In A Commonwealth of Thieves, Australian novelist, playwright and author Thomas Keneally describes the unusual nature of Australia’s origins. He writes that: “transporting shiploads of prisoners to the preposterously distant coast would be the modern equivalent of sending a shoplifter to some biosphere on another planet.” Keneally’s description accurately summarizes Australia’s foundation as a penal colony, but this unusual birth helped spur Australia’s highly successful development. Australia’s success as a settler society can be explained by highlighting the country’s specific founding history and the unique nature of the settler group. American political scientist Louis Hartz’s Fragment Theory would ascribe the commonwealth’s success to the particular timing and historical context of the mother country at the time of Australia’s foundation. The settlement of Australia coincided with Britain’s defeat in the American Revolutionary War and the loss of Georgia as a penal colony. Beginning in 1788, Britain began sending shiploads of thieves, prostitutes and other criminals down south, creating a settler society that reflected the fundamental shift in Britain’s social structure and culture at the time. The British working class had grown more politically active, as labor activists demanded greater inclusion, rights and respect within the society. Australia’s development displays this working-class ethos as the society amalgamated under the banner of a worker’s utopia. Australia’s immigration policy fostered this workers’ ethos. Newcomers would be assigned to construction and infrastructure work in order to provide them with a sense of ownership and belonging to the Australian nation.
The unique nature of the settler group also contributed to Australia’s long-term success. As a society of criminals, prostitutes and vagabonds, the Australian settlers bonded over their mutual label as exiled rejects of society. Furthermore, the criminals sent to Australia were usually those deemed most threatening to British society, these were some the cleverest criminals in Britain. This sense of pride helped instill a sense of unity and pride integral to early development. As the colony developed, these settlers ability to begin and maintain a successful society when all odds were against them fostered a strong nationalism that combined loyalty, comradery, and equality in a concept that is still very pertinent to Australians today: mateship.
The Australian people were also fortunate to have a great deal of self-autonomy. Unlike India and South Africa, Australia was founded as a society that was to be regulated only from a distance, which gave the settlers the opportunity to build a government that suited their own preferences and needs. This phenomenon is carefully captured by the Australian view of the government: the people must always come before the state, and the state must work only for the interest of its people. Australia was fortunate to develop local government while maintaining affiliation with the British Empire. The British offered Australia access to a global trade network, a technologically advanced and powerful protector, and a place among a group of similar, Anglophonic countries. Altogether, Australia’s unique historical founding context, the nature of its settlers, and its unique political situation allowed the society to beat the odds and produce a commonwealth success story.
Yekaterina Gourinovitch is a business intern for the Georgetown Journal of International Affairs and a junior in the Georgetown University Edmund A. Walsh School of Foreign Service.