In 2006 Terry Irving’s majestic The Southern Tree of Liberty – The Democratic Movement in New South Wales before 1856 was published by Federation Press. It is somewhat surprising, therefore, that eight years on Terry Irving has been moved to write about the book’s muted, and misunderstood, reception in Australia. It is surprising because the book, which is a model of how to write history from below, did such a considerable job at turning on its head the traditional liberal view of the transition to representative democracy.
Irving’s book investigates the radical intellectuals and trade societies whose activities in the years leading up to 1856 established a pattern of “popular sovereignty” through public meetings and public accountability. Contrary to the standard view that the shift from authoritarian to democratic society was without “struggle” or “crisis”, Irving’s research shows the fight for representation stretched back to the beginning of the 1830s. The fight occasioned both political violence and public ostracism of radicals by the elites. It also fostered an alternate public whose meetings rivalled “the official legislature as the main forum for political debate”. Irving points out if some were slow to embrace representative democracy, explanations lie in the possibilities of the radical alternative versus the sham “Bastard-parliament of New South Wales”. By shattering the nexus between “democracy and representative government”, the book challenges us to rethink liberal explanations for political development in this country. As Rowan Cahill writes, the book brings to life the “rich, vibrant, and powerful radical ferment and culture” which existed in the streets and halls of Sydney.
Irving’s spirited defence of this work can be found on his blog, Radical Sydney, which he writes with Rowan Cahill. The Southern Tree of Liberty is available from Federation Press ($55).