Continuing this issue’s focus on Australia’s relationship with the British Isles, Andrew Guild looks at some aspects of the British influence on Australian culture and our way of life.
The Australian culture has been influenced by European nations since white people first settled here in 1788. Whilst the most important element of our national culture is that of our home-grown way of life and traditions, we have received cultural input from north, west, south and eastern Europe (as well as from countries across the world that were once European colonies); however, our culture was undeniably heavily influenced by the cultures of the British Isles from where our founders came.
The recognition of this basic fact should not be twisted by Britain-haters into saying that this article proposes that Australia is a British society, for that is not the case.
The growth of our distinct Australian culture has come from within — from the people who were shaped by the circumstances of the bush, the “tyranny of distance”, the beauty and harshness of our native land, our history, and the conditions of our home-grown society.
With the primacy of our native-born culture having been acknowledged, we can now consider the contribution of the British peoples, and recognise that they have had an enormous influence upon Australian society.
Not only did the British make the decision to settle this great land as an outpost of European civilisation, they poured great resources into establishing colonies here, and conducted large-scale exploration and mapping of our continent.
The groundwork for a free and democratic society was effectively laid down in the UK. As Philip Benwell says:
“It took a thousand years to develop a system that [was] compatible with the character of the British. The Westminster system has successfully spread throughout the World and although corrupted, initially by the Americans, and then by so many others, has nevertheless ensured a greater democracy in the 20th century and now the 21st than has ever existed in the entire being of the known world.”
The Westminster system of government has been an essential part of our freedoms in this country, creating checks and balances upon those who hold power, with the separation of government, police, and judiciary. Australia has added to this system with improvements, such as granting the vote to women, ending property ownership as a requirement, and instituting a preferential voting system (arguably said to be far better than the UK’s “first past the post” system).
Naturally, the Westminster system has its flaws, as do all political systems, however it has proved to be one of the best in the world.
Our British-derived legal system gives us more freedoms than many other legal systems. The presumption of innocence, having the legal right to be considered “innocent unless proven guilty”, is an essential part of British law. English common law, institutionalised under Henry II, created a unified system of law “common” to the entire country, ending a system where the application of law differed so widely across the land, eliminating arbitrary remedies, and reinstating a jury system – which remains to this day.
The right to a trial by jury is a major cornerstone of our legal rights, as it provides a check not only upon the excesses of despotic judges, but also upon the power-hungry tendencies of politicians, as juries can refuse to convict citizens of anti-democratic laws even if such laws were actually broken.
In fact, if anything, we need to expand the usage of, and right to, trial by jury – as this right is not included in a great percentage of trials nowadays. But we must be thankful that trial by jury does at least exist within our legal system, as other countries do not have jury trials, or use them less often. Whilst our legal system is far from perfect, it is far better than most others in the world.
Various countries do not even use juries in criminal trials. The trial in Indonesia of Shappelle Corby is a case in point. Whether Shappelle is guilty or innocent is a matter of debate; however, what we do know for certain is that she did not receive what Australians would consider to be a fair trial.
Without the niceties of the Australian legal system, without a trial by jury, Shappelle’s trial was largely a sham. One of the judges was quoted in the media as saying that of all those brought before him accused of drug-trafficking, not one had gone free. Whilst he might have considered that statement a badge of honour, the fact is that it merely showed that their legal system is that of a backward Third World country.
Police and prosecutors make mistakes, which is inevitable, and so under our legal system there is a great deal of scope for the innocent to go free. Heaven forbid that you end up being accused of drug-trafficking in Indonesia!
Here in Australia we take most, if not all, of our political and legal rights for granted. Were we to live in a Third World country run by a highly corrupted political and legal system, we would find that miscarriages of justice and legal outrages committed by puffed-up tin-pot officials that would stagger our minds. Would any of us want to live under such a system?
We should not take our legal rights for granted. As politicians and bureaucrats continue to undermine our rights and freedoms, eroding them bit by bit, the Australian people will gradually discover “You don’t know what you’ve got til it’s gone”.
The English language is another boon given to us by virtue of our nation’s British heritage. The language of William Shakespeare, Robert Burns, and James Joyce, it is also the language of Henry Lawson, Banjo Paterson, and Mary Gilmore.
Steeped as it is in influences from the French, German, Greek, and Latin languages, plus many others, our language can be considered to be a rich resource, one that could be considered somewhat pan-European. The Latin alphabet, which the English language uses, is very simple but very versatile – consider the alphabet’s 26 characters, compared to the written Chinese language which consists of approximately 50,000 characters, and requires knowledge of 3000-4000 characters for full literacy.
Due to the massive historical and current influence of the English-speaking countries, particularly that of the United Kingdom and the United States, English is a widely-learnt language the world over, which gives considerable benefit to English-speakers.
Australia has benefited much from the input of the wider British culture as the foundation stone of our own national culture – a wide basis that includes input from all aspects of British culture, whether English, Scottish, Welsh, Irish, Cornish, or Manx. British literature has enriched our lives, from nursery rhymes for children, to the prose classics for adults. British sports, and their derivatives, have given much enjoyment to Australians. Of course, in many ways, British culture itself has gained much from the other European cultures, and our culture in turn has gained from these British-European foundations, as well as from the input of later British-European immigrants.
However, it is the Australian development of our British and European cultural foundations that is important to us – the local manifestations and adaptations that arise from our unique historical circumstances, our challenging environment, and our people; it is all of these elements, as part of our unique national culture, that have helped to build the Australian national identity.
Whilst we must surely pay homage to the British aspect of our heritage as the original foundation stone of our nation, we must also acknowledge that it is ourselves and our forebears, the Australian people, who are the creators of our own unique national identity and culture.