Paradox of identity

'Make it Australian.'
'If I knew it I'd be doing it.'

– Alex Miller, Autumn Laing (Allen & Unwin, 2011)

IN OCTOBER 2011 Australia hosted fifty global leaders when the Commonwealth Heads of Government met in Perth. The significance of the largest gathering of government leaders ever held in the country was overshadowed by the visit of the Queen, who opened the conference and whose every move swamped the coverage. The oddity of thousands of Australians turning out to watch a non-resident sovereign reminding us she is still head of state – a boat trip in Brisbane, a tram ride in Melbourne, a barbecue in Perth – underlined the strange duality that afflicts Australia's nationhood. In a sporting event with Britain – cricket, say, or the Rugby World Cup – the Queen and her family support our opponents. Yet most Australians, many of whom have no ancestral ties to Britain, welcome her as their head of state.

There is a pragmatic argument for what might seem a parody worthy of Gilbert and Sullivan: a distant monarch, whose family represents the ultimate triumph of celebrity culture, is the most apolitical head of state imaginable. Support for the monarchy may simply reflect the growing contempt for politicians. It does not necessarily suggest, as republicans sometimes claim, a lack of national identity. Paul Keating has consistently argued that Australia needs to become a republic to better interact with the region, and while his is an exaggerated claim, resistance to change may be symbolic of a deeper reluctance to abandon the belief that we can continue to rely on great and powerful Atlantic friends.

Australia is transforming into a successful multiracial, multi-ethnic and multilingual society, whose greatest failure is in equality for its Indigenous peoples. In a world of increasing fundamentalisms, this – Aboriginal inequality aside – is no small achievement. Yet as the global architecture shifts more rapidly than at any time since the end of World War II, domestic politics seems to have become small-minded and parochial.

This year marks the fortieth anniversary of the election of the Whitlam government, a moment, at least in nostalgic retrospect, of important nationalist assertion. The 1972 victory followed several years of social change, which Donald Horne termed 'the time of hope', and it remains a dividing line in the evolution of contemporary Australia. It may be a reflection of my age, but I detect surprisingly little change in the debates around Australian identity over this time. There is a deeper recognition of the realities of a multi-ethnic society, but this has not fundamentally altered the sense of who we are. After the passion of Keating and the shift to a more Anglicised version under John Howard – when a citizenship test was introduced, reinforcing conventional views of ourselves – we seem to have returned to a slightly soporific sense of national identity. The American journalist Jeff Weinstein once said: 'No, there is no such thing as a gay sensibility. And yes, it has an immense impact on the arts.' Perhaps national identity is similar.

AS SOMEONE WHO was shaped politically by the social, political and cultural upheavals of the late 1960s I now find myself somewhat bemused by the new conservatism. One British observer claimed that 'the story of the past generation has been that the right has won politically and the left has won culturally', and in some ways that seems true. Neoliberal economic assumptions dominate, even after the global financial crisis, and despite some marginal tinkering in the interests of greater equity. Important changes have occurred in the position of women and homosexuals; and some real achievements, above all the setting of a price on carbon, result from issues not perceived in the 1970s. Yet there are signs of a growing conservative mood, symbolised by the relentless promotion of anti-progressive views in the pages of The Australian, the rise of religious schools and the decline of republicanism. The Occupy protests of late 2011 faded quickly, and unlike their American counterparts failed to connect to the grievances of many people beyond the assembled protesters.

Above all, the protesters in Australia's population have yet to bring about fundamental alterations in our view of the world. Certainly the rhetoric about 'the Asian century' is reflected in much greater awareness of the economic possibilities of engagement with our region, and the movement of people between Australia and Asia is dramatic. Over the past few decades every European airline, except British Airways, has ceased flying to Australia, replaced by services from Asian, Gulf and Chinese airlines. But emotional ties with the North Atlantic world appear unchallenged, even as Australia's traditional 'great and powerful friends' lose the power to determine global events. For a brief period the Whitlam government seemed to question the idea that the American alliance was the bedrock of Australian foreign policy, and flirted with closing the American satellite tracking station at Pine Gap. The current Labor government has established even closer military ties and is as unlikely to emulate Whitlam in this area as it is to follow him in abolishing university fees.

Perhaps the timidity of Australia's views of the larger world is bound up with a failure to imagine any real alternatives. As in much of the rich world there is a low satisfaction with the political system, and an increasing disillusionment with political leadership. The belief that we could create a better society, that there could be a moment when politics was creative rather than managerial, seems to have largely vanished.

Unfortunately the suspicion that somehow we are second-rate followers, a theme that runs through much Australian self-criticism, seems to remain. The doubts about her country that plagued Frank Moorhouse's Edith Campbell Berry through her long exile and return to Canberra still surfaces. They are echoed without irony in Errol Bray's 2011 novel Berzoo (Port Campbell Press): 'My cynicism about the awful side of Australia, and of being Australian, is always magnified by the flight. Going back.'Maybe cynicism is preferable to the American conviction that theirs is the greatest country on earth. But there was a period in the early 1970s when some of us felt that we could write and agitate as both Australians and as citizens of a larger world, and Australians had a major impact on the development of women's and gay liberation, of animal rights and environmental movements across the western world. Terms such as 'green bans' and 'femocrats', born in Australia in this era, suggested a new innovation in both analysis and activism that would have considerable impact internationally.

IN MAY 2011 The Economist ran a cover story on Australia as 'the next golden state': 'Australians must now decide what sort of country they want their children to live in. They can enjoy their prosperity, squander what they do not consume and wait to see what the future brings; or they can actively set about creating the sort of society that other nations envy and want to emulate.'There is an element of truth to this, even though many of us might be uneasy about it; the prescriptions seem to echo the Prime Minister's schoolmistress tone when she speaks of the need for hard work and better education. What both miss is the imagination to conceive a future dependent less on economic growth, and more on reduced consumption and greater altruism. We could do worse than go back to some of the utopian writings of the 1960s and '70s, which saw in affluence an opportunity not just to own bigger houses and cars but to restructure society in ways that were more equitable and internationalist. Geography requires we do this; our current economic good fortune provides the means.

Australia has changed since the halcyon days of the Whitlam period. The population has almost doubled; it lives longer and in more diverse arrangements. Walk down any shopping street and the people look different: they are fatter, more racially diverse and informally dressed. Younger people resemble Donna Haraway's 'cyborgs', displaying tattoos and piercings, and wearing electronic earpieces. Politicians still talk about 'working families', but single-person households have doubled since 1971 to 13 per cent of all homes. New houses are bigger, and cars have either shrunk or expanded into monstrous four-wheel drives, designed to demonstrate over-consumption.

The cities particularly have changed. Sydney and Melbourne are pioneering new forms of inner-city living, and large numbers of overseas students have made them world-leading university centres. Communities that did not exist forty years ago – African, Vietnamese, Indian – flourish in our cities and some country towns. At the same time the stress on the land is becoming unmanageable, and parts of rural Australia are depopulating. The biggest change is in the position of women, with huge effects on work, home and family. And if women's sense of their self has changed, so too has that of men: the 'bloke' of old has largely disappeared with the collapse of factory and blue-collar jobs, and the declining role for unskilled men in the economy. Many of these men have become private contractors, so that more Australians now run small businesses than belong to unions. The decline of manual labour and the successes of the women's movement have combined to create new preoccupations with masculinity, with conflicting images of machismo and SNAGs among young men.

Work and leisure have been transformed by the advancement of computers and the internet. The permanence promised by long service leave has been replaced by portable super schemes, and retirement is both postponed and proclaimed as a new lifestyle. Australia has created a café culture while its intellectuals still bemoan its absence, as ambitious chefs establish new restaurants in outer suburbs and country towns. Same-sex couples are increasingly accorded legal recognition, twenty years after the last state decriminalised homosexuality. Australia has experienced a rapid decline of Puritanism: until the mid-1960s cinemas were closed on Sundays; six o'clock closing lasted until mid-1967; censorship remained tight until the 1970s. Competitive sports have been professionalised, and large amounts of money are spent on sport as both entertainment and a marker of national achievement.

IT IS LESS clear how far political debate has changed. The rise of the Greens, and the apparently inexorable decline of Labor's support, suggests a new period no longer characterised by a clear division along class lines. Questions of national identity rarely emerge in mainstream politics, except in the unfortunately bipartisan insistence on demonising asylum seekers. Apart from the Greens, politicians seem united in their view of the world, as the media fosters ignorance of all but celebrity culture. We are drip fed the intrigues of American electoral politics, and British Royal family dramas, but are remarkably unaware of significant events in countries much closer. The recent visits by the Queen and American President encouraged adulation eerily reminiscent of visits thirty years before. Even as conservative a commentator as Paul Kelly commented: 'Gillard's recasting of the alliance, contentious in substance, falls upon a sludge of pro-Obama love that seems to paralyse discussion.'

We continue to agonise about national identity. Since federation there has been a quest for foundation myths; there is a vast literature on how Anzac Day became the de facto symbol of Australian nationhood, despite Australia Day. Young Australians flock to Gallipoli and the Kokoda Track, reinforcing the assumption that nationhood is established through war. Under John Howard there was a discernible rise in military imagery, a trend continued since; prime ministerial visits to overseas troops and attendance at military funerals have become commonplace. Afghanistan is our longest overseas military commitment, yet there is little debate about what our politicians mean when they proclaim, united for once, we must 'finish the job'.

Stranded between history and geography we debate our significance, driven by the great fear of irrelevance. As the narrator in Christos Tsiolkas's first novel, Loaded (Random House, 1995), muses: 'Along the coastline of the city, the beaches open up to the chasm which is the end of the world. Below us there is ice. Nothing else. No human life, no villages, no towns, no cities.'Perhaps the frenetic energy of most Australian foreign ministers is an attempt to compensate for this fear of the void.

Every Australian political leader is required to define what Australia means. In crude terms Whitlam's nationalist pride replaced Menzies' deep attachment to Britain; Howard's view of Australia as a successful child of Britain replaced Keating's republicanism. Howard skilfully combined left and right views of national identity, seeking to recuperate 'mateship' for the Liberal Party. Rudd seemed to be cautiously returning to Keating's view, while Gillard seems to be searching for a new synthesis, meshing an emotional commitment to the United States with economic interest in expanding ties to Asia.

Romantics on both the left (Raewyn Connell, Germaine Greer) and right (Les Murray) have sought 'Australianess' in an appeal to Aboriginality, which they rightly identify as the only original culture in Australia. All empathise strongly with Aboriginal identification with the land. While Indigenous symbols have been incorporated into the face Australia presents to the world, this has little more than a superficial impact on how we view ourselves. We may decorate our public buildings with dot paintings, but that barely touches the way most Australians understand themselves.

Part of the Australian story is that we have managed the incorporation of large numbers of migrants from diverse backgrounds better than most, but residual anxieties remain, most obviously in hysteria about the threats of 'boat people'. Official rhetoric insists that there is no racial discrimination in Australia, but the reality lags behind: as one middle-aged Chinese Australian recounts, 'When I would go out with my white girlfriend to the movies I couldn't sit down without someone saying, " Asian... What's she doing with him?"' Today the comment is more likely to be directed at an African or Arab-Australian – and as always against Indigenous Australians.

In a country of immigrants national identity has proven to be elastic, and can easily contain very different perceptions of self and community. For many, group identity is more important, especially for Indigenous Australians. There is a significant difference between small groups who choose to remain apart from mainstream society and those whose desire to join the mainstream is met by hostility and rejection – the experience of some young Muslim and African-Australians. In the name of accepting diversity, there has been a growth in the number of religious schools, which threaten to perpetuate social divisions along ethnic and class lines. Whether these divisions prove as easy to overcome as older tensions between Catholics and Protestants is a question we are far too timid in addressing.

To paraphrase Shakespeare's Malvolio, some identities are born, some achieved and some are thrust upon us. A social scientist might use the terms 'primordial', 'instrumental' and 'constructivist'. The general point remains: identities are slippery, and it is easy to confuse what is inherited with what is acquired. Andrew Bolt's attack on 'fair-skinned Aborigines' suggested that a fact of birth was distorted to gain political or social advantage; in the same way, there remains heated debate about whether or not homosexuality results from genetic, environmental or lifestyle factors. Religious affiliation is usually treated as if it were part of cultural heritage, not open to rational examination.

The paradox is that identities matter both more and less, as we experience the irony of multiple and shifting identities in an era of growing nationalist and religious fundamentalism. The very idea of 'national identity' presupposes a fixed sense of purpose around certain unchanging, shared national symbols, based on ethnic and religious identity or through a common ideology. Yet more people live between and across national borders, as dual citizenship and long periods abroad change notions of a single national identity. Many Australians now vote for overseas legislatures; several residents of Melbourne have been members of the Italian Chamber of Deputies and Australian Sudanese took part in the referendum that created the new state of South Sudan.

In August 2011 I spent a week at the regional AIDS Conference in Busan, South Korea. I was particularly struck by the role of a small group of remarkable Asian-Australians, who are playing leading roles in regional community organisations, brokering their identities between their backgrounds and their growing up in Australia. 'I'm Asian,' one insisted, when I asked where he was from. 'No,' I said, 'You're Australian. I heard your accent before I saw your face.' We were both right. Today we argue about national identity when race and ethnicity are collapsing. National, racial, ethnic and tribal identities are blurring between pressures for greater cosmopolitanism and greater assertions of group solidarity, and millions of people find themselves moving across national and ethnic identities during a lifetime.

ONE CLEAR DIFFERENCE between the Whitlam era and today is the extent to which Asian-Australians are a force, with increasing numbers of artists, writers and performers coming from Asian backgrounds: Alice Pung, Brian Castro, Tony Ayres, William Yang, Abdul Abdullah, Nam Le, Anh Do. Yet popular culture, especially commercial television, remains a stronghold of the old Anglo-Celtic image of Australia; shows like Home and Away, Packed to the Rafters and All Saints no longer reflect reality. 'How can a show that is based entirely around a hospital have no brown or Asian doctors?' asked the Melbourne comedian Nazeem Hussain. Contrasting an evening of popular television with a walk through any major shopping mall indicates how far mass culture has to go to become contemporary.

The whiteness of commercial television is paralleled in the way Australia engages with the world. There is a strong desire to see Australia at the centre of everything, summed up in a story introduction, on SBS news no less, during the floods in Thailand: 'Australians were being warned not to travel to Bangkok.' What is lacking is curiosity about and openness to a changing world, in which countries we barely know anything about –Brazil, Korea, Turkey – are building global relations and helping shape ideas and events.

'Cosmopolitan' is a contested term, and I use it to convey a sense of celebrating diversity and focusing on the world. It means a positive interest in Australia's geographic situation. A cosmopolitan would see in the almost unique features of Australian history and geography a remarkable opportunity to develop a vision of the world, rather akin to the political scientist Robyn Eckersley's argument for a 'cosmopolitan nationalism': 'If the shape of foreign policy includes a concern with responsibility to others and not just co-nationals, with alleviating injustices beyond the nation, then such a nation may be characterised as cosmopolitan.'

Australia can claim to exhibit some of these characteristics, through its commitment to international development assistance and peace-keeping. The lack of cosmopolitanism is exhibited through a combination of emotional loyalty to the old powers of the North Atlantic and a dogged lack of interest in much of the world, often expressed through a lazy form of Australian chauvinism.

While national identities are becoming more fluid, there has been a simultaneous development of an aggressive nationalism, best articulated in the use of the term 'un-Australian'. The conservative Prime Ministers Bruce and Lyons employed the phrase in the early twentieth century to describe 'troublemakers', but it has never had the political resonance of its American counterpart. It is ever more present, as in the 'It's Un-Australian' website opposing poker laws. Zoo Weekly, a glossy magazine of heterosexual adolescent male fantasies, rated Julian Assange the un-Australian of 2010, followed by Julia Gillard – who has herself implied the same criticism of her political opponents (on the left).

THE DOMINANT VIEW sees Australia as an unproblematic part of 'the West' or 'the free world', and there is little attempt by either the media or political leaders to suggest other ways of imagining our position. The centrality of the American alliance is regarded as far more than an ingredient in foreign policy – rather an expression of a deep attachment to a world in which the values and institutions of the Anglosphere are taken for granted as superior and beyond question. That term, used to describe Britain and its settler offshoots, is relatively recent: it seems to have originated this century from the British historian Robert Conquest, and to have been popularised by the writings of the conservative American businessman James Bennett and the equally conservative British historian Andrew Roberts. Not surprisingly, Tony Abbott has explicitly linked his foreign policy to our membership of 'the Anglosphere' and 'western values'.

Nothing reveals our unease with our own geography more than the hysteria that greets every arrest of an Australian for drug use in Indonesia, and the automatic assumptions that the Indonesian authorities are incapable of justice. The average Australian tourist in Kuta – or for that matter Phuket or Fiji – seems to regard Indonesia with the same mix of condescension and appreciation that imperial tourists would have displayed sailing down the Nile in an Agatha Christie novel.

Australia remains almost unique because of the interplay between its geography and history; New Zealand is the only regional neighbour that shares a common political culture. While foreign policy is rarely an issue of major partisan debate, it is where national identity is established, and where global interconnections established. Maybe Australians don't take the soul searching too seriously, which explains why republicanism has little purchase. When I wrote of a soporific nationalism, it was not necessarily a criticism. But as the global order is reshaping remarkably quickly, Australians will need to come to terms with a world in which 'western' powers and values are no longer hegemonic.

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