Despite years of federal civics education courses, a survey taken some years ago revealed that the vast majority of school students were ignorant about both Australia and Anzac Day.
Challenging this finding, the New South Wales Education Minister, Carmel Tebbutt, was asked on Macquarie Media’s 2GB to explain why we should celebrate Australia Day. She surprised the nation by saying it is to mark federation, ‘when the states joined together, an important day to understand.’
On Australia Day, particularly, we should spare a thought for the British. Colonisation was inevitable; we were fortunate it was to be by the British, but only after they had lost their thirteen American colonies. By making them the freest in the world, the British ensured that prominent colonists would object when an attempt was made to extract a modest contribution towards the heavy cost of defending them against the French. Then, by refusing to reverse the decision of the Court of King’s Bench in the Somersett Case (1772) to free a runaway slave, the British ensured the added emnity of the slave-owners, especially when the judge, Lord Mansfield, reportedly ruled that ‘The air of England is too pure for a slave to breathe, let the black go free.’ The slave-owners feared this would eventually be followed in the American courts.
They were joined by the land-hungry, thwarted by King George III’s Great Proclamation reserving all lands to the West to the Indians. Add to this the British kept the bungling Lord North as Prime Minister instead of one of the impressive pro-American alternatives, William Pitt , Charles James Fox or Edmund Burke.
Having thus lost the American colonies, only the British could have then conceived and delivered that remarkable endeavour, the First Fleet, placing it under a leader of such humanity and quality as Governor Arthur Phillip. The Home Secretary Lord Sydney, wrongly dismissed by Manning Clark as a mediocrity, was crucial to its success. Strongly influenced by the Anglican Clapham Sect dominated by William Wilberforce, he supported their agenda for the abolition of slavery, which could only be achieved by Britain as the then super-power, as well as for prison reform. Sydney and Phillip were to ensure that New South Wales would then be the greatest exercise in penal reform and criminal rehabilitation the world has ever seen.
Those who doubt the fundamental humanity of the British should study two things. First the Royal Instructions to Phillip on the treatment of the indigenous people, as well as Phillip’s observation that with the adoption of English law ‘…there is one that I would wish to take place from the moment His Majesty’s forces take possession of the country: That there can be no slavery in a free land, and consequently no slaves.’
This was revolutionary and should be a source of immense pride for all Australians, as it once was. But under our education system, knowledge of this is denied our children.
With the settlement we should thank the British for the introduction of the first four pillars of our nation — the world’s richest and most influential language, our Judeo-Christian values as the foundation of civil society, governance under the Crown according to fundamental constitutional principles and above all, the rule of law.
For New South Wales was not, as Malcolm Turnbull so wrongly and glibly claimed, a ‘British gulag’. Not only did Phillip come with a Charter of Justice, the first civil case heard in this land was brought by two convicts against a ship captain, Cable v. Sinclair, something totally inconceivable in a Soviet gulag or a Nazi concentration camp.
We should also thank the British for doing what no other colonial mistress had ever done, gradually endowing us with our fifth pillar, full internal self-government accelerated under the Australian Constitutions Act, 1850. Unusual for an imperial power, the British also supported strengthening the colonies through their uniting together. Federation was actually first proposed by the Colonial Secretary, Earl Grey, as long ago as 1847 in order to encourage more local decision-making, but this was vehemently denounced by local politicians as imperial interference.
But when we belatedly decided on this our sixth pillar, the British put the constitution we chose through the British parliament with minimal changes. Just for touching the constitution, Colonial Secretary Joseph Chamberlain was much criticised in the House of Lords,
We should also thank the British for conferring independence in 1926 under the Balfour Declaration, although unlike the Irish, South Africans and Canadians we did not adopt the 1931 Statute of Westminster until 1942. Even then, it was not to apply to the states, principally because they trusted the British more than Canberra to conduct relations with the Crown and in particular on the appointment of state governors. This anomaly was not corrected until 1986, and only because the Queen indicated that she was prepared to do what is done with no other realm, be advised by the prime minister and also the premiers as relevant.
We should also thank the British for not reacting with outrage, as most governments would have, over Prime Minister Paul Keating’s hysterical and unprovoked attack in the House of Representatives in 1992, accusing them, a close ally, in the most immoderate terms of abandoning Australia to the Japanese in the Second World War. He was apparently unaware that in the Battle for Singapore, the British had lost the battleship Prince of Wales and battlecruiser HMS Repulse, with the men of the 18th Division captured by the Japanese along with the men of our 8th Division, nor that they continued to fight, successfully, in India and Burma and from the major Royal Navy base in Ceylon, all under Lord Mountbatten as Supreme Allied Commander in Southeast Asia. Perhaps he was also unware that after the war, the British fought alongside Australian forces in successfully suppressing the communist insurgency in Malaya and in the undeclared Konfrontasi war waged by Indonesia.
We have much to thank Great Britain for. So on 26 January, as we celebrate our national day, let us raise a glass to the much-maligned British.
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