In 1901, Australia was formed. It was both national pragmatic and sentimental. Federal government coordination was required to coordinate policy issues in areas such as immigration, trade, and defense. The growing nationalist sentiment that people from different colonies were shaped by the opportunities and challenges of the great southern land was just as important. They were Australians as well as Tasmanians and Queenslanders, Victorians, and so forth.
Nationalism is a modernizing project that creates identities and moral communities that transcend parochial and regional boundaries. The colonial identities of Australia’s European settlers in the 19th century were not as strong as those of the rest of the world. However, they did exist.
Although the young men of Australian Natives’ Association may have considered themselves to be Australians at heart, they continued to identify as colonists after federation. This was due to their roots in six colonies’ histories, economies, and social worlds. Alfred Deakin was the second prime minister of Australia, and he would repeatedly tell the people that they should think of themselves first as Australians and approach all political issues from a national perspective.
Interesting Historical National
It is interesting historical to ask when Australians National identities transcended their state-based identities. It was the second world war, I believe. Before the war, decisions and policies made by state governments had a greater impact on people’s daily lives than those of federal government. All state responsibilities included health, education, transport law and order, law and administration, local government, roads and sewerage, power, and transportation. The federal income tax was not yet in effect and the Commonwealth welfare responsibilities are limited.
The federal government took over the primacy when Australia was under threat from Japan. The Commonwealth was responsible for defense and also had the power to re-allocate resources including labour to support the war effort. It could also tax people’s incomes.
The COVID pandemic, which saw the closing of state borders, and the different experiences of states and territories raises the question of whether the state-based identity is stronger today than it was 20 years ago. Based on historical observations and not hard quantitative data, I would suggest three reasons why this may be so.
First, federation was able to preserve many of the colonies’ political cultures. Western Australia has seen the survival of separatist sentiments. Queensland is less dominated than other states by its capital, but still has strong rural populism.
Both Sydney and Melbourne still have their own political differences. James Jupp, a political scientist from Sydney, compares Melbourne’s reformist, Protestant, middle class political culture with Sydney’s hard-nosed materialism in The Sydney Melbourne Book. Melbourne was idealistic, patrician and internationalist, while Sydney was proletarian and masculinist, and Sydney was cynical.
This made Victoria the home of the Liberal Party for much of the 20th Century, up until Gough Whitlam, who lured a portion of the moral middle-class to the social democratic Labor Party in the early 1970s.
Victoria’s political culture remains more progressive than New South Wales. But it now leans towards Labor and Greens instead of the Liberals. The Liberals’ center of gravity has moved to Sydney, which is more proletarian, and less intellectual.
A second reason why state-based identities may be growing is the different impact of Neoliberalism on both our two levels. Australia enjoyed three decades of government-led nation building after the Second World War. These included the postwar migration and Snowy Mountains programs. As well as the development of manufacturing and the expansion and maintenance of universities and scientific capabilities. This effort culminated with the Whitlam government’s cultural nationalism.
The onset of stagflation, which began in the mid-1970s, halted this nation-building momentum. It eventually slowed down as governments turned to neoliberal solutions to restore economic growth.