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Turning the Anzac Myth to society's good


Cover image from Moira Scollay's 'Lalor'

It is right to make Anzac Day a special day of the year. It allows us to recognise the pathos of young life cut short, the courage of soldiers in facing danger, the links between family members and war. It also prompts reflection on Australian values.

But it is a pity that Anzac Day has become almost the one day of the year. Quite apart from its commercialisation, it provides a thin picture of military life at its best, and an even thinner picture of Australian virtues at their best.

Cursing the darkness is easy. Is there any way in which military service, an experience of a significant number of Australians, can be woven into a richer story that reflects the depth, variety and generosity of Australians at their best? Pondering this question, I found illumination in an unlikely place: a book about the beginnings and the naming of a northern Melbourne suburb.

The story begins with soldiers returning to Australia after the Second World War. They had nowhere to live. And they could not build homes. Building materials were scarce, permits were given mainly to dilatory large firms, and the demand was very strong.

So a few former members of the Pay Corps, who worked in the most demanding circumstances in Australia and overseas to ensure that soldiers were supplied and paid, formed an ambitious plan to build and distribute houses on land north of Melbourne. Their cooperative was to be open to everyone, regardless of religion or race, and to provide cheap houses for the members.

The founders of the cooperative had learned how to organise and plan large ventures. They also returned from war determined to make Australia a better place free from the class divide and unfairness of the Depression.

When publicising the cooperative they evoked the Anzac myth, but in a way that deepened it and turned it to the good of society: ‘Initiative and mateship are the traditional characteristics of Australian troops... They are important in this transition period of re-establishment and reconstruction.’ The spirit of Gallipoli was not simply an occasion for self-admiration but was to be put to use.

The Lalor Cooperative had deep roots in European and Australian history. It was influenced by the Garden City movement, with its vision of small centres close to nature where people could live and work. The reformist ideas of Ebenezer Howard, the inspiration behind the Garden City, had in turn been influenced by the ideas of Robert Owen and the Chartists.

The Cooperative was influenced more deeply by the cooperative ventures in England associated with Rochdale, which also developed in response to the impoverishment and servitude that accompanied the Industrial Revolution in England.

Frank Purcell, who with Alf Greenwood, was the heart of the Cooperative, drew many of his ideas about Cooperative societies from early Catholic Social Teaching with its opposition both to Liberal Capitalism and Communism. It emphasised the right to private property in a communitarian society, marked by cooperative small groups, as a counterbalance to the power of the state and of big business.

The Lalor Cooperative and the suburb were eventually named after Peter Lalor. The evocation of Lalor identified the venture with the Eureka Rebellion, of which he was the leader, and saw located it in the struggle against injustice and oppression. It was an attempt to make a better world.

The Cooperative left its mark on the suburb. The planning of the streets, named after Victoria Cross winners, and the connections to the community remained. But by its own lofty goals the Cooperative failed. It had to cope with badly drained land, lack of cooperation from Council and government in both of which land holders held sway, differences of vision and personality among its officials and lack of capital.

The connections and qualities of the Lalor Cooperative form a deeper and richer image of military endeavour and of Australian identity than does the popular image of Anzac Day. The Lalor venture embodies military virtues, once deployed in destruction but now put to use for construction. It embodies a passion for a just society the priority of cooperation over competition, the prizing of community, and the bonding together of the little people so often crushed by government and its priorities. It also represents the value of brave failure.

Like other evocations of the Anzac landing and of Australian identity, these qualities are mythical. When we celebrate them they are unencumbered by the human contrariness and weakness that accompany them in real life. But they offer rich material for reflection.

Andrew HamiltonAndrew Hamilton is consulting editor of Eureka Street.



Topic tags: Andrew Hamilton, Anzac Day, Lalor, Catholic social teaching, cooperatives



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Existing comments

Andy, can you please explain what you mean by "Anzac myth".

Shocked in Sydney | 23 April 2015  

Andrew, get ready for it; you are never going to be allowed to retire.

Joe Castley | 23 April 2015  

There’s no need to be shocked, “Shocked-in-Sydney”. Crudely put, a myth is a traditional story that helps form a view about values. It is a story, not a photograph nor a physical event, even if it uses or is based on such things. The “Anzac myth” is not whatever reality the First World War was; nor is it the people who fought and died or suffered. It is, rather, what people and governments have made of it, the “story” they have filtered down or passed on. It is the myth that is under scrutiny, not the pains of forebears. What is that myth? Well, it has a few variations but one central theme appears to be that ‘battlers stick together and help each other in adversity, not counting the cost’ - the idea behind ‘mateship’. Unfortunately another, subversive, theme appears to have taken root - don’t criticise soldiers or the governments that spend huge amounts on weapons and send them to war. The adulation of the military - as a class, per se - is also a theme. These give subliminal support to the notion that people who dislike government policy in other areas should shut up - or get out - because unlike their forebears they are not ‘brave’, did not have it ‘tough’, or are ‘cowards and traitors’. It’s interesting to see how the myth has developed. As I said, whatever happened in the First World War was one thing; the deaths and suffering of thousands is also something real; and there are certainly many stories - letters, memoirs, and memories - that are not myths, but real existential things people can learn about. But the Anzac myth is a confection or a filter for social and political purposes. We can hope we do not become seduced to supporting bad ones, but I fear that one more species of political correctness has taken root in recent decades, making it harder to scrutinise and develop the progressive and enlightened society presaged more by the early century social and labour reforms and equal franchise than by firing guns ‘for the Empire’.

SMK | 23 April 2015  

I think if a myth has to be articulated, then it's probably not a myth in the first place - as everyone will have gleaned their own version of it depending on their upbringing, education, politics etc etc. This documentary on ABC last night helped me: Lest We Forget What? "When we reflect on WWI what are we remembering? The facts, or just one small part of the Anzac story, a story steeped in legend? Ask yourself this question when Anzac Day comes about - Lest we forget what?"

AURELIUS | 23 April 2015  

Similarly the Brisbane suburb of Inala had its origin in a failed post ww2 ex servicemen's cooperative. Today despite an almost legendary negative status among Queenslanders my home of 31 years is an exemplar of harmonious living.

Harry Spratt | 23 April 2015  

" ‘Initiative and mateship are the traditional characteristics of Australian troops "... The main lesson to be learned about Gallipoli is that it is extolled and promoted by Anglophiles. It was originally conceived as a badly-planned English Naval-only expedition, and when this was blown out of the water by Turkish mines, Australian and New Zealand troops were thrown in as cannon fodder to save face for England. More than 8,000 of them were slaughtered for no gain. New Zealand seems to have learnt better than Australia, to " not put one's trust in princes" but to follow their own destiny, and take wider view. "Initiative and mateship" were no created by Gallipoli, but were exploited there for other agendas.

Robert Liddy | 23 April 2015  

It's a pity so many people pronounce it Laylor and not Lawlor.

Gavan | 23 April 2015  

I find it interesting that in many of the historical people and events we value there is a level of “brave failure” that we espouse to value - that somehow the brave failure at Gallipoli established our sense of ourselves as a nation and a people. I find it interesting that if brave failure is one of the defining features of “us” via such events as Gallipoli why we tend to be so cruel and punishing of those who fail in modern day to day life - I feel we are a harsh judgemental people on those who today try and fail - I feel as well as brave failure we might build brave forgiveness into our national character and embrace the benefit of a “try again, fail again , fail better philosophy.

Paul Coghlan | 23 April 2015  

So the “Anzac Myth” must be transformed from the “popular image of Anzac Day” to make it relevant? Not in my book! I agree with Lord Acton, “We cannot afford wantonly to lose sight of great men and memorable lives.” Accordingly this Anzac Day I will remember the sacrifices made by my father and his father, my mother, their families, my mates, and all those who fought for this country. And with a bit of luck I’ll share a beer with mates who hold in contempt those who seek to denigrate Anzac Day, like the Monash University students who falsely call Anzac Day activities an exercise in war glorification. Georg Orwell knew that totalitarians require history to be rewritten and the knowledge of Oldspeak obliterated before Newspeak effectively takes hold. For decades this is what Leftists have done with their falsification and ridicule of the traditions and history of Western Civilization. The real outrage against ANZAC is that it is a genuine people’s movement which has failed to seek approval from the bien-pensants, and which doesn’t fit their agenda. I’ve just ordered “ANZAC & ITS ENEMIES: The History War on Australia’s National Identity” for further enlightenment. Bottoms-Up. Happy Anzac Day!

Ross Howard | 23 April 2015  

Thank you, Andrew, for this informative article. I'm not sold on the military aspects of ANZAC but am mindful of the tragedy of lost love ones, their remembrance by oncoming generations, and the unselfish spirit of those who looked after their mates when they most needed practical compassion. Yes, the cooperativeness of the Pay Corps is another trait that illustrates our Australian values at their best. Yes, something on which to reflect on this national day, 25th April.

John Shervington | 23 April 2015  

Meanwhile! During World War 1 Aboriginal men were excluded from joining the military, nevertheless many Indigenous diggers evaded this by pretending to be Maori, Indian or Pacific Islander. When Indigenous Australians did try to enlist they were rejected, sent back to their communities and often arrested because they were not allowed to leave their prescribed areas. Those who returned to Australia did not receive recognition and grace but ignorance, racism and they were not eligible for returned servicemen land grants. In some cases returned Aboriginals diggers found that the Government had taken their children away while they defended their country. “I know of at least one Aboriginal veteran of WW1 who was not only denied his pay packet and his pension but upon his return was given the very same rags he had been wearing the day he volunteered and sent back to work on a station, as if the trenches and mud and the fighting had never happen” Gracelyn Smallwood https://www.campgallipoli.com.au/indigenous-diggers/

Father John George | 24 April 2015  

Another worthwhile ES reflection on the ANZAC Centenary. In partial response to Ross, it isn't just the students and "leftists" who reflect on the values in the ANZAC myth, although you might well draw this conclusion from Mervyn Bendle's book if some of the reviews are any guide. Mature reflection on an event like ANZAC Day, so central to the Australian story, is a good thing and I am saddened by the meanness of the attacks on Fatima Measham - not on what she wrote but directed at her. How does that sort of thing fit with the ANZAC myth? I hope ES will review Bendle's book at some point and the discussion can continue. Lest we forget what actually happened.

Brett | 24 April 2015  

Notwithstanding the spitefulness of the anti-Anzac mob, and the timid perplexity of the Useful Idiots who can’t see through their calculated mendacity, Anzac Day’s 100th anniversary was a huge success: Record turnouts across Australia; brilliant ceremonies at Gallipoli and in France; fine tributes to the Diggers; and to top it off, the Australian flag proudly hanging from the alter at mass. One version of the unfathomable quality of Aussie mateship was described as a “magnificent brotherhood” by a relative of mine. At Gallipoli, the only book he possessed was, perhaps presciently, Dante’s “Purgatorio”. Wounded at Gallipoli but recovering to fight on the Somme at Pozieres, he was later wounded and taken prisoner by the Germans, but he wrote: “It is a brotherhood finer, I think, than anything else in the whole human world. The roughest become gentle under its influence, all selfishness disappears. You have an overpowering impulse to put your arm around your next man’s neck, to say something decent, human, gentle. It is the love of suffering man for his fellows in suffering, the last and greatest phase of battle emotions…To have been one in that great companionship of Anzac and afterwards is full compensation for any suffering.”

Ross Howard | 26 April 2015  

“Notwithstanding the bullying of the pro-Anzac Extravaganza mob, and the desperate obsessiveness of conservative Stooges who can’t see through their thoughtless immaturity......" Glad there was at least one person who thought Anzac day a “success”, Ross. As they said to the crowds in the Coliseum, ‘Happy Mexican Waving’!

SMK | 27 April 2015  

The sense of triumphalism might be tempered by reading “ANZAC’s Long Shadow – The Cost of Our National Obsession” by James Brown. This book should inspire deeper thinking on the ANZAC legacy, even if you don’t agree with everything Brown wrote.

Brett | 30 April 2015  

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