Does Australia have a National Identity?

Breathes there the man with soul so dead,
Who never to himself has said,
This is my own, my native land!

Sir Walter Scott, Lay of the Last Minstrel.

Stripped to its ape essence, patriotism is male defence of the community, gloried among humans and surely enjoyed among chimpanzees and bonobos.
Sociobiologists Wrangham & Peterson in Demonic Males.

Citizens are not born, but made.

All countries create national myths and national identities which may or may not bear some resemblance to reality. In many cases, views of national identity may change or may be disputed. The nation state is a relatively recent invention and some would argue that it does more harm than good. Benedict Anderson calls nations ‘imagined political communities’.

We must distinguish clearly between national interests and national identity. To cultivate close relations with our neighbours and to have an alliance with the USA may be good policy but neither makes us Asians or Americans; we sometimes confuse who we are with what our interests are and what foreign policies we should follow.

At the time of Gallipoli, we had no doubt who we were. We were part of the superior British Race and our sons went to fight for the King and the British Empire. Australia was the classic middle class society: we touched the forelock to our betters (UK & US) and looked down on our inferiors (Third World countries). But as the NZ in ANZAC reminds us, Gallipoli was not a uniquely Australian enterprise.

While older people in particular still look nostalgically back to Mother England, many Australians question our traditional identity as tourist class British. An increasingly large percentage of the Australian population does not have a British heritage. So, if we are not British, what are we? It is easy to say that we are just Australians but what does that mean? What are the symbols and the characteristics that distinguish an Australian from someone else? It cannot be race, religion or language because we don’t have our own. We don’t really seem to have a clear answer to this question.

In one sense, the Aborigines are the only true Australians in that they are uniquely Australian and have been here for millennia. However, they make up 2% of our population and there is no single aboriginal language or culture. Other Australians do not share the mystical connection with their land which characterises aboriginal societies. Therefore, our aboriginal heritage does not provide a basis for the creation of a unifying national identity for all contemporary Australians.

Despite our brave rhetoric, we have never been comfortable standing independently on our own two feet and recent trends to identify us as part of ‘The West’ go back to seeking our identity as part of a greater whole (eg the British Empire). Our history has given us the same head of state as the UK, PNG, and a number of Caribbean countries but so long as we have a foreigner as our head of state, then we cannot use that office as a symbol of a separate national identity.

American influence has grown rapidly over the last few decades and, thanks to TV, many Australians know more about American history than they do about their own. However, this does not seem to provide us with the basis for a national identity unless we plan on becoming the 51st state.

Is our history relevant? Those who rightly rail against the ‘black armband brigade’ often forget that Geoffrey Blainey also criticised the ‘Rah, rah’ view that we should only look at the good things. If you argue that you are only responsible for what you actually did, you may feel no guilt about what others did to aborigines but you cannot at the same time take pride in what was done on the Kokoda trail unless you were actually there. If you want to feel tribal pride, you must also accept tribal shame. A nation which does not have a unified and illustrious past may be better off looking to the future rather than trying to create historical myths of dubious accuracy.

So if we are not Aborigines, not British, not European, not Asian and not American, what are we? What myths and symbols can we use to create and maintain a national identity that unifies us and gives us a sense of being Australian? One possible answer is that we should just get on with our daily lives without worrying too much about who we think we are. This has some attraction but human beings are herd animals and most of us feel the need to belong to a group and to feel pride in that group.

We are evolving from being true Britons into a multicultural society whose people have many origins. Multiculturalism has many benefits but it can inhibit the creation of a clear national identity. Japan and Germany in the 1930s had clear national identities so this may not be a bad thing.

Our national identity, then, is a work in progress where the future is more important than the past. We should promote Australians as a people who value tolerance, equality, the peaceful solutions of disputes, and a spirit of cooperation. Of course, some of us are none of these things but national identity is all about what we think we should be rather than what some of us regrettably are. We have traditionally been laid back about our patriotism – except in sport – and this may be a good thing. We are building a new society which is not yet finished but pride in ourselves does not mean we have to dislike others. Patriotism based on dislike of other groups is a very dangerous thing as European history in the last century has taught us.

Perhaps the best we can do is to define an Australian as one who lives here, is a citizen and accepts certain core values which characterise Australian society. A defining feature of Australian identity might be that we are relaxed about it and that we reject xenophobia and jingoism? As Popeye the sailor man put it: I am what I am and that’s what I am.