Being Australian

Today is the 26th of January. It is also known as Invasion Day, Aboriginal Day of Mourning, Survival Day, Australia Day. It means different things to different people. Some see it as a commemoration of the arrival of the First Fleet. For Indigenous Australians it is a painful day as they remember the impact of British colonisation practices on their people, culture and way of life. Others see it as a celebration of what it means to be Australian.

Understanding what it means to be Australian is frequently defined by what it is not. The term “un-Australian” is used quite regularly to criticise and repudiate behaviour or attitudes that are considered inappropriate. A search for “un-Australian” on the ABC news website resulted in a search list spanning up to 45 pages. Un-Australian has been used to criticise outsourcing jobs, panic buying, dobbing and even a decrease in gambling activity! In fact, it seems that un-Australian is used so frequently for such a broad range of people and organisations, one wonders if there are indeed any Australians left.

Being Australian is our national identity, but national identity is a construct. It’s invented. We are not born with an innate sense of what it means to be an Australian. We learn it through the stories we are told. These stories make up our national narrative. We also learn it through the stories that are not told, the stories that are excluded. The stories that make up our national narrative, the way that we tell these stories, as well as who decides what these stories are, is the main theme of Being Australian by Catriona Elder.

First published in 2007, Being Australian was actually one of my text books for Australian History, but as per usual for text books, we only read selected bits, not the whole book. In the lead up to Australia Day, and the division and controversy that ensues every year, I thought Elder’s book would be a good basis for reflection about this day and who we are as Australians. The book is divided into two parts. The first part deals with the stories that are told and the values that are emphasised, such as mateship, and masculinity, the hardship of war and survival in the bush, as well as whiteness and multiculturalism.   The second part looks at the way these stories and values are continually reinforced in our daily and national life, through art and literature, public holidays and national events, museums and heritage preservation. There is too much in Elder’s book to unpack here, apart from highlighting just a few interesting points.

Governments play a major role in defining and enforcing national identity. Most people prefer to live in a peaceful society and a harmonious and united nation is especially preferred in times of crisis. One of the key messages during the Pandemic has been “we are all in this together.” Elder demonstrates how Governments go to great lengths to develop policies, highlight certain historical events and fund particular forms of storytelling to create a sense of national unity and pride. Heroic and inspiring stories will be prioritised over those that show us in a poor light. We all want to be the hero. We all want to be the good guy. The Anzac Legend of courage, endurance and mateship is a good story. The stories of Pat Cash climbing through the crowd after winning Wimbledon or Steven Bradbury winning gold by being the last man standing are also great stories. But as we know, history is written by the winners, and in the Australian national narrative the winners have mostly been white and male.  

Some of the earliest notions of what Elder calls “Australian-ness” originated in stories from the bush. This was the domain of the working man. Men were active, battling and conquering, in the bush, the gold fields, the trenches, and on the sporting field. So Australian-ness came to mean male and this was reflected in much of the early Australian art and literature. In contrast, women played a passive, supporting role, but always in relation to men. While there has been a greater emphasis on highlighting women’s stories in recent years, this perception of masculinity as Australian-ness still persists. How often are men’s national sporting teams simply referred to as the Australian (fill in the blank) Team? Whereas the equivalent women’s team is always designated as the women’s team. The men’s team does not need to be differentiated because we just know that “Australian” refers to men. How often do museums and heritage centres focusing on a male dominated activity, such as mining or stock men, receive Government funding, whereas one that depicts the lives of women working in a bordello is dependent upon private funding. True story. I guess the bordello story doesn’t uphold the traditional view of Australian femininity and draws too much attention to a history of female exploitation. 

One of the things that continues to linger in Australia’s consciousness is the White Australia Policy. Although a policy of multiculturalism was embraced during the 1970’s, there was still an expectation that migrants would assimilate into the “Australian way of life.” Of course this actually meant an Anglo-Australian way of life. On the one hand there were messages about diversity and difference and how we are all immigrants really, but on the other hand the representation of Australian life in film, television and literature and national life emphasised the typical Australian white family. Have you ever noticed how preservation and restoration projects tend to favour architecture from the Federation period, whereas important sites from the post war immigration era are declared to be eyesores or shameful reminders and are frequently demolished. If we are all immigrants, why should British heritage be more valuable than non-British? The same privileging of Anglo-Australian heritage occurs in sport too. For a long time, soccer was considered an ethnic sport, until the national team started doing very well, and then it became Australian. But Elder explains how soccer had to go through a de-ethnicising process for it to become Australian. To be Australian was to be not only white but also British. Even today, we are still hearing stories in the media about the prejudice and racism migrants receive based on an assumption of white = Australian. 

This is not to say that the dominant narrative of whiteness and masculinity hasn’t been challenged in any way. However, when popular national stories are challenged or criticised they are usually met with varying levels of defensiveness or even aggression. How often are women told they are being “too sensitive” when they challenge patriarchal perspectives? How often are migrants on the receiving end of violence or verbal abuse when they enter public spaces? The stories that receive the most push back, though, are those about the relationships between Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.

Elder stresses that all people can be prejudiced or racist, behave badly or commit crimes. The truth about the Frontier Wars, the dispossession and disempowerment of Indigenous people and the Stolen Generations is becoming more widely known, but the idea of the Dying Race still persists. Perceptions about Aboriginal culture, art and land ownership are still often fixed in the past. There can be this idea that “real” Aboriginals live in the bush and do dot paintings. Sometimes heritage signs are phrased in the past tense. All cultures evolve, change and adapt, but Elder stresses that positioning Indigenous people purely in the past actually erases their indigeneity.  Now this is not necessarily intentional. Sometimes it is just a lack of knowledge or awareness, but it can also be a way of trying to exclude Indigenous people from the familiar story of white settlement.  We don’t like to hear the stories that paint us as the aggressors. They are uncomfortable and challenge who we thought we were as Australians. It is the kind of behaviour that would, at the very least, be labelled un-Australian.

Being Australian is a very thought provoking book. Elder encourages us to be aware of the stories that are told and those that are excluded and how Government leaders in particular, use those stories to forge a national identity. She encourages us to take a broader view that emphasises the sharing of multiple histories rather than one shared history and that encompassing the good and the bad enables all Australians to be fully human. And

…when one day becomes problematic, as Australia Day has for some citizens, the solution is not to simply find another day or event to celebrate, but to explore what the criticisms say about the story of the nation told by that particular holiday.

6 thoughts on “Being Australian

    • Thanks, there was a lot in the book and there were topics I didn’t even touch on like sexuality and the use of public space. But made me reflect on my own inherent biases which we are so often blind to.

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