- How to be chosen as Australian of the Year
- Comment: Putting a bit more kitsch on the barbie
Ben Roberts-Smith knows a thing or two about patriotism. Australia's most decorated soldier, Roberts-Smith is also chair of the National Australia Day Council. In a speech last Sunday in Bankstown, he called for this year's Australia Day to be guided by "the spirit of mutual respect and understanding".
It's a sobering and important message. And a reminder that patriotism can involve the better angels of our nature.
Until recently, patriotism felt somewhat alien to Australian sensibilities. The business of earnest parades and ostentatious flag-waving was for other countries. While Australians loved their country, this didn't need to involve public declaration. It befitted our laconic and understated national character.
During the past decade or so, things have changed. You see it in people wearing the national flag or sporting Southern Cross tattoos. A generation of Australians has grown up embracing national pride.
Yet there are times when this love of country takes on a menacing edge. Sometimes, one person's patriotism is another person's jingoism. Expressions of pride can involve demands that people – particularly those who come here as migrants – love Australia or leave it.
Unfortunately, this is what many associate with patriotism today. It's why many people recoil when I say that I consider myself a patriotic Australian. I'm often asked: How can you endorse patriotism but also support diversity? Can you really be patriotic as someone who isn't "typically" Australian? And doesn't national pride lead to racism? Doesn't it lead us to exclude certain people who are aren't part of the majority?
Here's how patriotism can leave room for diversity. Very simply, patriotism means a love of country. But our country is now inescapably diverse. Australian society has people drawn from more than 300 different ancestries; close to 30 per cent of us were born overseas, with another 20 per cent having a parent born overseas.
In other words, being Australian doesn't mean belonging to a certain race or ethnicity. Our national identity leaves room for people from anywhere, from any background, and from any faith. It leaves room for people to have hyphenated Australian identities. What ultimately matters is you are committed to the Australian project; that you call this place home and that you are part of our egalitarian, democratic society.
Admittedly, whether our national identity truly reflects our diversity remains open to debate. In aspects of our public culture, Australianness still involves a certain image of whiteness.
Take, for example, the complexion of faces in Australian media. Whether it's the cast of soaps like Home and Away or Neighbours, or the presenters of breakfast shows like Sunrise or Today, the reality of multicultural Australia has yet to make a full arrival. Criticisms about a "lily white" Oscars in the United States could easily be transplanted to Australian TV and the Logies.
A multicultural Australian identity remains, you might say, a work in progress. There will be times when it will also be challenged by the darker side of patriotism. As the past year has shown, far-right and extremist groups consistently appeal to a dubious national pride to justify their divisive and xenophobic ideas.
However, patriotism doesn't have to involve this. It can be liberal, inclusive and generous. It can be a bulwark against prejudice. If you love your country, you wish to see it live up to its best. When a patriot of this kind sees racism and religious bigotry, they see things that hold their country back.
Such a patriot can also understand that aspects of the national history may need to be debated. National days, including 26 January, should prompt reflection as well as inspire pride. We should understand that, for many Indigenous Australians, the current Australia Day isn't necessarily an occasion for celebration – and understand the reasons why.
Of course, a generous patriotism isn't just revealed through our debates. It's revealed through the gestures we make to one another. It can be there in the manner of our "g'days", there in our willingness to learn more about someone we've just met.
It's the kind of patriotism that is, as Ben Roberts-Smith would say, defined by respect and understanding. Far from jingoism, it should be something all of us can sign up to.
Tim Soutphommasane is Australia's Race Discrimination Commissioner. He is a former member of the National Australia Day Council board.