IN THE MIX OF IDEAS THAT FED INTO FOUNDING SOUTH AUSTRALIA, those promoted by Jeremy Bentham and his followers turned out to have the longest lasting influence.
The colonisation system devised by Edward Gibbon Wakefield for South Australia barely survived the province's early years. Wakefield envisaged a middle class society in the colony without demoracy to the extent advocated by Bentham.
Bentham’s vision for South Australia was culled and distorted by a confluence of factors. But tracing back to find what is truly remarkable about the South Australian experience makes more sense by using Bentham’s influence as a starting point and a continuing thread – even if it was kept relevant unconsciously by the confluence of factors that shaped South Australia from the start.
As a philosopher and social reformer, Jeremy Bentham, the founder of modern utilitarianism (that the greatest happiness of the greatest number of people is the measure of right and wrong), brought radical thought, with its roots going back to Oliver Cromwell’s commonwealth, to 19th Century England.
Bentham was radical in calling for slavery, the death penalty and physical punishment (including for children) to be abolished. Bentham's students included his secretary, the atheist philosophic radical James Mill and his son John Stuart Mill, as well as Robert Owen, a founder of utopian socialism.
But Bentham also influenced the emergence of welfarism. He believed in democracy, in individual and economic freedoms, separating church and state, freedom of expression, equal rights for women, the right to divorce, and decriminalising homosexual acts.
This is where South Australia is the child of his ideas. The province was one of the most democratic in the world by the 1850s. South Australia also led the British empire in resolving the issue of separating church and state. It led the world in granting women both the right to vote and to stand as candidates for state office. It was also, in the late 20th Century, the first place in the Australia to decriminalise homosexuality.
These radical leaps within the colony and state's social conservatism are testimony to the effect on Benthamite ideas on South Australia's distinctive thematic quality, especially in politics, of producing a fertile middle ground.
A RADICAL AND REPUBLICAN STREAK IN COLONY'S FOUNDERS
As an atheist and determined opponent of religion, Jeremy Bentham might be seen as alienated from a driving force in the founding of South Australia: Protestant dissent and nonconformity. But South Australia’s middle class Dissenters found plenty of common ground with Bentham in areas such as separating church and state and winning democratic rights denied to them in Britain by the aristocratic establishment. The Dissenters strongly agreed with Bentham on separating church and state.
COLONY'S FIRST SECRETARY GOUGER DEVOTED TO THE CAUSE
GUIDING THE COLONY'S FOUNDATION AROUND CONSERVATIVE BLOCKAGES
CONCEPT OF COLONISATION BASED ON THE SALE OF LAND ULTIMATELY FAILS
As chairman of the South Australian Colonisation Commission from 1835, Robert Torrens further corrupted Edward Gibbon Wakefield’s ideas for systematic colonization. Torrens lowered the price of land sold in the colony from the fixed 20s. an acre to 12s. an acre for land bought by the South Australian Company. Torrens also abandoned Wakefield's principle of concentration, extending land available from the 518 km² around Adelaide to a free choice of land covering of 20,720 km².
The concept of a self-supporting colony, opposed by Edward Gibbon Wakefield but pursued by Robert Torrens, suited the British government that didn’t want to spend anything on the South Australian settlement. This penny pinching, dividing authority between the colony governor and colonial commission in London (represented by a resident commissioner in South Australia), set up an impending disaster. South Australia's economy had no sole community body to hold its common assets.
JACOB MONTEFIORE AND ROWLAND HILL INNOVATIVE COLONISATION COMMISSIONERS
The South Australian Company took over as a driving force in the colony after it was formed in London in October 1835 by George Fife Angas and other wealthy British merchants. Angas, a member of the South Australian colonisation commission, saw an chance to buy land that remained unsold because of the fixed price of 20 shillings an acre that had been written into the South Australia Act. The company was able to buy more than 13,000 acres of the land at 12 shillings an acre.