Nationhood must mean more than beer, sports, and Anzacs

In a piece which won the Honi Soit 2012 opinion competition, Ben Brooks contemplates the meaning of modern Australia.

Port Douglas is walled in by azure sea on one side, and steaming mountains on the other. Resorts dot the beachfront like fortified Monopoly hotels, issuing forth their Havana-clad host. It feels a little like Fukuyama’s “End of History” – in this corner of the planet, at least, there is no war, civil turmoil, or widespread poverty. No repression, censors, or revolution. There is just universal, botoxed happiness – the endpoint of mankind’s evolution. It is an apt location to reflect on Australian parochialism.

Allay your fears: this is not the opening of another indelicate tirade on work ethics by Tsarina Gina. This article describes, instead, a reluctant nation trapped in an ideological vacuum.

Like the resort towns for which it is famous, Australia is characterised by a certain existential apathy. It did not coalesce into a nation out of dire necessity. From the First Fleet to Federation, our most troubling strategic foes were European powers in a distant hemisphere. Nor is it a nation born of aspirations. Our most enthusiastic revolution was over the price of rum, not over royal absolutism, or universal rights.

Australia is, rather, a nation forged out of convenience, to standardise railways and remove interstate banana tariffs. There was no one to fight against, but nothing to fight for, either. We have no conscious vision for this nation, and show little overt pride in its institutions.

Government here is a utility, not a vessel for idealism – and it shows in our political attitudes. Wrestling in the bog of centrist politics, Australian representatives decline to lead on pressing issues of social justice and environmental calamity. We try to outdo rather than counsel Asia in marginalising the rights of asylum seekers, as if heartlessness were a sort of civic virtue. And so the nation progressively abdicates regional leadership.

For all its electric chair and firearm foibles, the United States is quite different. Nationhood there is a system of values – a way of thinking – which pervades policy making and political discourse. Every debate, from taxation to gay marriage, is a negotiation about national identity. Every foreign policy initiative is framed, quite sincerely, in terms of an ideological mission, echoing the motif of a “manifest destiny”. Continental European politics are similarly driven by principles, though without the evangelical rhetoric.

How to restore our vision? We could start by settling upon a concept of national identity which is, at present, little more than a vague appreciation for ball sports, beer, Anzacs, and multiculturalism.

Our relationship with recent history is strained. On one hand, the national narrative is largely an imperial narrative of colonialism, loyalty and monarchy. We look for any occasion to justify our claims to independence, which is how relatively isolated events like Gallipoli have come to mark the birth of national consciousness. There was no cathartic revolution. Legally and politically, the transition to independence was a sterile, unimaginative affair with the ratification of the Statute of Westminster and the passage of the Australia Acts.

On the other hand, domestically, we have perpetrated an incipient cultural genocide against Indigenous Australians. This sits quite uncomfortably with the paramount national myth of egalitarianism. Instinctively, the historical record was obscured and distorted to shield us from the shameful implications of colonial massacres, forced removals and disenfranchisement, giving rise to History Wars as recently as the 1990s. But now, efforts to rehabilitate indigenous people into the national narrative consist of tokenistic inclusion in primary school curricula. Politicians are wary of creating a “victimhood complex”.

The national narrative, then, is insecure and unclear. Firstly, Australia should embrace its imperial heritage, rather than rejecting and denouncing it. The Commonwealth of Nations is, and always has been, bigger than Britain. It is indissolubly anchored to a historic civic tradition, bequeathing us a uniquely democratic political system. That political system should be treated as an object of veneration, rather than seen as a bureaucratic tool.

Secondly, Australians must meaningfully reassess their tortured relationship with Indigenous people. Whether by incorporation into the Constitution or otherwise, they should be visibly restored to a place of pre-eminence. This is less a policy recommendation than an appeal: popular attitudes toward Aboriginals are notoriously impervious to political gestures.

Thirdly, Australia might consider drafting a constitutionally-entrenched Bill of Rights. The absence of any rights-based ideology in our founding documents is conspicuous; at present, policy is not driven by a vision of equality, welfare rights, or political rights. A Bill would measure legislation against a formal standard for these values, and compel government to legislate for their protection.

A confident national identity requires a reconstituted sense of nationhood. Like a Canasten advertisement, it feels awkward discussing these matters so plainly – “nationalism” is not a conscious program or thought, but rather a subconscious impulse. Yet it is a conversation that needs to be had, if Australia is to project any ideology, vision, or set of values onto its domestic politics and onto the world. Until then, we are a prosperous outpost of the western world revelling in complacent mediocrity.