Australia: Who the bloody hell are we?


After the weekend’s Reclaim Australia rallies, Maiya Elali got to wondering who we are. Are we what we claim to be …or are we something else?


She’ll be right. Or will she? At a recent Reclaim Australia rally, a speaker waxed poetic about how he wanted Australia to have one culture – he and his supporters were not against immigration per se, no – they didn’t mind it so long as those that came to our shores adopted our singular culture.

The notion of a monoculture is tied with that of national identity. In many respects, the last shred of identity we really have is that we look like a nation in trouble, what with our various issues of our treatment of refugees and Indigenous people, our stance on marriage equality, our laws on whistleblowing and our approach to sustainability (read: “turn and run”).

All of this while reports of corruption at all levels of government continue to spew forth from our beleaguered capital. So in a sense, I agree with that speaker: a national identity is a useful thing, acting as a motivator and a guiding hand. But what sort of identity are we talking about here?

One thing is certain. The days of Australia being thought of as a nation of Crocodile Dundees have faded. That reputation was so beloved to Australians once upon a time that we played it up to the world (especially to Americans, who likely enjoyed it more than we did). We embraced these symbols not just as a reputation, we wholeheartedly adopted them as our identity. This falsely founded belief was enough to carry us for a time, even helping our nation skim over systemic problems we hid from the world. I say it was falsely founded because you cannot solely base an identity on frivolous things like enjoying alcohol or grilling shellfish.

Identity or character is more to do with mental, ethical and moral qualities rather than the way we think we should be viewed. It has nothing to do with where you come from, what food you eat or where and how you go and pray (if you pray at all). That’s why the identity we thought we had was destined to crumble, as the problems we had happily glossed over rose up again, more powerfully. Now we’re facing that nagging existential question, which manifests itself through anger: Who are we? Or, if I may, who the bloody hell are we?

Most of the problems we glossed over were to do with race and culture, the same issues cropping up in these Reclaim Australia rallies – namely our booming multicultural community, who felt (and often still do feel) they had no place in an identity that pretended they weren’t even there. It’s hard to feel included when no one wants you. When those issues came to a head with the occasional race riot or two and the ubiquitous slur “Go back to where you came from,” (even though at some point we all came here from somewhere and when it comes to Australian citizenship that is neither here nor there), we found ourselves at a loss.

Now, statements and behaviour from our representative members continually degrade our reputation (classics include, with some paraphrasing: wind turbines are ugly; get a better job and make more money if you want to live in this ridiculously overpriced city; Indigenous people make a lifestyle choice when they live in remote communities, and so forth) are paired with calls for a return to the “Australian way of life”. We anxiously question if the international community thinks we’re just a bunch of callous, racist, sexist homophobes that don’t care about the environment or others or common sense. We start wondering if that is who we really are.  

So what does it mean to be Australian? And why does it matter?

National identity is important and not just a pretext to be leapt upon when the flags come out – it helps people experience a sense of belonging, which, as we are social animals, allows us to lead healthier, more fulfilling lives. It lubricates the cogs of society and keeps everything moving. We will have national debates about big issues on which we may not all agree, but in general, with a national identity to fall back on or turn to, we have some idea of who we, collectively, would like to be. We can work out our issues civilly, with informed discussion and political participation. Perhaps you are reading this and the latest news and thinking, well how can we ever hope to reach that point?

There’s a silver lining. The Commonwealth is experiencing growing pains.

I choose the term growing pains specifically because I want to stress that what we are experiencing as a nation is, while unpleasant, not out of the ordinary. We are, after all, a relatively young country in terms of Western colonisation and we haven’t experienced what other countries have in terms of civil war and quests for independence. The important thing to remember is that growing up is a time when you may not know who you are and what’s happening to you, but you strive through it and attempt to find both your place in the world and some comfort in your own skin. We shouldn’t strive to join wars or deregulate our universities or sell our resources just to put hair on our chest. We need to stop thinking of our outdated identity and instead, we must start really, truly examining what it is about us – all of us – that makes us great. As Lao Tzu said, “When I let go of what I am, I become what I might be.”

I’ll get the ball rolling.

Australians are hardy folk, tempered by a beautiful but unforgiving landscape filled with curious, often deadly creatures (inflated housing markets, food and petrol prices, melanoma). We treat these things with anything ranging from optimism to relative indifference – this characteristic oddity is of great interest and affection to people from other countries that observe our attitude and deem us tough, calm under pressure and down to earth. The idea of “she’ll be right” might be derided as complacent, but it’s likely one of the reasons we have managed to go on as a society, because embedded within are the qualities of living on the sunny-side, mostly choosing to be easy-going rather than agitated or intolerant.

We value honesty, frankness and we’re largely unpretentious (which is why swearing is part of our daily vernacular), and we don’t accord respect to someone based on authority or rank but rather the value of their character (we have famously rejected well-known individuals from visiting our country because they didn’t match our values).

So you see, we are somebody.

After all, the things I just mentioned are just the sorts of qualities that make up an identity – not one based on the colour of your skin, your religion, sexuality or where you live, but one based on the substantial meat of values. Resilience, optimism, honesty and mateship. Now there’s an identity people can rally around.

Then, maybe, she’ll be right.


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