The Apology and the Battle over Australia’s Founding Myth

This week’s apology to the Stolen Generation is a key moment for Aboriginal Australians, but it is also a defining moment for non-Indigenous Australians. It is pivotal in the subterranean battle over what it is to be an Australian.

In the last 30 years we have been immersed in debates about Australian identity. But we have not always been so uncertain about who we are.

At Federation the Bulletin magazine was the flagship of nationalist sentiment. It painted a vivid picture of Australian identity. Our founding myth was of a small number of white people trying to occupy a vast continent in the midst of Asia.

However, while we were a British nation, we were not of the old world. England and Europe were marked by class hierarchies and a sharp divide between rich and poor. Australians aimed to escape those tyrannies by building a new egalitarian society. It was to be a place of genuine equality of opportunity for all.

In the early years we embraced our founding myth with little self awareness that it was an equality between white men. The racism and sexism of the day were so entrenched as to be beyond question.

It was not until the 1960s and the beginning of the liberation movements that the tensions within Australia’s founding myth were exposed.

The liberation movements pointed to our commitment to equality and argued that to live our principles we had to treat all groups as equal members of society. That included non-whites and Aborigines.

Australians were forced to choose between their commitment to equality and their commitment to being, as Menzies declared, ‘British to our bootstraps’.

Since that time we have seen Australia divide into two camps. Each side battling to keep alive their half of Australia’s founding myth. On one side, we have those deeply committed to equality. And on the other, those who are defending a white British heritage.

The equalitarians have campaigned fervently for the end of discrimination against all manner of groups. They are not usually from the groups in question, but they are defending an ideal.

For the equalitarians, the apology is not about tearing down an image of Australia. It is about securing its foundations. In the wake of the evidence of the injustices to Aboriginal people, the only way to reclaim Australia’s identity is to make amends. We must apologise and fix the problem so we can again speak of our ideal to be the fairest nation on earth.

On the other side have been those committed to a sense of Australia’s British heritage. To advocates of this view, the apology goes beyond a slight against a proud history. It is also about including others as the legitimate voice of Australia. Giving Aborigines an equal seat at the table challenges their idea of

In Australia’s earliest years there was a Labor/Liberal consensus on thecreation a new egalitarian society. Australia’s discriminatory
assumptions lurked in the dark unexamined corners of national discourse. As the spotlight has been shone into those corners there has been a shift in political debate. Defenders of British heritage have increasingly argued against the bedrock principles of equality to justify the treatment of other groups.

The anti-egalitarian rhetoric has spilled out into the wider political
debate. It has gone beyond discussions about race, and has penetrated debates in the economic realm. We have seen waves of economic reform downgrade the commitment to equality. A yawning gap has opened between rich and poor.

Australian politics is caught in a terrible quandary. While political
pundits often line up clearly on one side or the other, many Australians feel the tug to both sides. It is unclear how it will resolve.

John Howard was a defender of our British heritage. His government will forever be remembered for its prosecution of the history wars and reassertion of a white Australian identity. The appeal of his doctrine kept him in office for over a decade.

However, Howard was tumbled out over Workchoices as Australians kicked back against the retreat from equality. Social attitude surveys show a strong march towards a re-embracing of more equalitarian values. And the overwhelming majority of Australians support the Apology.

A new phase is beginning in the battle over what it is to be truly Australian.

This article was first published in the Canberra Times in February 2008