Monday, January 7, 2013

A lot to not sing about

The United States has made genuine contributions to world thought. In 'their' Revolution and Civil War and  in the documents associated with those conflicts, the players in American history have refined the concepts of liberty and freedom and civil rights. Even more... if William Jennings Bryan had won the 1900 presidential election, his address to the Democratic National Convention - The Perils of Imperialism - might forever have spelt out the difference between a republic and an empire. ("A republic can have no subjects. A subject is possible only in a government resting upon force; he is unknown in a government deriving its just powers from the consent of the governed.")       

I often wonder what Australia has contributed to world progress. Women got the vote in South Australia before most of the rest of the world, the High Court's MABO decision of 1992 knocked for six any idea that a country is uninhabited ("terra nullius") just because it's not inhabited by the conquerors.

The other day, in Carlton, I realised that Australia played perhaps the major role in implementing the 8-hour day. Yes, the 8-hour day movement started in Britain. The British socialist and factory owner Robert Owen may have coined the slogan "Eight hours labour, eight hours rest, eight hours recreation", but the movement's biggest splash was made in Victoria, Australia. In April 1856, stonemasons working on the University of Melbourne downed tools and marched on parliament, also under construction. As a result of their protest parliament decided that they could work eight hours a day with no loss of pay. Stonemasons celebrated with a holiday and procession on 12 May 1856.

Just outside the Melbourne CBD (Downtown), in Carlton across the road from the Trades Hall Council, is the 8-hour day monument. The triple-eight symbol later became decoration on many union buildings.

How many Australians are proud of this, or even know anything about it? We don't make much of a song and dance. (If Dr. Martin Luther King Jr had addressed an Australian audience in his 'I Have a Dream' speech and rung out: "No, no, we are not satisfied and will not be satisfied until justice rolls down like water and righteousness like a mighty stream", some prosaic Australian up the back would have called out, "Oh, turn it up!" )

And yet, Australia has a democracy to be jingoistically proud of; a democracy with a slightly more liberal nuance to the idea of freedom. Because it isn't just personal liberty, which can easily be perverted into exploitative behaviour by successful individuals; it's real practical rights across the board. And it could be argued that we have greater real liberty because Australian workers were able to form themselves, as unions, into more exact counterweights to the controllers of capital. At any rate, the fact that we don't trumpet our achievements too loudly is also perhaps a sign of a non-intrusive humility.

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