Phyl Lobl describes herself as a ‘cultural maintenance worker’. This is an apt description of a long life as a singer, songwriter, teacher and constant advocate for justice, equality and common decency. In recent years, Phyl has researched and written musical stage presentations, or ‘folk docos’ as she calls them, on radical themes. The first, ‘Dames and Dare-devils for Democracy’, debuted at the National Folk Festival in 2013 and has been performed several times since. The second show, ‘When Democracy Danced in Workers’ Boots’, concerns the influence of the Chartist movement in the development of Australian democracy.
In this series of posts, Phyl describes her research behind the latest show and makes a passionate case for the largely unacknowledged role of Chartist ideals in events and institutions such as the Eureka Stockade, Federation, the Australian trade union and Labor movements, compulsory voting and the existence of the national broadcaster, the ABC.
Phyl’s creative work can be found https://phyllobl.net
WHEN DEMOCRACY DANCED IN WORKERS’ BOOTS
by Phyl Lobl – Cultural Maintenance Worker
This is history, a missed history, almost a mystery.
It is also a quest that began with a question….this question
Does Australian Democracy have more chance of stability than others worldwide?
No form of government is perfect because people who make up communities and countries are not perfect. Democracies run by people that for the most part are ‘reasonable’, meaning ‘able to reason’, seem to deliver fairness and freedom levels most people say they want, yet many people in nominal democracies have been left bereft, places where the value of democracy has been damaged and doubted.
Disturbed by watching the shattering of America’s democratic ideals as they were ‘Trumped’, my mind nurtured a hunch. The hunch became a quest with the aim to identify the main participants in Chartism’s role in Australia and to document and verify Chartist actions. The quest led to discovery of historic happenings which, when stretched along a time-line, made links in a chain – ‘A Chartist Chain To Democracy Down-Under’.
The quest findings gave credibility to the claim that Australian Democracy can remain stable and able to function more fairly than those in many other countries, including the USA and the UK. This mindset was a product of the harshness of the convict culture in Australia. Australians used independence of thought and will to achieve some political world firsts and some close to world firsts. Australia became a leading country in realising and bringing into law the first five of Chartism’s six points.
Chartism was a movement that supported the principles of a political party developed in England (1838-48). A political movement which supported six main points set out in a document called ‘The People’s Charter’ which was written by William Lovett and Francis Place through their organization, the London Working Men’s Association (LWMA). The six points of the Charter were:
- All men to have the vote.
- Voting to take place by secret ballot.
- Constituencies to be of equal size.
- Members of Parliament to be paid.
- The property qualification for becoming a member to be abolished.
- Parliamentary elections every year instead of every five years.
THE DRIVE TO RESEARCH
The foundation for embarking on such a quest was laid by an experience of some years ago. Fellow folk-performers who taught history in Alice Springs explained that they could not teach Australian history in their restrained history curriculum because the children of Americans working at Pine Gap needed American history to gain entry to college. As Australian children had no such requirement it seems to have been perceived that Australian children had no need of Australian History. This situation and the attitude displayed is a regrettable part-answer as to why Australians have little knowledge and less curiosity about the past and its truth. Why they do not recognise how Australian Democracy developed and how it differs from other democracies.
I had not known of Chartism until I researched the lives of Australian suffragists for a show
I called ‘Dames and Dare-devils for Democracy’. I discovered that as a young girl in Northern England, Emma Miller who became a prominent suffragist in Queensland had attended Chartist meetings. A Thomas Paine quote was her motto:
‘The world is my country, all mankind are my brethren, to do good is my religion’.
Thomas Paine, recognised as a radical in England, Europe and America, was inspired by the French Revolution. His thinking, writing and activism motivated the push for American independence from Britain in 1783 and helped foster the formation of the Chartist Movement established in Britain in 1838.
The years of Chartism span the years known to historians as ’The Age of Enlightenment’, an intellectual, philosophical movement that dominated the world of ideas in Europe during the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. Ideas focussed on the supremacy of reason and the evidence of the senses was seen as the foremost source of knowledge and ideals such as liberty, tolerance, fraternity, constitutional government and separation of Church and State were promoted. Enlightenment ideas activated writers to express the need for Social Reform, which led to a strong push by working people and their supporters for the creation of democratic processes leading to Democratic Governments. Works inspired by these ideals were eagerly bought by thousands of people, distributed widely, and read aloud at taverns and meeting places. In particular favour were Commonsense and The Age of Reason by Thomas Paine.
Fired by such impetus, Chartist groups spread from Northern England to most areas of the United Kingdom and beyond. With a quoted three million signatures on a giant scroll said to be close to six miles long, the Charter was eventually voted into legislation. But not before many Chartists were charged with sedition and gaoled for years, some were executed and some transported to Australia. Generations of workers and thinkers across multiple nations sacrificed much in order to gain social justice through the years encompassing the Age of Enlightenment, a time when George III was on the English throne, and Napoleon was in charge of France.
In the next post find out who the Chartists were …