If McCulloch intend to startle, he was successful. Editors and opinion shapers across Victoria and wider afield leaped upon McCulloch’s startling assertion that Victoria faced serious social issues. Moreover, the means that McCulloch intended to employ to combat these problems threatened to subvert yet again the principles and conventions of British government, British jurisprudence and British social mores.
Free, compulsory, and secular. Words that have long settled as bedrock principles of Victorian civil society, perplexed and disturbed in 1871. Penal clauses drove compulsion. A parent of a child who failed to attend school would be deemed to have committed an offence and would be liable to a penalty prescribed by law. How novel! How threatening of natural order and British tradition! How novel!
And Sir James McCulloch knew it. “Sir James pointed out, in a British community. All laws which have been passed effecting society have been for its protection in the repression of crime, but in no instance in modern times has it been attempted to interfere with the subject, or dictate to him what he should do, so long as he conformed to the laws in force.” A man will be prosecuted for illegal acts. And that is as a right thinking Briton says it should be.
But what is this? What is this novel, subversive principle? “If we can compel a man to educate his children according to our present notions of the right of the State to interfere with the privileges of the subject, we can compel him to dress his children according to State regulations.
The moment we penetrate into the inner shell, and get fairly into the domestic circle with an Act of Parliament, it follows that we can do pretty much as we please.”
Right thinking Britons are thoroughly aware that “[t]his is a startling proposition, and one that ought not to be adopted without considerable discussion.”
And where did this disturbing idea come from? What foreign place spawned this inversion of proper principles? Why, Prussia of course The fact that it is not new in other countries, and has been attended with considerable success in Prussia, is no argument to us in its favor, for the simple reason that we are not Prussians but British.
Newspapers opinion shapers viewed McCulloch’s coup as a betrayal of unique British values, “We claim to stand almost alone in our sacred regard for personal rights and personal freedom.” Only the gravest emergency could justify breach of British principles, “If we are to infringe these it must not be because some other country has done it, but because we are satisfied that it is essential for the protection and preservation of society that it should be done.”
And the Mt Alexander Gazette outlined the test of necessity, “In considering the proposal to make education compulsory two questions present themselves : is it required, and is it practicable?”
But surprisingly, according to the Mt Alexander Gazette, McCulloch failed only one of these tests.
The MAG, opposed in general to the aims and methods of the McCulloch Ministry. A determined response to a serious threat was required, thundered the MAG, teasing its readers by withholding identification of this threat. That “steps were required no one who has considered the large proportion of uneducated children we have the number of Bedouins in our towns and cities ; and that greatest of all colonial pests, ”larrikinism,” can arrive at any other conclusion than that some steps are necessary to meet and put down so great an evil. It is an evil not of a temporary character, but an incident peculiar to our colonial life.”
Yes larrikinism. Suddenly, it was unavoidable to talk about social malaise in Victoria. And the need appeared urgent. Before McCulloch’s Mornington address this subject was unthinkable. After the address it was irresistible. And ever since, everywhere in Australia the subject has been ubiquitous. McCulloch’s Mornington address resonates through Australian conversations.