Current Issue #488

Modern Times: The Idea of Australia

Modern Times: The Idea of Australia

India is an ethnically and linguistically diverse modern society, founded on the long history of an ancient civilisation. So is Australia.

When Sunil Khilnani wrote The Idea of India in 1997, it is unlikely he would have considered its central thesis relevant to modern Australia. Khilnani argued that India’s founding idea was apparent only when “powerful seductions — the temptations for a clear, singular definition of nationhood” were resisted. From Federation, Australia was largely defined by the skin colour of its inhabitants, through the White Australia policy, and symbols that emotionally anchored it to the British Empire.

These policies and symbols endured for much of the 20th century. God Save the Queen was Australia’s national anthem until 1984 and, lamentably, the Union Jack remains part of our national flag. Australia has gradually come to accept cultural diversity as part of its modern identity, and we may also one day acknowledge and celebrate the reality of a history that far exceeds two centuries of British settlement.

In the last half century, through migration and trade, Australia has been influenced by other cultures, religions and intellectual traditions. But our politics and public discourse struggle to resist the powerful seduction of superficial and often banal definitions of nationhood. Some still search for a clear, singular definition of nationhood. This limits the opportunity for emotional integration of all Australians: Indigenous, British or myriad others.

And such an emotional integration is only possible if all Australians help define the idea of Australia: a defining idea not limited by singular definition of nationhood that would surely condemn us to the intellectual cul-de-sac of a disputed history or attempts to promote and preserve the dominance of one culture, language or religion. But who can define the idea of Australia?

Khilnani described the “troubling irony” that “political imagination, judgement and action, seem to have deserted the air-conditioned hallways of power and the dusty streets of protest just when India needs them”. Similarly, only political imagination will help uncover the idea of Australia — an idea around which our diverse people could coalesce and thrive. Is it possible to find such imagination, judgement and action in our political leaders, in the pages of our newspapers or on the streets of our cities and country towns?

Former prime minister Paul Keating did not lack for political imagination. He imagined modern Australia as an independent, cosmopolitan country, integrated in Asia. He encouraged Australians to lift their eyes and consider an identity not defined by simple definitions, but by ideas. Australians are no longer encouraged to consider an alternative idea of itself, but rather to rely on simplistic notions that deny us a unique identity that reflects both our reality and necessity.

There appears to be a more clearly-defined idea of South Australia, a province described by its current premier as harmonious, progressive and open. This idea is the product of our history as well as political imagination; and it informs both the story of South Australia and the policies designed to deliver a future its people deserve. South Australia’s openness that will help it overcome a remoteness from larger, more populous centres of economic activity, through a deeper cultural and economic engagement with the world. Its progressive identity will continue to produce greater freedoms and happiness for people of different backgrounds, talents and tastes.

Yet a defining idea of Australia eludes our national leaders. Indeed, they appear to have given up on the search. Earlier this year, Australian values were made central to the citizenship test. Uniquely Australian values were considered necessary prerequisites to citizenship but when asked to define these values, the prime minister elected democracy, rule of law and freedom. These are hardly unique to Australia. Ironically, Australia is optimistic about its relationship with India because both countries cherish democracy (and cricket).

India and Australia share far more than such attempts to draw a superficial connection suggests. They are countries of incredible diversity: ethnic, religious and linguistic. As a result, both peoples need a clear idea of themselves for their national identity and unity. Our national politics and national symbols do not currently reflect a clear search for a defining idea of Australia. This idea may be dynamic and even elusive, but its search should be the defining feature of our national life.


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