Thursday, March 30, 2006

images of Australia media concerns 1905

In 1905, Australia had existed as a federation for four years. Two of the major publications of the era, the Melbourne Age and the Sydney Bulletin had stark differences about the merits of the proposed Empire Day to be celebrated for the first time in May that year. Though the Age and the Bulletin disagreed on this point, they were both informed by the question of London’s dominance on local policy and culture and the sense of the vulnerability felt by Australia due to its isolation as a Western nation at the bottom of Asia.

Australia celebrated the beginning of the 20th century by joining its six competing colonies into a new federation on 1 January 1901. Despite the auspiciousness of the date, it has struggled to establish itself as a celebratory anniversary of Australia’s nationality. Other dates such as 26 January and 25 April have competed for this definition, as Australia searched for an appropriate date to honour what Walter called a “sense of ceremony”. In 1902 the Earl of Meath (founder of such auspicious scout-like organisations such as the Fresh Air League and the Lad’s Drill Association) had proposed a day of celebration throughout the empire. By 1905, imperialists were promoting this new event as a more important festival than federation day and demanding it be made a national holiday. This was not a wholly uncontested view and the Bulletin championed the fight against Empire Day in the cause of more independence from Britain.

In 1905 Britain was at the height of her imperial powers. The Pax Britannica was becoming threatened by Wilhelm’s aggressive military policies in Germany and the growing US economic power. However it was easy for the Age to glorify the Empire’s achievements and the great reign of Victoria which had recently ended in a “long glow of invigorating sunlight.” It saw Australia as basking in the reflected glory of that sunlight. They wanted Empire Day to be a conscious strengthening of imperial links.

The Bulletin didn’t see this dual loyalty in the same light. They saw imperialism as a pejorative label representing the Boer War, the Chinese slave-trade and the Japanese Alliance all of which were anathema to “white Australian ideals.” Britain had expected to win the Boer War (1899-1902) quickly but the formidable fighting qualities of the Afrikaners had raised serious doubts about Britain’s conventional might. However it was the Chinese and Japanese threats which were of most interest to the Bulletin.

The Chinese were not a new problem. The came to the gold fields of Victoria in 1855-1856 when the diggers' income was sinking to unskilled manual workers. Because the Chinese were prepared to work for small wages and would do jobs that the locals would not, there were fears that Australian working men would lose their work to an Asian ‘invasion.’ The Bulletin played up to these fears by appealing to racial purity and a fostering of native Australian industries.

The Japanese presented an even greater threat to Australian interests, according to the Bulletin. The Meiji Restoration of the 1860s had transformed Japan from a feudal structure to an emerging world power. By 1905 it was strong enough to inflict a shattering defeat on the Russians in Port Arthur. Britain had signed an alliance with Japan in 1902 as a means of checking Russian expansion in the Pacific. However as part of the terms of the alliance, Britain withdrew its sea power from Asian waters leaving the Japanese navy to dominate raising fears in Australia compounded by race.

The racial factor expressed as the Yellow Peril was common to both the Bulletin and the Age pieces. Although they sharply disagreed on the role of Britain in Australia’s future, neither was averse to the social Darwinism then in vogue. In 1893, Dr Charles H. Pearson’s hugely influential book "National Life and Character" had warned that “the ‘lower’ would overtake the ‘higher’ races.” Australia was a lonely outpost of the “higher race” on the edge of Asia and needed to keep the “white blood pure” (the Bulletin) and keep out the “mingled marriage bonds” (The Age.)

The White Australia Policy, designed to prevent the influx of coloured races, is not mentioned by name in either the Age or Bulletin but had been in place since the Immigration Restriction Act of 1901. The policy was not universally applauded. Geoffrey Blainey argues the Act was an anomaly of geography and a majority of northern white Australians wanted cheap coloured labour but the south (where all six state capitals were based) did not. Thus racial unity was achieved at the cost of the development of the north of Australia. The constituency of the Age represented conservative Melbourne interests while Bulletin pushed a radical labour movement agenda.

What was of economic concern to the Age was the continued prosperity of Australia under the aegis of the Empire. It was crucial Australia should continue to reap the benefits of a worldwide common market with a revenue of £260,000,000 in 1905. The Bulletin saw only one-way exchange and described Australian industry being exploited as a “satrapy of London.” It said Australian lifestyles were undermined by the cheap wages Asian “coolies” were prepared to work for. It used the mystique of bush legend to great effect in its appeal to the vigour of Australian inhabitants to staunch the flow of Asian immigrants.

The difference in perspective of the Age and Bulletin pieces turned on the way Australia’s role in the Empire wa developing. What to the Age was a “crimson thread of friendship” was to the Bulletin a “mostly nigger empire.” The Age was launched during the gold rush era and became an immense influence in Melbourne selling 120,000 copies a day by the 1890s and exercised great political power. It was not going to rock the imperial boat. The Bulletin’s mix of radicalism and xenophobia was an attractive mix to a different social set. They were preaching a new form of nationalism that did not rely on Britain for its inspiration.

It would have to wait another ten years for the events at Anzac Cove to turn that inspiration into a totem.

1 comment:

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