian Settlement’ as originally written had ‘limited scope’ (2004a, p. 9), and as Brett (2004) notes, even Stokes’ expanded version of the settlement misses key considerations. While the idea of an ‘Australian Settlement’ has gained significant currency, there are still significant points of contention. By choosing elements and framing them in particular ways it becomes possible to alter the discourse these elements are subjected to, allowing both the ‘identity’ and individual component discourses to be usurped to a particular purpose (Stokes 2004a, p. 7; see also Conley 2004).
Stokes (2004a, p. 5) correctly asserts that future directions are shaped by ‘past errors and achievements’. It is, however, unfair to consider that all of the Australian Settlement was worthy of being discarded as a ‘past error’, and the policies enacted to remove the ‘pillars’ as being the ‘achievements’. A holistic judgement of political history does indeed give us insight into how, and why policies were enacted; however this insight does not really provide direction for our future. Society has undergone significant changes, as have the political and economic imperatives now faced. It would be imprudent to deny any possibility of enacting similar policy again.
Stokes’ contribution to the identity discourse of an ‘Australian Settlement’ is significant to providing a good underpinning knowledge and understanding of Australia’s political history, however it cannot provide a stable platform for understanding modern politics, or the politics of the future. Looking to the past for shaping the future has its own problems, and it would be easy to consider that at the end of the next ‘settlement’, which is not yet formed, the decisions made now may be judged in the future to be incorrect. Priorities should be clearly focused on the present, working for the future, rather than looking back.
Brennan G & Pincus J. (2002) From the Australian Settlement to Microeconomic reform: the Change in Twentieth Century Policy Regimes. CIES Discussion Paper No. 0213. Adelaide, SA: Adelaide University.
Brett J. (2004) Comment: the country and the city. Australian Journal of Political Science 39:1, 27 – 29.
Conley T. (2004) Globalisation and the Politics of Persuasion and Coercion. Australian Journal of Social Issues 39:2, 183-200.
Kelly P. (2004) Comment: the Australian settlement. Australian Journal of Political Science 39:1, 23 – 25.
Melleuish G. (1995) Understanding an “Age of Uncertainty”. Australian Journal of Politics & History 41:1, 130-134.
Sawer M. (2004) Comment: the Australian settlement undone. Australian Journal of Political Science 39:1, 35 – 37.
Smyth P. (2004) Comment: Australian settlement or Australian way? Australian Journal of Political Science 39:1, 39 – 41.
Stewart RG & Ward I. (2010) Politics One, South Melbourne: Palgrave Macmillan Australia.
Stokes G. (2004a) The ‘Australian settlement’ and Australian political thought. Australian Journal of Political Science 39:1, 5 – 22.
Stokes G. (2004b) A rejoinder. Australian Journal of Political Science 39:1, 43 – 47.