Rediscovering our sense of Australian nationhoodby Lucy SullivanNews Weekly
, July 24, 2010
There has been a great deal of sociological sympathy for the cultural loss inherent in migration; but little attention, I think, has been given to the impact of concerted immigration on the host culture and its members.
Their defensive and preservative responses have tended to be treated as moral failures, and denied the sympathy given to their counterpart. Yet choice in the pursuit of personal benefit has been the prerogative of the migrant, and while the host country is changed forever by their advent, immigrants can seek solace in the intact culture whence they came.
In the mid-1980s, when the Anti-Discrimination Act made it obligatory for government institutions to employ equal employment opportunity officers, I became the first to inhabit this role in a small New South Wales tertiary institution.
The position was supported by frequent training sessions, provided by a central Office of EEO, which mainly consisted of what one might call consciousness-raising exercises, intended to alert us to the sorts of discriminatory assumptions we might encounter, or unwittingly hold ourselves, and to sensitise us to the difficulties of adjusting to a novel culture.
One of these sessions, from which this article takes its starting point, I found strangely disturbing. Members of the group were asked, in turn, to name our nationalities. Those ahead of me all named NESB (non-English-speaking background) nationalities, but as I am at least fourth-generation Australian in all directions, with no knowledge of or communication with anyone who could be called a relation outside Australia, I naturally said I was Australian.
I was reprimanded for this response, as was the one other "Australian" claimant. We were told by the group leader, a charming woman of, I think, Polish origin, that this was to put ourselves above the others, and was impolite and unacceptable. I was completely baffled for, as I saw it then, if I was not Australian I was deprived of any nationality.
No suggestion was made as to what nationality I might call myself, and I literally could not guess at what might be intended. It appeared that, under the rule of multiculturalism and non-discrimination, to be a multi-generational or non-NESB Australian was to be placed in an amorphous unidentifiable space, a member of a group without nationality.
For a decade I remained unenlightened, the question unresolved; but at another level it was the harbinger of a change of consciousness, for, somewhere around the mid-1990s, I found, to my surprise, that I no longer thought of myself as Australian, but as the English of my forebears, and that this, of course, was what our group leader had been driving at.
Why should this have happened? It was certainly not a direct result of that EEO session, and my guess is that it was a response to the growing hegemony of multiculturalism (of which that rebuff was merely an early instance), and to the culture wars in their racist/nationalist aspect, both of which had aroused a loyalty to my, and Australia's, cultural origins.
The poet Les Murray expressed the anti-Australian ethos of this era, in the title of his 1996 collection Subhuman Redneck Poems
, and in his poem "The suspension of knock" with its recurring line, "Where will we hold Australia?"
When we are made fully nothing
By our own, at home and abroad,
Where will we hold Australia?
Perhaps I have been rather feeble and lacking in resilience in letting my Australian identity go, while others have fought back in a variety of ways, though probably unconsciously, in the usual manner of redeeming social phenomena.
The huge growth of interest in family history of recent years, not just in Australia, but largely, I think, in English-speaking countries that have experienced large-scale immigration, may be a search for nationality and a "founding fathers" identity by the members of cultures under threat from powerful foreign incursions, reflecting a need to assert an extra-national ethnic identity when one's true ethnic identity is denigrated or denied.
Perhaps another manifestation was the respect and praise given to the volunteer fire-fighters at the time of the 1990s bushfires. As expressed in Murray's poem, cited above:
For the moment, a salamander identity
Is permitted us in fire.
But this may have been a Pyrrhic victory, for the government money that then poured in reduced volunteer control, in effect dismantling the truly Australian autonomous volunteer tradition, for where money goes, official control is asserted. The respect so recently won was withdrawn in hindsight criticism of the handling of later fires.
The astonishing resurgence of participation in Anzac Day ceremonies may be another, so far successful, instance of fightback.
It began in a small way with young Australians visiting Anzac Cove, curiously coinciding with the prediction that Anzac commemoration would die of natural attrition.
Its new function is that it allows multi-generational Australians to assert, ritually, that their forebears had qualities worthy of admiration which are not to be scorned, and that there was a reality of an Australian identity before
multiculturalism, which native Australians can still claim.
It has provided one means of righting the perversion that occurred when Australian goodwill and tolerance were exploited to deny us legitimacy. In the Anzac Day celebrations the old Australia calls the tune, as it should.
The latest evolution of Anzac Day celebration is a tribute to our freedom from spite and racism. The marches have grown in size and inclusiveness and it now seems that almost any nationality can take part in what has been able, because it was a defeat, not a victory, to become an acknowledgement of the tragedy of war but nevertheless its heroism.
It has grown to welcome all those who care to join in our celebration of our past, now become our, and their, present.
As a child, I was puzzled when we were told that on Anzac Day we became a nation - it seemed a non sequitur
. Now, it seems that it may be performing that strange miracle again, in keeping us one.Dr Lucy Sullivan has written widely on literature, cultural matters, family, taxation and poverty.