Thursday, January 26, 2006

Advance Australia Fair


This post has been linked in the newsletter. Under Top Stories (12).

I'd hoped to get through Australia Day unscathed by the Culture Wars, but had to duck as soon as I opened this morning's Age. The front page carried John Howard's call for an overhaul of school history curricula, to replace multiculturalist relativism with a narrative celebrating "the great and enduring heritage of Western civilisation." The op-ed page featured left-wing boilerpate disparaging Australia's "infantile" national symbols and listing the country's various sins, notably indigenous disadvantage and asylum seekers.

Australia Day commemorates the arrival of the First Fleet rather than Federation (which inconveniently falls on January 1); in American terms it's closer to Columbus Day than to the Fourth of July. Australia Day is thus a focus for battles over national identity and its historical roots that Independence Day in the US is usually spared. The PM has taken this to a new level with today's 'This Is Who We Are' speech, which lays out the cultural bedrock of Howard's Australia - Judeo-Christian ethics, British heritage and commitment to racial equality. Apparently "the divisive, phoney debate about national identity... has been finally laid to rest".

The falsity of this statement is evident from Howard's own efforts to tiptoe round last month's race riots in Cronulla, which even this "One People, One Destiny" speech can't escape. Or the more recent debate over the freedom of SriLankan-Australians to barrack for Sri Lanka at cricket matches on Australian turf. Or the ongoing academic battles over racism and white-indigenous relations in Australian history. Our national identity is not a finished achievement but a work in progress, with plenty of social minefields along the way.

Encroaching on these minefields is the swelling balloon of patriotism, most visible in growing public use of the flag and interest in the ANZAC heritage among young people. There's nothing wrong with the Gallipoli pilgrimage at a personal level, but making it a touchstone of national identity is another matter. The concept that this construction of 'Australianness' presents problems for some Australians - that the Cronulla rioters' exclusive claim to the title 'Sons of Anzacs' may have some broad social significance - seems to lie beyond the PM's mental horizon. Much easier to dismiss such problems as the fantasies of a chattering cognoscenti.

Howard's claimed victory in the identity wars is not a reversion to the country's 'natural' state. Like the conservative revolution in America, Australia's rightward drift is the result of deliberate effort led from the top of the political system. Howard came to power vowing to dismantle the cultural legacy of the Hawke-Keating years, which he summed up as excessive orientation towards Asia and away from traditional understandings of Australian history. In other words Howard had a retrograde social agenda, which has been prosecuted through diatribes against 'black-armband history,' back-peddling on reconciliation, slapping flag-flying conditions on school funding grants, establishing National Flag Day, legislative attempts to freeze the flag in its current form, assaults on 'leftist' and 'postmodernist' education bureaucracies, axing the NALSAS program etc. Then there are the more subtle processes, like the rise of racial wedge politics or the entry of the phrase 'Un-Australian' into public discourse.

These trends are not the expression of a single 'true' Australia. They are the imposition of a particular view of Australia through the avenues of power. Needless to say the political left is guilty of the same sin, but since 1996 the boot has been on the other foot. In this context we ought to keep a critical eye on the blooming of Australian 'patriotism,' in case it evolves into something much narrower and socially harmful. The ominous fact that flag sales have quadrupled since September 11, which can only express a mental closing to the outside world, bolsters my apprehension from those first pictures from Cronulla: that the flag and what it symbolises is being appropriated as a tribal badge, rather than the prerogative of everyone who swears allegiance to the Australian Commonwealth - regardless of whether they're white, identify with Gallipoli or adhere to a Judeo-Christian belief system.

Beware log-cabin patriotism. Or assumptions that a harmonious, multiethnic Australia is a finished achievement...

1 comment:

marklatham said...

My dad was a history fan like me.
I rememeber him buying a satirical book in the sixties called "1066 and all that".
I remember that it was about as funny as howard's speech