Section 53 [The Foundations of Culture in Australia, by P. R. Stephensen, 1936]

[Editor: This is a chapter from The Foundations of Culture in Australia (1936) by P. R. Stephensen.]

§ 53

One place is enough

Population remains the paramount question, in any consideration of Australia’s future. “We must populate or perish.” A population greater than seven millions is not actually necessary for the development of a culture; by numerical standards we have already a population as great as was that of Britain in Shakespeare’s time, and much greater than that of Ancient Greece. Sydney and Melbourne of to-day are larger cities than was Paris in Balzac’s time, Berlin in Beethoven’s day, or London in the time of Shakespeare. We need a population solely for defence, for the feeling of security and superiority which England enjoyed in Shakespeare’s time, after the Spanish fleets had been defeated by Drake: after the English had come to realise finally that they could settle down upon their Island without fear of being disturbed. We need population in Australia in order to give us this feeling of security and invulnerability which alone can permit a people to develop in civilisation. In a world gone militaristically mad, we in Australia can provide an asylum of culture, probably with our present population, but most decidedly so if our population were doubled or quadrupled. Being an Island and a unit, racially and physiographically, this continent can be defended in a way in which the British Empire, as a scattered series of units, can never be defended.

Homer Lea, in his book, The Day of the Saxon, pointed out the danger and weakness of sectional policies within an empire: policies “that endure no longer than the men who make them and rise no higher than the mediocrity of public impulse.” The perpetuation of the British Empire depends, he maintained, “First upon its military unity and secondly upon its political unification.” (Neither of these conditions is possible of fulfilment.) The weakest form of empire, Homer Lea points out, is one that is “not only politically heterogenous and racially heterogenous, but also geographically devoid of any unity.”

It will be as well to take this argument very seriously, for our Australian national life depends upon it.

To commonsense it seems self-evident that, nowadays, the whole scattered empire could not be defended, by the British navy alone, if attacked at various points simultaneously by a combination of first-class powers, such as Germany, Italy, and Japan. It could be defended only by the aid of allies, as in the last war: and can we rely absolutely upon the efforts of the British Foreign Office to find such allies in perpetuity?

Without wishing to condense, by inadequate quotation, the argument of a writer whose style is already prodigiously condensed, we may, for present purposes, set forth another citation from Homer Lea’s book:

The decrease of imperial patriotism in segregated portions of the Empire is determinable by time. The fealty of a colony to the Mother Country decreases in inverse ration as is increased its self-government. Each generation leaves behind it local traditions; succeeding generations become more and more attached to the soil that nourishes them. Abstract ideals involving imperial patriotism give way to that which is material and local . . .

The application of this very cogent reasoning to the Australian situation to-day, and from the Australian point of view, is that the Empire is too scattered all over the globe to be defended militarily or culturally as an entity, that political unification, i.e., the domination of all the parts by one part, is impossible, and that the greatest weakness and danger to the Empire is sectionalism — not the sectionalism of the “colonies” only; but the sectionalism of the “Mother” country! The smallest possible view of the Empire is the one which limits its orbit and purpose to the sectional interest of the British Islanders who live in Britain. Living in a very much larger Island, we Australians can take a very much larger view. Such a vision is that propounded by Wentworth in his prophecy that Australia would become “A New Britannia in Another World!”

P. R. Stephensen, The Foundations of Culture in Australia, W. J. Miles, Gordon (N.S.W.), 1936, pages 184-186

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