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Beyond Australia's adolescent identity crisis


It is easy to forget how young Australia is. Many look to 1788 as the source of national identity, but  Federation is actually a closer approximation of birth. Given that the creation of the Commonwealth was driven in part by a movement that sought to formally distinguish what is Australian from what is British, 1 January more accurately captures the beginnings of nationhood than 26 January.

If we thus take 1901 as our birthyear, then our country turned 111 on New Year's Day. A mere drop in the ocean, in a world where China, Egypt, India, Iran and Mexico have histories that stretch back uninterrupted into antiquity. Our own Indigenous history is at least 500 times older.

Even the US, the closest comparable country in terms of genesis, is far ahead in maturity. By the time the First Fleet pulled into Sydney Cove, 12 years had passed since the American Declaration of Independence. When our first Federal Parliament was inaugurated, the US Constitution had been in place for over 100 years. We have been singing our current national anthem only since 1984.

This youthfulness contributes to the ongoing tensions around what being Australian means, or indeed who we ought to be. Like many adolescents, Australia is going through a protracted identity crisis.

It is caught between its immature past and burgeoning potential, longing for prominence yet lacking confidence, struggling to make sense of the varied aspects of its identity. It obsesses over its flaws while denying them in public, swinging between pride and resentment.

These are normal hallmarks of adolescence, but Australia must also contend with a troubled background and few guiding lights. Not only is its early history marked by violence, the institutions from which it draws its sense of self are shallow and murky.

Its national day is inextricably linked to the dark consequences of those first boat arrivals, and will continue to be for as long as injustice characterises Indigenous lives.

Its founding document (the birth certificate, as it were) codified discrimination, and still does. The constitution which had empowered our founding fathers to restrict immigration against 'Asiatics' or 'coloureds' and exclude Aborigines from the census, still contains a provision that grants federal power to make 'special laws' based on race.

Its other foundation story, the Eureka Rebellion, glosses over the fact that Chinese miners were subject to discriminatory taxes, segregation, forced evictions and migration limits. None of these policies met the same resistance as the mining licence policy that led to the stockade.

In other words, Australia does not have the narrative touchstones that would help it navigate its way through its adolescent identity crisis.

There is no soaring statement on the equality of all men and unalienable rights, no principled liberation of indentured labourers, no prescriptive constitutional preamble that links a 'more perfect union' to the ideals of justice, peace and liberty, no stirring speeches about shared brotherhood. No wars for its very soul.

Or perhaps the narrative touchstones that Australia does have are inexplicably obscured.

For instance, the Fraser Government's decision in the late 1970s to accept nearly 60,000 Vietnamese refugees (including 2059 undocumented 'boat people') ought to be part of our national storytelling, not merely a political footnote.

So should the 1992 Mabo decision be elevated from a legal landmark to a shared liberation. Given its correction of a doctrine that led to the annihilation and displacement of Indigenous peoples, Australians ought to be as familiar with it as Americans are with Abraham Lincoln's legacy.

Paul Keating's speech at Redfern that same year is also a narrative touchstone, as frank and prescriptive as Martin Luther King Jr's at the Lincoln Memorial in 1963. Both drew on human capacities for dreaming and imagining as bases for the work of justice: King in expressing his hope for freedom, Keating in inviting people to put themselves in the shoes of the oppressed.

As a very young nation, Australia has so few such touchstones, that it flails in the dark when it buries them. Such stories, especially the ones that provide a glimpse of its better self, should not lay hidden. They should be laid as the foundation for more.

It is how nations mature, as Australia eventually must. 

?Fatima MeashamFatima Measham is a Melbourne-based writer, and tweeter

Topic tags: Fatima Measham, Australia Day, White Australia Policy, land rights



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Existing comments

An excellent article, Fatima! I agree wholeheartedly! January 1 1901 should be the anniversary of Australia's nationhood and January 1 should be our annual Australia day. I would also like our flag to be changed and replace the union jack with the aboriginal flag. I believe that the most significant impediment to our future is the lack of intellectualism where most people have little knowledge and understanding of our history including the indigenous history prior to 1788, as well as an understanding of philosophy, literature, cinema, the visual arts and the performing arts. We have a lot to be proud of, such as the development of the welfare system, but in recent times we have lost our culture of egalitarianism and community and have developed a culture of individualism with a secular and materialist philosophy. We also have a lot to be ashamed of such as the treatment of indigenous people, the treatment of non-white immigrants such as the infamous gaelic dictation test to keep the chinese and non-anglo people out and the recent treatment of refugees arriving by boat.

Mark Doyle | 25 January 2012  

Thanks, Fatima. Very insightful.

I think though that there are probably a few more touchstones than you mention. Without wishing to glorify war, one that springs to mind is the Kokoda Track: it was not a case of senseless sacrifice inflicted on ANZACs (and other nationalities) at Gallipoli as that battle was meaningless in so many ways. But Kokoda was right there, on our front door, and had to be done.

ErikH | 25 January 2012  

One should use the same measuring stick when comparing. To say the aboriginal Australia has a history 500 times of what "today's" Australia has ignores the fact that all countries /people have that kind of "not recorded" history.

Theo Verbeek | 26 January 2012  

Mark, I too support changing our Australian flag, but do not forget there are two distinct groupings of indigenous Australians - Aboriginals and Torres Strait islanders, and each have their own flag. We need to incorporate elements of both in any new flag.

mary | 26 January 2012  

Thanks Fatima a really well written piece and some important thinking on our past and future. I find it hard to be proud to be Australian when considering our immigration policies and indigenous rights but your article reminds me we do have the ability to think and act for the good of all.

Ben Webb | 31 January 2012  

YES!!!! Keatoing's apology was one of Australia's great moments: more exploration of such themes will take place on feb 13 in brunswick; th 4th anniversary of Kevin rudd's apology: see http://www.facebook.com/events/307248219311994/

(dear editors: i realise you my not be able to post this, but please pass on the link to the feb 13 event to the author of Beyond Australia's adolescent identity crisis)

Geoff Fox | 05 February 2012  

There was no history in Australia prior to 1788 because what defines the difference between history and pre-history is written records. Prior to the arrival of the European explorers there was only pre-history. Even if Australia's birthday is 1901 this makes it one of only half a dozen countries in the world that have had a continuous democracy.

Andrew Jackson | 11 July 2012  

One of the take-aways from this article is that we truly are an adolescent nation.

If we mend our ways then hopefully the shameful behaviors of our childhood will one day be seen as silly things we did when we were young and knew no better.

Hopefully on our tricentenary on Jan 1, 2201 we'll look back at Mabo, Keating, and Rudd as foundation events (aka defining moments) from our early history rather than the 'turning points' they seem with our current perspective.

Josh Hillman | 25 January 2013  

Great Article! We can't simply change the flag to an Aboriginal one. That doesn't represent who we are, only who we were. We can't continue to use the Union Jack, that doesn't represent who we were, only who some of us are. The answers lays in moving forward. We have to remember the old and give light to something new. There is so much emphasis on who we "were" rather than who we all "are". History always has a role to play but let's face it, what's done is sadly done. It was not my decision, nor was it yours. We can continue to decipher the pit-falls of our history or we can make our own decision - to start talking about what can we become, together. Follow up article to come at www.wakeupwhere.com.au

Michael Perry | 20 July 2015  

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