Musings on Australia Day

This is the week of Australia Day.

First up on the day, while it was still cool (36 degrees being the forecast maximum), I did something very Australian and mowed the lawn. Then I sat down to read the newspaper. I couldn’t help peruse the Australia Day honours list to see who I knew had gained an award. As usual there were a few – some well-deserved and others less so (which probably means that allowing for my inherent prejudices it was an equitable selection).

I must confess I did have mixed feelings about David Morrison being awarded the 2016 Australian of the Year by the Australia Council. His main claim to fame seems to have been his efforts to stamp out sexism in Australia’s armed forces. And this raises two concerns. Firstly this is something we would have expected him to do as chief of the army. Secondly it seems to indicate that the Australia Council is becoming more concerned about promoting causes rather than highlighting the significant achievements of Australians.

Then I was dismayed to find that the Queenslander of the year was to be Cate McGregor, a transgender military officer who hasn’t lived in Queensland for forty years. If you thought Tony Abbott’s knighthood of Prince Philip didn’t pass the pub test, what about this one! What’s more I couldn’t work out what Cate’s special achievement was other than her transgender status. And poor simple me I thought all this stuff about equality was about ensuring sexual orientation and gender issues didn’t define the individual.

I must confess I could relate to the words of Bettina Arndt who wrote:

….It’s a bit of a worry that gender politics is fast becoming the main criterion for choosing our cultural heroes.

One can only imagine the discussions at the RSL clubs!

It caused me to ponder, however, as I have sometimes done in the past, what this patriotic fervour is all about. I guess the concern is always highlighted to me when someone does something that is described as “very un-Australian”. This of course raises the issue of how can someone make that judgment. Is there a definitive list of values or behaviours that one might proclaim as typically “Australian”?

Australia Day always occurs during the progress of the Australian Open Tennis Championship. Australia has a proud reputation for its prowess at tennis, albeit substantially diminished in recent decades. We have recently performed well in cricket against India and New Zealand. Because of this and our success in sport in other areas where we generally perform above our weight in international sporting contests sometimes being “Australian” has been associated with our sporting achievements. But this is a very unsatisfactory conclusion in my eyes. Whilst I personally follow a lot of sport, some of my favourite Australians couldn’t give a hoot whether Australian sports people flourished or not. In the normal spectrum of life a win against the All Blacks or a triumph against the Indian cricket team might be momentarily satisfying, but we would make ourselves very vulnerable if we place our sense of identity on such an ephemeral platform.

Indeed some might argue that the behaviour of our young, self-centred tennis brats is the last thing we might want to identify with! We would be far more likely to align with our players if they had the demeanour of Roger Federer or could at least emulate the dignity and humility of a Pat Rafter or a Rod Laver!

Then hot on the heels of all this came the Mitchell Pearce incident about which the less said the better! So by now I had become quite convinced that I didn’t want our sporting (and particularly the off-field related) performances to be what defined us as Australians!

So let’s put the sports thing aside.

On days of national pride (particularly ANZAC Day) we are often prone to trot out the prowess of our fighting men. (Modern demands for inclusiveness insist that we also include our women. Despite their many sacrifices and worthy deeds that I in no way wish to diminish, the huge majority that have fallen in defence of our country and our freedom have been male.) There is no doubt that history shows that there have been many able, courageous Australian fighters. But many other countries, with some justification, could make similar claims. So whilst I have great admiration for those who have served us in the theatre of war which often resulted in the ultimate sacrifice, I am reluctant to say that our courage and fighting prowess is what defines us as Australian. Mind you I am moved to tears to read of their daring and bravery. Yet I suspect most nations would be able to find such stories.

It is often said that a particular Australian trait is our lack of respect for authority. The fact that many of our original settlers were criminals might give credence to this assumption. But the rise of the “nanny state” where we give the state authority to dictate what we might think and how we should behave in a multitude of the theatres of our lives would seem to contradict this. Stories of the Eureka Stockade and the exploits of the bushranger, Ned Kelly among others are invoked in support of this thesis. But most countries have stories of brigands and outlaws that they trot out. Robin Hood, Dick Turpin, Jesse James, Billy the Kid are a few that immediately spring to mind. Yet I suspect there is something in the Australian psyche that shies away from accepting positional authority. But then again, in the 1999 referendum more than 50% of us voted to retain the constitutional monarchy which means we would continue to defer to a British monarch as head of state that wasn’t democratically elected but acquired such a position as an hereditary right. So whilst I have a suspicion that this might indeed be an Australian trait it would be hard to deny there are mixed messages.

Closely aligned to this supposed Australian trait are mateship, egalitarianism and the notion of “a fair go”.

Some historians believe that the genesis of the Aussie term “mate” derived from the original convict transportation to Australia. The convicts were dehumanised by being prevented from using each other’s personal names. Consequently they took to calling each other “shipmate” which was soon abbreviated to “mate”.

It is then proposed that the notion was strengthened in the First World War when diggers found themselves fighting in foreign countries far from home with little understanding of the purpose or justification of the war. For many in the end, the pressing matter became one of just their survival and the survival of those around them. They rallied to support each other in this endeavour. And in those circumstances it is easy to see that mateship might dominate over patriotism and other motivators.

Mateship as a characteristic of Australianness was seemingly confirmed in 2013 by a Westpac survey which asked respondents to define what makes a typical Australian. Even though it was the highest response it still only gained the support of 15% of respondents. The game I suspect is given away by how ubiquitous the term “mate” is now used. It is not a label we preserve for those we are close to but is wantonly bestowed on everyone from the cab driver that picks us up to the acquaintance we strike in the street whose name we can’t recall. Therefore I am reluctant to promote mateship as a defining Australian characteristic. I suspect that the social nature of the human animal is such that what we define as Australian mateship is probably displayed by many nationalities.

All right, perhaps I should now desist from the conventional game of trying to prove how special we Australians are!

In numerous previous essays I have tried to show that our human behaviours are determined by a combination of our social conditioning (cultural influences) and our biological history (genetic inheritance). It is interesting that as we have over the years accepted migrants from all corners of the earth our genetic determinants have become much broader. Consequently then it is most likely that if there are any behavioural traits that define us as Australians then they are probably going to be learnt behaviours imposed on us by our culture.

Cultures are created by people who are keen to fit in with the pervading social mores. In order to meet their social needs of acceptance and confirmation, new arrivals have a strong driver to conform to the existing cultural norms. We will see the implications of this shortly.

I suppose when I undertake to look at our national characteristics I am always cautioned by the words of the good Dr Phil who reminds us that “nobody is special” and I have come to the conclusion that if that is true for the individual it is also true of the collective. So let me declare that I don’t believe there is any particular trait that defines us as a nation.

But, of course, that is not to say that it isn’t a particular privilege to be Australian. It certainly is. There are few other countries whose populations are so blessed.

In his book of 1964, Donald Horne depicted Australia as The Lucky Country. Whilst in recent decades people have used this description to depict Australia in a positive way, that was far from Horne’s intention. Horne wrote:

Australia is a lucky country run by second rate people who share its luck.

Whilst I don’t share Horne’s view in this respect I would still maintain that Australia is a lucky country. Whilst I am decidedly not an Anglophile, the fact that we have a British history has brought to us our basic democracy and our system of Government which often frustrates me but still is, on balance, as good as, if not better than, the alternatives I see around the world.

As I intimated above, there can be no doubt that these historic connections played a large part in establishing the accepted social norms in Australian culture. They have been modified (usually for the better) by the assimilation into our country of those from different ethnic backgrounds, but the impact of our British heritage still remains.

And no doubt we are a lucky country because of the resources nature has provided for us.

But I would contend that our people, including those that run us (again whilst often frustrating me) are certainly not second rate. So, whilst I think our wonderful Australian way of life has certainly been aided by our history and some of our natural advantages, our people are as good as any other.

So, as I have said in the past, whilst I am not proud to be Australian (largely because I had nothing to do with it – it was merely an accident of birth) I am certainly grateful to be Australian.

So as I sit here on the eve of Australia day contemplating what it is to be Australian, having a quiet tipple, I have come to the conclusion that whilst there is nothing particularly special about Australians, it is still a great privilege to be one!

3 Replies to “Musings on Australia Day”

  1. Ted – This is a very interesting analysis of what makes us tic as Australians if we can define and agree to what being an Australian is.

    I quite often reflect on my life and the peer influences from my formative years that may have impacted on my current values of today. Now, I increasingly question whether my current values could have been quite different had I taken a different path at an earlier stage in life by being influenced by different peers.

    I believe we need to recognize the success and achievements of Australians whether it be in the sporting, political, business, arts, academic or individual arena. However, like you, I have become increasingly confused by what are the real achievements of some who received honors in this year’s Australia Day Awards. As you have so articulately explained it, I am not suggesting that some of the winners are not talented deserving people with integrity, I just do not understand what their real achievement was.

    What I think I have now realized is that what I understood to be Australian values 40 years ago is likely to be very different to what future generations will understand to be their interpretation of Australian values.

    However, I suspect that we are now not able to clearly define and agree as a nation what are the real Australian values of today.


  2. Hi Ted, you may have covered the topic in previous blogs, but one thing I noticed about your well written piece is the absence of any mention of aborigines. I was wondering what your take is on aborigines (and all those in the “invasion day” camp) protesting against Aust Day. Do you think many of them are holding onto a victiim/entitlement mentality?

  3. Thank you for your comments, Brad and Matt.

    Brad over the years I have studied workplace cultures. Cultures of course reflect the underlying values. It was a concern to me that workplace cultures need to be continually worked on if they are to prevail. Most leaders don’t have the tenacity or sufficient strength in their own underlying values to manage to do that.

    If you extrapolate that to the wider society it is not hard to understand why our Australian culture and its underlying values is even more difficult to maintain. Therefore to expect a constancy in our values is to delude ourselves.

    That is not always a bad thing. For example I think Australia is a more tolerant society now than the one I experienced in my youth.

    One of the factors however that has resulted in a weakening of those values we traditionally held is our lack of understanding of our history. Educational trends in recent decades have tended to downplay our traditional British and Judaeo-Christian roots.

    As you will probably have gathered from my writings I am neither an Anglophile nor a Christian but I do acknowledge the large influence such antecedents have had on our cultural development.Our children, because of the changes in our educational curriculum know little about these influences and consequently are not able to appreciate the values they once inculcated in Australian society.

    Matt, you pose an interesting question. I believe the greatest failure of Australian society is reflected in the state of our indigenous population. We really must do better.

    And indeed, in truth, Australia Day is Invasion Day for our indigenous population provided of course they wish to put primacy on their indigenous identity over their Australian identity.

    Australians come from all corners of the earth and perhaps simplistically I think the purpose of Australia Day is to unite us, not to divide us.

    Although I suppose in historic terms the European invasion of Australia is a relatively recent historic event, many, many peoples around the world have experienced the same indignity. But by and large they seem to have been able to get over it and got on with making the best of their lives in the new circumstances.

    So let’s admit it – some two hundred odd years ago our British antecedents invaded Australia and inflicted some terrible things on the original inhabitants of our country. But I can’t see how the lot of our indigenous population is advanced one iota by maintaining an ongoing sense of victimhood surrounding this history.

    Most other peoples who have suffered such invasions have chosen to just get on with life and make the most of their circumstances. I suspect that our indigenous population might do better if they acted similarly.

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