Marilyn Lake’s new book reviewed by Clare Wright: Australia was much more than Anzac – and well before it, too

Sometimes things come together just right. Such was the case when Nine (Fairfax) got Clare Wright to review Marilyn Lake’s new book Progressive New World: How Settler Colonialism and Transpacific Exchange Shaped American Reform.

Wright is most recently the author of You Daughters of Freedom: The Australians Who Won the Vote and Inspired the World, reviewed for Honest History by Diane Bell. Lake some time ago contributed this piece to Honest History, which foreshadowed some of the material in her latest book. Both authors thrust in front of us the stories of Australia before the first men of that big expeditionary force sailed out of sight in August 1914.

Wright’s review of Lake is timely, coming just before the week of Anzac. Both authors write about an Australia influential beyond our shores before almost anyone in the wide brown land had ever heard of the Dardanelles, let alone been there.

And what had Australia made its name for, before that fruitless invasion of the Ottoman Empire?

According to Lake’s reckoning [says Wright], here are some of the things Australians themselves readily took pride in and were globally admired for: free, compulsory and secular education; the world’s first legal minimum wage (in 1895); the secret ballot (known colloquially as the Australian Ballot); a children’s court; government aid to industry; full adult suffrage (in 1902, 40 per cent of British men were still without a vote) including eligibility to stand for federal parliament; government regulation of the excesses of market capitalism; improving the living conditions of millions of working men and women; a maternity allowance and old age pension paid from general revenue as a matter of entitlement; and roads, railways, telegraph and postal services under government ownership.

9780674975958-lgNot a bad list, and all happening before 25 April 1915. But there was another side, and that was race. Lake’s publishers, Harvard University Press, say her book

points to the significance of turn-of-the-twentieth-century exchanges between American and Australasian reformers who shared racial sensibilities, along with a commitment to forging an ideal social order. Progressive New World demonstrates that race and reform were mutually supportive as Progressivism became the political logic of settler colonialism.

White settlers in the United States, who saw themselves as path-breakers and pioneers, were inspired by the state experiments of Australia and New Zealand that helped shape their commitment to an active state, women’s and workers’ rights, mothers’ pensions, and child welfare. Both settler societies defined themselves as New World, against Old World feudal and aristocratic societies and Indigenous peoples deemed backward and primitive …

While “Asiatics” and “Blacks” would be excluded, segregated, or deported, Indians and Aborigines would be assimilated or absorbed.

Another review of Lake: Ian Tyrell in Australian Book Review. Marilyn Lake talks with Frank Bongiorno in Canberra, 9 May and with Stuart Macintyre in Melbourne, 22 May.

David Stephens

24 April 2019

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