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Australian Identity

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Australian Symbols

Cultural Cringe

Language and Identity

Australian Stereotypes

Racism and Egalitarianism

Myths of mateship, egalitarianism and a fair go





Wombat and baby

Environment and the Australian Identity

Australia is a country where everyone can afford a bag of prawns as well as a bottle of wine and can then get to a pristine beach to watch the sun go down. At times, the wine may be substituted with a six pack of beer, the prawns with a fishing rod and the beach with a river. In fact, there are thousands of different ways that Australians access the landscape in ways that heighten an appreciation for the natural world around them. 

The widespread ability to access the landscape is a lifestyle opportunity that is relatively unique to Australia. For Europeans, it is difficult to access the landscape because the most desirable landscapes are locked up in private hands. For Americans, it is difficult because huge population densities necessitate heavy regulation, fees, and corporatisation of the environment. For Asians, it is difficult because pollution has resulted in much of the landscape being undesirable to access. For Africans, endemic violence, bilharzia, lions and malaria means that accessing the landscape is weighed down with a serious threat to life. 

The ease of accessing the landscape has a significant effect on a variety of aspects of the Australian psyche. One is an erosion of socially constructed aspects of prestige. Australians enjoying the sensual delights on the beach or aside a river quickly realise that some of the urban avenues to prestige and satisfaction, such as brands, make up and the latest IKEA table, become somewhat unimportant. As a result, Australia is a country where it is relatively easy to be poor and still enjoy a great life.  A second effect is an erosion of formality. When camping out bush, whether a coffee is stirred using a silver spoon or stick is irrelevant when compared to the coffee's taste or the view on show. Likewise, whether shoes match the trousers is irrelevant when compared to whether the shoes will hold together on a mountain trek. 

murrumbidgee river in flood
Murrumbidgee river in flood

Accessing the landscape has also had an influence on Australian art. Because the landscape is both harsh and beautiful, it has had a way of dividing people into different spectrums. As was eloquently stated by Marcus Clarke in 1896:

"The Australian forests are funeral, secret, stern. Their solitude is desolation. They seem to stifle, in their black gorges, a story of sullen despair. No tender sentiment is nourished in their shade. In other lands the dying year is mourned, the fall leaves drop lightly on his bier. In the Australian forests no leaves fall. The savage winds shout among the rock clefts. From the melancholy gum strips of white bark hang and rustle. The very animal life of these frowning hills is either grotesque or ghostly. Great grey kangaroos hop noiselessly over the coarse grass. Flights of white cockatoos stream out, shrieking like evil souls. The sun suddenly sinks, and the mopokes burst out into horrible peals of semi-human laughter. The natives aver that when night comes, from out the bottomless depths of some lagoon the Bunyip rises, and in form like a monstrous sea-calf, drags his loathsome length from out the ooze. … All is fear-inspiring and gloomy. No bright fancies are linked with the memories of the mountains. Hopeless explorers have named them out of their sufferings—Mount Misery, Mount Dreadful, Mount Despair. .... In Australia alone is to be found the Grotesque, the Weird, the strange scribblings of nature learning how to write. Some see no beauty in our trees without shade, our flowers without perfume, our birds who cannot fly, and our beasts who have not yet learned to walk on all fours. But the dweller in the wilderness acknowledges the subtle charm of this fantastic land of monstrosities. He becomes familiar with the beauty of loneliness. Whispered to by the myriad tongues of the wilderness, he learns the language of the barren and the uncouth, and can read the hierogylphs of haggard gum-trees, blown into odd shapes, distorted with fierce hot winds, or cramped with cold nights, when the Southern Cross freezes in a cloudless sky of icy blue. The phantasmagoria of that wild dreamland termed the Bush interprets itself, and the Poet of our desolation begins to comprehend why free Esau loved his heritage of desert sand better than all the bountiful richness of Egypt." (Australian Scenery," Australian Tales)

Down on his Luck

Frederick McCubbin
Down on His Luck

After being intimidated by the landscape, many poets, filmakers, novelists and visual artists have used it as a kind of metaphor of the mental wasteland that they consider Australia to be. For example, A.D Hope wrote:

"They call her a young country, but they lie:
She is the last of lands, the emptiest,
A woman beyond her change of life, a breast
Still tender but within the womb is dry.

Without songs, architecture, history:
The emotions and superstitions of younger lands,
Her rivers of water drown among inland sands,
The river of her immense stupidity

Floods her monotonous tribes from Cairns to Perth.
In them at last the ultimate men arrive
Whose boast is not: "we live" but "we survive",
A type who will inhabit the dying earth.

And her five cities, like five teeming sores,
Each drains her: a vast parasite robber-state
Where second hand Europeans pullulate
Timidly on the edge of alien shores.

Others have used the landscape as a metaphor of the resilience, strength and durability that they feel Australians to be. For example, in his classic poem, the Man from Snowy River, Banjo Patterson personified a hero by associating him with the bush. In his own words,

"But still so slight and weedy, one would doubt his power to stay,
And the old man said, `That horse will never do
For a long and tiring gallop lad, you'd better stop away,
Those hills are far too rough for such as you.'
So he waited sad and wistful only Clancy stood his friend
`I think we ought to let him come,' he said;
`I warrant he'll be with us when he's wanted at the end,
For both his horse and he are mountain bred.

`He hails from Snowy River, up by Kosciusko's side,
Where the hills are twice as steep and twice as rough,
Where a horse's hoofs strike firelight from the flint stones every stride,
The man that holds his own is good enough.
And the Snowy River riders on the mountains make their home,
Where the river runs those giant hills between;
I have seen full many horsemen since I first commenced to roam,
But nowhere yet such horsemen have I seen."

Likewise, Dorothea Mackellar felt that the harshness of the landscape actually helped her appreciate it more:

Core of my heart, my country!
Her pitiless blue sky,
When sick at heart, around us,
We see the cattle die --
But then the grey clouds gather,
And we can bless again
The drumming of an army,
The steady, soaking rain.

Core of my heart, my country!
Land of the Rainbow Gold,
For flood and fire and famine,
She pays us back three-fold.
Over the thirsty paddocks,
Watch, after many days,
The filmy veil of greenness
That thickens as we gaze . . .

An opal-hearted country,
A wilful, lavish land --
All you who have not loved her,
You will not understand --
Though earth holds many splendours,
Wherever I may die,
I know to what brown country
My homing thoughts will fly.

As well as dividing Australians due to its harshness, the landscape has been divisive because of the freedom it affords. When disconnected from civilisation, Australians can respond to the isolation by running around naked or doing some other kind of activity that is far beyond the conventions that are acceptable in the city. In the days of the penal colony, this made the bush a refuge for convicts, larrikins and all those who felt repressed by British civic life. Because most of the urban population felt repressed, the bushrangers became heroes and the men of the bush were held up as the prototypical Australian.

As well as appealing to the local population, the freedom of the bush also appealed to those from abroad. In the words of English author D.H Lawrence,

"You feel free in Australia. There is great relief in the atmosphere - a relief from tension, from pressure, an absence of control of will or form. The skies open above you and the areas open around you."

On the flip side, the lack of comfort that clear rules and a strong police presence provides has a way of making some Australians feel uncomfortable and downright scared. This fear has been exploited in movies such as Mad Max, Wolf Creek and Wake in Fright, which have created nightmarish visions of worlds where individuals are not afforded the protection of a social order protected by authority figures.


Mad Max 2 - Introduction

Perhaps the different attitudes to rules and restriction also explains why many of Australia’s penal colony values have survived in government environmental policy today. Specifically, Australian government environmental policy involves locking up the environment and then manning the "prison" with "wardens" that kill cats, dogs, pigs and punish the "bogan" Australians that want to engage with it. There is no science in the policy. At a basic level, poisoning a feral cat in the local reserve is not going to stop more migrating from the other 7.69 million square kilometres where they maintain a presence. Even when government funding allows the poisoning to occur on massive scales, the outcomes are often worse than if humans had not interfered at all.  

Rather than be anchored in science, the policy reflects the psychology of people who don't see themselves as belonging the ecosystem around them much like a warden feels he doesn't belong to the prison he governs. It is a psychology of a people who respond to the sense of intimidation they feel in a landscape without rules by trying to impose some in a way that makes them feel they have control. It is the morality of humans sold under the lie of science.

At the other extreme is the connective approach that is typified with the words of Tom Dystra  who wrote,

"We cultivated our land, but in a way different from the white man. We endeavoured to live with the land; they seemed to live off it. "

Dystra was referring to historic farming practices that likewise saw farmers eradicate native flora and fauna as a way of exerting mastery and control. Even though he was referring to farming, his words could equally be applied to government policy today. On the positive side, there is a growing sense that good policy works with the land rather than tries to dominate over it or disconnects humans from it. Such an approach has been assimilated by many Australians who engage with the landscape in ways other than from behind a fenced off enclosure. Additionally, it has been assimilated by Professor Chris Johnson, from James Cook University, who has realised the problems of trying to recreate 1788 ecosystems managed by someone with a prison warden mentality. Johnson has argued in favour of reintroducing dingos, quolls and the devils to the various mainland ecosystems that humans have eradicated them from. As native predators replace the feral predators, or reduce their numbers, native prey is able to rebound. It is a management policy that reduces the element of human mastery over the ecosystem without trying to eliminate humans completely. Professor Johnson has some interesting research backing up his proposal. He has found that in places where dingoes are rare or absent, and foxes and cats are abundant, 50 per cent of ground-living mammals have vanished. Where dingoes remain abundant, the rate of local disappearance is 10 per cent or less.

As well as affecting Australians by allowing them to appreciate its beauty, the Australian environment has influenced Australians by exposing them to the harshness of floods, droughts and bushfires. Those who are able to endure the hardships have their resilience strengthened. In addition, communities come together in the difficult times to strength human bonds of kinship, mateship and civic pride. According to an editorial in the Australian newspaper:

"During the First Fleet's hungry days at Sydney Cove, Governor Arthur Phillip ordered equal rations for all, regardless of rank, realising that solidarity was essential if the settlement was to survive. And the idea that crisis unites us is now encoded in our cultural DNA. When times are tough, we instinctively understand it is one in, all in.

Rightly so. Dorothea Mackellar did not create a cliche when she first wrote of "droughts and flooding rains"; rather, she described the rough routine of bush life. Last night, Toowoomba was awash, Dalby faced floods for the fifth time since Christmas and water levels were rising on the northern NSW coast. On the other side of the continent, while Perth is in drought, Carnarvon is cleaning up and parts of the Kimberley faced flash flooding. Inevitably it is people on the ground who best help those in trouble. But cash from distant communities reminds those in trouble they are not on their own. It does not change the weather, but it makes it easier to endure."


Fire recovery

Photo taken in 2007, four years after the 2003 ACT firestorm. Eucalyptus trees use weakness in the ecosystem as the opportune time to push for individual dominance.

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