by Mark Gwynn
In discussions about the Federal budget in the coming weeks we will hear both sides of politics claim that Australians deserve a fair go. Indeed Australian politics have been awash in recent times with words reflecting an age that many may have thought belonged to an earlier period of socialists versus capitalists, left versus right, workers versus employers. We have the politics of envy, class warfare, and of course the right of all Australians to a fair go.
The Australian Treasurer Wayne Swan has gone on the attack in recent months claiming that vested interests and billionaires are threatening the Australian idea of the fair go. The Opposition has counterattacked with claims that the Labor party is taking the nation back to the bad old days of class warfare, class envy, and the punishment of success and entrepreneurship. Mining magnates are utilising the media to claim that they deserve a fair go because they are the wealth and job creators – the reason why Australia escaped the world recession largely intact.
The demographer Bernard Salt, writing in the Australian on Australia Day this year, emphasises the important role of notions of the fair go in Australian national identity:
The English are said to be reserved and propelled by class. Americans are brash and are wedded to the free market economy. The French are defined by their stylish living and by a quality that is difficult to translate into English: insouciance. Australians too can be classified in simple and some might say jingoistic terms: we are laid back with a love of the outdoors and a fervent belief in a fair go for all.
The Australian term fair go is iconic and resonant in Australian history and Australian English. It emerges with its current meaning (an equitable opportunity, a reasonable chance; even-handed treatment) in the shearers’ strike of 1891 which saw the defeat of the unions but the subsequent birth of the Australian Labor Party. The history of the term charts a period of Australian history that covers the rise of unionised labour, workers’ rights, Labor governments, and the perception of Australia as an egalitarian society – a ‘workers’ paradise’. In recent years the fair go has become a contested term – one that can be claimed by all Australians regardless of wealth, background, or political persuasion. So the current debate in Australian politics over an entitlement to a fair go is as much a debate over claiming the values and history associated with the term as it is with redefining the term in an Australia vastly different to the struggles of shearers in the late 19th century.
Our earliest evidence now comes from 1891 in relation to the shearers’ strike – see this article in the Brisbane Courier.