Australia – the land of the fair go

The original Eureka flag flown at the Eureka Stockade in 1854. The Eureka flag was used in the shearers' strikes of 1891. Image source: Ballarat Fine Art Gallery


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.


4 thoughts on “Australia – the land of the fair go

  1. We card-playing Americans have had our Fair Deal and our New Deal, but eternal vigilance is the price of equality as well as liberty. Here’s Mark Twain in Connecticut Yankee In King Arthur’s Court (1889), perhaps the first to use the latter term in a political sense:

    And now here I was, in a country where a right to say how the country should be governed was restricted to six persons in each thousand of its population. For the nine hundred and ninety-four to express dissatisfaction with the regnant system and propose to change it, would have made the whole six shudder as one man, it would have been so disloyal, so dishonorable, such putrid black treason. So to speak, I was become a stockholder in a corporation where nine hundred and ninety-four of the members furnished all the money and did all the work, and the other six elected themselves a permanent board of direction and took all the dividends. It seemed to me that what the nine hundred and ninety-four dupes needed was a new deal.

    The thing that would have best suited the circus side of my nature would have been to resign the Boss-ship and get up an insurrection and turn it into a revolution; but I knew that the Jack Cade or the Wat Tyler who tries such a thing without first educating his materials up to revolution grade is almost absolutely certain to get left. I had never been accustomed to getting left, even if I do say it myself. Wherefore, the “deal” which had been for some time working into shape in my mind was of a quite different pattern from the Cade-Tyler sort.

    • Thanks for this John. It would be interesting to know if the term ‘new deal’ is one avoided by both sides of politics in the US today. I know that Tony Blair used the term a number of times. In Australia ‘fair go’ is a term you hear politicians from all sides using every day. Amazingly the term still seems to have a certain resonance and power not yet diluted by overuse. I’m not sure how Mark Twain would view politics in Australia today but he certainly commented positively about the egalitarian nature of Australian society in his travels here only a few years after the 1891 shearers’ strike.

      • I think now it means only the New Deal of 1933-36. It was, and is, denounced by the left as rightist and the right as leftist, so it’s unlikely to become a term popular among politicians in our present divisive era.

  2. And the concept of a “fair go all round” has been a feature of our industrial relations laws for decades, relevant to whether someone’s dismissal is unfair so as to attract legal remedies.

Comments are closed.