Comment

COMMENT

Is our Australian identity a matter for pride or shame?

After my column last week there was some debate on Twitter about whether I could be forcibly repatriated to Aotearoa, New Zealand, for being stupid and unAustralian.

It wasn't the ugliest convo to come my way (Twitter is an ugly medium). And the answer, in case you're wondering, is no, I cannot be refouled, even if stupidity were unAustralian. Indeed - I reflect by way of riposte - if stupidity led to exile, the Aussie population would be small indeed.

More News Videos

2016 Australia Day address

Defence Lawyer and refugee advocate, Deng Thiak Adut, delivers the 2016 Australia Day address at the Sydney Conservatorium of Music.

But the underlying assumption interests me. Why would like-mindedness be necessary or even desirable in that catch-all we call a nation? Monocultures, we know, are feeble things, sickly and disease-prone. From farming to city form, diversity gives us strength and resilience. Disagreement is our muscle. Yet increasingly there are things we cannot discuss.

Every Australia Day brings a hubbub of identity behaviours. Out from the attic, like boxes of faded Christmas decorations, come the flags and the honours, the picnics and the flagellations, republics, referenda, beer, guilt, triumph and, always, the mighty prawn.

Illustration: Rocco Fazzari
Illustration: Rocco Fazzari 

I've re-watched Deng Thiak Adut's inspirational speech about inclusive thinking and seen Stan Grant called "Australia's Mandela". I've also seen my first "proud to be a bogan" T-shirt and cars chillingly festooned with Australian flags – rightist code for (as one Jack Richards put it recently in a nasty tory blog called the Australian Morning Mail) "they can all f--- off and take their bloody multiculturalism with them".

Plus there are the questions. Should we change the date? Or the name?

Advertisement

So yes, a diversity of views. But beneath it is an old, old unhealing anxiety: is Australianness a matter more for pride or shame? If shame, how can we turn this around?

Of all Deng Adut's profound and eloquent speech the most moving part for me was when, as a traumatised newcomer, he offered not pity but imaginative insight to others traumatised before him.

Stan Grant.
Stan Grant. 

"I wonder," he said, "what the Gadigal people in 1788 thought as they watched sailing ships coming up their harbour? Did they realise that their civilisation was about to be uprooted? Did they watch with interest and wonder? How soon did that interest turn to mortal fear?"

Stan Grant's speech, similarly, was a shivers-up-the-spine job that should be required watching for all six year olds. Grant, a Wiradjuri man, described Australia's "war of extermination" against his people. He spoke of a country in which "women and children were herded … to their deaths" and where, even now, "an indigenous child is more likely to be locked up in prison than to finish high school".

Mid-last year, said Grant, Australia "looked into its soul" and chose, collectively, to hound indigenous star Adam Goodes into submission. "Every time we're lured into the light, we're mugged by the darkness of this country's history. Racism is killing the Australian dream."

Goodes first angered Australians by calmly describing his experience of racism as Australian of the Year in 2014. Six months later he was booed and trolled into retirement after celebrating a Swans' goal with an indigenous war-cry and gestural spear-throw.

That was weird, given how classy his performance was and how much the entire world loves a ritual that could hardly be more we'll-eat-your-mother-and-children-for-breakfast; the Maori haka.

Sure, it's different in Aotearoa or, as we used to quip, Land of the Wrong White Crowd where I do still, on occasion, deport myself voluntarily. On my latest such flight, pre-Christmas, I was struck by the extraordinary confidence and joie de vivre of my Maori co-passengers.

True, Christmas trips are likely to be joyous. But the contrast with both the New Zealand of my youth and contemporary Australia was stark. As kids, we considered Maori equal in terms of rights but clearly underprivileged in access and lifestyle. Nobody envied Maori.

Now, that's so changed. Yes, discrepancies and injustices remain. But Maori is cool. This changes everything. Cool signifies trajectory: heading up instead of down. How did this happen?

At the heart of my old stamping ground in Auckland sits a vast park, centred on a volcano-top obelisk. This is Maungakiekie One Tree Hill. The obelisk's bronze inscription, in finest Roman lettering, says it is fulfilling "the will of Sir John Logan Campbell [born 1801] … as a permanent record of his admiration for the achievements and character of the great Maori people".

It goes on to tell the Maori story, from the arrival of Kupe in 925 to the Treaty of Waitangi in 1840. In 1845 the land was sold by the Maori and, in 2014, re-vested in the Tamaki Makaurau Collective of 13 Auckland iwi, or tribes. Then it translates the lot into Maori.

Admittedly, Maori culture is not Aboriginal. Arguably it's more "white-like" – partly because, like pakeha culture, it's a blow-in. But other apparently small differences – treaties, land sales (as opposed to thefts), admiration, history, language – are also huge. As Maori academic Dr Hirini Kaa argues, the Treaty of Waitangi "continues to be a huge driver for positive transformation in this country".

Te reo Maori is an official New Zealand language. All official communications include it, so everyone acquires at least a smattering. Courts of law will address people in Maori if requested and 20 per cent of New Zealand students learn Maori language in school.

Australian schools barely mention Indigenous history. Back in the 1960s, when the push began to teach Maori in New Zealand schools, Aboriginal people were still considered sub-human, not even citizens. Even now, we retain explicitly racist provisions in our constitution and the "recognise" push to amend them keeps falling asleep in its soup.

The result? Ongoing divisiveness where "we" mustn't talk about black politics or culture for fear of misappropriation and "they" – we say – must somehow solve "it" for themselves, because anything else is patronising.

But in truth we all need this. As Deng Thiak Adut noted, "the rewards that come from thinking inclusively rather than thinking divisively" heal us all. Only then will we have an Australia Day we can all wholeheartedly celebrate.

Twitter: emfarrelly

112 comments

Comment are now closed