Surrendering nationalism

TEN YEARS AGO, most Australians quietly cringed when Pauline Hanson wrapped herself in a cape of blue to launch her One Nation Party. Yet today there's nothing more fashionable or patriotic than draping oneself in the national flag. When, in January this year, Big Day Out organiser Ken West declared that Australian flags would not be welcome at the event in Sydney – for fear that it would instigate racist violence – it prompted a tabloid backlash and earned him condemnations from John Howard, Kevin Rudd and Morris Iemma. At a time when Australian values have become articles of faith, the flag has become a potent symbol.

But, as former Opposition Leader Kim Beazley found out in September 2006, not everyone can invoke the language of national values. Seizing a chance to outflank the Howard Government on the issue of immigration, Beazley announced a plan to require that all migrants and foreign visitors sign a statement of Australian values. The move backfired dramatically.

Beazley was criticised within his own party and the national media for pandering to populism. Even the then Immigration Minister, Amanda Vanstone, accused him – without a hint of irony – of fanning "the racist fire". Beazley soon abandoned his proposal.

The two incidents illustrate the difficulties of engaging in debates about national values. On one hand, as the Big Day Out issue showed, there is little ground to criticise a resurgent national pride. When concerns are raised about patriotism and national values being smokescreens for racism, the response is usually swift and emphatic. Any reservation about an assertive Australian identity is evidence of cultural self-flagellation and postmodern faith in political correctness; "dog whistling" just another term invented by left-liberal "elites" who regard ordinary Australians as ignorant, xenophobic and in need of enlightened leadership. On the other hand, when progressives try to take up the language of national values, as Beazley attempted last September, they become victims of their own rhetoric. Their embrace of nationalism becomes nothing more than cynical posturing and opportunism. Nationalism is a guaranteed path to political hypocrisy.

Progressives speak with very little authority on the issue of national values, leaving public debate without an alternative to the strident – and, many would say, exclusionary – nationalism that has gained ascendancy. Indeed, under John Howard's prime ministership, there has been an inflamed national consciousness. We have rediscovered an "authentic" Australian identity, rescuing it from the muddle of multiculturalism. In the words of the Prime Minister, Australians have "drawn back from being too obsessed with diversity" and are "now better able to appreciate the enduring values of the national character that we proudly celebrate and preserve". We have moved on from "a time when multiculturalism ... came to be associated with the transformation of Australia from a bad old Australia that was xenophobic, racist and monocultural to a good new Australia that is culturally diverse, tolerant and exciting".[i]

My argument in this essay is that the Australian Left has unwittingly contributed to this new, conservative nationalism.

Conventional wisdom suggests its emergence is a by-product of a politics of fear feeding off the insecurity and prejudices of the electorate.[ii] However, it is also a failure of historical sensitivity, storytelling and civic imagination – a product of abandoning a liberal value of nation-building in favour of an insouciant cosmopolitanism. As a result, progressives have forgotten the importance of a national story. They have surrendered the terrain of national values and patriotism. But, far from making it easier to defend values of tolerance and diversity, this surrender has only made the task more difficult. These are unexpected consequences of the Left vacating the arena.


IT IS BY no means a bad thing that Australians have become more patriotic, more assertive about national identity. To be sure, it has been customary to associate patriotism with the excesses of American political culture – the grand speeches declaring America's divine mission in the world, the flag-waving fanfare of street parades, the pledging of one's allegiance to the stars and stripes. Patriotism exists, for most of us, in a language of magnificent abstractions and grandstanding – a language Australians do not speak. Where the Americans have a Declaration of Independence proclaiming self-evident truths and the universal rights of man, Australians have a constitution that speaks of "an indissoluble federal Commonwealth firmly united for many of the most important functions of government".

The kind of patriotism that has emerged here is not the same as the American brand. Rather than being generated from an idealism within – an exceptionalist belief that one's nation holds some kind of universal promise – our resurgent national pride was born of reaction. Specifically, it has been a reaction against former Prime Minister Paul Keating's visions of transforming and remaking the nation. As the political scientist Jo-Anne Pemberton described it, Keating's politics involved a "rhetoric of repudiation".[iii] It renounced an "old" Australia mired in a British imperial past and weighed down by cultural torpor in favour of a new, dynamic Australian multicultural republic, engaged with the Asia-Pacific and reconciled with its indigenous population. But this repudiation was itself emphatically rejected by the Australian public, dismissed in a post-Hanson Australia as cultural cringe and national self-loathing. There was a pervasive sense that there was no need to reinvent an Australian identity when we already had one.

For many, this affirmation – or restoration – of an Australian national identity is a necessary response to the challenge of cultural pluralism and immigration. Across Western democracies, it has been recognised that diversity and solidarity may well be conflicting values, and that priority may need to be accorded to social cohesion. It is a problem drawn all the more sharply with the advent of "homegrown terrorism". Thus, as a response to the July 7 bombings in London in 2005, the British Government in January this year moved to introduce the teaching of "Britishness" and "core British values" in schools. There is a clear parallel between this and the adoption of "Australian values" as a requirement of citizenship. In a recent article for the Journal of Democracy that was widely excerpted in Britain and in Australia, Francis Fukuyama has argued that immigration has forced upon the West questions of identity in a particularly acute way.[iv] On the one hand, "the rise of relativism has made it harder for postmodern people to assert positive values and therefore the kinds of shared beliefs that they demand of migrants as a condition for citizenship". On the other, Western societies "need to uncover those positive virtues that define what it means to be a member of the wider society". If they do not, "they may be overwhelmed by people who are more sure about who they are".


THE PROBLEM WITH this picture is that it has only got things half right. While there may be times when a tension between national solidarity and cultural diversity exists, it is another thing to say that we must choose either one or the other, as implied by the dominant nationalist rhetoric. There has been an important difference, in this respect, between the current approach to social cohesion taken by the Blair Government in the United Kingdom and the Howard Government. Whereas the agenda of national values in Australia has been accompanied by an abandonment of multiculturalism, the affirmation of Britishness has not squeezed out a value of cultural difference. For instance, British values will be taught in schools alongside cultural diversity – the new citizenship lessons to be introduced will be called "Identity and Diversity: Living Together in the UK".[v] It is a far cry from a nationalism which suggests we are "too obsessed with diversity".

One reason the language of Australian values has been hostile to diversity is that the policy of multiculturalism was tied to a rhetoric of repudiation. (For the decade following Labor's ejection from office, the central dynamic of Australian political culture remained defined by the ideological contest between Keating and Howard.) Thus, for those championing Australian values, to be a supporter of multiculturalism implied that one was also a believer in a "black armband" view of history – that there was nothing in the national story worth celebrating.

This involves a caricature, if not a wilful distortion. The rhetoric of repudiation might reject certain interpretations of national history, but it does not renounce national identity altogether. We can easily forget, for instance, that Paul Keating was in many ways the most radically nationalist of Australia's postwar prime ministers.[vi] This was a prime minister who declared he understood Australian history "with a capital A", who in a famous peroration in Question Time blasted the Liberal Party and Robert Menzies for not being "aggressively Australian".[vii] It was once the case that nationalism was the preserve of a radical tradition of the Left which railed against the British for exploiting Anzac innocence for cannon fodder at Gallipoli and for abandoning Singapore in World War II.

Now the opposite is true. The very mention of Australian values is regarded as jingoistic nonsense by most on the Left. The automatic retort is to ask "Whose values?" and dismiss the very possibility of having a set of national values when Australians commit to a range of social, political and religious values. To speak of Australian values, according to an editorial in The Age, is to "suggest an outmoded, monocultural vision of the diverse, multicultural society Australia has become".[viii] The implication is that a diluted sense of national identity should be a cause for celebration rather than concern. Yet the lineage of such sentiments is unmistakable. When the Left criticises the invocation of Australian values as a product of "an outmoded, monocultural vision", it invokes – often implicitly but sometimes explicitly – a rhetoric of repudiation and the ideological politics of Paul Keating.

Despite the wistful longing for Keating's big picture, many of his supporters misunderstood his vision. Recoiling from a simplistic nationalism, many on the Left find comfort in an imagined postmodern diversity. But Keating was never a cosmopolitan or a postnationalist. In his own words, he was in "the nation-building business".[ix] His support for multiculturalism, for example, was not grounded in agreement with the intrinsic value of diversity, but in his ambition to remake the national character. When Keating described himself as the Placido Domingo of Australian politics, he meant that political leadership was, in a fundamental way, a performance. It was about having a good story to tell. And not just any good story: it was about carrying the electorate along with a national story that enlarged their self-understanding. Keating's radical nationalism was never antithetical to Australian values.


SO WHEN PROGRESSIVES, liberals and members of the so-called cultural elites engage in national debate on Australian values and citizenship, the outcome – more often than not – is a forgone conclusion. Where they censure the Right for dog whistling or for playing race politics, they consign themselves to playing the role of a King Canute on Cronulla Beach – trying in vain to command obedience from the rising waves of Australian nationalism. But whereas Canute spoke to the sea to demonstrate the futility of his power, progressives do so from a position of ignorance. They fail to understand that an Australian public does not take kindly to anyone who speaks down to them and tells them they cannot be proud of who they are. Francis Fukuyama is right: it is not good enough to insist that the question of identity in a multicultural Australia be met by saying that we should not identify as anything at all.

The other alternative – as Kim Beazley discovered – is also bound to fail. The mistake that some hardheaded realists make is to think that appropriating Australian values is simply a stratagem for neutralising the exploitation of xenophobia. The politics of Australia's culture wars, however, require something more. They require conviction. Opportunism can never substitute for telling a story which speaks to citizens of a national community with unique aspirations and values. It is a failure of leadership to think that it could be. The opera goes on – even if Placido Domingo has left the stage.

What needs to be understood is that nationalism should not be dismissed with a reflexive swipe or embraced for cynical reasons, but needs to be taken seriously. It begins by understanding that a heightened sense of national belonging and a certain patriotic pride does not mean "my country, right or wrong" (or, as one bumper sticker I saw earlier this year in Sydney said: "Australia, love it or leave it"). To be sure, the vehicle of Australian values can be harnessed for either dignified and ignoble ends. National pride can be a generous and compassionate sentiment, demanding that we live up to the best of our traditions. Left in the wrong hands, patriotism can also become racism and violence: the mob of flag-waving, chest-thumping "Aussies" at Cronulla saw their actions simply as those of patriots trying to reclaim their way of life and national heritage. This is all the more reason not to detach judgement of nationalism from context. While we should condemn the jingoistic excesses that led to the Cronulla riot, we should not take this as licence to condemn the benign pride of the citizen who flies the flag on Australia Day out of a gentle affection for her country. We not should carry an undiscriminating brush that paints as racist anyone with a strong sense of national identity.

It reveals a lack of civic imagination to declare that the notion of Australian values is nonsensical. It is a common refrain that while individuals may be committed to certain beliefs, there is little substance to the claim that a country – an abstract entity – can have values of its own. Some progressives fear that Australian values might be another way of saying "white", "true blue" or "ocker": that to believe in Australian values, you need to drink VB, like barbecues, go to the beach and follow the cricket. Perhaps it was not surprising that, when the proposal for a citizenship test incorporating national values was first floated, some ridiculed it by suggesting that questions might involve asking how many slabs of VB could fit into the back of a ute.

Yet, when the notion of Australian values is invoked, it is more usually used to denote civic values such as democracy, equality, free speech and the rule of law. The progressive instinct is to say that such things are not in any way uniquely Australian, but values shared by liberal democracies everywhere. What this overlooks is that values can never be separated from the histories and traditions which put flesh on the bone of liberalism. Civic values remain cold, remote and generic until they are suffused with the nuance of national experience and culture. Hence parliamentary democracy in Australia means something different from what it means in Germany – much like free speech in Australia has a different quality from free speech in America. Notions of a "fair go" and "mateship" will always have a special quality, capturing an Australian sympathy and imagination better than other formulations. Thus, when we refer to Australian values, they are "ours" not because they are values that we alone have – that would be nonsensical – but because our civic values cannot be divorced from our national tradition and our national story.


THERE IS A salutary lesson in this: winning political debate is in a very fundamental way about telling a story that engages with ordinary people's view of the world. For all the talk about us being global citizens and national identity no longer being important, it remains the case for most Australians that the great proportion of our lives are lived through the local, national experience. And the national conversation is necessarily conducted in a certain "language" – and by this I mean not so much English, but a language of certain values and idioms.

However, many on the Left have failed to grasp this, and not only with respect to patriotism. On the opposite side of the solidarity-diversity equation, they have also been unable to engage the Australian public on the matter of cultural diversity. Under siege, the best multiculturalism's defenders have been able to offer is a cry of "diversity is great". The problem with this is that diversity can become an end in itself, rather than a means to an end. Little wonder, then, that multiculturalism was regarded by many, in the words of Treasurer Peter Costello, as "confused, mushy, [and] misguided" – a slippery slope to a form of relativism.[x] Diversity might be great if it gives us dragon dances and exotic food, but seeing it as an end implies that it might also allow public justifications for illiberal practices on the grounds that "it's my culture".

Again, there has been a lapse in civic imagination. Distracted by cosmopolitan visions, the usual progressive voices tend to forget that multiculturalism never involved the cultural relativism depicted by critics. The policy of multiculturalism never prescribed a "plural monoculturalism" aimed at preserving the authenticity of minority cultures, or allowing minority communities to live in isolation from the rest of society.[xi] Rather, it was aimed at integrating immigrants into a national community defined by shared liberal political values. The right to express one's cultural identity was balanced by the obligation to endorse parliamentary democracy, the rule of law, freedom of speech, English as the national language and equality of the sexes.[xii] In other words, multiculturalism always had a citizenship test built into it.

Such was the nature of Australian multiculturalism that when scholars of citizenship referred to the policy, many spoke of it as a "multicultural citizenship" regime, or as a "nation building" form of multiculturalism.[xiii]It was never just about cultural pluralism or diversity. Recognition of different identities was a means to achieving a sense of national identity and social cohesion, to creating Australian citizens. No doubt all this will strike some as strangely alien. For both its supporters and critics, multiculturalism had always meant something else. The failure to appreciate this is due to a dogmatic refusal to acknowledge that nationalism had a liberal face as well.

Both the advent of a new, conservative nationalism and the abandonment of multiculturalism are, then, in a very important way products of the same failure of imagination. It is too easy to identify xenophobia, insecurity and opportunism as the causes, if only to conceal the Left's complicit hand. To be sure, the story is a study in political naïveté and the dangers of living in the shadow of visionary leadership. Many Australian progressives have for far too long remained paralysed with idealistic adoration for their fallen hero. Mesmerised by the sheer personality of Placido Domingo, they didn't actually listen to the aria. And they misunderstood the opera. When it was all over, they saw that Domingo only drew applause from the boxes. The folks in the stalls were never particularly impressed – even if it was a vintage performance. For them, reimagining Australia was never needed in the first place.



[i] John Howard, ‘A Sense of Balance: The Australian Achievement in 2006', Address to the National Press Club, 25 January 2006,

[ii] John Howard, ‘A Sense of Balance: The Australian Achievement in 2006', Address to the National Press Club, 25 January 2006,

[iii] Jo-Anne Pemberton, ‘Rationalism and the Rhetoric of Repudiation in Australian Political Life', Australian Journal of Political Science, vol. 30, 1995, pp. 485-99.

[iv] Francis Fukuyama, ‘Identity, Immigration, and Liberal Democracy', Journal of Democracy vol. 17, no. 2, 2006, pp. 5-20.

[v] Sir Keith Ajegbo et al., Curriculum Report: Diversity and Citizenship (‘Ajegbo Report'), UK Department of Education and Skills, January 2007,

[vi] See James Curran, The Power of Speech: Australian Prime Ministers Defining the National Image, Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 2004.

[vii] ‘I was told that I did not learn respect at school. I learned one thing: I learned about self-respect and self-regard for Australia – not some cultural cringe to a country which decided not to defend the Malayan peninsula, not to worry about Singapore and not to give us our troops back to keep ourselves free from Japanese domination. This was the country that you people wedded yourself to, and even as it walked out on you and joined the Common Market, you were still looking for your MBEs and your knighthoods, and all the rest of the regalia that comes with it ... You can go back to the fifties to your nostalgia, your Menzies, the Caseys and the whole lot. They were not aggressively Australian, they were not aggressively proud of our culture ...' In Commonwealth Parliamentary Debates (Hansard), House of Representatives, vol. 182, February 27, 1992.

[viii] The Age, ‘Chasing the Donkey Vote on Values' (Editorial), August 26, 2005.

[ix] See Glenda Korporaal, ‘Keating Revels in His $1 Trillion Legacy', The Australian, December 30, 2006.

[x] Peter Costello, ‘Worth Promoting, Worth Defending: Australian Citizenship, What It Means and How to Nurture It', Address to the Sydney Institute, February 23, 2006,

[xi] I borrow the term ‘plural monoculturalism' from Amartya Sen, Identity and Violence: The Illusion of Destiny, London: Allen Lane, 2006.

[xii] See policy statements of multiculturalism, for example National Agenda for a Multicultural Australia(1989), A New Agenda for Multicultural Australia (1999), Multicultural Australia: United in Diversity (2003),

[xiii] See, for example, Stephen Castles and Alastair Davidson, Citizenship and Migration: Globalisation and the Politics of Belonging, Basingstoke: Macmillan, 2000; Will Kymlicka, Politics in the Vernacular: Nationalism, Multiculturalism, and Citizenship, Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2001; Christian Joppke, ‘Multicultural Citizenship: A Critique', European Journal of Sociology, vol. 42, no. 2, 2001, pp. 431-47.

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