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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?




Bill Leak - Multiculturalism

Searching for Australian Values

Are we all at sea?

In the 19th century, a Convict wrote of an Aborigine:

"How clearly does the behaviour of that unlearned heathen prove that shame is an artificial sentiment resulting from education alone; and that different communities measure propriety, nay even right and wrong, by various standards established under the operation of dissimilar circumstances." (1)

Throughout Australian history, different values have been created in response to the problems presented by dissimilar circumstances. As circumstances have changed, so have the values being asserted. Intertwined with the values created in response to circumstances, have been values taught as a function of social identities, which have often been anchored in historical mythologies.

In the early 19th century, arguably Australia's most significant social problem was the conflict between the penal class and free settlers, which gave rise to egalitarian values but also a cultural cringe. In the late 19th century, the most significant social problem was coloured labour being used to break unions, which gave rise to nuanced racism. Today, how to maintain social harmony in a country with a diverse social migration policy has presented a new set of challenges which have in turn given rise to a diverse set of values that are a function of the past but still distinct from it.

The rise of egalitarianism and the cultural cringe.

In the 19th century, social conflict between Convicts and free settlers gave rise to two different sets of values which reflected the self-interest of the groups in conflict. For the Convicts, egalitarianism was valued because it was a justification for authorities to extend human rights to the criminal class. In addition to egalitarianism, some of the Convict class valued Australian patriotism. This value somewhat reflected pride in how Convict's had built the founding urban infrastructure as well as a desire to disassociate themselves from the perceived injustice of British authorities. These values could be seen in a poem by Convict George Barrington:

From distant climes, o'er wide-spread seas we come, 
Though not with much eclat, or beat of drum,
True patriots all, for it be understood, 
We left our country for our country's good:
No private views disgraced our generous zeal,
What urged our travels was our country's weal:
And none will doubt that our emigration
Had prov'd most useful to the British Nation.

While Convicts created one set of values in response to their circumstances, free settlers created another. For free settlers, prejudice against people with a Convict “stain” was celebrated because it justified a continuation of a peal system that provided them with free labour and also prevented emancipists (freed Convicts) from competing with them when receiving land grants. Furthermore, the devaluing of the local culture that bore the fingerprints of Convicts enhanced the cultural capital and status of the free British migrants. The conflict in values was recorded in a colonial newspaper that wrote:

Jan 31 Deep divisions exist within New South Wales, greatly adding to the burden of being a people isolated at the bottom of the world, and therefore needing more than ever to live together in harmony.
Historically, the greatest rift has been between the "exclusives" and the "emancipists". The first group believe that anyone who has come to the colony in penal servitude is never capable of complete redemption. These people, who tend to be among the wealthy landowners, thus see themselves as a superior class. For their part, the emancipists, who are all ex-convicts, are concerned with equality of human rights. 
Governor Macquarie, much to his peril, supported the emancipist cause, despite opposition from the forces which believed it would end respect for the law by allowing ex-convicts the normal rights of British citizens.
Since the Bigge inquiry, though, the colony has been re-established much more firmly as a prison rather than for reform, which has only worsened the tension. As well, the emancipists are divided, between those who committed crimes at home, and in Australia. This reflects a third division, being "Sterling", a name for the British-born, and the "Currency", the home-grown population. (2)

After transportation ended in the 1850/60s, the capitalist and working classes created oppositional values as each tried to justify their respective self-interests. Specifically, when workers started forming unions, capitalists imported indentured Indians and Chinese in order to break the union picket lines. Race subsequently became a point of difference in values between capitalists and unionists. The workers needed a moral justification to stop indentured labour being brought to Australia. Some of that justification came in the form of propaganda equating coloured races with moral inferiority. This eventually led to the Immigration Restriction Act in 1901, otherwise known as the White Australia Policy. Because the values were created in response to conflict between capitalist and workers (rather than white and coloured people) the racism of the White Australia Policy was nuanced and somewhat contradictory. For example, Alfred Deakin (the prime minister that devised the policy) wrote of the superiority of coloured races in order to justify the policy. In his own words:

"It is not the bad qualities, but the good qualities of these alien races that make them so dangerous to us. It is their inexhaustible energy, their power of applying themselves to new tasks, their endurance and low standard of living that make them such competitors."

Chinese White Australia Policy

Anti-Chinese campaigns often didn’t promote ideas of Chinese inferiority, rather, they promoted ideas that the Chinese would become the new masters. This would indicate that whites felt inferior.

On the flip side, critics of the White Australia Policy often said extremely racist things to justify its abolition. For example, Viscount Laverhulme, a visiting British Lord, asserted that coloured races were inferior and the White Australia Policy needed to be abolished so that coloured labour could do “the donkey work.” In words published by the Sydney Morning Herald in 1924:

"If Australia's wonderful resources are to be developed, the introduction of native labour to perform the donkey work is essential…The dangers following the inception of coloured labour are very much exaggerated, and if careful selection is made there need be no fear that the native would ever be more than a beast of burden.
Under the present system… intelligent Britons were brought 13,000 miles to do work on the land which had been performed with equal credit by our primeval ancestors some thousands of years ago. Despite many assertions to the contrary, it was upon negro labour that America had been largely dependent for her industrial development. Except in very isolated cases, the negro had never risen to anything but a hewer of wood and carrier of water. In the southern States, he was not allowed to become a planter, and, broadly speaking, offered the white man no competition in commerce what-ever."

Contemporary Australia

The penal system and the White Australia Policy are long gone, but relics of egalitarianism and nuanced race relations have shaped approaches to contemporary social problems. Arguably, the most significant contemporary social problem concerns the creation of values to maintain social harmony in a society where around 25 percent of the population is a migrant and 50 per cent have a parent born outside of Australia. Many of Australian migrants come from cultures with historical feuds with other cultures. In addition, they have values created in response to circumstances very dissimilar to other migrant circumstances and the circumstances of Australia.

In the 1970s, the successive governments of Gogh Whitlam and Malcolm Fraser promoted multiculturalism as the solution to cultural clashes. Under the two governments, multiculturalism was used as a kind of slogan that was never really defined as to what it really meant.  It could be argued that the Governments' policies (such as the creation of the SBS and the refraining from asserting an all-encompassing national character) indicated that they believed in a kind of values secularism so that the values of no-one culture was deemed to be superior to another.  In other words, much like religious secularism in government was seen as a solution to conflict between religious denominations, a value-free government was seen a solution to cultural conflict in society.

Perhaps the idea of multiculturalism where every culture was equal became popular because it resonated with egalitarian values of Australian mythology. Alternatively, it may have resonated with those Australians who wanted to disassociate themselves from the stain of Convicts and the racism of the White Australia Policy. In short, it was an excuse to forget the past and be free of all negative associations with it.

On the flip side, asking people to see all cultures as equal and effectively give up any notions of cultural superiority was to go against human nature and political nature. Consequently, in response to lobbying, in 2006, the Liberal Australian government disbanded the policy of multiculturalism. In 2007, the newly elected Labor goverment affirmed the disbanding. In 2011; however, the Labor government revived the policy in response to lobbying and asserted four key principles:

Principle 1: The Australian Government celebrates and values the benefits of cultural diversity for all Australians, within the broader aims of national unity, community harmony and maintenance of our democratic values.
Principle 2: The Australian Government is committed to a just, inclusive and socially cohesive society where everyone can participate in the opportunities that Australia offers and where government services are responsive to the needs of Australians from culturally and linguistically diverse backgrounds
Principle 3: The Australian Government welcomes the economic, trade and investment benefits which arise from our successful multicultural nation
Principle 4: The Australian Government will act to promote understanding and acceptance while responding to expressions of intolerance and discrimination with strength, and where necessary, with the force of the law.

Although the government policy of multiculturalism didn't assert clearly defined values, governments create and maintain laws in response to polls, media campaigns and other forms of lobbying. In that regard, Australian values are asserted aggressively through law even if they are not defined and articulated under the label of Australian values. For example, since the 1980s, various state governments have decriminalised homosexuality. In that regard, a segment of Australians have asserted a set of values that have been in conflict with the values of many migrants – especially migrants from deeply religious countries. Likewise, laws prohibiting sexual discrimination have asserted a value of gender equality. This assertion has been in conflict with many migrant cultures that are traditionally patriarchal.

Despite values being asserted and defined in laws, there is still a reluctance to anchore values to the label of Australian for fear thise could constitute racism or cultural superiority. This conflict between the assertion of values while pretending none are being asserted has made the recognition of Australian values somewhat nuanced. An inevitability; however, is that Australian values will change as future generations encounter new problems and elevate new solutions. Perhaps future generations will have an Australian flag flying over their lobbying or perhaps they wont, but either way, the values will be created in response to an Australian circumstance.

1)J.F Mortlock, Experiences of a Convict. Sydney University Press 1965. (First published 1864-5.)

2)Chronicle Of Australia 2000
Penguin Aus

3) WHITE AUSTRALIA. A BAD POLICY. Friday 11 January 1924 - The Sydney Morning Herald

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