An Australian Identity - Is it needed?
Looking at the history of Australia, it would be reasonable to expect that Australia should have grown into a society of human misery characterised by violence, conflict, selfishness and a general lack of national pride. Instead, Australia is a socially minded nation with the highest rates of pride in the western world. For example, the 2011-12 the World Values Survey indicated that 70% of Australians were ‘very proud’ of their nationality, compared with 56% of Americans, 40% of Swedes, 24% of Germans, and 21% of Dutch. Likewise, the 2015 Scanlon Foundation survey found that 93% of respondents have a ‘sense of belonging in Australia’ either to a ‘great extent’ or ‘some extent. (1)
That pride in country stems from, or has contributed to, a culture of wanting to give something back. Specifically, at beaches all over Australia, volunteer life guards keep a look out in case anyone is at risk of drowning. After houses are damaged in storms, volunteers in the SES (state emergency service) offer repairs. When houses are threatened in bushfires, volunteers in bush fire brigades risk their lives to fight the fires. In cities and towns around Australia, people donate goods and time to organisations like the Salvation Army or Saint Vincent De Paul so that they can help others in need. In 2006, almost a third of the adult population participated in voluntary work. (2) Politically, Australians have supported the creation of a welfare safety net and the provision of universal education. In short, Australia has an identity of belonging characterised by helping others.
Looking at its history, the contemporary pride and social mindedness of Australia is counter-intuitive. With the history that it has, it would have been more reasonble to expect Australians to respond to chaos of disaster by going on looting sprees or responding to the hardship of others by taking advantage of their weakness. After all, urban society commenced with Britain establishing penal colonies amongst nomadic people in the driest and harshest inhabited continent on earth. Such a beginning was akin to taking brutalised pit bull terriers and throwing them in the cages of Rottweilers that were trained in territorial defence. It would be reasonable to expect the dogs would tear themselves apart or fight until the other was dead. Although conflict did in fact occur, there was also a great deal of friendship and positive intent that found expression in the celebration of Aboriginal culture in fledging Australian identities.
Placing Convicts, British settlers and Aborigines in close proximity wasn’t the only expected flashpoint of conflict. Once transportation came to an end, British corporate interests used indentured labour from China and India as a substitute for slavery. The labour was intended to break the picket lines of the fledging union movement and undermine workers pushing for wage rises and safety. Exploited labour also came in the form of ‘black birding’ in which British companies kidnapped Pacific Islanders in a practice that was almost identical to slavery. Just as it would be reasonable to expect that the forced labourers from China, India and the Pacific would be bitter and hostile, it would be reasonable to expect workers fighting for a better deal would want to eliminate any obstacles in their way - even if the obstacles were being exploited themselves. The conflict between the bitter "slaves" and workers wanting a better deal would inevitably lead to violence. In what is somewhat consistent with expectations, an Australian identity based on white racial pride emerged, however, it was a weak identity that also included any migrant, coloured or otherwise, that was likely to join a union. For example, people of African descent were not only invited to join unions but also were celebrated as representatives of Australia. Likewise the Immigration Restriction Act (informally known as the white Australia policy) avoided racial labels as it devised policies to stop non-white immigration simply because being racist offended the identities of many Australians. Furthermore, the Act was implemented in such a way that Black Americans and New Zealand Maori would be able to bypass the restrictions and enter Australia.
From 1900 to the end of World War 2, Australia didn't receive significant migration in a manner that would be expected to cause conflict. Furthermore, it didn't receive migrations from regions that could be expected have a significant cultural clash with groups in Australia. Nevertheless, Australians fought in two world wars where they were exposed to propaganda that was very derogatory to the nations that Australia was at war with. After World War 2, Australia opened its doors to many of the very people that the propaganda had been targeting.
In addition to opening its doors to the former enemy, Australia opened its doors to to millions of European refugees who had spent centuries trying to kill other groups of Europeans on their way to Australia. This was followed up with Asian refugees fleeing political ideologies that were being promoted in Australian universities and by Australian political parties. Once more, there was far less conflict than would be reasonably expected from putting such groups in close proximity to each other. Examples of the though processes could be seen in the words of German migrant Hein Bergerhausen:
Likewise, in the words of Australian Tom Little,
To put Australia's peaceful migration into perspective, by 2006, migrants constituted 22.8 per cent of the Australian population and almost 50% of the population were either born overseas, or had one or both parents born overseas. Despite this diversity, very little conflict has occured. Of the little that has occured, the biggest conflict seems to have been some fists thrown and derogatory banners unveiled at the 2005 Cronulla “riots”. This was a day in which drunk bogans expressed hostility to all Lebonese Australians after some Lebonese had beaten up a life guard and made rape jokes to offend sun baking women. Certainly, the one-off Cronulla “riot” was tame in comparison to the situation in France and England where migrants only comprise around 5 per cent of the population but on-going "ethnic" riots are a feature of the social landscape.
Even though Australia is remarkably successful considering the backgrounds of the groups that have come together in its history, it would be fair to say that Australia is not a country that celebrates or acknowledges its success story. Furthermore, it would be fair to say that there is little-to-no celebration of an Australian identity in academia or the media. To the contrary, academic discussions of Australia generally caricatures Australians with the negative stereotypes. In other words, Australian academia defines Australians using stereotypes that match the expected outcome of Australia's history rather than the surprising reality of it.
Perhaps the lack of official or academic celebration of Australia's social success is a positive thing. Once an identity is defined and prescribed, there is scope for it being exploited by people saying the group should join a specific cause, wave a certain banner, think a certain way, refrain from a certain criticism or vote for a specific party. With time, instead of identities being chosen, they are imposed, and instead of people volunteering to help each other, they are compelled to work for the powerful. In short, a culture is created that is nothing like the culture of Australia and identities are created that are alien to the identities so many social minded Australians have chosen for themselves.
Timeline of the Australian identity
Aboriginal tribal identities were based around an animal or plant totem. Each Aboriginal person believed they had three forms which gave them a continuous life form. The totem was the form after human and then to spirit. As the cycle continued, so did the Aboriginal cultures.
There was no concept of an Aboriginal identity or Australia as one land. Each tribe was very much its own unit and reserved hostility to other tribes. This hostility to an outgroup helped maintain a strong ingroup identity.
Because Aboriginal identities were not defined along racial lines, there was more hostility between different Aboriginal tribes that there was towards the colonists that arrived in 1788. Furthermore, the prestige of the tribe was not defined according to size of land ownership, but according to the number of people in a tribe. For this reason, the tribe was both open to new inductees, but also intent on destroying all rivals.
-Paintings, customs, songs, myths, stories
After gaining their ticket of leave, Convicts started referring to themselves as Legitimates. Their thinking was that since they had been "chosen" by the finest judges in England, they were of the few Europeans with a legitimate reason to be in Australia. Later they referred to themselves as Emancipists because it implied they had attained liberty and strove for the liberty of others. The Legitimate/Emancipist identity was maintained with hostility to the Exclusives.
Expression - Songs, flash language, tattoos, convict women mooning wowsers or 'exposing her person.'
Note - Identity not defined along racial lines. As a consequence, hostility to Exclusives was far greater than any hostility to Aboriginal tribes.
The Exclusives were free British settlers, or military officers who had left the service. The Exclusives advocated confining all offices and civic honours to Emigrants with the total exclusion of Emancipists and their offspring.
The Exclusives were extremely pro-British and maintained their identity with a strong hostility to the Legitimates/Emancipists.
Expression - English flag, English clothes, formal English speech
Note - The Exclusives saw the Aborigines as 'noble savages.' Their thinking was that Aborigines were without sin as they have never learnt it. For this reason, they wanted to prevent Aborigines mixing with Convicts.
1800 – 1850 – Convicts have children
The Native Born - Currency lads and lasses
The first native born in Australia were taunted as the 'wretched' and the lowest class because their parents had been Convicts. This discrimination was institutionalised when it came to the distribution of land grants. Whereas free immigrants were frequently given grants running in thousands of acres, the native born of Convict stock were only allowed sixty acres.
The bush pioneer became the icon for the native born. Out in the bush, no laws ran and people were free to sing folk songs or live in equality. There was no room for elitism because people on the land needed to rely upon one another in the tough conditions. The identity was maintained with hostility to English immigrants and authority figures.
Expression - Bushranger songs, bush poetry
Ballad of Ben Hall
As the colony expanded out from Sydney, the Europeans came into conflict with Aborigines over land. Although tribal identities remained, the Europeans started to take the place of rival tribes as the principle enemy.
Although there was hostility, there was also friendship. Some Aborigines left their tribes and formed good relations with the native born. They worked as droving hands and sang songs with the other drovers. Aside from being admired for their lyrical ability, they were admired for their bush skills. In a sense, their knowledge of the land had them admired as the protypical bushman. Reflecting the admiration for the Aborigines is the use of Aboriginal place names for rural Australia.
1850 - 1900 The gold rush years
The Digger (Miner)
In 1853, the discovery of gold sparked massive waves of immigration. Miners from all over the world descended upon Australia and brought with them ideals of liberty, equality and fraternity. Although they valued self-reliance, independence and resourcefulness, they were also fiercely loyal to their mates.
Egalitarian sentiments were solidified with a dislike of the ruling colonial authorities that were deemed to be corrupt and elitist. This gave rise to a union movement. As the authorities tried to break unions via the importation of Chinese labour, the Chinese became another enemy to solidify the Digger's identity.
Expression - Eureka Stockade Flag. No songs were written to glorify the Eureka Stockade.
At the height of the gold rush, there were up to 100,000 Chinese people in Australia. Chinese newspapers of the time depicted the Chinese as hardworking and the other miners as lazy. Although such stories may have indeed been a reflection upon how the Chinese saw themselves, they may have also been a form of propaganda designed to persuade the Chinese not to complain about being exploited by mining companies.
When the Chinese weren't working for a company, they worked together in teams. It was said that they were very efficient at extracting gold and often went to the mine sites deserted by other Diggers, and found gold that had been missed. This was said to have infuriated the other miners.
Although most of the Chinese returned to China, some stayed and established businesses. Unlike most expat Chinese populations around the world, these Chinese seem to have integrated into the other emerging Australian identities.
Expression - Newspaper articles calling other miners lazy.
The Wowser (activist)
By the turn of the century, the anti-transportation activists of the 1850s had evolved into anti-Chinese activists. The wowsers were very loyal to the English empire and saw themselves as British rather than Australians.
Expression - Protest marches and posters likening the 'yellow peril' with Convicts.
Capitalist and outcasts
Words of racial superiority probably did not wash with any Australian of mixed blood or those descedended from Convicts. To the contrary, the stigmisation of the Chinese probably fostered a sense of empathy. The Kelly Gang seemed to be one such group that had time for the Chinese. They were rumoured to have been helped by Chinese (although this might have been propaganda to win the public relations war against the gang.) One member of the gang, Joe Byrne, was on good terms because he could speak fluent Cantonese.
Some sections of the business community could also see the positive side of the Chinese. Perhaps due to the language barrier, Chinese were less likely to join the union movement, and so allowed businesses to pay low wages.
Federated nation – 1900- 1950
The pioneer continued on the bush tradition laid by the previous generations.
Expression - Paintings by the likes of Arthur Streeton and Tom Roberts. Poetry by Banjo Pattern and Henry Lawson.
The Digger had his baptism of fire in the Gallipoli campaign. Rather than hate the enemy, the Diggers seemed to hate the English. The Poms were seen as filthy cowards whose incompetence had resulted in the loss of life of countless Australians.
Perhaps the dislike of Poms made the Diggers better soldiers. It seems as if they felt that they had to prove their superiority over the English on the battlefield.
Expression - War poetry, Anzac Day, courage on the battlefield
The Wowser (Englishman)
Once the threat of Convicts and Chinese had ended, the Wowsers found themselves somewhat aimless. Some directed their attention to campaigning against frivolous pastimes like gambling and drinking. Others found it immoral for people to jump into the ocean wearing small bathing suits.
With a dislike of these great Australian pastimes, the Wowsers remained obsessive in their support for English values, and moral empowerment.
1950 - 2000- The larrikins, post-modernists
The Aboriginal Victim
By the end of World War II, Aboriginal tribal identities had eroded to the extent that white people stopped seeing differences between Aboriginal tribes and instead began viewing them as a homogenous out-group. Names for individual tribes faded away and instead Aborigines, the generic word for an indigenous population, came into use by default.
Aborigines also stopped thinking in cultural terms and instead began to think of themselves in racial terms. Blacks were part of their in-group while all whites were the out-group invaders. Asians were in an undefined category.
Many Aborigines developed a strong identification with black power movements from America. They assimilated rap music, and the baggy style of clothes. Oddly, many Aborigines became Rastarian; except they dropped the green from the colour coding. (Rastafarism is a pseudo-Christian based religion developed by the descendents of slaves wanting to show pride in their African heritage. Its name comes from Prince Rastafari of Ethiopia. It is not possible to be Rastarian without African heritage.)
Perhaps assessments of Aborigines also went downhill in mainstream society. When the bush was held up as the "true Australia", the Aborigines were celebrated as the prototypical bushmen. As the bush lost its iconic status, so too did the Aborigines that lived in it.
Expression - Aboriginal flag, protest marches, music, Aboriginal tent embassy, defiance of white authority
Although Larrikins have always been popular in Australia, it wasn't until after World War II that larrikins also became national heroes. The likes of Dawn Fraser and John Newcombe commanded respect across the classes, which made their rule indiscretions difficult to criticise. The result was a change in the meaning of the world larrikin. Instead of conjuring images of street criminals, it conjured images of good-hearted risk takers.
The larrikin identity was maintained by mocking the wowser and subsequently taking delight in their displeasure.
Expression: Praise for icons such as Dawn Fraser, Ned Kelly, John Newcombe. The music of AC/DC and Skyhooks.
Expatriate/ global swagman
While the multiculturalists tended to avoid new experiences, the expatriate went searching for them. Some went as backpackers to pull beers in a London pub. Others went as actors to America to make their fortune. Some went to Japan to establish television shows.
The global swagman's desire for new experiences gave rise to the expression that "there is nothing more Australian than spending time in someone elses' country."
Expression - Songs such as Downunder, movies like Crocadile Dundee and iconic expatriates like Nicole Kidman, Russel Crowe, Kylie Minogue, taking a jar of vegemite overseas, Qantas theme: "I Still Call Australia Home."
2000 onwards - Bogans and anti-bogans
The word 'bogan' originated in the 1980s in reference to teenagers that listened to heavy metal. Over the following three decades, the category was expanded. The book, "Things Bogans Like" suggests that bogan and Australian are interchangeable terms.
Traditionally, bogan was a term that was negatively applied to people rather than a term people chose to embrace.
Expression - Southern Cross Tattoos, bumper stickers,
Anti-bogans are by far the largest social group in Australia and hold most of the power. They do not have a clear idea about what they are, but they know they don't like bogans and are not bogans.
Area-7 - Nobody Likes a Bogan
Expression - Songs like "Nobody Likes a Bogan", books such as "Things Bogans Like", the "comedy" of the Chaser and Catherine Deveny