QUARTERLY ESSAY 12 Made in England



Phillip Knightley

Yes, David, there will always be the bond of a shared language and a cultural heritage between Australia and Britain. And, yes, the way the Mother Country tumbled us out of the nest was the making of us. I just wish she could have been a little more motherly and gracious about it, a little less selfish, cold and pragmatic.

Take that pommy bastard Sir Otto Niemeyer, a director of the Bank of England. He came to Australia in 1930 to tell us how to manage our financial affairs. He decided that the trouble was the Australian character and the Australian way of life. Australians had a natural optimism and this was very, very bad. Ordinary Australians had to be stripped of their belief that something would always turn up. And our living standards were too high, so wages had to be cut and cut again.

When he said this at a civic reception in Adelaide, the very same paper that reported his remarks, the Evening News, carried an item about Depression children starving, actually starving, in the Granville electorate.

Historians’ arguments about the fall of Singapore and the Anglo–American plan to concentrate on the war in Europe before turning to Japan – even if it meant temporarily leaving Australia to the Japanese – have rumbled on for so long as to risk becoming boring. But was it too much to ask of Mother that if she was planning to abandon us to save herself she might at least have told us?

No wonder Curtin said that from then on we were going to look to the United States as our protector. Although if Australia imagines that its loyalty to Uncle Sam in the recent war against Iraq now guarantees that the USA will always be there for us, a glance at any of the Washington plans setting out American geographical strategic interests for the twenty-first century will come as a bit of a shock. Where does Australia figure in them? Nowhere.

All right, Britain’s decision to end its traditional Empire trade arrangements and join the European Common Market was a shock but turned out to be good for us in the economic long run. But how can we forgive Mother for the 1971 Immigration Act, a nasty piece of legislation that many found the most painful betrayal of all? At a stroke it ended the right Australians had enjoyed since the founding of the country in 1788 to free entry into Britain and full equality with their kith and kin. A former editor of the London Telegraph, William Deedes, commented, “We should acknowledge that for our growing estrangement from Australia we carry most of the blame.”

So, Mother, let’s agree that we will still talk to each other because we share the same language and memories, but we have left home for good and will not be back. We are not a republic yet, but one day we will be and in the meantime we’re a country very different from you and the Old World.

This was brought home to me at the Australia Day celebrations at Australia House in London – an evening of hiccups, happiness and mini meat pies. It ended with a stirring “Advance Australia Fair”, in tune, in time and everyone knew the words. Later, walking down a freezing Strand it occurred to me that as a national anthem, “Advance Australia Fair” has got it about right. I cannot support the sentiments expressed in “aux armes citoyens”, or in “the rockets’ red glare”, and certainly not in saving of an elderly English lady whose only danger is probably from her daughter’s dogs. But I can wholeheartedly support the advancement of an independent young nation which offers wealth for toil. And that about sums it up.


Phillip Knightley’s books include Australia: A Biography of a Nation, A Hack’s Progress and The First Casualty: A History of War, Correspondents and Propaganda.


This correspondence discusses Quarterly Essay 12, Made in England. To read the full essay, subscribe or buy the book.

This correspondence featured in Quarterly Essay 13, Sending Them Home.


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