National pride should not preclude hard conversations
Pride in Australia comes easily to Australians. There’s nothing forced or contrived about the positive feelings we all have for our sun-drenched land or its egalitarian values when thoughts turn to Australia Day every January.
Perhaps it comes a little too easily. Australia Day produces an almost Pavlovian reaction in most of us: instinctive, familiar, warm, but also static and unchanging.
It’s an emotional response, rather like our feelings toward Christmas – we feel before we think. But the things we celebrate on Australia Day are very unlike those we celebrate at Christmas: the national values we celebrate are dynamic, changing, and sometimes confronting.
They are changing because Australia is changing, just as our nation’s place and role in the world is changing.
Consider this illustration of my point. The values that impelled the Anzacs onto the shores of Gallipoli in 1915 were the values of King and Empire. The values that carry Australian soldiers to Afghanistan today are the values of international co-operation and the fight against terrorism.
Both sets of soldiers, however, would identify strongly with an Australian national interest by being there; both would feel that the folks back home were behind them precisely because they were fighting “for Australia”, though the political definition of the Australian interest might be vastly different in each case.
Both groups of Australians were or are right in that assessment – they were and are representing Australian values at work, whether on the shores of Anzac Cove or in the foothills of Karin Towt. It’s just that those Australian values have changed.
The eternally-changing nature of our society, what Australians hold to be important, how they see the world and the world sees them – these are all reasons not to treat our national day as some kind of show-piece display, a parade of stock concepts so familiar and comfortable that they cease to excite any serious thought or debate.
The fact is that there is real churn in what Australians think of as their values. It’s the genius of the Australian way that those values have evolved and grown to take account of the experience and stories of the people who’ve enriched its shores.
For example, a century ago “mateship” carried the connotation of being both “male” and “white”. Mateship today is still a powerful Aussie value – uniting, compassionate, selfless, inclusive – but has evolved to allow us to see reconciliation with Aboriginal Australia as being a necessary part of the concept.
The fact that our values grow and adapt over time implies that a discussion about them needs to occur – and if not on or around Australia Day, then when?
Citizenship is a privilege, admittedly one afforded by accident of birth to millions of us. That Australian citizenship is a valuable and coveted privilege is beyond debate; undoubtedly millions of the world’s inhabitants (and not only refugees) would gladly acquire it if they could.
Nothing valuable should be taken for granted. At the very least its owner needs to fully understand the value of what he or she holds. Just how well our citizens – particularly younger citizens – understand the precious gift in their possession must be a matter of speculation.
Without wishing to be alarmist, it has to be said that Australians are far too casual about the value of their liberties and their responsibilities. The ancient Spartans lived in an unwalled city to remind all citizens of their duty to be the city’s defenders. Just a little of that elevated sense of responsibility might go a long way in contemporary Australia.
Opposition Leader Tony Abbott suggested last week that Australian citizenship is “insufficiently appreciated” and referred to some recent immigrants as seeming “resistant to Australian notions of equality”.
One reason for such resistance may be our own failure to articulate and debate such values in the context of celebrating our national day. Perhaps Australian values are hard to explain – certainly we prefer new arrivals to acquire their understanding of them through experience rather than explanation!
But debate and discussion – even if it becomes heated and leads occasionally to controversy – is better for all of us, longstanding Australians as well as newer ones.
Part of holding Australian values dear is to keep them in good working order, taking them out for a spin, appraising them, considering whether they need a bit of buff and polish, or even modification and upgrade.
For example, how do Australian values fit with our present role in places like East Timor, the Solomon Islands and Afghanistan? Should those same values drive us into a role in, say, bringing about democratic governments in Burma or Vietnam?
By all means let’s bask in a little radiant self-satisfaction this Australia Day, but let’s also not be afraid of a bit of contention or argument about what all the hoopla is about as the chops sizzle on the barbie.
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