Australian PrehistoryHistory - AustralianAustralian CultureAustralian IdentityCultural Comparisons Between Australia and other Countries


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Australian Identity

Does Australia Need a National Identity?

The Australia Day controversy

Australian values
Australian Values

Australian LanguageLanguage and Identity

Iconic Australians
Iconic Australians

Australian symbolsAustralian Symbols

Australian StereotypesAustralian Stereotypes

Aboriginal RightsAboriginal Rights

Racism in AustraliaRacism and Egalitarianism

Australian mythsAustralian Myths
Fact or fables?





In search of immortality
Iconic Australians

The people (mostly) who are remembered

It would be wrong to say that Australia has, or has ever had, icons that everyone admires. Because Australia has always been a multicultural society defined by a diversity of values and beliefs, there have always been people criticizing those icons that have been held up as the "model" that Australians should aspire to be like.

Even though there have never been icons for the whole nation, there have been some individuals who are remembered and admired by some. Looking at these Australians, it seems that many had a tragic ending to their story. Perhaps the appeal of icons without a fairytale ending can be attributed to the consistency they have with the myth of the battler. As defined by authors Michael Page & Robert Inapen:

"The true Aussie battler and his wife thrust doggedly onwards: starting again, failing again, implacably thrusting towards success. For success, even if it is only the success of knowing that one has tried to the utmost and never surrendered, is the target of every battler." (1)

In short, the myth of the Aussie battler placed greater value on the journey, not the destination. Battlers identified with those stories that were worthy of respect but didn’t necessarily have a happy ending to validate them because it reminded them of their own lives.

Bourke and Wills - Back from the dead only to die

Robert O'Hara Burke, a police officer, led an expedition from Melbourne in 1860 with the object of crossing the continent from south to north. Second in command was W.J.Wills .

The expedition was poorly planned and it was sheer determination that kept the party moving forward against the harsh Australian environment. At Coopers Creek in Queensland, a depot was established and Bourke and Wills, accompanied by King and Gray, made a dash for the Gulf of Carpentaria. 

On the return journey, Gray died of exhaustion. The other three, weakened by severe privations, struggled back to Cooper's Creek. There they discovered that the depot party, after waiting six weeks longer that they had been ordered to stay, had left only a few hours before their arrival.

Burke and Wills died of starvation. King was cared for by friendly natives until a relief party rescued him.

Our Ned Kelly

Ned Kelly -  Such is life

 Ned Kelly, his mother and two of his mates were declared attempted murderers on the sole word of a drunken police officer who had acted outside his orders, flirted with/molested Ned's sister and was later described by his superior officer as

 "not being fit to be in the police force; that he associated with the lowest persons in Lancefield; that he could not be trusted out of sight; and that he never did his duty".

Kelly's mother and mates were convicted but Ned fled to the bush where he spent six months fossicking to raise money for a new trial. Whilst on the run he murdered/killed in self defence, three troopers who came to hunt him down. Soon the whole might of the Victorian and NSW police force was seeking Kelly's demise. Not only did he evade capture, Ned fought back. He robed banks; distributed the money for the legal defences of his sympathizers and in the process, he made the troopers look like buffoons.

In 1880, the Kelly gang derailed a train track with the possible aim of sparking a revolution. The plan failed due to a combination of unexpected police cowardice, betrayal by a school teacher and a loss of nerve by sympathizers. This in turn resulted in an gun battle between the Kelly gang inside the Glenrowan Inn and the police outside.

After some hours, Kelly, clad in armour , burst through the police cauldron under a hail of bullets. Realizing that his mates had not made it out as well, he then turned back into the line of fire; advancing until his legs were shot out from beneath him. 

Despite suffering 28 separate bullet wounds to his body, his mates being dead, his plans in disarray and sympathizers deserting him in the end, Ned's spirit was not broken. He didn't die as expected rather he recovered for his trial where he engaged in verbal sparring with the judge.

His last words before execution were 'such is life'.

Three diggers

Diggers- Victory in defeat

 In April 1915, the British decided to use the Anzacs to launch an offensive against the Turkish control of the Dardanelles. Quite stupidly, they landed the Anzacs not on an open plain rather on scrub-covered hills that rose steeply away. The Turks were dug in from elevated positions and mowed down the Anzacs as they leapt from the boats. The Anzacs fought bravely in the adverse conditions and by November, they felt victory was in sight. It was then that the decision was made to evacuate. 

The campaign cost the lives of 7,600 Australians and 2,500 New Zealanders. 19,000 Australians and 5,000 New Zealanders were wounded.

On the 25th of April 1923 at Albany in Western Australia, the Reverend White led a party of friends in what was the first ever observance of an ANZAC Day dawn service. In 1927, the first official service was held at the Sydney Cenotaph and the Anzac Day tradition was born.

Simpson and His Donkey

John Simpson- "my troubles"

 During the 24 days he spent at ANZAC cove, John Simpson operated as a sole unit with his beloved donkey/s and is credited with saving the lives of hundreds of men.

Simpson would start his day as early as 6.30 a.m. and often continue until as late as 3.00 a.m. Folklore proposes that he made the one and a half mile trip, through sniper fire and shrapnel, 12-15 times a day. He would leave his donkey under cover whilst he went forward to collect the injured. On the return journey he would bring water for the wounded. He never hesitated or stopped even under the most furious shrapnel fire and was frequently warned of the dangers ahead but invariably replied "my troubles".

After seeming to gain an aura of someone with divine protection, Simpson was killed. He was recommended for the Victoria Cross, twice, and the Distinguished Conduct Medal but his larrikin behaviour did not endeared him to the authorities. He was never decorated for his actions.


Drongo  - The loser horse that stayed a loser horse

  Drongo was a racehorse during the early 1920s.  He looked promising and often came close to winning major races, but in 37 starts he never won anything.  Soon after his retirement, 'Drongo'  became an affectionate term for 'hopeless cases' , 'no-hopers', and thereafter 'fools'. In the 1940s it was applied to recruits in the Royal Australian Air Force. 

 The affection Australians reserved for Drongo is similar to the affection they held for the hopeless swimmer 'Eric the Eel' in the Sydney Olympics.  The two are admired not for their ability rather for simply having a go. 

Roy Cazaly - Little man leaping high

Roy Cazaly was a South Melbourne ruckmen in the 1920s and 1930s. He stood at 180cm (5ft,11in) and weighed 79.5kg (12 Stone 7lb)

Despite his small stature, he had incredible athletic prowess and a huge lung capacity. His team mates and later the public would yell ‘Up there, Cazaly’ to encourage him to leap higher for hit-outs and marks. 

The expression soon moved into the vernacular when Diggers on World War 2 battlefields would yell "Up there, Cazaly" when going into battle. In the 70's, the saying was turned into a pop song that reached number 1 on the Australian charts.

Phar Lap - The loser horse that became a champion

During the 1930s depression, Germans were finding self-esteem by rallyin g behind Adolph Hitler. Australians were going to the racetrack to cheer on Phar Lap.  

Part of Phar Lap’s appeal was his record, winning 37 of his 51 starts. Although the winning ration was impressive, few Australians remember it. Instead, they remember the challenges that he faced. They remember that he was born of poor blood lines and lost most of his early races (unplaced in 8 out of his first 9). They remember that he was ugly with warts on his face, that handicappers saddled him with enough weight to stop a train and that someone tried to shoot him. Australians remember that he overcame his adversity because his heart was almost twice the size of most race horses(14 pounds compared to the average 9) and that when he left Australia's shores to prove his worth in America, he easily won his first race, and then died. 

Although his achievements won him admiration, it was Phar Lap's style of racing that punters found truly inspiring. The jockey would hold him back until the home turn and let him sprint for the finish. Thus, just when onlookers believed all hope was gone, he would find something extra to mow down the front runners on the line. 

It is admiration for that 'never surrender' spirit that helps explain why Australians have made a national hero out of a horse, but forgotten the name of more “worthy" human alternatives.

Don Bradman - The battling batsmen

 A cricket batsman appears a battler as they appear at the crease with 11 opponents plotting their demise. Don Bradman appeared as a particularly capable battler. Such was his supremacy, the English Captain, Douglas Jardine, invented bodyline; instructing his bowlers to aim at the batsmen body with the intention of disrupting Bradman's concentration by causing injury. Accompanying the bodyline strategy were taunts like,

"knock that bloody Convicts head off." 

Despite bodyline, Bradman averaged 99.96 in test cricket. He needed only 4 runs in his last innings to average the magical average of 100 for his career. He was bowled first ball.

Dawn Fraser - Champion athlete and troublemaker.

Dawn Fraser is the only athlete in the world to win the same event at three successive Olympic Games.

At the Tokyo Olympics, she wore a custom made swimsuit and marched in the opening ceremony. Although such actions are commonplace today, at the time she was acting in defiance of official protocol.

As a consequence of her actions, she was banned from competition for ten years which denied her the chance to win a fourth gold at the Mexico Olympics. (Her antics also rumoured to have included stealing the Japanese flag and running a pair of knickers up the flagpole.)

Bon Scott - It's a long way to the top if you want to rock and roll

Bon Scott arrived in Australia from Scotland at the age of 6. Teased at school for his accent, he was dubbed 'Bonnie' (Scotland) which stuck for life. Bon battled against the prejudice that anyone who tried to make a living out of music was just a 'shirking laybout and probably a poofter to boot. ' For years he persevered and eventually schemed his way into becoming the lead singer of AC/DC, Australia's most successful artistic export. The band hit the verge of the big time with the single 'Its a long way to the top if you want to rock and roll' and the follow up album, 'Highway to Hell.' Shortly later, Bon was found dead in a car; rumoured to have died from excessive alcohol consumption. 

25 years after his death, AC/DC fans still undertake a pilgrimage to his grave to pay their respects and pour some Jack Daniels over the earth.



Errol Flynn - wicked wicked ways

Errol Flynn was born in Tasmania in 1909. In his adolescent years, he was expelled from every school he attended and never passed an examination. When his schooling was complete, he left to sail the high seas. His adventures included farming, skippering, slave trading, gold mining, poaching, a job biting the testicals off rams, cock-fighting in the Philippines before finishing as a Shakespearean actor in England. In one of his performances, his roguish looks caught the eye of a Hollywood producer and a star was born.

Despite being in the public eye, Errol continued to live by his own wicked ways. Rumours of his debaucherous romps abounded and inspired the derogatory saying "In like Flynn." Curiously, Errol never denied the insult but instead embraced it as his personnel motto.

Even though he is one of Hollywood's immortal actors, Flynn never received any kind of award or even a nomination. His funeral was poorly attended.



Douglas Mawson - "It's dead easy to die; it's the keeping on living that's hard."

On January 7 1913, Douglas Mawson stood alone as he looked over the blizzard-swept ice of Antarctica. He was 100 miles from main base, his dogs were dead, food almost gone, and he had just made an ice tomb for a fellow explorer. There was little hope for survival. When faced with similar predicaments, other polar explorers had simply pitched a tent, got in their sleeping bags and spent their final days writing their memoirs.

Despite the lack of hope, Mawson did not wait to die. He had a single-minded determination to never surrender and it was this determination that kept him putting one foot in front of the next. Even when the soles of each foot came away to leave exposed flesh, he simply bandaged them back into place and kept his feet moving forward.

Just as Mawson had almost no hope that he would make it back, his search team had almost no hope that they would find anyone alive. All teams had to be back by January 14 otherwise encroaching sea ice would prevent the ship from leaving. Despite the lack of hope, six men decided to endure another Antarctica winter so that they could continue searching, and continue building snow cairns for a lost party that would almost certainly never use them. Against all odds, on January 29 Mawson found one of these cairns. A week and a half later, he walked back into main base with the greatest tale of polar survival ever told.



(1)Michael Page & Robert Ingpen. Aussie Battlers Adelaide, Australia: Rigby Limited, 1982.


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