"Temper democratic: Bias Australian"

100 years of the Australian Labor Party

Stuart Macintyre


An advanced democracy was expected

Just over a hundred years ago Joseph Furphy wrote to the editor of the Bulletin, to which he had been contributing short pieces over the previous decade, with news of something much longer, a manuscript in excess of a thousand pages. "I have just finished writing a full-sized novel: title 'Such is Life'; scene, Riverina and northern Vic; temper, democratic, bias, offensively Australia".1

Furphy was perhaps the most authentic of the writers who fashioned a national literature in the closing years of the nineteenth century, one that drew on distinctive local forms to affirm popular values and aspirations. His own life gathered in central components of the radical national experience. Born in the upper Yarra valley in 1843 to Protestant Irish parents who were assisted migrants, he had stints on the goldfields, was an unsuccessful selector and later a bullocky before drought forced him in 1883 to work in his brother's foundry at Shepparton. As a wage-earner he found himself "with 16 hours 'off' out of the 24, and being constitutionally indifferent to what is called amusement, I bethought myself of writing a yarn".2 As a family man in an unhappy marriage, he retreated with his books to an outbuilding where the yarns grew into a narrative of life on the inland pastoral plain. The narrator, Tom Collins, is a bush philosopher who faithfully reports the eccentric characters who cross his path and the events that befall them over six months in the mid-1880s, but he fails utterly to identify significant links in their stories and therefore misses any pattern of cause and effect. It is a novel in rebellion against the conventions of romantic fiction, a representation of life that has no recognisable shape, a comedy and a tragedy of human shortsightedness.

The democratic temper of the novel derives from Furphy's impatience with inequalities of wealth and status, and his sympathy for those who are thrown together by the vagaries of bush life. They meet on the track, these hard-bitten characters, and yarn round the campfire; a loosely connected community of loners gathered in mateship. Furphy had to cut large segments out of his manuscript before it was published in 1903, and offered a book-length excision to the labour press as a contribution to "the plate of Democracy".3 Serialised by Bob Ross in the Barrier Truth, it gives us the views of Rigby, an earnest American friend of Tom Collins. Rigby has a ready solution to human tribulation: the "commodious tree of State Socialism" will provide a refuge for all who are pursued by "the ravenous hounds of monopoly, capitalism and competition".4

Yet Furphy's teamsters are independent contractors and their chief concern is to find grass for their bullock-teams under the eyes of the landowners. His novel makes only passing reference to the army of shearers who had banded together in a union by the time he wrote to contest the prerogatives of the woolgrowers. He observes that "the present social system of pastoral Australia" is "a patriarchal despotism, tempered by Bryant and May", but that form of incendiary retaliation against arbitrary victimisation was yielding to collective bargaining and formal agreements between employer