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What does it mean to be an Australian and how has it changed?

By Peter West - posted Monday, 25 January 2016


We are about to have another Australia Day. And as usual, it raises questions. What does it mean to be Australian? Who's included, and who's not? And how has it changed? In this piece I want to take a long historical view, and look at changes since 1900.

Australia was basically British. At least, it was for the people of the newly-joined-up colonies making up the new country, Australia in 1901. (The Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander population was mostly forgotten and I will leave discussion of those issues till later). Where did mateship come from, asked the well-known writer C E W  Bean. His answer begins, "The tradition was largely British…"Australia's links with Britain are undeniable, whether of laws, language, much of its literature, its traditions; and this is barely the start. In the 1960s Keith Hancock wrote his own version of what Australia is in a book called Australia:

Our fathers were homesick Englishmen, or Irishmen, or Scots, and their sons, who have made themselves at home in a continent, have not yet forgotten those tiny islands in the North Sea. A country is a jealous mistress and patriotism is commonly an exclusive passion: but it is not impossible for Australians, nourished by a glorious literature and haunted by old memories, to be in love with two soils.

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How much of this is still true? This would be a good topic to set for school-kids to debate today, with all its tones of a man who has lived in a world rather different from ours. Today we might have a mixed-culture and mixed-race country, but the overwhelming language is still English. If a European visitor turned on his TV in Melbourne or Darwin, he would be struck by how British the ABC's TV coverage is, from the dreary parade of what has happened- if anything - in some tedious game of cricket; and the never-ending story of Stephen Fry and antique shows that the ABC imagines is still relevant to anyone living here . For most Australians today, I would argue that our links with Great Britain signify more of a cosy reminder of where we've been rather than where we're going.

We would not say, as Menzies did in typical style at the time of the Suez Crisis of 1956 :

Some casual but biased observers have suggested that we have merely 'toed the line'. This is, of course, nonsense. We have not...lacked the capacity for expressing our own views, though we have at all times expressed them as British people.

There are still a few who might echo these words, but the uproar that greeted then Prime Minister Abbott's decision to award a knighthood to Prince Philip on Australia Day, 2015, showed that most Australians recognised that these ideas belong to a long-gone era. For many years, writers and artists had found beauty in the new land and contrasted it with the old. Thus Australia has often been defined against Britain- as it was in Dorothea Mackellar's poem 'My Country'. I believe most Australians would empathise with her sentiments today.

Australia has had a complex relationship with Asia. For many years, Australians felt they were an Anglo-Saxon enclave surrounded by Asiatic and dark-skinned people. Fear of the 'yellow peril' had been a feature of Australian feeling since at least the goldrushes of the 1850s. Our first Prime Minister, Edmund Barton, expressed similar fears when introducing the White Australia policy in August, 1901. He said we had to guard against 'certain Asiatic influxes'. Cheap Asian labour would take away jobs from white Anglo-Australians. The economic basis for this policy has been little understood. World War II merely showed that there was sense behind the fears. And well after World War II, fear of Asia remained.

It is difficult to summarise with much authenticity where Australia stands in relationship to Asia today. The relationship with China alone would take a good deal of explanation. Yet when a course on Australian history since 1900 was set for New South Wales schools in the 1960s, China was not even included. It was still being called 'Red China' into the 1970s. Today it's another story. With Chinese buying land, making investments here, Chinese tourists visiting in the millions, and Australian investment in China, we are looking at a huge shift from earlier times. Asian-Australians find their own niche and have become part of our weekly routine in food and entertainment. Having comedies like 'Family Law' on SBS shows us that enjoying self-mocking comedies is a trait shared by many Australians.

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Have we grown up yet? It's a curious feature of Australia. We seem forever coming of age and forever in change. We have not yet 'cut the apron strings' to England, though this is being debated, apparently eternally. We are still debating the strength of our alliance to the USA, and whether our current Prime Minister is too friendly to the Americans. We are always becoming grown up but never there yet. We could be compared to old-established countries like China, with a history going back thousands of years, despite fairly recent changes. Or the USA, with what I believe is the world's oldest written constitution. Or indeed Spain or Italy, with ruins and monuments showing any visitor their respectability.

Does being Australian mean being male?

A charming novel by Miles Franklin tells us a lot about how men and women related:

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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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