It took quite a struggle for Australia’s rulers to forge a national identity. The nation state, an institutional superstructure aimed at providing an administrative framework for capitalism, had to be built. During the 1890s, as referenda about the idea of federation went on, most people couldn’t care less about that. It took determined campaigning to get it through a referendum, and once this was achieved, much of the populace still didn’t give a stuff.

In early colonial Australia, public figures like John Dunmore Lang and W.C. Wentworth had argued for federation. But creating a national identity met material and social obstacles. Firstly, the colonists had a fragmented and decentralised economyPrimary producers shipped their goods to Britain through a series of unrelated port cities, with little continental interaction to make them feel a common identity.

Secondly, there was a changing European population. By 1850, New South Wales had enough history and sufficient locally born white people for a NSW local identity to begin to emerge. But then the gold rushes brought a surge in immigration, so that by 1861 less than half of white Australian residents were locally born.

A third factor was the balance of hate. To create patriotic identity, you need to define the nation against “foreigners”. The definition is sharpest if they become objects of hate and fear (wars do this really well). Who did the colonists hate and fear? Social hostility in colonial Australia found many targets based especially on race, but the focus kept changing. So the material and ideological basis for federation was still weak. 

Ultimately it is this fraternity that makes it possible, over the past two centuries, for so many millions of people, not so much to kill, as willingly to die for such limited imaginings. Benedict Anderson

That changed during the long boom after the gold rushes. Rapid economic development laid the basis for national integration. Industry was becoming more integrated across the continent, and accordingly the ideas of Australia’s rulers began to change. “The employers of labour have arrived at the conclusion”, remarked a prominent businessman in 1882, “that federation, or some system of inter-colonial free trade, is necessary for the proper carrying on of the industries of the colony”.

The patriotic sentiment reflected the needs of a business class that had begun to think in continental terms. Later it would be used to legitimise bloody wars that also met the needs of capital.

Federalist writers kept hoping to “rouse the public interest”, and middle class groups such as the Australian Natives Association worked to achieve this, but indifferent turnouts in various referenda showed that workers weren’t much interested. Federation’s lack of appeal for working people was exposed every time advocates fell back on stressing how few powers it would give to the Commonwealth, and how it would cost the taxpayer “less than a dog licence”.

So who wanted federation? Campaigners generally came from among professional men, but ultimately they didn’t set the tone.

As the historian L.F. Crisp wrote, it was “for the most part the big men of the established political order, the men of property or their trusted allies, who moulded the federal Constitution Bill – pastoralists, merchants, and lawyers-turned-politicians”. In the eyes of the public, wrote another historian, the whole affair was “widely regarded as a business merger, arranged mainly by businessmen, largely in the interests of businessmen”.

The national “settlement” that did emerge was fragile, because for union militants an obvious question arose. What did workers have in common with the bosses who treated them so savagely? And if there was no common ground, what was the point of federating the colonies? Federation advocates faced a related dilemma: they might be able to force the changes through, but that risked storing up bitterness. How to unite the nation?

Now the hate factor came fully into play. There were still a variety of supposed threats, but Chinese exclusion and White Australia became the key ideological cement for federation. While one politician, Henry Parkes, declared fatuously that “the crimson thread of kinship runs through us all”, another, Liberal leader Alfred Deakin, linked federation more accurately to the desire that Australians “should be one people, without the admixture of other races”.

To illustrate how racism could cohere a capitalist state, historian W.G. McMinn writes that the Immigration Restriction and Pacific Islanders acts, passed after federation, brought in their wake “a whole series of administrative problems [whose solution] marked a much more rapid assertion of Commonwealth authority than most people had expected, and the exercise of that authority cut sharply across conflicting state interests. Within a very short time, a significant number of people in all the colonies began to wonder whether they had not been victims of a confidence trick”.

The government got away with it, McMinn explains, because prime minister Edmund Barton’s measures all touched the one nerve that could rouse and unite most of the population: White Australia.

Over time, however, White Australia became incompatible with building a larger capitalist economy. The post-WWII immigration policy was argued for by the Chifley Labor government in terms of the need for a much larger workforce. Southern and eastern European migration began to expand.

Multiculturalism, which began to take shape in the 1960s and was introduced by the late 1970s, was primarily an attempt to rebadge Australian nationalism as more “inclusive” and thus avoid social fracture in a period when Australia’s by now very multicultural workforce was uniting and striking over everything from wages to dignity at work. A layer of middle class migrants were coopted to play a role in disciplining militant workers within their own communities and to divert their anger and discontent into safe channels. 

Recent years have brought a more aggressive Australian nationalism. Australia Day became celebrated as a national holiday from 1994. Anzac Day has been rehabilitated to put emphasis on Australia’s military exploits. The growing hype in schools, the media and an increasing number of official public events is not coincidental: it serves to legitimise Australia’s more frequent involvement in imperialist wars and strengthen nationalist identification with the military. Benedict Anderson, in his book Imagined Communities, explained how militarism and nationalism go hand in hand:

“[R]egardless of the actual inequality and exploitation that may prevail in each, the nation is always conceived as a deep, horizontal comradeship. Ultimately it is this fraternity that makes it possible, over the past two centuries, for so many millions of people, not so much to kill, as willingly to die for such limited imaginings.”

So today we’re told that we were a nation that “came of age” in war – which, depending on who is pushing the line, refers to the trenches at Gallipoli or the track at Kokoda

In reality, nationhood was an elaborate construction requiring the ethnic cleansing and genocide of original inhabitants, virulent racism to tie white workers to their exploiters, and a shifting narrative of what it means to be Australian to ensure social cohesion as non-white immigration increased.

This is an excerpt from “Federation and the creation of Australian nationalism”, published in Socialist Alternative magazine.