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Australian Cultural Identity Essays

Yesterday was Australia Day, or for some Aboriginal people, Invasion Day. Looking back over the many words I have written on Australian life and history, one of the themes that comes through is diversity.

By present global standards, Australia's population is not large. By historical standards, Australia's population is large relative to many past global entities simply because the global population has grown so much.

Let me try to put this in perspective. In 1821 the British Empire had entered its final growth phase. The French had been defeated, the world was open. In 1821, the population of the islands that made up Great Briton and Ireland was a bit over twenty million, Today Australia's population is approaching twenty three million. See what I mean?

Size brings complexity, but not necessarily diversity. The Greek Islands in classical times were varied; the relations between them were complex and played out on a geopolitical great power stage; yet their populations were small.

Australia's diversity began early.

Australia's Aboriginal peoples were not then "the Aborigines", a label that suggests uniformity and commonality. They were a varied group in terms of language, culture and physical appearance. They varied in their genetic make-up. "The Aborigines" is in fact a modern construct, a label created by the arriving Europeans and the Aboriginal response. The story of the relations between the new arrivals and the settlers they found is all about labels and responses.

The Europeans who came were not the same either. Today we speak of England or Ireland or Scotland as though these are entities, as if a person from England or Ireland could somehow be classified as a member of a common entity and therefore distinct from the other. It just wasn't like that.

A displaced Gael from the Scottish highlands, a Somerset villager, an Irish peasant fleeing the potato famine, all spoke differently, all thought differently, all acted differently. They were not the same. This is true of other groups too, such as the early Chinese and German settlers.

We speak of early German settlers, but there is a terrible ambiguity about that word German.  Today we think of it as a political term, someone coming from what we now call Germany. In fact, Germany as a political state really did not exist until the formation of the German Empire in 1871. Indeed, for much of the nineteenth century and the first part of the twentieth century, the term German was as much a language, ethnic or cultural marker as a description of nationality. Those living in Germany did not necessarily speak German, while very large numbers of those speaking German or one of its dialects lived outside Germany.

When Wilhelm Kirchner, the Hamburg Consul in Sydney, began organising the first large scale German migration in 1848, those coming were likely to classify themselves by the specific entity they came from; they were Silesian or Bavarian first, not German.

Kirchner's 1848 book, Australien und seine Vortheile für Auswanderer (Australia and its Advantages for Emigrants) was full of praise for life Down Under. The 1850 edition included letters written by German settlers in various parts of NSW who had arrived as a result of his previous work in Germany. Another wave of German immigrants arrived in the 1860s as a result, settling in the Illawarra district and around Albury on the Murray River. They came to seek a better life and to escape religious persecution.

The Ursuline nuns who arrived in Armidale in 1882 to establish a new girl's school came because the new German Empire was intolerant of the Roman Catholic orders and was seeking to seize their property. There were deep historic reasons for this prejudice, but there was also a desire by the new state to establish an ordered German society. As so often happens, as has happened in Australia many times, the need for uniformity in the new order overrode acceptance of difference.  

The Ursulines date their foundation to 25 November 1583 when a  small group of twenty eight women and girls met in the Northern Italian city of Brescia. Under the influence of Angela Merici, they attended mass and then signed their names in the Book of the Company of St. Ursula. In doing so, they signified their willingness to commit themselves to God, living according to the rules drawn up for them by Angela.

The initial Ursulines lived in and served the community. The new order spread rapidly in a decentralised way. Church pressure then transformed them from an open to a cloistered group, but they retained the tradition of openness and community contribution.    

The Ursuline nuns that arrived in Armidale in 1882 were highly educated but spoke very little English. They found a very different world, far removed from the European culture that they had known. The first school they established, St Ursula's in Armidale, quickly became a success.

Initially the Ursulines concentrated their educational focus on educating their girls not just in religion, but in the culture the nuns had brought from Europe. They saw education in broad, holistic, terms. Then, recognising the growing importance of exams and of further education,they began preparing girls for public examinations.

At a time when the Church focused especially on the need to provide mass primary education and was in fact suspicious of education for women, girls from St Ursula's in Armidale were entering University or Teacher's College. In this sense, the Ursulines were well in front of broader social trends.

The Chinese were another distinct group. The ending of transportation to NSW created severe labour shortages in the pastoral districts. Between 1847 and 1853, nearly 3,000 indentured Chinese labourers were imported into the colony during the period. Most of these were from the densely populated southern provinces of Guangdong (Kwangtung) and Fujian (Fukien) where conditions were difficult and a significant rise in population had put pressure on available resources. Entry to the new colonies was relatively easy, for the ships of the East India Company had early established trading routes between Sydney and China. 

These early Chinese faced considerable difficulties. They had little English, but often couldn't talk to each other either because they didn't speak the same language.  

Life could be dangerous. In May 1852, the Phoenix sank on its way to the Clarence River with 12 Chinese on board. A thirteenth was found wandering the beach with the Aborigines. He was reportedly quite mad, although no-one knew how he had got there. Madness in isolation was a general issue, as was suicide. There was also sometimes violence between Chinese and between Chinese and other groups.

All human groups require narrative, stories that link present and past. We identify with our group or groups first, and then with the broader society. Beneath the broader narrative of Australia lies a series of family and and group narratives, stories of how we came to be. The pattern is interesting and complex, if often unseen. Stories of past injustices, of past successes, of the normal human story, are preserved and re-presented.

Old enmities remain. You can see this in soccer brawls; in Irish attacks on perfidious Albion;  in the brawls among different Aboriginal groups or between Aboriginal and Pacific Islanders in the housing estates; in the growing number of Australians who have fought and died in conflicts that seem remote, stories on TV or in newspapers, but were so real to the individuals involved through their personal narratives that they felt required to do their bit. Spain, Syria, the Balkans, Rhodesia, the list goes on.

The central challenge in any migrant society is the creation of a sufficiently strong narrative that will hold the society together in the face of diversity. Australia faces a special challenge because of the high proportion of overseas born, far higher even than Canada. Further, the mix of new arrivals is changing all the time.

The older Greek men who gather at the Eastlakes shopping centre to sip water and coffee (Photo essay - a taste of Eastlakes) now feel part of the past. Their story, once a central part of the Australian narrative, has been overtaken by new stories. Their experiences, the struggle to establish themselves in a new country, the very texture of the suburbs that they knew, have been swept away. Their cathedral, their diminishing societies, now stand as visible remains in a changing world of gentrification and new groups. They want to tell their stories, to have their experiences re-affirmed, validated.

All human beings need affirmation of the value of their personal experiences. All human beings struggle when their past is swept aside. I do, you do, we all do.

Other countries have higher proportions of overseas born than Australia. The United Arab Emirates come to mind. The distinctive thing about migrant societies such as Canada or Australia as compared to say Singapore or Dubai is that migrant societies have chosen to be open.

In Singapore or Japan or some of the European countries, Governments and citizens worry about preserving the existing society. They seek to increase the birthrate to avoid the exiting dominant group being swamped. Ethnicity, historical connection, is central. I do not have a problem with this, but Australia has chosen a different path. We have chosen to be an open society even though that means that past dominant groups must be swamped in time.

To hold the society together, we look for central narratives. Australians debate over multiculturalism versus integration or assimilation. In practical terms, the reality is that they are all much of a muchness, seeking the same objective. The difference between them is one of emphasis. In all societies, a degree of assimilation or integration is required for the society to work. In all immigration societies, acceptance of difference is a further condition for success.

The real debate in Australia comes over our choice of unifying symbols. This is actually quite difficult, for those symbols have to reflect a diverse, ever changing, society. They have to be symbols that people agree on, that link present and past.

Forget old debates such as a republic versus monarchy. They are old debates that reflect past divisions and differences. Most people don't care. What is it that we actually promote, that has traction in our current Australian society?  It seems to me that that this comes down to a few very common things.

The first is nationalism. We promote Australia as an entity that people have lived and died for. By implication, our new arrivals must accept this. We actually do this quite well, although our very success makes me a little uncomfortable.

The second is a civil society whose values exist independent of questions of religion or ethnicity. This I strongly support.

The third is the promotion of what we might call the Australian way, of images and values linked to our past. Mateship is an example. The Australian popular culture is very powerful, although it makes many uncomfortable. It carries through in a variety of ways including music and advertising.

This is the real unifier, for it is independent of the divisions within our society. All can share, all can identify. Drop bears, a VB ad, Not Happy Jan, all appeal. Even if you come from a tradition that does not recognise drinking or has different views on the ostensible message, you can still understand the basic message. That, to my mind, is our strength.  


Interesting if somewhat depressing take on Australia Day from skepticlawyer: Flag capers. This year I wasn't really conscious of the threads she talks about, although I knew that they were there. I guess I let them slide over me now. Still, as a matter of curiosity, after reading skepticlawyer's post I did a blog search on Australia Day. The usual suspects were there, but it was all much more muted than I have seen it before.

Looking back at last year, I ran some some Australian "facts" from a twitter feed at the time. I laughed then and still find them funny. So to repeat:

  • The drop bear was introduced into Australia as a measure to stop the rampant pest The Cane Toad
  • Australian schools begin at 9am and close at 3pm to prevent children from walking to school during koala feeding times
  • Australian Rules Football was invented as a way for ladies of the CWA to exchange scone recipes by semaphor
  • When Australians feel they are about to vomit, they reach for a Murray-Darling basin
  • Phar Lap was actually a shetland pony from New Zealand
  • slip slop slap is the national child raising policy
  • the first draft of Advance Australia Fair read "Our land abounds in nature strips"

In a comment on skepticlawyer's post, Don Aitkin pointed to his own post, Whatever happened to the ‘Australia’ project?. There Don wrote in part:

But yesterday also made me wonder, again, what had happened to the ‘Australia project’. This is my term for the urge that immigrants had in the 19th century to build a new society under the Southern Cross that would be free of the the injustices of the old world. As I argued in What Was It All For? The Reshaping of Australia, the project was put on hold again and again, by the Depression of the 1890s, the Great War, the Depression of the 1930s and the Second World War. You can’t do much about the building of a fair and decent civil society when you are scratching for work or fighting for your country.

The project was resumed in the 1950s, with the real growth of the national capital, the opening of education to girls as well as boys, the building of infrastructure like the Snowy scheme, the common rail gauge and the improvement of highways, and the expansion of higher education. By and large, the new wealth of the society was shared around. In the 1990s and into the new century that impetus slowed and seemed to stop. Wealth became important for its own sake: it was as though the whole point of the Australia project was to make us all rich, and when we were rich we could do what we liked.

Don is concerned about what he perceives to be a loss of the original grand vision. I am actually a little cautious about grand visions, but I do agree that there has been a loss of imagination, of willingness to take on larger challenges. There is something very sterile about public discussion in this country at the present time.

I don't think that it's just a fact of increasing age affecting my judgement. I don't hark back to any particular golden age. But reading past debates, the thing that stands out today is a loss of belief in what's possible. Our present ways of thinking have become a straight jacket that rule out alternatives.

I used the word narrative in this post to describe both personal or group histories, as well as the broader national story. Our present national narrative has become very narrow, narrow at all levels.  

Features of Australia's Cultural Identity

"What does it mean to be Australian?

‘There is no “real” Australia waiting to be uncovered. A national identity is an invention.’ Richard White (1981) Inventing Australia Each one of us could describe ourselves with a multitude of different identities. These identities can be seen as defining us as people and may be cultural, ethnic, religious, gendered, class-oriented or ideological. They are as varied as our imagination. In Australia, the religious, cultural and ethnic complexity of our society is particularly diverse.

In the midst of this diversity, is there an elusive quality, a ‘national identity’, which binds us all as Australians? There are certainly national cultural stereotypes and national symbols that we all recognise as Australian, but do these really reflect the everyday reality of living as an Australian today?

Do national identities ever have anything to do with cultural experience or are they more to do with a constructed image of a ‘nation’? What is it about our cultural stereotypes, if anything, that continues to resonate with Australians? Who is excluded? Does our national identity still depend upon a white Anglo-Celtic male viewpoint?

(CONTEMPORARY AUSTRALIA 2. National Identity Sara Cousins From the Monash University National Centre for Australian Studies’ course, developed with Open Learning Australia.)



"I wrote this essay a couple of years ago whilst studying Australian History in a Vocational Course."

"Brotherhood was never like it; friendship is not the word; but deep in that body of marching men the soul of a nation stirred" so wrote Banjo Paterson in his poem "Australia Today 1916". Australia had only been settled by white Australian's for one hundred and twenty eight years, yet already a strong nationalism had emerged. An Identity. The words larrikin, mateship, courage, egalitatarism, resourcefulness and independence come to mind. Why did Australia develop such a strong image so quickly?

For the first one third of Australia's history the majority of white Australians were either convicts or the off-spring of one. These people held a strong dislike for authority, which is still present in elements of today's society. There were a couple of reasons for this. Firstly they possibly felt hard done by and also the authoritative figures such as the "Rum Corps" had not really gained their respect as they sometimes corrupt.

With the offspring of the transported convicts, known as currency lads and lasses, the national identity first emerged. They were not as amoral as most thought they would be, given that their parents were in the eyes of the British Government, hardened criminals. Visitors to Australia as early as 1830-50 noticed some pecularities to these Australians. "Tall, slender, strong and with a distinctive accent". It was also reported that swearing coloured our conversations. But a feature that struck most visitors was the egalitaranism, the belief that each man was equal. "Jack was as good as his master". This was very unlike Britian.

With the gold rushes of the 1850's the emerging national identity was stiffled. A flood of new immigrants arrived, from places as diverse as USA and China, but they were mostly British and still considered Britain as home. But on the gold fields the belief that all men were equal was strengthened. On the gold fields your chances of finding gold was not determined on who you were, on the gold fields many poor people became rich.

In the 1860's and 1870's the national feeling was associated mainly with the Bushrangers. Most bushrangers were native born or of Irish descent. Again the strong dislike of authority emerges. The bushrangers were admired because they defied authorities and at times made them look stupid. They were held up as symbols against Britain and the government. They were also thought to be courageous and patriotic. Bushrangers were as romantised then as they are today.

By the 1880's three quarters of Australia's population had been born in Australia. This is an important cause of nationalism, you feel Australian because you were born here, unlike previous generations, where the majority were born in other countries. In the 1890's the increase in nationalism continued. Australian artists such as Tom Roberts, Charles Condor, Hans Heysen and Arthur Streeton began to paint Australian images. They helped create the Australian Bush Legend, as a resourceful, independent man who trusted only his mates. This image appealed. Poets and writers too, such as Banjo Patterson's The Man from Snowy River, helped further fuel this image of Australians.

During the 1880's people begain to push for an United Australia, believing that they were Australian, not Victorian's, Queenslanders etc. The Irish too were keen to establish a United Australia out of hate of the British. The media soon joined in. "The Bulletin" believed in "A republican form of Government with no ties whatsoever with Great Britain "(we are still waiting for that). On January 1st, 1901 the Commonwealth of Australia was formed.

In 1914 Britian declared war on Germany, Australia for the first time fought as a nation, not states. This evoked a sense of pride in all Australians. On the battlefelds in Turkey and in France too the Australian identity further emerged. Courage on the fields at Gallipoli, resourcefulness, mateship, independence and egalitarianism, the Australian soldiers were noted for not showing the British Officers the respect that the officers felt they should be treated with, this was in part due to the belief that "jack was as good as his master". The Australian soldier served Australia proudly and with their return to Australian shores came the recognition that Australian was at last a nation.

The Soul of a Nation, The Australian Identity had evolved. This dislike of authority, the belief in egalitarianism, independence, resourcefulness, courage and mateship all are traits of the Australian Identity, all necessary for Australia to emerge from the shadows of a gaol to become a nation.