When my wife became an Australian citizen several years ago, she was asked to make the following pledge of commitment to Australia:
As an Australian citizen,
I affirm my loyalty to Australia and its people,
whose democratic beliefs I share,
whose rights and liberties I respect,
and whose laws I uphold and obey.
In return she received a black sheoak seedling, a certificate of citizenship, and was free to join in a rendition of the national anthem. No quick quiz about values – is democratic belief a value? Is loyalty, or liberty? Is lawfulness? – no English language test. With an Arabic surname and features, we wonder in the light of the current debate what hoops may have been placed in front of her had she still been waiting to undergo these rites of passage.
In the course of celebrations for the Jesuit sesquicentenary in Australia (1999), Sir Gerard Brennan identified egalitarianism as the pre-eminent Australian value. Consistent with indigenous culture, he argued, and born in Euro-Australians of shared hardship, egalitarianism ‘must cope with differences’: of ethnicity, religion, culture and giftedness. If Brennan is right, would it not be a strange irony to use such a value as a means of insisting upon a certain uniformity?
An Anglican priest, I had to subscribe to the 39 Articles of Religion as part of my own oath-making prior to ordination – which, as far as I could tell at the time, meant acknowledging their existence. Harder, perhaps, to demonstrate the existence of particular Australian values.
Fremantle AFL coach, Chris Connolly, certainly lamented their absence when complaining bitterly about being ‘robbed’ of two premiership points in Round 5 on account of the umpires failing to hear the final siren when his team was in front by one point. (Their opponents, St Kilda, subsequently kicked a point to seemingly draw the match.) ‘It’s the values in sport that matter’, he was quoted as saying in a Melbourne paper the next day. ‘There has to be some honesty and integrity’. A hard sell from someone who wandered onto the playing field (unlawfully) before the umpires had signalled the game was ended to begin four days of demanding that the victory and the full four points be awarded to his team. Of course, he was duly rewarded by the AFL Commission. ‘Winning at all costs’ – now there’s an indisputably Australian value.
Morag Fraser, former editor of this journal, addressing herself to the same anniversary expressed a residual unease with the very notion of ‘Australian values’, belonging as she sees it to a ‘vocabulary of expediency’ rather than of conviction. ‘Our celebrations sometimes acquire that self-congratulatory edge’, she writes, ‘what poet Peter Porter calls . . . “A long-winded, emphatic, kelpie yapping”’, having as he does, ‘a fine ear for humbug . . . And for vacuous nationalism, which can turn strident and deadly.’
On the eve of Anzac Day, Andrew McGowan, preaching in the Trinity College Chapel at the University of Melbourne, agreed: ‘Our national identity risks falling into pathological self-satisfaction . . . the past sacrifices of heroes are readily exploited by leaders who encourage our self-interest, and by commentators on public life who confuse defence of traditional values with sneering incivility’.
Were we more secure in our national identity – less fearful of and therefore better able to cope with differences – there would be no need to shore up our sense of collective self with nostalgic, special cultural pleading. The late Michael Thwaites, another Australian poet, and World War II veteran, in his poem Anzac Graves at Gallipoli, recited annually at dawn services including at Suvla Bay itself, suggests that it was there ‘Our flesh and bone climbed to their self-forgetting; And in this place was born our nationhood’. If born in self-forgetting, it is surely now at risk of suffocating in a grasping self-obsession – the final, ugly throes of that ‘cringe’ we seem not, after all, to have shaken.