In the Land Down Under, Sydney:
Promise Fulfilled?

Edward J. Dodson

[A paper written in partial compliance for the course "Great Cities
of the World" at Temple University, 1989]


Note: footnotes and references have been removed from this posted version of the paper


The degree to which a society establishes and protects the condition of equality of opportunity for its members is primarily a function of the socio-political arrangements under which nature (as the source of all we produce) and actual production come to be treated as either public or private property. Traditional arrangements or those imposed by the victorious over the vanquished have, with rare exception, sanctioned hierarchically determined distributions of wealth and power in society. The Australian experience is one characterized by the transfer of a highly structured European system of socio-political arrangements to a resource-rich, largely virgin frontier, secured at minimal cost from its indigenous population. This paper identifies and examines those arrangements and their impact on equality of opportunity for Australians in general and, more particularly, on those who have resided in the southeastern section of Australia surrounding the modern metropolitan area of Sydney.


When the first Europeans set foot on the Australian continent in 1788, the indigenous population whom we now call Aborigines numbered some 300,000 and lived as hunter-gatherers in small, isolated groups. Arthur Phillip, leader of the first expedition and Australia's first governor, estimated the Aboriginal population living in the immediate vicinity at around 1,500. Their system of socio-political arrangements was, to say the least, strikingly different from that of the new arrivals. As described by historian Robert Hughes, they "lived in a state approaching that of primitive communism":

No property, no money or any other visible medium of exchange; no surplus or means of storing it, hence not even the barest rudiment of the idea of capital; no outside trade, no farming, no domestic animals, except half-wild camp dingoes; no houses, clothes, pottery or metal; no division between leisure and labor, only a ceaseless grubbing and chasing for subsistence foods. ...They did not even appear to have the social divisions that had been observed in other tribal societies such as those in America or Tahiti. Where were the aboriginal kings, their nobles their priests, their slaves? They did not exist.

More than anything else, the Aborigines had remained connected to the land they traversed in their practice of a wholly nomadic existence. The newly-arriving Europeans, long practiced in the arts of agriculture and manufacture, were territorial in a very different sense. The European aristocracy had successfully acquired control over most of Europe's land mass over the previous four or five centuries; private property in land had replaced feudal obligations and systems of positive law supplanted the common law. Under such socio-political arrangements the same process of enclosure that had displaced millions of peasants in Europe could have had no outcome other than the destruction of the Aborigine. The character of those who came first from the British Isles merely shortened the time required for the process of conquest and subordination to be completed.

After losing thirteen of their North American colonies, the British were hard pressed to find a place to send a growing population of criminals and political dissidents. Australia, at the very edge of the known world and beyond the reach of competing Old World empires, seemed an ideal place. James Cook had set the stage in 1770 with a brief landing on the Australian coast on the return portion of his voyage to New Zealand.

By the mid-1780s Britain was running out of prison space and the Parliament was not inclined to appropriate additional sums to lessen overcrowding. In this atmosphere of fiscal concern, a plan to establish a penal colony at Botany Bay on the southeastern coast of Australia was approved. Under Captain Arthur Phillip, eleven ships carrying 1,500 passengers and crew (including 736 convicts) left Britain in 1787 for the colony of New South Wales on the Australian continent.

The make-up of even the first true settlers was in many ways quite different from those who a century and a half earlier had made their way to North America. The latter had largely been experienced farmers and merchants, while the first group of colonists in Australia were urban dwellers who possessed none of the skills required to tame a virgin land. Several decades went by, in fact, before sheep farming was successfully introduced and gave the colonists a "non-perishable" export crop of wool for which they could acquire desperately needed manufactured goods.

Almost from the beginning, a few enterprising individuals were able to manipulate and coerce the Royal Governors into giving them large land grants and a monopoly over the colony's first real currency -- rum. Although the Aborigines proved less numerous and less fierce than the indigenous tribes of North America, barely a handful of free settlers had moved inward from the coast to make their livelihoods as yeoman farmers. Drought and insects plagued these settlers and prevented agriculture from expanding. Not until 1813 was a pass was finally found through the coastal mountain range that runs north and south beyond Sydney close to Australia's eastern shore. From then on cattle and sheep spread throughout the virgin grasslands.

As seemed to be the perpetual circumstance, British attentions were largely diverted from its distant colony by social unrest at home and warring with France and Spain. Because of the nature of Australia's convict settlers (130,000 arrived over the first thirty years), the mother country's political institutions could not be replicated for some time. Government during this period meant military control. Planning for the future was on the minds of some early arrivals, the most important of whom was Edward Gibbon Wakefield who, in 1836, founded the colony of South Australia, A radical-Whig reformer, Wakefield sought to create in Australia a much more egalitarian society than had thus far evolved in Britain. His plan included the sale of land to yeoman farmers and the use of the proceeds to develop the societal infrastructure necessary to attract business. Within a few short decades after Wakefield's plan was put into action, German immigrants had planted extensive vineyards in the colony; others had introduced extensive wheat farming. South Australia thus became the continent's early bread basket. Adelaide, planned in 1836 under a grid system and surrounded by parkland, became the administrative center for South Australia. Australian economist O.H.K. Spate noted, interestingly, that Adelaide, "unlike Sydney and Melbourne, was founded by gentlemen for gentlemen."

A degree of self-government came to New South Wales and to Sydney in the 1820s. At the time there were only about 23,000 settlers and convicts in all of Australia. The free colonists, the first generation of Australian-born beginning to contribute their own energy to the process of taming this new continent, gained a voice through the establishment of executive and legislative councils. Equally important, the military governor turned part of his power over to a separate judiciary. As immigration continued, bringing businessmen and educated professionals from Britain, political power began a gradual shift to Sydney and the other fledgling colonial capitals -- where government officials and large landowners ran the colonies.

Gradual, orderly development and expansion were short-lived under the guidance of the wealthy landed class. The reason was gold, the discovery of which in New South Wales and its southern neighbor, Victoria, brought to Australia some 800,000 new immigrants between 1850 and 1860. As the gold fields quickly emptied, both the few successful and the many unsuccessful miners turned to the frontier for land or the few cities for wage-labor. Thus began an intense era of land speculation in the two colonies that drove wheat farmers onto extremely marginal land and shortly thereafter into bankruptcy. By the 1870s, some 18 million acres of land in New South Wales had come under the control of around 550 individuals. To put this into some perspective, only 30 million acres (or 1.6 percent of the Australian continent) is adequately fertile and receives sufficient rainfall to support agriculture. With most of the arable land so tightly controlled, the coastal cities quickly grew into the few metropolitan centers -- Melbourne, Adelaide, Brisbane and Sydney. By contract, even as late as the 1870s in the United States the majority of the population was engaged in agriculture on land they owned. In Australia, the majority of the population was urban and employed by others.


The great increase in immigration to Australia occurred during a period of dramatic social and political change. By the time the immigrants arrived in the second half of the nineteenth century, the land of Australia and control over its socio-political institutions were firmly entrenched in other hands. Britain had rid itself not only of criminals but of many political radicals who brought with them to Australia very strong trade-unionist sentiments and a militancy traced to their origins as propertyless factory laborers. Conflict between these newer arrivals and the entrenched groups was inevitable. Tracing the origins of Australia's radical political culture, Professor Richard Rosecrance of the University of California wrote in 1964:

Australian settlements ... had been formed out of the crucible of British social ferment. Australian colonization followed the Industrial Revolution in Britain and reflected many of the social innovations which it had made. The development of large-scale enterprise, the deplorable conditions of work in the factories and mines, and the high tariff on the import of grain had created a class which, if it did not fundamentally repudiate the liberal philosophy, at least desired a radical transformation of the theory of liberalism in the direction of greater social and political justice.

Unlike the heartland of the United States or Canada, the Australian frontier was not to serve as a safety valve for an increasing population. The newly born and newly arrived were forced to stand and fight for their rights in the urban centers. For its part, the mother country conceded an ever-greater degree of self-government to its colony and, quite differently from its actions in North America, allowed policies of salutary neglect to evolve into virtual independence.

The urban wage-laborers united in the last quarter of the nineteenth century to bring substantive changes to Australian socio-political arrangements. By 1875 the crafts unionists had won an eight hour day; more radical unionists were organizing miners and workers in the wool industry. The next phase was in the political arena, where the Sydney Trades Council produced from its own ranks candidates for the parliament of New South Wales. Also a powerful force in Australian politics by the late 1880s were the so-called single-taxers, who had become absorbed by the free trade agenda put forth by the U.S. newspaper editor, political economist and reformer Henry George. George's great work, Progress And Poverty (1879), had caused quite a stir in both Britain and Australia; and, while on a lecture tour of the British Isles in 1889, Henry George had been invited to Australia by Charles L. Garland, a member of the Parliament of New South Wales and President of the Sydney Single Tax Association. George arrived in Sydney in March 1890 and embarked on a tireless campaign to carry his message across the continent. After Sydney and Adelaide he arrived in Melbourne and spoke to a crowded City Hall audience:

I am a free trader -- a free trader absolutely. I should abolish all revenue tariffs. I should make trade absolutely free between Victoria and all other countries. I should go further than that. I should abolish all taxes that fall upon labour and capital -- all taxes that fall upon the products of human industry, or any of the modes of human industry. How then should I raise needed revenues? I should raise them by a tax upon land values, irrespective of improvements, a tax that would fall upon the holder of a vacant plot of land near the city as heavily as upon like land upon which a hundred cottages stood.

Australia had already achieved recognition as the first social democracy to adopt the secret ballot, and now the reformers had received from Henry George a treatise and alternative to classic liberalism that called for an end to either private or state monopolies and toward achievement of liberty as the road to justice. The single-taxers, most of whom were from the middle classes, viewed with great suspicion and danger the rising tide of Fabian socialism that had come to Australia from England. Through the efforts of the single-taxers, a tax on land values had already been imposed by the government of South Australia in 1885 and was adopted by New South Wales a decade later. Then, in 1906, Sir Joseph Carruthers, the Premier of New South Wales, orchestrated passage of an act that required "municipal and shire councils" to tax the "unimproved capital value of all land except commons, public reserves and parks, cemeteries, public hospitals, benevolent institutions, churches, .., free public libraries, the University of Sydney, and colleges connected with it, and unoccupied crown lands". In 1909, Sydney itself was given direct power to collect land taxes; then in 1917 Sydney, which had become a city of 700,000 people, eliminated all taxes except those on land values. This measure had the effect of socializing (at least some of) the economic value of land, while allowing those who produce to retain or dispose of whatever they produced in accordance with their individual desires. A real world victory was achieved against land monopoly through the front door and on behalf of just distribution of wealth. First, tentative steps toward ending the redistribution of production from producers to titleholders had been taken; nevertheless, Australia was to gradually become a society where production became increasingly hampered by heavy taxation and a heavy hand of government at the State and Federal levels.


By the turn of the century, New South Wales had become an island of free trade surrounded by a sea of protectionist tariffs. This was a major stumbling block as representatives from the colonies attempted to forge a national government and constitution. As always, the large landowners wanted as little direct democracy as possible and resisted progressive changes in the national government that would diminish their privilege in the colonial parliaments. When finally adopted in 1900, the constitution of the Commonwealth of Australia included the provision that "trade, commerce and intercourse among the States shall be absolutely free". Despite this constitutional protection, a uniform system of tariffs was instituted.

As the twentieth century unfolded, the movement away from traditional liberalism resulted in the adoption of a very nationalist and seemingly pro-working man program. New laws placed stringent limitations on immigration, balanced protectionism with binding arbitration between industry and labor, and gave to the national government an important role in the planning of industrial development. Under the leadership of Andrew Fisher, the first solidly Labour government took office in 1910:

... Labour set up the Commonwealth Bank, took over the note issue, and introduced a land tax designed to assist in the break-up of large holdings for closer settlement. But the major items of its programme -- the general extension of Commonwealth as against State economic powers, and the nationalisation of monopolies -- were twice defeated in constitutional referenda; an attack at once on States' Rights and free enterprise was too much for a generally benevolent electorate.

The tenuous balance between conservative, liberal and radical factions continued until the 1930s depression put one-third of Australians out of work. Conservatives obtained reductions in existing government subsidies and a balanced budget, and the economists pushed the government to devalue the currency in an effort to make Australian exports less expensive to its trading partners. As was the case in the United States, the Second World War ended the lingering effects of the depression, and Australia's cities became ever more important centers of manufacturing activity. Also with the war, the Labour government sought broad powers of nationalization in banking, broadcasting and transportation, as well as the creation of a national social welfare system. From the perspective of many conservatives and liberals, Labour wanted to take the nation far along the path toward socialism. Australians reacted negatively to this possibility, and in 1949 returned a Liberal government to power.

Australian political parties have long been associated with very distinct public policy agendas, driven by a firm philosophical orientation. Thus, the electoral process not only changes administrations but the direction taken by government as well. Looking back on two decades of Labour in power throughout the 1960s and 1970s, one critic observed in a 1979 essay:

Instead of simply Justice, we now have a huge entangling legal structure which gives a semblance of Justice for the rich and the unscrupulous and provides for those unable to afford it for themselves legal aid, an extension of welfare, forced on the legal profession by a species of blackmail.

Instead of the Public Good we have a system which permits and encourages the creation of giant monopolies by the protection given them by a corrupt Parliament with the power to threaten nationalisation. Instead of individual freedom we have a people largely subdued and subjugated to the whim of officials, with the right of appeal to pseudo-guardians (ombudsmen) set up at public expense, to rescue the lucky ones from the effects of mishandling by bureaucrats. As for the enjoyment of the fruits of their labour, this is reduced by taxation, inflation and other devices to a portion sufficient, in the case of the greater proportion of the population, to maintain them at or a little above the breadline, by the imposts of direct taxation of their incomes, by indirect taxation on their food, clothing and other necessities and by real estate taxes on their inevitably mortgaged homes.

These are the sentiments not of the radical left or the conservative right but of the mainstream middle-class who have both benefited from and been subjected to a gradual transformation of Australian society. And yet, by most measurements of well-being, the Australian standard ranks among the highest in the world.