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Australia and the USA: two brash countries and their national days

By Peter West - posted Thursday, 29 January 2015


We celebrated Australia day this week. It might be worth reflecting on Australia's identity and making some quick comparisons with our friend and ally, the USA.

My American visitors sometimes comment that "Australia seems a lot like America". There are some superficial similarities. We are both young,brash countries compared with the older ones like the UK or Italy, which grew from centuries-old cultures. Yet both of us were built on the ruins of much older civilizations. Our Australian constitution has some similarities with the US one: we have a Senate to which the States elect Senators. We also have a House of Representatives, as do the Americans. Looking at the Eastern beaches of Sydney, a Californian would probably be reminded of some of the coast south of San Francisco. We have hamburger joints and young people pick up a lot of American slang. It's sometimes said that Sydney is 'like California, with flies'. But there are important differences. Let's check a few of those before turning to a comparison of how each of us celebrates our national day.

First, the US is more coloured by religion. Some wit commented that "Australia got the convicts, but America got the Puritans". The USA has been built on the foundation of a number of States, many of which were set up by people fleeing religious persecution. The concept of a 'civil religion' has been used by some scholars.

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to describe this idea of 'one nation, under God', which appears in the Oath of Allegiance that Americans make to their nation and their flag. Australia, in contrast, is a pluralistic society in which people may profess any religion or none. The Church of England was once called the 'Established Church' but it has fairly minor status today as just one of many Christian faiths.

Second, the USA is by definition an independent nation with its own culture. The Declaration of Independence made that clear for everyone to see when proclaimed in 1776. Americans proceeded to develop their own versions of English and their own spellings. But Australia is still linked to Britain by a host of complex matters. These include: English common law; a literary musical and artistic culture which grew out of English society; and the English language. It has been said that Australia and America are two countries separated by a common language. Many of our usages are different. However, language is a living thing, as my children and students remind me. We have had to become used to American barbarisms in speech such as food for free ( instead of free food; train station instead of railway station; to impact the nation instead of have an impact on the nation. We are hearing many more hideous American uses of language such as using nouns for verbs- to source; and my pet hate, gifted instead of given. And so on. Nobody can tell Americans how to speak English properly.

Third, both of us have been affected by populism. In the USA we get such people as Sarah Palin, who seems to use her 'hockey Mom' status to carve out a niche for herself in the political landscape. She has had many predecessors, such as Theodore Roosevelt.

In contrast. Australian democracy has a rough, matey quality. Many of our leaders find it necessary to identify themselves as real dinkum Aussies. We would have to call this the attitude of the larrikin, contemptuous of most forms of authority and taking pride in being rough and tough. We expect Australians to speak fairly roughly, to have colourful language and express themselves forcefully. To do otherwise is to risk being called not masculine. Terms like pansy and girly are sometimes as pejorative names for men who aren't seen as masculine enough. I have explored these notions of Australian masculinity in Fathers, Sons and Lovers.

Russel Ward's work on the Australian Legend defined what it meant to be a typical Australian.

A thoughtful comment on the Legend appeared in Quadrant some years later.

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Bob Hawke was our most successful recent exponent as political leader and mate extraordinary. He emerged, of course, from the Australian Council of Trade Unions. Joh Bjelke-Petersen provided a typically quirky Queensland equivalent some years ago. Other leaders have been not populist at all- such as Bob Carr, former Premier of New South Wales. Where women stand in this pantheon of masculine populism remains unclear. We have had only one female Prime Minister so far and her success is debatable.

We could go on about Australian-American contrasts. But now I want to turn to a comparison of our national days which will encapsulate many of the differences.

I once saw the Fourth of July celebrations in Washington, DC. The army, navy marines and air force were there in strength. There was much pride in what Americans have done in securing half a continent, settling the wilderness and erecting a great civilization in it. American icons of all kinds were put on show: Pilgrim Fathers, the Mayflower, the frontiersmen, cowboys; and many well-known Presidents. I don't recall a lot being said about Italian or Greek immigrants. Or Native Americans. Afro-Americans seemed to be largely missing, though Washington DC has a large population of people of colour. But the sense of pride in the American achievement was strong. There was no deferring to any other country, such as France or England or Spain, though each of these made a big contribution to the USA as we know it. I once met a Spanish guy in the USA who said he had travelled in California for three weeks and spoke Spanish everywhere, except on two occasions. The USA has its diversities, though they are not always recognized. See for example complaints about the Academy Awards which this year, apparently, have virtually no recognition of people of colour.

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About the Author

Dr Peter West is a well-known social commentator and an expert on men's and boys' issues. He is the author of Fathers, Sons and Lovers: Men Talk about Their Lives from the 1930s to Today (Finch,1996). He works part-time in the Faculty of Education, Australian Catholic University, Sydney.

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