Searching for Australian Values
Are we all at sea?
In the 19th century, a Convict wrote of an Aborigine:
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:
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:
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:
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:
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:
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
3) WHITE AUSTRALIA. A BAD POLICY. Friday 11 January 1924 - The Sydney Morning Herald