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Innocent happiness and heavily curtained windows

The Australians: Insiders and Outsiders on the National Character since 1770, John Hirst, Melbourne: Black Inc 2007, 211pp, RRP $29.95, ISBN: 9781863954082, website

Innocent happiness and heavily curtained windowsIn recent years, the term 'unAustralian' has been used to exploit ideas of the national character for political purposes, on both sides of politics. The unAustralian list includes striking workers, ALP policy favouring withdrawal from Iraq, and the treatment of asylum seekers and political prisoners such as David Hicks. In fact, the term unAustralian was originally used in the 1850s to describe landscape and other facets of colonial life that were reminiscent of 'mother England', and therefore rather good. Now the word is used only to deride.

John Hirst is one of Australia's most eminent historians. As such, you might expect his book on the national character to mount an historical argument about the increasing politicisation of the so-called Australian character. It doesn't. The book has no core argument to speak of.

But that is not a failing, because it is an anthology. The sum of the parts affirms that the Australian character exists, that is is robust, but arguably without the depth of that of the European nations from which many Australians arrived. The hand of the historian is evident in the thorough research and judicious assembling of texts. It's up to the reader to decide what he or she wants to do with what Hirst has collected. John Howard might read it from cover to cover and memorise the contents in case some pesky journalist asks him the origin of the term 'digger', or where the 'fair go' came from. You or I might put a wet winter afternoon to good use by pouring through the contents, which are both entertaining and enlightening.

There is an element of controversy in just about every item in the collection, but as a whole it is not a controversial work. In some ways, this is surprising, as Hirst has often stirred debate in the past. For example, his 2005 Australian Quarterly Essay titled "Kangaroo Court" accused the Family Court of being complicit in child abuse.

Innocent happiness and heavily curtained windowsThe Australians is actually not designed for impact or provocation, like Blainey's Triumph of the Nomads or Windschuttle's The Fabrication of Aboriginal History. The collection is more a gentle chronicling of the various stages of our self-reflection. It was published under the auspices of the National Australia Day Council, which is supported by the Australian Government through the Department of Prime Minister and Cabinet. Compiled by somebody else, it might be unremarkable, and indeed nationalist propaganda.

At first glance, it can be a bit frustrating to read about our egalitarian ethos without any explicit analysis of the current economic boom that is eluding low income earners, or the diminishment of wages and conditions under Workchoices. Section headings refering to the 19th century include "No 'bunyip' aristocracy", "Opportunity for the Small Man", and "Good Wages".  However there is material for reflection about whether the 'fair go' exists today, and what it consists of.

Firstly there is a quote from Peter Saunders of the Centre for Independent Studies. Saunders argues that the fair go does not mean equalising the distribution of resources by taxing the wealthy. For him, it's more about fair reward for effort and talent. Hirst also reproduces a speech of John Howard about the 'mutual obligation' doctrine, and the linking of equality and opportunity. This is juxtaposed with Carmen Lawrence's reminder that egalitarianism has its roots in sharing the wealth of the country and the benefits of productivity. For her, it's about protections and guarantees, so that those who miss their opportunity are not left out in the cold.

The Australians is not all serious, and not only about what we think of ourselves. There are the risible one-line put-downs from pompous Englishmen. One quotation is from the English cricketer, who called out when spectators invaded the Sydney Cricket Ground in 1879: "You sons of convicts". English historian J.A. Froude said during his 1885 visit: "It is hard to quarrel with men who only wish to be innocently happy". Homegrown putdowns include Paul Keating's "Sport has addled the Australian consciousness", and Bob Hawke's declaration after retirement: "We'll be off to Europe. We won't be staying here - this is the arse-end of the earth."

It gets interesting towards the end, where the Australian character is set against that of the European nations from which the 'new Australians' arrived after World War II. For them, Australia offered "considerably safety and little menace". Unlike Europeans, Australians were not given to dancing in the streets. The great ideal was to own a house with heavily curtained windows. From this perspective, Australian character is an oxymoron.



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