Researcher Rebecca Huntley.

Rebecca Huntley ... "[I] started to see terrible things being said and it does challenge your feelings." Photo: Sahlan Hayes

'It's one of those things you do when you're 18,'' Rebecca Huntley says. Twenty-one years ago, when she was applying to study law at the University of NSW, she decided to change her name so her lecturers would not know she was the daughter of the eminent legal academic James Crawford.

''I want your maiden name,'' she told her mother, Marisa Crawford nee Ballini. But her mother told her she would never be accepted in law or politics with an Italian name. So the daughter opened the A-K Sydney telephone book and when her eyes fell on ''Huntley'', marked that on her university application form and changed her name by deed poll.

Her mother, whose family swapped the island of Elba off the Tuscany coast for Queensland's cane farms, approved. ''She said, 'Oh, that sounds wonderfully neutral.' It sounds Australian, which to her is neutral,'' Huntley says.

The sense of stigma attached to the Italian name was one of the clues that led Huntley to seek out her family's secrets.

But she does not reveal these secrets until the end of lunch at The Boathouse on the harbour's edge at Blackwattle Bay, where she admires the industrial landscape of Sydney Fish Markets and its surrounds against the water, then launches into anecdotes about her soundings of the Aussie mindset.

It is only when she finally tells her family history that it becomes clear why she continues to plumb these strange depths over and over.

She orders mackerel and mineral water, and speaks of one of her earliest memories. When she was four or five, travelling past suburban brick houses, she would wonder who lived there. As director of the Ipsos Mackay report, she is now paid to walk through those doors across the continent to find out what the inhabitants think.

The idea is to map the ''mind and mood'' of the nation and in her fully fledged Oz twang, which has evicted all traces of her Oxford birthplace, Huntley shares strategy and snippets.

''I remember every group I have ever done and I've done it for six years. They're all in my head,'' she says. ''It's very important for you to just have a completely blank face because they are looking for a reaction to you … We dress down, so I tend to wear very plain clothes and I wear my glasses. We sit at the periphery of the group with a notepad and we let them talk.''

As a woman with dark, mobile eyebrows and strong opinions as manifested in her CV - which includes a PhD in gender studies and a stint as ALP Bondi branch secretary - she admits the poker face was at first difficult. However, she reckons she only ever ''lost it'' once.

That was when a group of men aged 40-something and living in Sydney's southern suburbs griped about gays taking over powerful positions - such as becoming dentists. They were moving beyond Darlinghurst too, with sightings in Marrickville. Huntley could not stop a guffaw.

Not quite so funny was the night-time group she conducted with bikie gang members in a corrugated iron shed at the bottom of a Wollongong backyard.

''There was this big conversation about the boat people, where one guy completely seriously said, 'What we need to do is blow one [boat] up and then they'll get the message','' she says. The tattooed men drank copiously and it scared Huntley enough to break with her usual practice and leave early. But more often she finds a warming humanitarian attitude to intimate relationships that gives her hope.

At the moment, people worry about how their children will be able to get into the housing market, how they can afford childcare, how to care for ageing parents and how to decide when to retire, she says.

''That whole question of how we manage health and wellbeing, care and living arrangements across three or four generations is the constant discussion. It's much more important in many ways than the carbon tax and any of those kind of issues that get a real [media] focus.''

She likes to talk about issues, rather than the personal. So it is time for the question: given her affinity for her Italian heritage, is she sometimes in turmoil when she hears racist comments and cannot speak out?

''In the third year of this research, I went through a very deep depression and I found going into groups quite difficult to do, and some of that was around the boat people stuff,'' she says. ''[I] started to see terrible things being said and it does challenge your feelings about what human beings can be like.''

Her company's founder, Hugh Mackay, advised her to switch off at night. He said he escaped into novels. For Huntley, the path to acceptance was more complicated than that. After her grandmother, Teresa Ballini, died, she dug into her family history and was shocked to find that this grandmother was not the happy wife and mother she had imagined and had been compelled into marriage with her own cousin.

''No one in my family - not one person - got to make the choices they really wanted to make in their lives. My great-grandfather was gay and couldn't lead an out gay life. He had to be married. That's what Italian men do. His wife was miserable, his son was estranged from him. None of the women in my family wanted to come to Australia, certainly not northern Queensland. It was a really harsh, harsh environment.''

During World War II, seven men from her family were incarcerated as ''enemy aliens''. Huntley combed through national security reports and found that a few had attended Fascist meetings, although it is questionable how strong their support was.

She has put it all in a book, The Italian Girl, to be published by University of Queensland Press this month. ''Writing this book about my grandmother, reading everything people thought about Italians in the 1930s and '40s, means all of it is the kind of things we say about Arabs, about Muslim Australians today, almost down to the phrases used,'' she says.

She realised that Australia has not shaken this intolerance of first-generation migrants. Her company's research shows that by the second and third generations, there is dramatic change and that is the case in her own family. ''My grandmother was educated to the age of eight and both of her grandchildren have PhDs. We are fully accepted members of the community. We say we're Italian and people think that's groovy and fantastic. That was probably inconceivable to my mother.''

That is the great thing Australia has got right, she thinks. But what it has wrong is an inability to draw on this history and to acknowledge that the freshest wave of first-generation migrants is as worthy as the oldest. Hearing people's stories of hardship that inform their politics of envy she has learnt to listen to the intolerance without being ''spooked''. But she wishes politicians would not give these views such pre-eminence.

She is intimate with federal politics. But her mastery of words, left leanings and passion for shaping Australia's identity led her to work as an electorate officer for Labor's John Faulkner, George Campbell and Jennie George.

The last time she was at The Boathouse, it was with ALP heavyweights Faulkner, Bob McMullan and Maxine McKew, who was still in Federal Parliament. Huntley's husband, Daniel Yarrow, remarked that the people at the adjoining table simply stopped talking and gawped.

''He's from a completely different world. He's totally uninterested in politics … but like all engineers very practical, calm, unflappable. We're often at a dinner party with friends - writers and politicians and talking, talking, talking. He'll say what the real problem [is]. He'll just crystallise it. He's not much of a talker but he's quite insightful.''

She quit the ALP in 2006, fed up with the branch-stacking at Bondi. She also wanted to be politically neutral for her market research.

The waiter brings a small complimentary brownie. Just back from a spa in the Hunter Valley, Huntley is on a health kick but eats it with relish. At the retreat, she was encouraged to climb a hill and ponder the things for which she is grateful. They naturally included her daughter, Sofia, 4, but even in this intimate moment, her love of her nation arises.

After a childhood spent flitting between Britain, Italy and Australia, when she was 11 she declared herself a citizen of the world. But travel wearies her and her fascination with Australian identity is seemingly never-ending. ''It's like a brand, isn't it?'' She mimics searing an identifying mark into her forehead. ''A brand on me.''