Yassmin Abdel-Magied

What exactly does it mean to be an “Aussie”…?

Image: AAP

We Aussies love to bring up the values that make up the national character, writes Yassmin Abdel-Magied, but do we all practice what we preach?


The lead up to Australia Day is a little like the run up to New Year’s Eve for the nation.

Just like NYE, nearly every Aussie gets prepared for the big party by choosing the playlist (voting in Triple J’s Hottest 100), prepping the catering (getting the barbecue meat sorted) and making sure everyone we care about has an invite.

The similarities don’t stop there: we get all introspective by thinking about our past (as a nation), highlighting our achievements through people like the Australian of the Year and trying not to think too hard about where we went wrong.  Every year, without fail, we also have a nationwide reflection on who we are as a nation and what it means to be Australian.  Every year it comes back to the same thing: we look different, but we share the same values, especially mateship and a fair go.

Do we practice what we preach?

The fact that this public dialogue is a common part of the Australia Day celebration is unique and instructive in itself.  The Australia as we know it today is quite young, so we are  in nation terms  barely pre-teens, figuring out who we are, what we are proud of and what we really care about.

Australia Day is also a time to talk about multiculturalism and diversity, because that is ultimately one of the building blocks that has made Australia what it is today.  The statistics already confirm what we all inherently know; almost half the population was either born or has a parent that was born overseas.  “Diverse” is something we just are.  Yet it would appear that we don’t always quite know how to deal with it.

I remember asking a colleague at work whether he considered me Aussie, after he’d talked about “those immigrants” not wanting to change their culture.  He was a country lad from Queensland, broad ocker accent and a bloodline that went back to the convicts.  I’m the first gen migrant, Muslim, wearing a hijab and having grown up eating Sudanese food, almost an example of what he was talking about.

When he realised I wasn’t born in Australia, he seemed a little stuck.

“How long have you lived here?” he then asked.

“Pretty much all my life I guess,” I replied.

“Well, then. You sound pretty Aussie I suppose. You’re alright I guess…”

In the face of all this diversity, who gets to decide what “Australian” is anyway?

The Scanlon Foundation’s “Mapping Social Cohesion” report makes for some fascinating reading. It gives an annual insight to how we deal with such diversity, and how our attitudes to issues like multiculturalism and migration are changing over time. The 2014 report was very telling.

Firstly, the good: in 2014, we had the lowest levels of concern around immigration in the history of the report. Only 35% of respondents consider the immigration intake “too high”. Given the fact that many European nations report that around 60-75% of people believe the immigration intake is too high, Australian attitudes toward immigration are possibly among the most positive in the Western world.

The flipside is that it does not seem to have translated into positive changes in behaviour.  The report showed an increase in the reported experience of discrimination, up to 18%.  Delving deeper, we are shown that 5% of the total population experience it at a rate of at least once a month, and the victims are overwhelmingly those from a non-English speaking background. This contributed to the lowering of the “Scanlon-Monash Index of Social Cohesion”, which dropped to its lowest level since 2007, due to negative sentiments in the space of social justice and equity.

So even though there is a broad acceptance of diversity and we generally think that multiculturalism has been good for us, that does not always translate into fair treatment for all.

Opinion is divided on whether or not immigrants should be expected to “integrate”, and people tend to reflect undecided views on this issue.  Although the country has an appreciation for multiculturalism, we don’t know how to deal with what that means for our identity just yet…

…or do we?

Perhaps we do, and it’s just a few who haven’t quite gotten the memo yet.

It comes back to the question, what does it mean to be Australian?  It is a question we ask ourselves and relentlessly debate every Australia Day, and an addendum should be added.  How do we make our Australian identity resilient?  How do we build trust in each other as a community?

Trust and resilience comes from our national narrative. Being “Aussie” is something that every individual has a unique interpretation of; that is the beauty of our nation.  However, there should be a strong sense of leadership around the importance that we all play in creating our nation.

We need strong, united leadership that looks beyond politicking and recognises the values of all those who call Australia home.  We need to invite those that feel like they are on the margins to be a part of that national conversation in a genuine way.  We need to show those that are undecided about what level of” ‘integration” is acceptable that it isn’t actually about “integration”, but acceptance. The Australian way of life is about accepting that we all have our own ways, but bringing it all together is what makes us Aussie, and that fair go makes us great.



Yassmin Abdel-Magied

Yassmin Abdel-Magied is the president and founder of Youth Without Borders, an organisation that empowers young people to positively change their communities. She serves on various boards and councils and works as an engineer on oil and gas rigs.

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