Friday, July 16, 2010

Reclaiming Australia's radical traditions

"It is wrong to think that freedom, democracy and self-government were handed to the Australian colonies by an enlightened mother country without struggle. These rights had to be fought for by true believers making a stand throughout the empire, many of whom had to fight again as political prisoners in the Australian colonies to keep their causes alive before the world.'
Tony Moore, Death or Liberty: Rebels and Radicals Transported to Australia 1788-1868.

In Australia the radical spirit has a long, (but forgotten) history. Radicalism in this country fuelled struggles against injustice or oppression, and has been a vital force in movements for human dignity, political freedom and social and economic justice. Radical ideas shaped Australia during the 19th and 2oth century and helped make Australia one of the most advanced democracies in the world.

Australians owe a huge debt to radical traditions. Many of our democratic rights and the social and civil rights that Australians take for granted, such as the eight hour working day and five day working week, universal suffrage, universal health care and public education, welfare state, workers rights, decent wages, Aboriginal civil and land rights, were the direct result of radical ideas and radical struggles.

However, not only has Australia's radical tradition been forgotten and trivialized, it has been appropriated to serve conservative and corporate interests.

So it is heartening to see Tony Moore's new book Death or Liberty: Rebels and Radicals Transported to Australia 1788-1868 reclaiming on important aspect of Australia's radical tradition.

Moore's book explores the little known history of radicals and political prisoners transported to the Australian colonies by the British. Between 1788 and 1868 some 3600 political rebels, radicals, dissenters and protesters who were considered enemies of the British empire were sent to Australia as political prisoners. These were unionists, freedom fighters, democrats, reformers, intellectuals, writers, preachers, journalists, dissenters and rebels, many of whom were heroes and martyrs in their own country.

Moore describes the Australian colonies as the "Guantanamo Bay" of the British Empire. These radicals and rebels were banished to the far ends of the earth because they challenged the power of the British authorities.

Moore points out that the attempts by the British to suppress their dissent and radicalism failed. In Australia their radicalism continued and they played a key role in struggles for freedom, justice and democracy in the early years of the colonies. Many were prominent in colonial life and politics, including fermenting rebellions and uprisings against corruption, the establishment of trade unionism and the beginnings of political democracy in Australia.

As Moore documents the memory of these exiled radicals has dimmed, as has awareness of their contribution to creating the nation.

An interview with Tony Moore on his book (from ABC Radio National's Late Night Live) can be heard here.

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