The Death of Mr Practical: The Practical man and Globalisation

The Death of Mr Practical:

The Practical Man and Globalisation

by Craig Bellamy


There is a prevailing historical connection between Australia's colonial experience and our dominant intellectual tradition. Throughout the nation's short history of settlement, most of our leading intellectuals and rulers have displayed a certain ‘practicality' that is an Australian adaptation of a British creation. This practicality disguises its hegemony through the doctrines of ‘commonsense' and 'factual truth'. Practical thinking has its roots in a form of Utilitarianism that is perpetuated by and primarily beneficial to a powerful Anglo elite.

Essential to Utilitarian thought are the two philosophical beliefs in Positivism and Empiricism. Positivism is the belief that facts exist outside of value and Empiricism is the belief that through experiencing these facts we learn the truth. The two proponents of this thought are the British philosophers David Hume (1711-1776) and John Locke (1632-1704). Australia was founded as a Utilitarian experiment and historically, this has been the guiding principle for most of our political, cultural, and intellectual leaders. This Utilitarian, practical mode of thinking is still the dominant discourse in Australian intellectual and political decision making. However, under the tripartite pressures of post-colonisation, post-industrialisation, and globalisation this convention will have difficulty in sustaining its cultural pre-eminence.


Modem Australia was established as a colony and thus it would be difficult to discuss a core Australian intellectual tradition without first highlighting the importance of British colonialism. A powerful myth of Britishness still prevails in our institutions, strengthened by a long cultural and political tradition.

The Head of State, the Governor-General, is a representative of the British Queen and each of the six states have their own Governor. The Australian flag has the British Union Jack firmly imprinted within its corner and Advance Australia Fair did not replace God Save the Queen as the national anthem until 1984. The state defends its legal position in court in the name of ‘the Crown' and a great mass of Australia still remains ‘Crown Land'. Even a draconian Imperial honours system survived until is abolition by the Whitlam Government (1972-1975).[1]

Members of the Royal family have been present at nearly all of Australia's major official events. Royalty officiated at the opening of the first Commonwealth Parliament in Melbourne in 1901, at the first Commonwealth Parliament to convene in Canberra in 1927, at the opening of the Sydney Opera House in 1973, and at the opening of Australia's new parliament house in 1988. [2] Plus Royalty was at the Olympics in Melbourne in 1956 and in Sydney in 2000.

Australia did not have any foreign diplomats out side of the British Commonwealth until the eve of the Second World War and the Queen's Australian ‘subjects' had to travel on British passports up until the 1970s. What this tells us about Australia is that we were up until very recently ‘British to the bootstraps'.[3]

Admittedly, British political and cultural influence may have waned in recent years, but the residue of ‘Britishness' remains our dominant cultural signifier. Not only do we historically share the same language and institutions, but we also share a similar philosophical and political tradition. One of the ways that this manifests itself within Australia is through the doctrine of ‘practicality'. This is the practicality of ‘common sense' and of ‘practical solutions' that are in opposition to ‘useless' speculative and abstract debate.

Practicality in Australia thinking has its roots in British Utilitarianism. Utilitarianism originates from the philosophies of David Hume (1711-1776) and John Locke (1632-1704) and was fully realised by the economist John Stuart Mill (1806-1873) and by the political thought of Jeremy Bentham (1748-1832).[4] Utilitarianism is the ethical and political belief that it is the state's duty to provide the greatest amount of happiness to the greatest amount of people. Australia in this respect conforms to the essential character of Benthamite thought where the pursuit of individual interest is linked to the state's interpretation of greater happiness.[5]

Utilitarianism imposes its own limits upon reality and sets its own limits to imagination. It has as a central concept a Positivist conviction which is inherited, most notably, from the early philosophies of David Hume. Positivism is the insistence upon a separation of fact from value and a division of all speculative thought. Central to Positivism is Empiricism, which is essentially a practical mind.[6]

Australia has managed to institutionalise practicality in a system that joins the public good with that which maximises private interest.[7] The intellectual tradition within Australia is predominately practical. Our universities have codified and certified ‘usuful' knowledge in a scientific paradigm that has enshrined and reinforced the tendencies of Utilitarianism.[8] Positivism has reined supreme, almost without challenge, in science, law, philosophy, economics, and history. And John Dawkins the practical pariah under the Hawke Labour government (1983-1991) steered universities (through his Ministerial educational ‘reforms') on the downward spiral of tapered practical economic outcomes.[9]

Perhaps no where has ‘Mr Practical' achieved a greater victory in Australian tertiary education, than through the professional separation of the highly Positivist disciplines of law and economics. In most Western countries these are part of the humanities and social sciences.[10] The autonomy of law and economics faculties has been to the detriment of each and at the cost of all, since they supply the ‘Mr Practicals' who primarily govern the nation. The former govern in the legislatures and the courts, the latter govern in the public and private bureaucracies.[11]

A Practical Solution

When Australia federated in 1901, the state that was delivered to Australia's colonial democrats was inevitably a stronger, more intrusive, legitimately interventionist instrument than Victoria's Britain.[12] Each of the six Australian colonies had been created upon an administrative capitol from which governors disposed of land, supervised economic development, and gradually shared power with representative institutions. The new rulers, unlike Britain, did not have to contend against the traditional restraints of established church, the military, or landed aristocracy.[13] Strong centralised government coupled with the fact that European settlement occurred in Australia during the period when Utilitarian thought dominated England, made Australia a perfect place for the Utilitarian experiment.

One of Australia's greatest Utilitarian pragmatists was Alfred Deakin (1856-1919). The Federal framework chosen for Australia, chiefly by Deakin, was a practical adjustment to circumstance.[14]  Unlike Switzerland, or British and French Canada, Australian federalism is not a means of preserving the integrity of linguistically distinct communities. Nor as in the American case, is it traceable to the assumption that even within a relatively homogeneous society, power should be divided between levels as well as branches of government. Faced with small communities separated by vast distances that already contained separate political institutions, federalism was the most practical solution.[15]

Deakin was a practical man, a political pragmatist who steered Australia along the middle way between the inhumanity of laissez-faire capitalism and the conformism of excessive state interference.[16] He believed that by wise and judicious use of the state in controlling the economy, a society could be created that would allow the opportunity for everyone to rise by talent and industry from poverty to riches.[17] His initial successful practical solutions, adapted from abstract Benthamite doctrine, captured Australia's public mind, shaping the nation's institutions, images and ideas. In the 20th Century, political leaders and thinkers succeeded, survived or succumbed largely according to their ability to utilise this dominant utilitarian myth of practicality.

The popular post-Second World War Labor leader J.B.Chifley (Prime Minister 1945-1949), courted defeat for his government when, consistent with ‘abstract' socialist doctrine, he sought to entrench and extend in peacetime, a range of ‘impractical' government controls (that had been seen as ‘practical' in war time).[18] R.G. Menzies (Prime Minister 1939-41 and 1949-66) recovered from defeat within his coalition and achieved his long ascendancy with an essentially ‘practical' utilitarian program (combining the promise of national development with an appeal to individualist interests).[19] Bob Hawke (Prime Minister 1983-1991) secured the electoral defeat of Malcolm Fraser in 1983 by presenting the latter's government as an instrument of the few at the expense of the many. Hawke offered instead a commitment to ‘consensus', which translates readily into the greatest happiness of the greatest number (or Utilitarian practicality). And John Howard, the archetype of a Utilitarian pragmatist spayed the national imagination for the sake of ‘useful' economic banality and defeated Paul Keating (Prime Minister 1991-96) on a contrived anti-‘elitist' platform.

No where is the ideology of practicality more evident than in the field of industrial relations. The great strikes of the 1890s prompted the Judge H.B. Higgins (1851-1929) to devise a more practical way to dissolve industrial disputes. Rather than the unions slugging it out, Higgins helped to get arbitration written into the constitution.[20] In stark contrast to the competitive bargaining associated with American labour relation, or the ugly class warfare of the British, Australian industrial disputes and wage settlements occur within a national system of arbitration. Employers, unions and government pursue their claims before a judicial establishment in a highly regulated setting. It is not a system driven by ideology nor is there a genuine battle of ideas. It is simply a practical solution to a practical problem where the practical players could not conceive of justice occurring within any other scheme.

When the British arrived in 1788, and in the early years of settlement, they held tightly to a myth. This myth was the benevolent duty of British civilisation. Superior British education and culture were needed otherwise our national colonial character might become one of rustic boorishness.[21]

British Utilitarianism in culture and learning suited the social structure of a colonial society such as Australia. It allowed the colonial mind to be moulded to the institutions that governed from above rather than our minds to our country. The colonial elite curated and controlled cultural output and thus used it to bolster their position. They saw themselves as the leaders of a cultured, not a debased community, and were responsible for its moral improvement.

An example of an individual rooted in this institution is Frederick Eggleston (1875-1954). He was a benevolent Liberal, an aristocratic figure, who was a member of Melbourne's establishment earlier this century. He was an influential administrator, a politician, an intellectual, and a diplomat. Although a very complex and contradictory figure, and not really politically practical like Deacon or Higgins, he was still practical in the sense of being a cultural Utilitarian.

He believed in public ownership of institutions with strong intellectual and cultural leadership.[22] These institutions were to protect a canon, the British intellectual tradition that would bring culture to the masses and defeat materialism. He held strong to this belief and through his numerous published books and public activities, contributed to benevolent British superiority. This is undoubtedly evident in his autobiography published in 1953 where he calls the Australian worker ‘a callous animal',[23] says ‘they lack any cultural atmosphere' [24] says they are ‘crude and antagonistic',[25] and compared the labour movement to ‘a prehistoric animal with a huge body and a small brain'.[26] These antagonisms show little academic judgement and far from being ‘abstract and theoretical', as the introduction to his memoirs promise, they are merely practical metaphors designed to debase and ridicule.

Eggleston and his class generally hoped to save ‘the masses' from materialism. The start of the industrial age had seen a vast improvement in the distribution of wealth and no where was this more evident than in the United States.

As early as the 1830s, Australia's identity was influenced by how much it represented America. One of the significant critics of the time, whose ideas sent shock waves throughout the colonies, was Alexis De Tocqueville (1805-1859) with his seminal book Democracy in America.[27] . De Tocqueville was an Aristocratic French liberal who visited The United States to discover how the less desirable consequences of democracy could be avoided.[28] He was able to tap two common fears among the middle classes. One was political, the fear of the mob; the other cultural, a fear of a decline in civilisation. De Tocqueville argued that the tyranny of the majority could rule in these new democratic societies and that culture could be destroyed if given to mob rule.[29] The tyranny of the majority would impost a culturally debilitating middling standard, while enlightening the ignorant, would replace excellence with mediocrity.

This damning critique of democratic culture was widely accepted by the colonial liberals themselves, so they sought ways to combat and address the ‘problems' observed from Europe.

Mr Practical Goes Bush

At the time of Australia's federation, there was in England a great interest in Charles Dickens (1812-70). Dickens' works such as Hard Times depicts the lives and conditions of every day working people in England and helped to highlight their plight to the middle classes.[30] Dickens was a Realist and in a Utilitarian age, this fitted snugly with Hume and Locke's philosophies of Positivism.[31] Realism had a claim to truth as it was believed to be objective empirical observation of everyday people in everyday situations. Australian intellectuals and artists embraced Realism with a passion. The depiction of everyday life as the true subject of art and literature could now challenge De Toqueville's notion that new societies could not produce their own great works of art, simply because they lacked Europe's long tradition.

The Heidelberg School in Melbourne was predominantly a Realist school. It depicted every day practical people going about their practical lives in practical settings. In the 1890s in Australia, artists such as Fred McCubbin, Arthur Streeton, and Charles Condor were busily constructing practical myths. These young rebellious urban bohemians believed they could not find a unique Australian identity in our colonial cities, so went to the bush to create an artificial one. Using realist techniques of empirical observation, they painted the first practical men they could find and immortalised them as the true Australians. These practical images of Bushmen, gum trees, and huge lonely vistas came to represent Australia both internationally and at home.[32] The artists had created images that were powerful and new for Australian and European audiences. But they simply had, just like Deakin, practically adapted European techniques to an Australian environment.

The absurd international success of Paul Hogan's Crocodile Dundee (1986) was proof of just how powerful a popular consensus Mr Practical enjoys. Patrick White and his worldwide best seller The Tree of Man also exploited this dominant identity.[33] Just like the other national embarrassment, Steve Irwin (The Crocodile Hunter), White's main character, Stan Parker, is a practical man. These mythical practical men might be successful at selling movies to the Americans and books to the English, and further bolster Mr Practical's privileged position, but if you are Australian and do not identify with this practical ascendancy, then your ‘Australianness' might come into question.

It is not surprising that the people who exploit these practical myths-the vast majority of Australia's political and economic leaders as well as our top academics-have been Anglo-Saxon and share a similar educational canon. Elite family-funded education in Australia has traditionally been empirical, Positivist and apes British traditions. Historically in Australia the ‘high' cultural ground has been dominated by those who think and act most like the British, whist ‘low' culture is seen as ‘Australian'.

The way British cultural hegemony has been facilitated within Australia, is by the use of empirical education with rigorous external memory testing. It preserves cultural continuity, is hostile to outside opinion, and thus stifles innovation. Australia, compared with other Western nations, has been slow at providing innovative teaching methods and educational opportunities for its people. If there is an intellectual tradition in Australia then it is predominantly a practical, top-down, and benevolent memory bank for the few. The anti-reflective and anti-theoretical nature of Australian intellectual life has its origins in the practical success of Australian capitalism under the auspices of a British and later American Imperial system. A fairly consistent standard of well-being and immunity from the direct ravages of war have meant that Australians have avoided prolonged periods of speculative or critical self-questioning.[34]

Mr Practical trudges the corridors of power in disguise. He cloaks himself with the doctrines of common sense, (false) egalitarianism, and of coarse practical ‘usefulness'. What he is covering up include all the usual things, all the realities of power that can disappoint the expectations people have about their leaders. Power has its legitimising myths and Mr Practical with his sophist ‘bread and butter issues' and ‘pragmatic solutions' has managed to climb the mountain of power, stifle creativity, and force innovation, original thought, and excellence to the social and economic fringes.

Mr Practical dominates our universities, our bureaucracies, and our political system. He is antagonistic towards self-regulating thought, minorities, social progression, and anything that he interprets as threatening an oscillating ‘common good'. Through the historic control of most of our Australia's cultural output he has convinced most Australians that they share his ‘concrete reality'. Anything that does not conform to his practical ‘reality' is somehow abstract and therefore, useless.

Obituary: Mr Practical (1788-2003)

But Mr Practical may be in trouble. The boundaries that he once knew, both physical and cultural, are crumbling and (for better of worse) a new set of global relationships are emerging. The sureties that we once knew; the Protestant practical guide to living, the belief in practical work, the practical family, and our practical national identity, can no longer be contained within a consistent set of practical boundaries.

In the 1930s, the historian Keith Hancock (1898-1988) defined protection and restrictive immigration as Australia's basic policies.[35] These were the two ‘ring-fences' in which economic and social life was pursued in Australia. These policies stuck firm up until very recent times and (especially in an economic sense), Australia has perhaps not yet witnessed the full impact of their reversal.

The Utilitarian tradition not only has to deal with the limits of its internal capacities, but with the full force of an external challenge. No where has the limitations of Mr Practical been exposed more than in the global arena. For those who are demanding their rights in Australia (again for better of worse), they can now call upon a global constituency that is not inhibited by the inherited constraints of Utilitarian liberalism.[36] The equal opportunity debate, Aboriginal Rights, and gay rights in Tasmania (and not forgetting a global corporate ascendancy) have proved particularly difficult in a Utilitarian system with demands that it can barely recognise.[37] The homogeneity that earlier made a rough and ready egalitarianism simply has been replaced by a heterogeneous society in which inequalities have to be justified between cultures, rather than within a single set of social assumptions.[38]

After the passing of the 20th Century, it is doubtful that the antecedent practical myths of Australianness will survive far into the 21st. Practicality was valued in an industrial system where education assigned the individual to a social role; a neat practical box of understanding that assured him or her a place in the mass industrial machine.[39] But in a society that is rapidly post-industrialising, becoming more complex, ‘de-massifying', de-standardising', globally networking and becoming dare I say more ‘abstract', practicality is not as valued as much as ‘adaptability' and a flexible conceptual schema.[40]

Australia has experienced a brisk escalation in the availability of on-line computer information networks that have made the containment of knowledge, speculative economic transfers, and information within practical boundaries difficult.[41] What this will mean for Australian society of this Century is somewhat frightening, yet exhilarating. The solid practicalities and certainties of the 20th Century have less foundation in the 21st and there is a huge challenge for all Australians to express, interpret, administer and steer our democratic institutions into the new century. So far Australians have done little to combat our vulnerability to neither the false-Anarchy of European laisse fair capitalism nor the bargain-basement social nihilism of American Libertarianism. As our Utilitarian centre has waned, these ‘useless' ideologies have found a home in marginal technological discourses. The death of Mr Practical may mean the death of a certain ascendant tradition, but as with all great periods of power shifts, this is not without immense danger and not without the need for ‘practical' re-evaluation.


  1. Bradley, P. (ed) Alexis De Tocqueville, Democracy in America, New York, 1953, vol. II.
  2. Bullock, Alan. (eds) The Fontana Dictionary of Modem Thought, London, Fontana Press, 1989.
  3. Castells, Manuel The Rise of Network Society, Volume 1, Oxford, Blackwell Publishers, 1996.
  4. Clark, Manning. ‘Heroes' in Stephen Graubard. (ed) Australia: The Daedalus Symposium. North Ryde, Angus and Robinson, 1985, pp.57-84.
  5. Collins, Hugh. "Political Ideology in Australia: The Distinctiveness of a Benthamite Society' in Stephen Graubard (ed) Australia: The Daedalus Symposium. North Ryde, Angus and Robinson, 1985, pp 147-170.
  6. Alex De Tocqueville, Democracy in America, New York, Knopft, 1953. vol ii(The Henry Reeve text as revised by Francis Bowen ; now further corrected and edited with introduction, editorial notes, and bibliographies by Phillips Bradley)
  7. Eggleston, Frederick: Reflections of an Australian Liberal Melbourne, Alien and Unwin, 1953.
  8. Everand, Jerry Virtual States: The Internet and the Boundaries of the Nation State, Routledge, London, 2000.
  9. Frankel, Boris. ‘The Cultural Contradictions of Postmodernity' in Andrew Milner (eds), Postmodern Conditions Oxford, Berg Publishers Ltd, 1990, pp.96-112.
  10. Home, Donald "Who Rules Australia' in Stephen Graubard.(ed) Australia:The Daedalus Symposium  North Ryde, Angus. and Robinson, 1985, pp 171-196.
  11. La Nauze, JA Alfred Deacon: A Biography, Carlton, Melbourne University Press, 1965, vol 1.
  12. McQueen, Humphrey. "The Suckling Society", in John Arnold, (eds) Out of Empire: The British Dominion of Australia, Op.Cit, p.106.
  13. Morgan, Wayne. ‘Identifying Evil For What It Is: Tasmania, Sexual Perversity and The United Nations', in Melbourne University Law Review, Volume 19, Number 3, 1994, pp.740-757.
  14. Rickard, John. H.B.Higgins: The Rebel as Judge, Melbourne, Alien and Unwin, 1984.
  15. Spearrit, Peter.'The British Dominion of Australia" in John Arnold (eds), Out of Empire: The British Dominion of Australia, Melbourne, Mandarin Australia, 1993, pp.1-16.
  16. White, Patrick. The Tree of Man, London, Eyre and Spotswood, 1956.
  17. White, Richard. Inventing Australia. Images and Identity 1688-1980. Sydney, Alien and Unwin Ltd, 1992


[1] Peter Spearrit "The British Dominion of Australia" in John Arnold (eds) Out of Empire: the British Dominion of Australia, Melbourne, Mandarin Australia, 1993.p13.

[2] Ibid. p 13.

[3] Robert Gordon Menzies as quoted by John Amold (eds), Out of Empire: The British Dominion of Australia, Melbourne, Mandarin, Australia, 1993, p.115.

[4] Allan Bullock (eds) The Fontana Dictionary of modern Thought, London, Fontana Press, 1989, p.888.

[5] Hugh Collins, ‘Political Idelology in Australia: The Distinctiveness of a Benthamite Society" in Stephen Graubard (ed) Australia: The Daedalus Symposium, North Ryde, Argus and Robinson, 1985, pp.147-170.

[6] Bullock Op.Cit p.887.

[7] Empiricism is the belief that all concepts derive from experience and that all statements claiming to express knowledge depend on their justification on experience. Ibid p.269.

[8] Australia has collectivist institutions in education, health, and welfare although they are being dismantled in favour of  individual interests.

[9]  Collins Op.Cit. p.156.

[10] Ibid

[11] Ibid

[12] Collins Op.Cit p.151.

[13] Ibid

[14] Alfred Deakin's biographer outlines Deakin's program of land legislation, economic protection startegies, free and compulsory education, factory acts, and even early hotel closing time. These measure were undoubatedly Bentahmite or a practical adaption of British Utilitarian measures to a new environment.

JA La Nauze, Alfred Deacon: A Biography, Carlton, Melbourne University Press, vol 1, p.77.

[15] Federalism in Australia is still largely concerned with the practical fiscal, constitutional, and administartive arguments between the states and the Commonwealth.

[16] Manning Clarke ‘Heroes' in Stephen Graubard (ed) Australia: The Daedalus Symposium, North Ryde, Argus and Robinson, 1981.p.68.

[17] Collins Op.Cit.p.152.

[18] Ibid.p.153.

[19] Ibid.

[20] John Rickard, HB Higgins: The Rebel as Judge, Melbourne, Allen and Unwin, 1984.p156.

[21] Richard White, Inventing Australia: Images and Identity 1688-1980, Allen and Unwin, 1992, p.61.

[22] Eggleston Frederick: ‘Introduction' in Reflections of an Australian Liberal, Melbourne, Allen and Unwin, 1953. p.ii.

[23] Ibid p.61.

[24] Ibid p.65.

[25] Ibid p.74.

[26] Ibid p75.

[27] Alex De Tocqueville, Democracy in America, New York, Knopft, 1953. vol ii, p.48.

(The Henry Reeve text as revised by Francis Bowen ; now further corrected and edited with introduction, editorial notes, and bibliographies by Phillips Bradley).

[28] Richard White Op.Cit. P.53.

[29] Ibid  p.61.

[30] Charles Dickens Hard times, London ; Methuen, 1987 (edition edited by Terry Eagleton).

[31] Realism in art is a tendancy to approximate reality. It is an attempt to precisely imitate external experinec and to make empirical observations seem true

Bullock (eds) Op.Cit, p102.

[32] Richard White Op.Cit. p.102.

[33] Patrick White, The Tree of Man, London, Eyre and spotswook, 1956.

[34] Humphrey McQueen, ‘The Suckling Society' in John Arnold, (eds) Out of Empire: The Britsih Dominion of Australia, Op.Cit, p.106.

[35] Collins Op.Cit. p.163.

[36] Collins Op.Cit. p.161.

[37] Wayne Morgan ‘Identifying Evil for What It Is: Tasmania, Sexual Perversity, and The United Nations', in Melbourne Univeristy Law Review, Vol 19, No 3, 1994, p.750.

[38] Collins Op.Cit. p.162.

[39] delete

[40] The essential characteristics of a post-industrial society is one where the majorit of the workforce are employed in the service industry and information become the most valauble economic resourse. As argued by Manual Castells, post-indistrialistion is the underlying cause of our present period of globalistion.

Boris Frankel ‘The Cultural Contradictions of Postmornity' in Andrew Milner (eds) Postmodern Conditions, Oxford, Berg Publishers Ltd, 1990, p.96.

Manuel Castells, The Rise of Network Society, Volume 1, Oxford, Blackwell Publishers, 1996.

[41] See:  Jerry Everand Virtual States: The Internet and the Boundaries of the Nation State, Routledge, London, 2000.