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Thursday 25 August 2005

Anthony Moran, research fellow in politics, La Trobe University




Kel had been a shearer in his earlier days. He had lived in and travelled through many parts of Australia, and liked a lot of what he had seen - the people, the places, the landscape. He had never been overseas. When he woke up each morning and looked out the window he still thought Australia ‘was the best country in the world’. When I asked him whether he thought it was important to have an Australian identity he was adamant that it was. He had taught his kids the poems of Banjo Patterson and Henry Lawson to give them ‘a picture of what Australia was like back in the old days’. 


Some people argue that with intensifying globalization the era of the nation is passing into history, and that national identity will give way to other forms of identity somewhere in the future. If they’re right - and I’m not sure that they are - then that future seems a long way off. National identity is for many people a buffer against a world that often seems unruly, and sometimes simply frightening. It is also a positive and ongoing project, linking the past with the present and future. For many, national identity provides an important narrative framework for their lives, and even helps to give their lives broader meaning. 


National surveys indicate that large majorities feel ‘very proud’ to be Australian, and cross national studies show that the level of national pride in Australia ranks among the highest in the world. Interviewing Australians, as I have done over the past few years, confirms those findings in my mind. I don’t think that there is anything wrong with that pride. A strong sense of pride in and commitment to Australia can mean that people feel a sense of obligation to others that reaches beyond narrow self-interest. Such nationalism does not preclude internationalism, or being a good global citizen. But talking to people has also convinced me that they find different things to be proud of about Australia, and that ‘Australia’ means many different things. 


This has always been so. From the nineteenth century onward republican and imperial ideals for Australia competed for people’s hearts and minds. For some, Australian national identity was inseparable from British identity. For others, Australian identity had to be distinguished from British identity and forged in relationship with Australian land. 


But things have moved on, and there are new debates over what it means to be Australian. Some people lament that we are losing our identity, especially in the cities that, they say, have become too cosmopolitan, or too Americanized. A remnant ‘true’ Australian identity might still exist among country people, it’s sometimes argued, but this claim jostles with the Maccas and KFCs that litter our country towns, and the American sitcoms that everyone watches even out in the backblocks. The contexts in which Australian identity is forged have altered. Intensifying global connections are part of this. 


Then there is the argument about multiculturalism, with defenders of Australia’s Anglo-Celtic heritage pitted against those who feel that Australians must embrace and celebrate their diversity, reflecting and responding to the dramatic transformation of the Australian population in the last fifty years brought about by ethnically diverse mass immigration. At the same time, instantaneous long distance communication and rapid transport enable transnational linkages between people to be experienced with much more intensity and immediacy than in the past. Together, these two changes have had far more profound implications for different ways of being Australian than any form of government policy, like assimilation or multiculturalism, might stimulate or control. 


In this context we must have faith in our robust but at the same time quiet form of national identity which, despite angry words, has been for the most part an ongoing civil conversation. Yes, there has been a proliferation of hyphenated Australians coupling ethnic identity to national identity. But we’ve had hyphenated Australians before - just think of Catholic and Protestant Australians - and the supposed divided loyalties of Catholics, in particular, have been questioned in the past. The newer hyphenated identities do not necessarily mean that people are any less loyal to Australia than in the past, or even that they feel less Australian than others did in the past. After all, many second and even first generation immigrants to Australia find out just how Australian they are, or have become, when they return to visit their old countries.  


Guests on this program:

Anthony Moran  

Research Fellow in Politics 

La Trobe University