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Australian national character.

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Tuesday 7 August 2007

John Hirst, emeritus scholar, History Program, La Trobe University


The Australian national character

I believe that there is an Australian national character. This makes me something of a pariah in the modern academy where national character is highly suspect-it is said to be an artificial construct, or an oppression (since you have to conform to it), or an absurd generalisation.

The compilers of guidebooks still believe in national character and differences in national character because they instruct readers on how to behave in foreign countries. They know that it would not be helpful to say to a traveller to Japan that the Japanese are all different or that they are exactly like Australians, so behave as you would at home.

I try pieces of travel advice on my students. To which country does this passage apply?

The people are very particular about grammar and pronunciation. They like to hear their language spoken well and they expect everyone to know the great books of the national literature.

That is France; certainly not Australia.

If we can confidently identify what is not Australia, we should be able to say what is. The writer Sally White did this in a book she wrote to help foreign students understand Australia. She summarised Australian history and the Australian character in two pages. Among her judgements were these:

Australians don't respect people just because of their role in society or their birth. They dislike people who seem arrogant. Australians are relaxed and informal about most aspects of daily living. There are some rules about polite behaviour but Australians aren't too upset if he rules are broken. As long as someone's behaviour doesn't interfere with another person's activities or beliefs, Australians are tolerant and easy-going.

That seems to me a good guide to give to someone coming from China or Japan. What a shock it must be to them.

The most telling evidence about the reality of national character and national differences comes from an academic who doubted their existence, or who doubted that they would matter in the circumstances he was examining. The academic was Gavan Daws and he was examining the behaviour of the prisoners of the Japanese in World War II.

I began imagining that if human beings were worked and starved and beaten to the point of death, they would be reduced to barely functioning skeletons, scraps of biology, with all the so-called veneer of civilisation flayed out of them, all national culture and character trampled out of them. Not so. The Americans were the great individualists of the camps, the capitalists, the cowboys, the gangsters. The British hung on to their class structure like bulldogs, for grim death. The Australians kept trying to construct little male-bonded welfare states. These national cultural differences were obvious to everyone in the camps in matters crucial to survival, from discipline, to food gathering, to medical-surgical doctrine on amputation.

I have recently produced a book on the Australian national character. It's called The Australians: insiders and outsiders on the national character since 1770 . It may seem strange that I have I included in this book an extract from George Orwell on the English character. Australians have regularly defined themselves as very different from the English. When they do so they are thinking of the toffy upper-crust Englishmen in a bowler hat. Orwell, in describing the English character, wrote of the working class and the lower middle class-the very people who came to Australia. The culture of these people, Orwell writes, centres around 'the pub, the football match, the back garden, the fireside and the 'nice cup of tea'.' For the English liberty means 'the liberty to have a home of your own, to do what you like in your spare time, to choose your own amusements instead of having them chosen for you from above'. The common people he says are 'inveterate gamblers, drink as much beer as their wages will permit, are devoted to bawdy jokes, and use probably the foulest language in the world'.

Much of this is true of Australians and true of Australians who are no longer working class. I think the local experience, especially of the bush, has been important in shaping the national character but its influence can be exaggerated; the values that were brought here by the first immigrants are just as important. The distinctiveness of the Australian character is the special mix of imports and local growth.


John Hirst  

Emeritus Scholar 

History Program 

La Trobe University