The next time you feel the urge to utter out loud what most of us have long believed – that Australian politics on both sides is a mediocre wasteland dominated by small men with no vision – take a moment to consider what happened to William Lane.
Lane wanted to create a utopian society he dubbed “New Australia”, an idyllic society where everyone would be equal and would share in the rewards of an honest day’s work.
He was literally laughed out of the country as he attempted to turn his idea into reality – and his subsequent failure simply reinforced the long-standing distrust Australians have for “dreamers” trying to sell us big-vision policies that might upend our lives.
As we head into an increasingly likely election year, it’s a story worth remembering.
On a miserable wet day in July 1893, Lane led 220 of his Australian followers on to the small ship Royal Tar and set sail out of Sydney for New Australia – a colony they would create in the jungles of the land-locked South American country of Paraguay.
Lane was an unlikely political leader even for his time. While he boasted a moustache as thick as a garden hedge, he had been born with a club foot and walked with a stoop. His father’s drunkenness had left his family destitute and turned him into a pro-temperance zealot.
He was balding, English-born with an American wife and what he had seen of Australian society through his gold-rimmed spectacles had dismayed him.
A former editor of The Sydney Morning Herald and a strong campaigner for worker’s rights, Lane became disenchanted with the inequalities in Australian society after the defeat of the great shearer’s strike in 1891.
The strike – a pivotal chapter in Australian history that would help trigger the formation of the Labor party – had pushed the Queensland colony to the brink of civil war and seen thousands of armed soldiers protecting non-unionised workers.
When the hungry and penniless shearers finally gave in, Lane decided there was little hope for change. Australia, he warned, was about to be invaded by cheap Chinese immigrants who would steal working men’s jobs and dilute, if not seize control, of its proudly white Christian society.
Paraguay, devastated by years of warfare with its neighbours, offered salvation. Its government was eager for new white settlers and agreed to give Lane and his followers free land and a respite from taxes on a site 130 miles from the nation’s capital, Asuncion.
In return, Lane would ensure 800 families would settle in New Australia over the next four years.
Lane’s utopian vision of a socialist society where couples would remain married for life, share in the wealth generated by a communal cooperative and live amid a brotherhood of English-speaking whites was widely condemned in Australia.
The newspapers heaped endless scorn on the proposal and the authorities tried to sabotage his plans.
As the Royal Tar sailed out of Sydney, one of its female passengers said the government of New South Wales “brought out all the lunatics from the Sydney asylum and put them on a boat to sail round ours with a big banner to show they were ‘lunatics come to say farewell to their brothers and sisters’.”
It didn’t take long for the smug critics to say “I told you so.”
The colony, known in Paraguay as Colonia Nueva Australia, was a miserable failure. Like many people who obsess about their vision of a perfect future, Lane quickly proved to be a dogmatic and unbending leader.
He exiled several of his followers for dalliances with the local indigenous women and for sipping the locally made alcohol, while creating enemies through his stubborn unwillingness to compromise.
By the time a second shipload of colonists arrived the following year, Lane had already left New Australia and set up a rival colony. That, too, would soon founder and by 1900 Lane was living and working in New Zealand and had become an ardent supporter of the British Empire.
The New Australia experiment was hardly the defining moment in the development of Australia’s essentially conservative character.
But it did serve to reinforce our long-standing suspicion and distrust for radical change that, apart from a few exceptions, has only become more embedded over the past century.
It’s also partly why the Labor party that grew out of that shearers strike is now in so much trouble; trapped by the past, wedged by the present and unable to peer into the future.
In an election year, Labor leader Anthony Albanese faces an enormous and almost insurmountable task – how to convince a nation already jaded by the changes wrought by a pandemic that he offers something new, but safe.
In the background lies one of the victims of coronavirus – federalism. With feuding state premiers trying to one-up one another with sudden border closures and contradictory health regulations, the country now resembles the small colonial fiefdoms before they were stitched together to become a nation.
Albanese will also have to contend with Scott Morrison, a sitting prime minister happily dispensing free COVID-19 vaccines and playing out his regular shtick as an ordinary, middle class Australian; a small target who hates upsetting the status quo.
A New Australia, anyone?
Don’t hold your breath. Even if Mr Albanese had a Utopian vision he wanted to sell us, he would quickly learn the same lesson William Lane did.
Australians don’t believe in a perfect world. They just want their old one back.
Garry Linnell was director of news and current affairs for the Nine network in the mid-2000s. He has also been editorial director for Fairfax and is a former editor of The Daily Telegraph and The Bulletin magazine