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Sara Cousins From the Monash University National Centre for Australian Studies course, developed with Open Learning Australia
In this, the second week of the course, Sara Cousins asks: What does it mean to be Australian in a multicultural society? Is there an elusive quality, a ‘national identity’, which binds us all as Australians? And what about the ‘Australian way of life’? Does it still reflect the traditional virtues of egalitarianism, classlessness, ‘a fair go’, stoicism and mateship? Sara Cousins is a research fellow with the National Centre for Australian Studies, Monash University, Melbourne, Australia. 2.1 What does it mean to be Australian? 2.2 National symbols and places 2.3 Terra Nullius 2.4 The ‘Australian Type’ 2.5 The ‘Australian Way of Life’ 2.6 Post-nationalist Australia? 2.7 Further reading 2.1 What does it mean to be Australian?
There is no ‘real’ Australia waiting to be uncovered. A national identity is an invention. Richard White (1981) Inventing Australia
Each one of us could describe ourselves with a multitude of different identities. These identities can be seen as defining us as people and may be cultural, ethnic, religious, gendered, class-oriented or ideological. They are as varied as our imagination. In Australia, the religious, cultural and ethnic complexity of our society is particularly diverse. In the midst of this diversity, is there an elusive quality, a ‘national identity’, which binds us all as Australians? There are certainly national cultural stereotypes and national symbols that we all recognise as Australian, but do these really reflect the everyday reality of living as an Australian today? Do national identities ever have anything to do with cultural experience or are they more to do with a constructed image of a ‘nation’? What is it about our cultural stereotypes, if anything, that continues to resonate with Australians? Who is excluded? Does our national identity still depend upon a white Anglo-Celtic male viewpoint? 2.2 National symbols and places Australia’s national symbols and revered national places reveal the extent of our ties with Britain. Australia is loyal to the British Crown with our head of state derived from the hereditary line of the British monarchy. Australia has the Union Jack as an integral part © National Centre for Australian Studies, Monash University, 2005. All rights reserved. 1
of its national flag. Australia’s national anthem was only changed from ‘God save the Queen’ in the 1970s. Our ceremonial days, oaths of loyalty, and citizenship ceremonies are linked inextricably to Britain. Every Australia Day, we explore what it means to be Australian. Reflection about this national identity is invited on the 26th of January, a day that recalls a British invasion and is ‘celebrated’ as Survival Day by Indigenous Australians. Are the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander flags now seen as national symbols? 2.3 Terra Nullius Indigenous imagery is all around us today. We see Aboriginal motifs on Qantas aeroplanes, public transport, tourism advertisements, T-shirts and tea-towels. There are Aboriginal arts and cultural festivals, like the Festival of the Dreaming in Sydney, that attract a wide following of both locals and overseas visitors. During the recent Sydney Olympics, we were treated to an extravaganza of Indigenous artistic talent broadcast to the world. Yet, it took until 1967 before Aboriginal people were accorded basic citizenship rights and were counted in the national census of the Australian people. Prior to this, the country’s original inhabitants were not even counted as citizens. It was not until the High Court’s Mabo v Qld decision in 1992, that the legal fiction of ‘terra nullius’ was not recognised by the common law. Australia’s legal system finally acknowledged that Australia was not an empty continent. Prior to this, Aboriginal people simply did not exist within the eyes of the law as a sovereign people. The Australian Constitution still does not recognise the sovereignty of Indigenous Australians. How might Indigenous Australians’ call for a treaty affect visions of national identity? Non-Indigenous Australians still struggle today to come to terms with this past history of colonial dispossession, neglect and erasure. The impact of this history on Aboriginal peoples’ lives is experienced continually in the present. How might Indigenous Australians view national identity? What purpose has their exclusion from ideas of the ‘Australian type’ served both in the past and today? 2.4 The ‘Australian Type’ The myth of the ‘Australian Type’ is shaped by society’s contemporary dominant ideologies. Over time, political and social ideology has shaped views on morality, character, race, values and religion, and has led in many cases to active discrimination and a subversive ‘writing out’ of certain sections of society from our national history. What then are the dominant images of Australia’s national identity that continue to have resonance today? Australia’s convict origins have been variously written in and out of the national consciousness. While it was once a shameful admission to have a convict ancestor, today it is more likely to be seen as a badge of honour. Victorian notions of morality and scientific theories of the early 20th century influenced the view that a convict past was a moral ‘contagion’ that could be inherited through successive generations. As views changed, more emphasis was placed on the social environment as the most influential factor in shaping character and behaviour. © National Centre for Australian Studies, Monash University, 2005. All rights reserved. 2
With the cessation of transportation, the gold rushes of the 1850s and the influx of free settlers, a view of the ‘born colonist’ emerged. Always male, he was regarded as a hardy type, adaptable, independent, sport loving and resolute. He was egalitarian and valued mateship highly above any respect to authority. The anti-authoritarian character of the ‘Australian Type’ was perpetuated by images of bushranging, the persistent eulogising of Ned Kelly, the independence, resolve and uprisings on the gold digging fields and the unionists of the late 19th century. Explore visions of life on the goldfields. The ‘Australian Type’ was always portrayed as Anglo-Celtic, in part a reflection of the make up of the population at the time but also a cultural suppression of the identities of Aborigines, Torres Strait and Pacific Islanders, Chinese, Germans and many more. Even though the vast majority of Australians lived in urban environments in the late 19th century, he was also a pioneer of the bush. The literature of writers and poets such as Henry Lawson, A.B. Banjo Paterson, Steele Rudd, epitomised the idea of the bushman as a resourceful larrikin who tamed the landscape, was resilient in the face of hardship and heroic in overcoming the odds - which were inevitably stacked against him. The Heidelberg School of artists of the late 19th century idealised the bush and pioneer life. One of most famous articulations of the mythologised bush was painted three years after Federation. Frederick McCubbin’s triptych, The Pioneer, depicts the hardship and toil of Australia’s pioneering history. Tom Roberts’ Shearing the Rams romanticises the tough masculine environment of the shearing shed. Walk 'In the Artists' Footsteps'. These images served to colonise the landscape, suppress frontier violence, carve out an economic independence and legitimacy based on exploitation of natural resources, and code nationalistic sentiment as a purely masculine domain. Subversive images of racism, brutality, violence, sexism, alcoholism and corruption never made it on to the national stage. In the shadows of heroic images of the pioneer, lay the tenuousness, isolation and fragility of those colonising forces. Over time, there have been various incarnations and reincarnations of the bush pioneering spirit and larrikin stereotype. The archetypal larrikins, ‘The Sentimental Bloke’ and Ginger Mick created by C.J. Dennis during World War I, the ANZAC legend of the ‘digger’ most recently epitomised by Mel Gibson in Gallipoli, our sporting heroes, the bronzed Aussie Bondi volunteer lifesaver of the 1950s, the Aussie Battler as portrayed in the 1997 film The Castle, and even the heroic portrayal of our local volunteer fire fighters today can be seen as forming a continuum of national mythmaking. Explore current online tributes to the ANZACS, the Ned Kelly legend, Australia’s pioneers in the Stockman’s Hall of Fame and country fire fighters. Contemporary manifestations of these myths by dominant political and cultural institutions continue to shape our imagining of national identity. Prime Minister Howard’s attempts to include ‘mateship’ in the Preamble to the Constitution during the 1999 Republic Referendum made clear and unambiguous reference to the past. The debate that ensued and the consequent removal of the word ‘mateship’ is perhaps an indication that past notions of Australian identity are not perceived as relevant or inclusive enough anymore. Read more about the preamble debate… 2.5 The ‘Australian Way of Life’ © National Centre for Australian Studies, Monash University, 2005. All rights reserved. 3
The ‘Australian Type’ was not just a character but embodied a ‘way of life’ that we think of as Australian. The ‘Australian way of life’ is seen as reflecting traditional virtues of egalitarianism, classlessness, ‘a fair go’, stoicism and again mateship. It is sometimes referred to as the ‘national ethos’ whereby a certain lifestyle is seen as central to the welfare of the whole community, not just one class of society. The shared ethos of leisure and the ‘quarter acre block’ is one articulation of the ‘Australian way of life’. Donald Horne described Australia as the first suburban nation in his book, The Australian People written in 1972. The great Australian dream of owning your own home on the quarter acre block reached a height in the 1960s, and was satirised by Barry Humphries’ creation of housewife Edna Everidge whose popularity continues today. The housing sector, manufacturing industries and retailers sold the domestic consumption of goods and along with them, the ‘lifestyle’. The Holden was marketed as ‘Australia’s Own Car’. By 1962, one million had been sold. Today, the prevalence of lifestyle shows on Australian national television attests to a continuing preoccupation with the pursuit of leisure and home improvement. The ABC television show Kath & Kim continues to lampoon the idealised vision of Australian suburbia. How do contemporary visions of the diversity of Australian multiculturalism fit into this construction of the ‘Australian way of life’? Do representations of the ‘Australian way of life’ incorporate cultural difference? A wave of critique by Australian feminists, Aboriginal activists, and ethnic community leaders has challenged the dominant representation of what it means to be an Australian. In contesting standardised assimilationist views of an ‘Australian way of life’, they argue for an acceptance of diversity and choice over all aspects of lifestyle, culture and religion. Has multiculturalism as an official government policy led to the imagining of a multiplicity of identities in Australia? 2.6 Post-nationalist Australia? Globalisation is characterised by a high degree of mobility of people and capital. National boundaries are becoming less important in terms of trade and investment and this could lead to anxieties and insecurities about national identity. Globalisation is perceived by some as a fragmenting of national culture and society. Will this lead to a reassertion of cultural identity that focuses on social coherence rather than emphasising multi-culturalism and multi-racialism? Perhaps ideas of civic values and a renewed appreciation of our interconnectedness through local communities will reinvigorate ideas of national identity in ways that do not need to ‘assimilate’ difference? How might this vision of national identity view the difference and choice of Indigenous Australians?
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2.7 Further reading National symbols It’s an Honour: Australia celebrating Australians, Awards and National Symbols Commonwealth Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet http://www.itsanhonour.gov.au Ausflag An organisation seeking to secure popular support of Australians for adoption of a ‘truly Australian flag’. http://www.ausflag.com.au/ Australian National Flag Association An organisation seeking ‘to communicate positively to all Australians the importance and significance of our chief national symbol’. http://www.australianationalflag.com.au Australia Day orations Australia Day Council of New South Wales New South Wales State Government http://www.adc.nsw.gov.au Australia Day Committee, Victoria Victorian State Government http://www.australiaday.vic.gov.au Some Australian icons Welcome to Driza-bone Online Driza-bone Pty Ltd http://www.drizabone.com.au/ The Australian Word Map Australian Broadcasting Corporation (ABC) and the Macquarie Library Pty Ltd http://abc.net.au/wordmap/ Search ‘Australian Icons’ Art Gallery of New South Wales http://www.artgallery.nsw.gov.au Essays and commentary on national identity The One and the Many, Unity and Diversity in Australia The Barton Lectures on ABC Radio National http://www.abc.net.au/rn/sunspec/barton
© National Centre for Australian Studies, Monash University, 2005. All rights reserved. 5
The Idea of Australia: John Carroll and Rodney Hall The Deakin Lectures on ABC Radio National http://www.abc.net.au/rn/deakin/content/session_4.html The Boyer Lectures ABC Radio National http://www.abc.net.au/rn/boyers/ Australia’s Sacred Sites The Spirit of Things, ABC Radio National http://www.abc.net.au/religion/features/sacredsite/ Online exhibitions Search Nation, Tangled Destinies, Eternity and Belonging National Museum of Australia http://www.nma.gov.au Belonging, a century celebrated State Library of Victoria http://www.belonging.org/ Search Baron von Mueller’s Melbourne State Library of Victoria http://www.slv.vic.gov.au Cultural representation Australian Literature on the Internet National Library of Australia http://www.nla.gov.au/oz/litsites.html The World of Film in Australia Urban Cinefile, Andrew L. Urban http://www.urbancinefile.com.au Archives of 19th century racial images University of Newcastle http://www.newcastle.edu.au/discipline/fine-art/theory/race/race2.htm Indigenous Australia Australian Museum Online http://www.dreamtime.net.au National Pioneer Women’s Hall of Fame Created with the support of the Northern Territory Government http://www.pioneerwomen.com.au
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The Peoplescape Stories Centenary of Federation project http://www.peoplescape.com.au Irish Australia on the web http://www.irishaustralia.com/ Chinese Heritage of Australian Federation Latrobe University, Chinese Museum and Shanghai’s East China Normal University http://www.chaf.lib.latrobe.edu.au/ Italy Down Under National Magazine of Italian Australian Affairs and Culture http://www.italydownunder.com.au/ Back to top
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