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Lecturer discusses national identity, following Opposition Leader's fourth Headland speech

ELLEN FANNING: The Opposition Leader, John Howard, has delivered his view from the headland of our national identity. Along the way, he attacked Paul Keating as a politician with a Napoleonic delusion, and Mr Howard urged Australians to be proud of their links to Europe. For his part, the Prime Minister responded by describing Mr Howard's Melbourne speech as vapid. Well, Richard White is a senior history lecturer at Sydney University, and author of the book Inventing Australia. This morning, I asked him how he would now sum up the differences which have emerged between Paul Keating and John Howard on the question of national identity.

RICHARD WHITE: Well, certainly, I mean, Howard is reacting to Keating's, in a sense, reformulation of national identity.

ELLEN FANNING: Is it solely reactive, though?

RICHARD WHITE: It's reactive in the sense that I think he's really repositioning himself very much, and I think the use of some of the words in the speech are interesting, things like mateship, egalitarianism - words that actually have traditionally been associated with trade unionism, for example. You know, it used to be said that mateship was another word for socialism, even. Howard is certainly trying to pull those back into a Liberal fold. But I think it also sort of goes back to Howard's own background, his own experience, just as Keating's does.

ELLEN FANNING: So what essentially now is the difference between the two?

RICHARD WHITE: Probably the main difference is that Howard is still making the claim that his is the true national identity. I think Keating has more of the perspective that national identity is something that shifts and changes over time, and that, to some extent, you know, politicians can manipulate it. Now, I mean, Howard is certainly trying to manipulate it, but he's doing it with the conviction that his vision of the national identity has always been and always will be, and is the true one.

ELLEN FANNING: John Howard refers to mainstream Australia in his speech and the columnist, Gerard Henderson, notes this morning that he didn't refer at all to multiculturalism or Aboriginal reconciliation at all in quite a lengthy speech. What does that reveal about his world view and his view of national identity?

RICHARD WHITE: I think it's .. I mean, I think he could well have talked about multiculturalism in a different sort of speech, but I think that the sort of purpose of this repositioning is the sort of traditional purpose of a lot of uses of national identity, to exclude some areas and to sort of privilege a particular view, and the claim that a particular view is the mainstream view is a way of sort of privileging that one over competing elements. There's a lot of harking back to the sort of Menzies view of the Liberal Party in all of this, that the Liberal Party represents the sort of forgotten people in the middle, that it doesn't represent big business. And I think he sort of tried to stress that, but also that it doesn't represent trade unionists and those people are sort of marginal to the real mainstream Australia.

ELLEN FANNING: And to what extent do you think John Howard's view of national identity and what it is to be an Australian is influenced by his upbringing in 1950s Australia?

RICHARD WHITE: I think it's certainly influenced by either his upbringing or his memory of his upbringing. I'm not sure which. But certainly the sort of sense of it being a very secure, very confident background that he came from. You know, the sort of confidence with which he talks about his certainty as to what the national identity is. I think those, to some extent, come from a sort of fairly secure home background.

ELLEN FANNING: And how appealing would that be to people listening?

RICHARD WHITE: I think nostalgia is a very powerful thing to incorporate into rhetoric about national identity, but I'm not sure. I think it could well backfire, too. So in that it is backward looking. I mean, the danger is that it looks back to a golden age in the past. Interestingly, I think, for most Australians, Australia's history, notions of national identity have been more future-oriented. I think most, if you look around the world, most formulations of national identity do go back to a past, but Australia stands out a bit in that regard in that it has traditionally looked to a sort of future that the national identity, you know, the full national identity will emerge in the future. And I think that's partly why you get a lot of .. there's so much talk in Australia about national identity because there's the sense that we haven't got there yet, you know, it's still to come, whereas other nations are often more confident about their glorious past.

ELLEN FANNING: Richard White, thank you. Richard White, a senior history lecturer at Sydney University, and author of Inventing Australia, a book about national images and identity.