A background to Australian authoritarianism

Victoria Police arrest and put a face mask on a protester outside of the Shrine of Remembrance in Melbourne.
Image source: AAP

When I was a kid, the suburbs on a Sunday were peaceful and still. The only noise would be children playing, hoses spraying, an occasional radio or lawnmower in the distance, warbling magpies and the wind through the leaves.

The one sound noticeably missing was the usual, steady drone of traffic common in every major city.

This was a perfect time to play cricket or kick-to-kick on the street. Kids would only have to pause every half hour or so to let a car pass, if that. Every back street became a playground.

This idyllic day of rest had a singular cause: Sunday was trading was illegal.

That’s right. Few businesses were permitted to open their doors on a Sunday. It’s hard to believe these days but that’s how it was.

My state was never a very religious one, but always socially conservative. If a ban on Sunday trading had always been the rule, people thought, then why go changing it?

You’d have to remember to get everything needful like milk and bread on the big Saturday shop. If you forgot, you could pick them up from a milk bar (corner store) and pay an arm and a leg, or try next door. I think we knew our neighbours better back then for this reason.

A large Fanta sign was written above the door of an old milk bar shop, which was complete with a rusty roof and chipped paint
Source

Petrol stations were also allowed to remain open.

Most people appreciated the peaceful nature of the day. There being not much to do, families would hang around home, do gardening, go swimming (pools were allowed to operate) or visit grandparents.

Tourists from overseas were terrified, thinking the empty streets a sign they’d landed in the middle of a zombie apocalypse. Actually, it was pretty quiet on other days, too. Visitors to Australia were often heard to ask, ‘Where is everybody?’

Retailers other than milk bars campaigned for Sunday trading, especially this guy:

Penhalluriack claimed that retailing was a public service and should not be subject to restrictions. He opened his hardware store seven days a week, openly flouting the laws. He was repeatedly arrested and charged but refused to pay fines and even spent time in Pentridge Prison. He enjoyed support from the public and from the media and his continued battle with the law embarrassed the Victorian government.  His campaign played a significant role in changing the law to permit Sunday trading.

The retailers won over public opinion, in fits and starts. Sundays are now just as busy as every other day, street cricket is interrupted by cars every few minutes (if they still play at all) and working students vie to score those coveted Sunday retail shifts and their higher rates.

Before my time, there was another uniquely Australian phenomenon known as the ‘Six o’clock swill‘. Right after work, men would rush to the pubs and drink themselves silly by 6pm.

One onlooker, then “a small barefoot boy passing on his bike,” remembers looking through the windows of pubs in Rotorua, New Zealand, at about 5:45 p.m. “It was like a glimpse into Hades,” he says. “A great chaotic crush within, a huge babble of sound through open windows, a heaving roiling of male bodies. A glimpse of lawless chaos.”

Why?

Because that’s when the pubs had to close.

Prohibition never quite took hold in Australia as it did in the US, but there were strict limits on where and when alcohol could be served. Still are, actually, compared to other countries. You can’t buy grog from a 7-11.

As you can imagine the 6 o’clock rule encouraged men to drink too much, too fast and was eventually done away with in the 1960s. Until then, foreigners out for a night on the town were once again confused to find everything closed and the streets deserted by 6:30pm, every night.

Censorship of book and magazine publishing was once about the strictest in the Western world.. I’m not talking about boobie pics. The following novels were banned for years in Australia: Brave New World, Portnoy’s Complaint, The Catcher in the Rye, Lady Chatterly’s Lover, The Decameron and, wait for it, Farenheit 451!

A few books are still banned or restricted but, following a spirited campaign by Silent Generation stalwarts I confess to poking fun at elsewhere, the rules softened by the 1960s.

Gun laws were tightened in 1996 but were always much stricter than in the US. There is nothing like a right to bear arms in the Constitution or anywhere else in law. You can still get a firearm today but must demonstrate a need (farmer, security guard etc.), register it and get a license.

In contrast to civil liberties, Australia has frequently raced ahead with democracy. Landless men had the vote from way back, women got the vote in 1907 (even earlier in some colonies) and Aborigines were already voting well before the year people think they got the vote, 1967.

Note again the tension between freedom and democracy: many of these tight restrictions existed because people wanted them and the rules were not reformed until the public changed its mind.

It was a classic tyranny of the majority.

Tight boundaries on behaviour went beyond legislation. Australian society was very conservative, frowning upon anyone a bit too eccentric or free-thinking. Perhaps it still is. As they say in Japan, ‘hammer down the loose nail.’

Australians have an image of themselves as uber-free spirits roaming the freest land on Earth. It can certainly feel that way when you’re driving across the vast expanses of space between cities, walking on a endless, deserted beach or camping in the remote bush.

It is an illusion. No doubt Russians in the Siberian wilderness suffered the same illusion back the the USSR.

Even before the coof, as soon as you cross a border, enter a town or try to build a granny flat, reality hits. Signs warn of strict road rules and steep fines. Police check for stained license plates, worn tires, and God help you if the rego’s a few days overdue. Local government permits are a nightmare.

International news reports suggest that the recent lurch towards authoritarianism is shocking and unprecedented. It is neither. There were plenty of troopers who came along with those convicts and our culture has always been one of plentiful room to move vs. strict social and legal controls.

Curiously, most Australian would deny this. The laidback bushman image refuses to die. Most also disagree that the present situation can be described as tyranny, instead considering it a temporary blip that is being unnecessarily prolonged by fascist anti-vaxxers. See comments following this story sorted by ‘most respected’.

The phenomenon is not unique. There are few nationalities capable of viewing themselves honestly.

This particular blind spot is ours. What’s yours?

24 comments

  1. Philip Gattey · October 27

    In person , Australians are 10 pounds of personality in a 2 pound sack. Ebullient , warm. Not overly polite. Collectively, East Germans without tanks. Abrasive Borg creatures. Hive Mind Hordes , the only thing worse than being their ally , is to be an enemy.
    MacArthur and his gang found that out.
    Queue jumping power grabbers with zero social grace.
    Wonderful wonderful to a point but golly the point is reached quickly.
    Does not play well w others. Punch ups in a crisis when calm and reason is preferred. The Chinese , not used to this, had their noodle gobs smacked.
    Ha ha I pity the foreign sailors on their new atom boats

    Liked by 5 people

    • Eternal Anglo Seax · October 31

      Always wanted to see Australia. I’ve met a handful – you don’t come by Aussies in New England often, though, and I don’t know what this says about me – I’ve been mistaken for one. Always respected their character. Thought it would be refreshing to be able to be candid, speak your mind, without wondering if some woman with a boyish haircut was going to ruin your day/week/job for it.

      Like

  2. Philip H Gattey · October 27

    We are ALL poms, gooks, slants , wops , GD Yanks , to them. 😀. Amusing , at a distance.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Tim914 · October 27

    As long as I can remember, Americans have said the US is the greatest country in the world even though most have never been out of the Lower 48. They have no perspective. Maybe this was true in the past; it was a great place to grow up. Very free. In High School, a couple of us liked to shoot Skeet after school, so we took our shotguns and ammo to school in the trunk of our cars. It was no secret to the teachers. Today, this behavior would warrant a SWAT team and prison. I’ve spent substantial time in Asia and most of the cities in China are far superior to anything in the States. Shanghai and Chongqing are amazing. You can take the bus or a train and not worry about crime. The bus in Chongqing cost 16 cents. Women are thin and approachable and have traditional values. In America, a cautious fellow might ought give his date the Crocodile Dundee test to see what she’s packing. Americans are starting to realize that the shine has worn off. Having the largest GDP doesn’t mean it’s the best place to live.

    Liked by 5 people

    • Bardelys the Magnificent · October 27

      Like an athlete past his prime, the US doesn’t want to admit it’s washed up. The older I get, the better I was. Remember, to the Boomer it’s always 1968.

      Liked by 1 person

  4. Deacon Blues · October 27

    Same thing in Canada. The roots of this kind of control run deep. You’ve asked about a blind spot. In Canada, ours is history. It seems like there is no history prior to the enactment of the Charter of Rights and Freedoms (in 1982). Even people who lived in the 1970s seem to forget the draconian measures taken to handle high inflation, the FLQ Crisis, oil supply issues, etcetera. Even the law students, who study the law from the era extensively, seem to throw it out the window when considering current events.
    Part of it is the Charter, which was sold as a prime document to prevent government from ever doing those things again. “We’ve got a Charter now, so no need to worry!” As it turns out, it was actually drafted to make doing those things easier, and so we get the new round of draconian measures for coof (for our own good, of course), with less ability to challenge those measures than we had before.
    Not sure if it works this way in Australia, but in Canada the courts do not look at the effectiveness of the measures when deciding if they are constitutional. They only look at whether they are for a valid purpose and lawfully allowed. Contemplation of effectiveness is not allowed, and so Ottawa could say everyone has to drink Everclear to prevent coof, and the courts would not consider whether that is actually an effective treatment, only whether the purpose behind ordering shots of Everclear is lawful and justified in a free and democratic society.

    Liked by 3 people

  5. swordisfalling · October 27

    One thing that I think a lot of otherwise reasonable folk here in the U.S. still cling to is the idea of separation of powers—and to the extent that they recognize it doesn’t exist, they solely attribute it to SCOTUS rewriting laws, and maybe on rare occasions to overreaching executive orders.
    In reality, Congress has been delegating the vast majority of the writing of laws to the myriad bureaucracies for decades. These bureaucracies are typically the ones charged with enforcing the laws, and thanks to Chevron deference, pretty much get to adjudicate them as well. That’s all three branches of government rolled into a nice, big, democratically unaccountable bundle.

    Liked by 1 person

  6. Stefan · October 27

    I think Australians are both harder inside and nicer than most people think, in the sense they will prevent tyranny or government going too far.
    I’m a Bulgarian living in Melbourne and I observed last year protests both in my home country (against corrupt government) and in Australia (against covid restrictions). Protests ARE visibly different. In Australia, they easily turn violent, and people go there prepared to fight with police. In Bulgaria – violence rarely happens, if at all, and I’ve seen many protests. It may sound contradictory or new to anyone who thinks Eastern Europe is more violent because it’s poorer, but it is not – look at any crime/murder statistics, it is way behind the West in almost every cathegory, except theft (mainly due to our finest export, the gypsies).
    The reson is perhaps English are hardy folk that lived in miserable conditions on an island for quite a long time. I’m speaking for the period up to the 18-th century. They learned to coexist with limited resources, which includes don’t touch anyone’s property and obey hierarchy.
    I think many (not all) Australians love strict rules – it makes them think they are doing something right, because it requires effort – they seem “wired” this way, from my point of view. If applied in other countries, those rules will hardly work.
    I’m an optimist, there’s too much decent, smart and quietly violent people in Australia for a tyranny. Of course, politicians will always try to enslave the rest, that’s just major part of their job – cognitive/pshychological experiments prove that’s how the brain works for people in power positions in the long run.

    Liked by 4 people

  7. lemmiwinks · October 27

    I think the illusion persists (or we allow it to persist) because in “the regions” you can, especially if you try hard, for the most part avoid government and law enforcement. If you’re out of their sphere of influence long enough, you can actually forget most of the bullshit rules and eye watering punishments dangling sword of Damocles like above you. I daresay the same applies to other parts of the world, British Columbia in Canada etc.
    Personally I make it a central pillar of my life to have the absolute minimum contact with government, bureaucrats and especially law enforcement. If you comply with the majority of the rules and avoid contact wherever possible you *may* be able to ignore the more egregious rules (at your peril should you be found out of course).
    I think TPTB are all too aware of this and moves are afoot to get that boot stomping on our faces regardless of where we live. The Australian social credit score (with biometrics!) is upon us: https://awakeaustralia.org/digital-identity/ Or if you prefer the “sell the sizzle” version: https://www.digitalidentity.gov.au/

    Liked by 1 person

  8. luisman · October 27

    Reblogged this on Nicht-Linke Blogs.

    Liked by 1 person

  9. luisman · October 27

    As long as I lived in Germany, Sunday was called “Ruhetag” (quiet day), with strict limits on noise levels throughout the day. Everything touristy was allowed open, regular shops and factories closed. There are also some christian holidays, when dance clubs have to close. I don’t know if this has been softened in the last 20 years.

    After the shock of WW2, anyone with tyrannical tendencies was reminded of the little man with the scary beard, and that no one wants the 3rd Reich back. But the so called Reunification changed a lot. Plenty of eastern German Stasi agents came into political and bureaucratic office, and many Germans rediscovered their lust to have control over others. For the last 20 years, they went pedal to the metal, finding new reasons to bully citizens around.

    What Andrews tries to do now, i.e. becoming the official dictator, was the case with Merkel in Germany and partially Europe for the last 16 years. She always had the last word.

    Without the moral background of Christianity, people seek new authority instead of becoming anarchists. The coof rules provide moral guidance, even if they make as little sense as many religious rules. This will probably be extended with ‘climate rules’ until our civilizations break down.

    Liked by 4 people

    • Nikolai Vladivostok · October 27

      The difference is that Germans are aware of their tyrannical streak, and so is everybody else. When Merkel did her stuff, we all shrugged and said, “There go those Germans again.”
      In Australia, we have the same tendencies but they are hidden by a pleasant, uneventful history. If we’d had Germany’s 20th century, our outcome might have been the same as yours.
      I’d prefer the old religious restrictions to coof ones. At least that was only one day per week and didn’t involved forced medication or digital ID.

      Liked by 5 people

      • luisman · October 27

        It’s funny that the largest opposition to the current German regime is in eastern Germany, where the memory of the soviet style of pretend democracy is still alive in everyone over 40. The few west Germans who are still alive having lived through the 3rd Reich are about as conscious as “Let’s go Brandon”.

        Liked by 4 people

  10. Severian · October 27

    Americans still think of themselves as iconoclasts, when in fact they are the most eager conformists on the planet. (With a uniquely colonial twist, of course: So long as you let an American maintain his cherished illusion of being “free thinking,” you can get him to jump off a bridge. I call my fellow countrymen “the herd of independent minds” for this reason).
    Covid was quite the eye opener. And perhaps we really were iconoclasts once. I’m trying to think of what my friends and I would’ve done 30 years ago, when we were in college, and The Administration tried to put in a mask rule. We’d use them as bandannas, scarves, thongs… anything but as face shields. We’d devise innovative ways to shotgun beers through them. We would’ve used them as filters for bongs. And had The Administration persisted in their folly, forcing us on threat of expulsion to wear it covering the mouth and nose, we’d have decorated them with every obscenity we could think of, directed at The Administration by name….
    …at least, that’s what we would’ve done in my fantasy. And I really do want to believe we were tougher back then — not because we were rebels, necessarily, but because we were 19 and that’s what kids away from home for the first time DO.
    Alas, I’m sure I’m wrong. I’m sure we all would’ve done what I see college kids doing now, which is embracing every fascist regulation that comes along, and ratting each other out the Junior Volunteer Thought Police for anti-Soviet agitation. Much as I’m told that disparaging the boot is, itself, a bootable offense in Australia, so mocking the mask in America is a crime against the state… and I’m sure it would’ve been back in the days, too, alas.

    Liked by 3 people

  11. Klaus · October 27

    Top post. You describe perfectly the Australia I knew in the 60’s and 70’s…that picture brings back memories.
    You let our countrymen off easy though. It’s hard to describe but I just remember things as being “slack”. No curiousity, no vitality. Friendly people who just wanted to watch sport and drink beer.

    Liked by 3 people

  12. dickycone · October 27

    Blindspot for the US? I’d say the idea that we’re still a country rather than an international bazaar, as Heartiste once put it. When I go out shopping on the weekend various types of hijab, burkas and flowing colorful robes are plentiful, and most of the people not wearing them seem to be speaking Spanish. I’ll see a well-dressed, thin, white couple consisting of a pretty wife and manly-looking husband and, sure enough, they’re speaking Russian. I often notice that almost no one around me is speaking English. I don’t know if heritage Americans still think the US is the greatest place in the world, because almost everyone I know well aside from my boomer parents is an immigrant or child of immigrants from EE or Latin America. They do seem very happy to be here, or at least if they complain, they don’t go back.

    To me this, as well as the fact that we get millions more who come to stay every year, puts the lie to the common dissident right belief that the US is a third world country or terrible place to live. So, I guess you could say that’s the blindspot for people on “our side.” I’m sure it was much nicer here in the 1950s when we were still an Anglo-Saxon country, but it’s still far preferable to Central America or rural Russia and Ukraine.

    Liked by 4 people

  13. Kilgore Trout · October 28

    I can remember as a child reading a story about a fellow who found ship wreck treasure in West Oz only to have a bus load of police come around and forcibly confiscate it. He fought them but was overwhelmed. The state gov had claimed all treasure and that was that. It was my first inkling that Australia was a nation of Govt dictates. Like with the new Digital Identity the Liberal (conservative) govt is trying to push through:on my submission i wrote,” I did not vote for this” So much gets pushed through and there you are with a boot now proudly on your face forever.

    OT am having trouble opening Rotten Chestnuts of late has the site changed?

    Liked by 3 people

  14. Kilgore Trout · October 29

    Thanks guys.

    Like

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  16. Eternal Anglo Seax · October 31

    The quiet part of my first comment I should have said out loud is that I feel awful for what’s going on over there. But I also know, as it goes in Germany and some other bastions of (neo)liberal democracy that the shadow of the kangaroo court is not far behind.

    Liked by 1 person

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