Does Australia need a national identity?
In 1964, public intellectual Donald Horne wrote The Lucky Country in which he said Australians were devoid of an identity that bred curiosity, ideas and leadership. In the absence of intellectual resources, he went on to attribute Australia’s prosperity to the good luck of having lots of natural resources. In his own words,
Horne went on to say,
Horne's lament was perhaps a function of the academic reluctance to acknowledge and respect an Australian identity that helped spare Australia from the “resource curse” whereby resource rich nations find themselves characterised by inequality, corruption, tyranny and repression. Admittedly, Australia has probably never had a national identity that has broad acclaim and acceptance; nevertheless, it has had minority identities that have embraced an Australian label and created values in response to economic, environmental, social and historical conditions in Australia. While their label has not always been embraced, the substance has created somewhat of a workers and social paradise that has come about through reasons other than luck.
Penal era and the fair go
In the penal era, an Australian identity emerged from the Convict class. Its first signs were the use of labels like “legitimates”, which proposed that since Convicts had been selected by the finest judges in Britain, they were the colonials with a legitimate reason to be in Australia. Although the legitimate label was a bit of an ironic joke, it did indicate a psychological disconnection from Britain in favour of Australia. The same ironic thinking was also evident in a poem by Convict George Barrington in 1801:
The Australian identity found wider expression in 1808 when emancipated Convicts used January 26 as a date to organise great parties to celebrate the land they lived in. In a way, the parties celebrated their survival. Later a political edge was infused into the parties as emancipists used them to press for equality with free migrants.
For numerous reasons, free British migrants and “respectable” members of society rejected an Australian identity marked by Convict fingerprints. Firstly, rising American patriotism resulted in the American Revolution. Naturally, any patriotism in Australia that was hostile to the mother country was seen as a threat. Secondly, there was significant jostling for power between free migrants and freed Convicts in colonial society. “Cultural capital” was important for this power. If free British migrants devalued an Australian identity, their cultural capital as free British migrants would be enhanced. Thirdly, identities inspire loyalty when they have some kind of achievement to evoke pride or victimisation that breeds a sense of injustice. Unfortunately for the Australian identity, there was no great status in being caught stealing bread nor was there great sympathy for being punished as a bread stealer either. Some activists tried to counter the problem by trying to portray the Convict class as being composed of trade unionists, chartists and other freedom fighters. While such political dissidents were in the mix, everyone knew the majority were thieves. Furthermore, emancipists found they got further ahead by expressing remorse and arguing for a second chance rather than preaching injustice. This broke Convict solidarity and made it hard for a victim identity to be passed down the generations.
Despite the Convicts’ fledging identity being rejected, it probably infused the concept of a “fair go” into the various other identities being expressed. “Fair go” is an iconic Australian saying that is an appeal for justice or opportunity. (The term was probably derived from ‘fair crack of the whip’ in reference to Convict being whipped with the cat o nine tails - whether deserved or not.)
What constitutes justice is highly subjective and changes according to the relative positions of various participants. For example, free migrants obviously believed justice would be served by denying opportunity to ex-cons, who in turn believed justice would be served by opportunities being given to those who built the economy. Nevertheless, the fact that a saying that appealed for justice became so iconic reflected a widely-shared identity that was prone to evaluate social justice issues on individual merit. Furthermore, a belief in a fair go bred an ethic of giving equality of opportunity so that injustice didn’t prevent individuals from utilising their talents for the benefit of themselves and others. All of Australia benefitted from that.
This extension of opportunity marked a significant difference between Australia and England. Specifically, Australia has always had a great deal of social mobility so that social group membership has not been governed by *race or socio-economic class. The same was not the case in England, which has extreme class consciousness and racial segregation. (* Social identification leading up to the white Australia policy was racially conscious but there was a great deal of nuance in the identification and the reasons for it.)
Diggers and the workers paradise
In the Gold Rush years that came after the end of Convict transportation, the “Digger” picked up the the Australian identity and flew it in campaigns for equal justice before the law. In the 1854 Eureka Stockade, they raised the flag of the Southern Cross, made speeches of defiance and fired revolvers into the air.
If the Diggers had won the battle, they would have associated their identity with great status which would have inspired more followers wanting to share in their achievement. Unfortunately, stirring speeches, pretty flags and guns fired into the air were no match for sound battle planning. After deciding to attack, the British colonial forces took less than 15 minutes to defeat the Diggers and tear down the Eureka flag. On the positive side, the massacre of Diggers at the Eureka Stockade provided an opportunity to build an identity based on victimisation. Subsequently, the flag of the slaughtered miners became a rallying point for all those who felt they had been victims of oppression. Out of the rallying came Australia’s union movement which was instrumental in creating what became known as the “workers paradise.” In short, unions helped increase wages and workplace safety so that profits of Australia’s could be circulated in ways that allowed diverse industries to be created. Furthermore, the reduction of workers being maimed or killed on the job sites increased the number of taxpayers relative to welfare recipients. The same does not occur in many resource rich nations that instead rely on indentured workers from foreign countries who are exploited. The majority of profits are monopolised by a few, there is little diversification of industry and power concentration leads to corruption.
Gallipoli; the Baptism of fire that became a well of tears
In World War 1, the Australian identity was somewhat liberated as it arguably went mainstream for the first time. Early news reports from the battlefields of Gallipoli described Australians as a “race of athletes” who had fearlessly scaled the cliffs and slaughtered the Turkish enemy. Since conscription was illegal in Australia, they were the kind of inspiring reports that the Australian government needed to persuade Australians to sign up to defend mother England.
Nine months later, the race of athletes looked a little less athletic as they retreated from an impossible stalemate. A bit like the Eureka Stockade 60 years earlier, Diggers initially responded to their loss by blaming the English. Their stories proposed that the battle could have been won if the English high command hadn’t mucked up the landing site and if they had put more value on Australian lives. While the blame-the-English lingered, ultimately Gallipoli was remembered more for the soldiers lost rather than whether they were good soldiers or not. This started with the elevation of John Simpson Kilpatrick to war hero status, not for firing guns, but for picking up the wounded and ferrying them to safety with his donkey. The style of remembrance continued on the 25th of April 1923 when the Reverend White led a party of friends in what was the first ever observance of an ANZAC Day dawn service. As part of the service, White read a paragraph taken from the poem 'Ode for the Fallen':
The traditions were institutionalised in 1927 when the first official service was held at the Sydney Cenotaph using both the ode and the date of 25th of April.
As war remembrance had elements that were much like an obituary, there was a tendency to ascribe a mythicised spirit to those who had fought and fallen. The spirit proposed that they had been defined by qualities including mateship, courage, ingenuity, humour, larrikinism and mateship. These were in turn conflated to reflect Australian traits.
The benefits of a sense of shared humanity was well articulated by political reformer Catherine Spence when she said, “There is nothing so costly to the state as a ruined life.” It was also mathematical proven by American Nobel Laureate John Nash who demonstrated that the optimum economic outcome was achieved when individuals considered others when making decisions for themselves. The prevalence of the identification of shared humanity, and the way that it has inspired Australians into action, was also recognised by former Governor General and Arm Chief Peter Cosgrove, who said,
A mentality of wanting to contribute is also something that differentiates an Australian identity from that found in many other resource rich nations where there is a mentality to receive.
The Australian identity; back in the closet
Even though World War 1 liberated an Australian identity that had mainstream acceptance, a number of factors soon forced the identity back in the closet. The first was Europe's erosion of faith in national identities as a result of World War 1. Not only did the war start for farcical nationalistic reasons, but men had been sent to die without any value put on their lives. The void caused by the loss of national identities was filled by the growth of a pan-national Communist identity that saw all other identities (be they based on religion, nationality, race, gender) as a threat that must be eradicated. Australia was caught up in the European trend to devalue national identities. The proliferation of the Communist identity amongst Australia’s union movement saw a weakening of the identity amongst a class of people who had previously been its greatest supporter.
The second factor pushing an Australian identity back in the closet was the 1931 Premiers Conference that saw the reassertion of British political power. Specifically, NSW premier Jack Lang evoked patriotism and Australian values as he argued against prioritising loan repayments to the Bank of England. As well as his audience greeting his speech as if he had released "a death adder", Lang was summoned by the British Governor of NSW, Phillip Game, and dismissed. Lang’s dismissal demonstrated to Australian politicians that promoting an Australian identity could lead to very short political careers.
The third factor working against a national identity was the horrors of Nazi Germany in World War 2 once more showing nationalism’s dark side. Europe responded by working towards an integrated European community that hoped to position a European identity above those of its constituent nations. Even though Australia was not part of the union, Europe was still held up as the model that Australia should aspire to emulate. Therefore, many Europe-dreaming Australians likewise saw a national identity as somewhat of a dirty world.
Ironically, the rise of the European Union hastened the economic, political, social and identity separation of Australia from England. With Europe being positioned as England's future and its colonial dominions as its past, England started cutting off Australia. Australia responded by making some cuts of its own.
By the time that Donald Horne wrote the Lucky Country in 1964, divorce proceedings that would lead to the loss of a British identity for Australians were already well advanced. To fill the void, in 1973, the federal government created a policy of ‘multiculturalism.’ In a nutshell, whereas government policy used to be for all Australians to identify as British, the policy of multiculturalism diversified foreign identification so that people of non-British ancestry identified with their genetic ancestry. For Al Grassby ( the policy’s architect) something as simple as identifying one's ancestors as Australian on a census form was comparable to being a Nazi. According to Grassy:
In 1977, there was a political step back in favour of a national identity when a plebiscite proposed replacing God Save the Queen with Advance Australia Fair as the national anthem. This became official in 1984. In 1999, a referendum to become a republic seemed to continue the steps towards Australia; however, many of the arguments in favour of the republic proposed that the Monarchy symbolised Australia’s past and Australia's past was not relevant to migrants. In other words, anti-nationalistic arguments were used to argue for a nationalistic symbolism. In a perverse expression of ironies, a majority of Australians voted no despite polls showing almost 90 per cent of Australians were in favour a republic.
Today, an Australian identity is still very much in the minority and is still greeted with suspicion by the political and activist class. It is often caricatured as uncultured, racist, drunkard, crass and the personification of all that is negative in Australian history. For example, white social commentator Catherine Deveny said,
With her derogatory stereotypes, Catherine Deveny was demonstrating that she identified as a “non-racist” and wanted to be seen as such. Unfortunately, just as a man who beats up a homosexual to publically demonstrate his “heterosexuality” doesn’t necessarily love women, the likes of Deveny who evoke racist caricatures of Australians don’t necessarily have much respect for non-whites.
It is only a relatively small amount of Australians that will openly embrace an Australian label and adopt an identity in conformity with it. Many of these individuals are professional athletes or sports lovers where the expression of a common identity is the basic attraction of nation-based sport. This has led to the Australian identity being closely aligned with sport. Arguably, a similar percentage of citizens are crazy about sport in almost every other country in the world; however, the same association between sport and identity does not exist. This is probably because people outside of the sporting realm in other countries also embrace and celebrate versions of a national identity. This diversifies the national identity’s associations with alternative conceptions of it. For example, while the French may boast of the success of their soccer team, they will also boast of the success of their cheeses, thinkers, artists and style. Australia will have people boasting of the success of the cricket team but few boasting of the success of their cheeses, thinkers, artists and style. This is mainly because individuals in the later categories don't evoke a national identity that they can share with the general population. Instead, they act like Donald Horne and just criticise.
There is a positive side to Australia having a relatively weak conception of the national identity. Unlike individuals from countries with strong national identities, Australians are relatively free to act how they want to act rather than being pressured to conform to a pre-determined model of behaviour. This can be liberating as it frees the Australian to adapt to changes in circumstances. On the negative side, a national identity can provide a sense of belonging and purpose. Furthermore, it can act as a positive model that guides individuals to exhibit behaviour that will benefit themselves and others. Hornes’ comments about Australia lacking a national identity were true in the sense that Australia lacked a common conception of a national character, but this was only because his mirror was fogged over. If the mirror were wiped clean so as to gain a clear reflection, a national character based around a certain set of ideological values could be seen across the generations. While Horne said Australia’s prosperity came about due to good luck, there were also individuals defined by an Australian identity that made luck for themselves and for others. The likes of Horne were lucky for that.
Does Australia need a national identity?
Consider how perceptions of an Australian identity may be influential in the following circumstances
What is the dominant culture?
Anglo social commentator Catherine Deveny stated:
Timeline of the Australian identity
Aboriginal tribal identities were based around an animal or plant totem. Each Aboriginal person believed they had three forms which gave them a continuous life form. The totem was the form after human and then to spirit. As the cycle continued, so did the Aboriginal cultures.
There was no concept of an Aboriginal identity or Australia as one land. Each tribe was very much its own unit and reserved hostility to other tribes. This hostility to an outgroup helped maintain a strong ingroup identity.
Because Aboriginal identities were not defined along racial lines, there was more hostility between different Aboriginal tribes that there was towards the colonists that arrived in 1788. Furthermore, the prestige of the tribe was not defined according to land ownership, but according to the number of people in a tribe. For this reason, the tribe was both open to new inductees, but also intent on destroying all rivals.
-Paintings, customs, songs, myths, stories
After gaining their ticket of leave, Convicts started referring to themselves as Legitimates. Their thinking was that since they had been "chosen" by the finest judges in England, they were of the few Europeans with a legitimate reason to be in Australia. Later they referred to themselves as Emancipists because it implied they had attained liberty and strove for the liberty of others. The Legitimate/Emancipist identity was maintained with hostility to the Exclusives.
Expression - Songs, flash language, tattoos, convict women mooning wowsers or 'exposing her person.'
Note - Identity not defined along racial lines. As a consequence, hostility to Exclusives was far greater than any hostility to Aboriginal tribes.
The Exclusives were free British settlers, or military officers who had left the service. The Exclusives advocated confining all offices and civic honours to Emigrants with the total exclusion of Emancipists and their offspring.
The Exclusives were extremely pro-British and maintained their identity with a strong hostility to the Legitimates/Emancipists.
Expression - English flag, English clothes, formal English speech
Note - The Exclusives saw the Aborigines as 'noble savages.' Their thinking was that Aborigines were without sin as they have never learnt it. For this reason, they wanted to prevent Aborigines mixing with Convicts.
1800 – 1850 – Convicts have children
The Native Born - Currency lads and lasses
The first native born in Australia were taunted as the 'wretched' and the lowest class because their parents had been Convicts. This discrimination was institutionalised when it came to the distribution of land grants. Whereas free immigrants were frequently given grants running in thousands of acres, the native born of Convict stock were only allowed sixty acres.
The bush pioneer became the icon for the native born. Out in the bush, no laws ran and people were free to sing folk songs or live in equality. There was no room for elitism because people on the land needed to rely upon one another in the tough conditions. The identity was maintained with hostility to English immigrants and authority figures.
Expression - Bushranger songs, bush poetry
Ballad of Ben Hall
As the colony expanded out from Sydney, the Europeans came into conflict with Aborigines over land. Although tribal identities remained, the Europeans started to take the place of rival tribes as the principle enemy.
Although there was hostility, there was also friendship. Some Aborigines left their tribes and formed good relations with the native born. They worked as droving hands and sang songs with the other drovers. Aside from being admired for their lyrical ability, they were admired for their bush skills. In a sense, their knowledge of the land had them admired as the protypical bushman. Reflecting the admiration for the Aborigines is the use of Aboriginal place names for rural Australia.
1850 - 1900 The gold rush years
The Digger (Miner)
In 1853, the discovery of gold sparked massive waves of immigration. Miners from all over the world descended upon Australia and brought with them ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity. Although they valued self-reliance, independence and resourcefulness, they were also fiercely loyal to their mates.
Egalitarian sentiments were solidified with a dislike of the ruling colonial authorities that were deemed to be corrupt and elitist. This gave rise to a union movement. As the authorities tried to break unions via the importation of Chinese labour, the Chinese became another enemy to solidify the Digger's identity.
Expression - Eureka Stockade Flag. No songs were written to glorify the Eureka Stockade.
At the height of the gold rush, there were up to 100,000 Chinese people in Australia. Chinese newspapers of the time depicted the Chinese as hardworking and the other miners as lazy. Although such stories may have indeed been a reflection upon how the Chinese saw themselves, they may have also been a form of propaganda designed to persuade the Chinese not to complain about being exploited by mining companies.
When the Chinese weren't working for a company, they worked together in teams. It was said that they were very efficient at extracting gold and often went to the mine sites deserted by other Diggers, and found gold that had been missed. This was said to have infuriated the other miners.
Although most of the Chinese returned to China, some stayed and established businesses. Unlike most expat Chinese populations around the world, these Chinese seem to have integrated into the other emerging Australian identities.
Expression - Newspaper articles calling other miners lazy.
The Wowser (activist)
By the turn of the century, the anti-transportation activists of the 1850s had evolved into anti-Chinese activists. The wowsers were very loyal to the English empire and saw themselves as British rather than Australians.
Expression - Protest marches and posters likening the 'yellow peril' with Convicts.
Capitalist and outcasts
Words of racial superiority probably did not wash with any Australian of mixed blood or those descedended from Convicts. To the contrary, the stigmisation of the Chinese probably fostered a sense of empathy. The Kelly Gang seemed to be one such group that had time for the Chinese. They were rumoured to have been helped by Chinese (although this might have been propaganda to win the public relations war against the gang.) One member of the gang, Joe Byrne, definately was on good terms because he could speak fluent Cantonese.
Some sections of the business community could also see the positive side of the Chinese. Perhaps due to the language barrier, they were less likely to join the union movement, and so allowed businesses to pay low wages.
Federated nation – 1900- 1950
The pioneer continued on the bush tradition laid by the previous generations.
Expression - Paintings by the likes of Arthur Streeton and Tom Roberts. Poetry by Banjo Pattern and Henry Lawson.
The Digger had his baptism of fire in the Gallipoli campaign. Rather than hate the enemy, the Diggers seemed to hate the English. The Poms were seen as filthy cowards whose incompetence had resulted in the loss of life of countless Australians.
Perhaps the dislike of Poms made the Diggers better soldiers. It seems as if they felt that they had to prove their superiority over the English on the battlefield.
Expression - War poetry, Anzac Day, courage on the battlefield
The Wowser (Englishman)
Once the threat of Convicts and Chinese had ended, the Wowsers found themselves somewhat aimless. Some directed their attention to campaigning against frivolous pastimes like gambling and drinking. Others found it immoral for people to jump into the ocean wearing small bathing suits.
With a dislike of these great Australian pastimes, the Wowsers remained obsessive in their support for English values, and moral empowerment.
1950 - 2000- The larrikins, post-modernists
The Aboriginal Victim
By the end of World War II, Aboriginal tribal identities had eroded to the extent that white people stopped seeing differences between Aboriginal tribes and instead began viewing them as a homogenous out-group. Names for individual tribes faded away and instead Aborigines, the generic word for an indigenous population, came into use by default.
Aborigines also stopped thinking in cultural terms and instead began to think of themselves in racial terms. Blacks were part of their in-group while all whites were the out-group invaders. Asians were in an undefined category.
Many Aborigines developed a strong identification with black power movements from America. They assimilated rap music, and the baggy style of clothes. Oddly, many Aborigines became Rastarian; except they dropped the green from the colour coding. (Rastafarism is a pseudo-Christian based religion developed by the descendents of slaves wanting to show pride in their African heritage. Its name comes from Prince Rastafari of Ethiopia. It is not possible to be Rastarian without African heritage.)
Perhaps assessments of Aborigines also went downhill in mainstream society. When the bush was held up as the "true Australia", the Aborigines were celebrated as the prototypical bushmen. As the bush lost its iconic status, so too did the Aborigines that lived in it.
Expression - Aboriginal flag, protest marches, music, Aboriginal tent embassy, defiance of white authority
Although Larrikins have always been popular in Australia, it wasn't until after World War II that larrikins also became national heroes. The likes of Dawn Fraser and John Newcombe commanded respect across the classes, which made their rule indiscretions difficult to criticise. The result was a change in the meaning of the world larrikin. Instead of conjuring images of street criminals, it conjured images of good-hearted risk takers.
The larrikin identity was maintained by mocking the wowser and subsequently taking delight in their displeasure.
Expression: Praise for icons such as Dawn Fraser, Ned Kelly, John Newcombe. The music of AC/DC and Skyhooks.
Expatriate/ global swagman
While the multiculturalists tended to avoid new experiences, the expatriate went searching for them. Some went as backpackers to pull beers in a London pub. Others went as actors to America to make their fortune. Some went to Japan to establish television shows.
The global swagman's desire for new experiences gave rise to the expression that "there is nothing more Australian than spending time in someone elses' country."
Expression - Songs such as Downunder, movies like Crocadile Dundee and iconic expatriates like Nicole Kidman, Russel Crowe, Kylie Minogue, taking a jar of vegemite overseas, Qantas theme: "I Still Call Australia Home."
2000 onwards - Bogans and anti-bogans
The word 'bogan' originated in the 1980s in reference to teenagers that listened to heavy metal. Over the following three decades, the category was expanded. The book, "Things Bogans Like" suggests that bogan and Australalian are interchangeable terms.
Traditionally, bogan was a term that was negatively applied to people rather than a term people chose to embrace.
Expression - Southern Cross Tattoos, bumper stickers,
Anti-bogans are by far the largest social group in Australia and hold most of the power. They do not have a clear idea about what they are, but they know they don't like bogans and are not bogans.
Area-7 - Nobody Likes a Bogan
Expression - Songs like "Nobody Likes a Bogan", books such as "Things Bogans Like", the "comedy" of the Chaser and Catherine Deveny