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Mixed loyalties don't negate Australianness

  • 25 January 2016

In his Australia Day speech in 2006, Former Prime Minister John Howard spoke about Australian values which were based on 'a mix of Judeo-Christian ethics, the spirit of the Enlightenment and British political institutions and culture'.

It seems to have been a prevalent attitude at the federal level. Howard's words were echoed on numerous occasions by Tony Abbott, who in 2014 was happy to find $226 million for an expanded school chaplaincy program while slashing funds for education, aged and health care.

I can't help but wonder what this attempt to narrowly and exclusively define our democratic values means for many non-Christian, non-British migrants whose ancestral homelands never experienced a Western European style enlightenment.

That includes many Catholics, Orthodox Christians and fast-growing Hindu and Buddhist populations.

For my own parents, becoming Australian meant being eligible to apply for a passport and receiving a citizenship certificate. It was the early 1970s, and my mother had spent most of her life in India. British political institutions were already familiar to her. I arrived in Australia at the ripe old age of five months. My first passport has the words 'unable to sign' typed in the signature section.

I learned Australian values by a process of gentle osmosis. Many Indigenous Australians learned these values in a less gentle fashion. Many were forcibly removed from their families in the most un-Christian manner, separated from their parents and from a culture far more Australian than British.

The first piece of legislation passed by the Commonwealth Parliament was the Immigration Restriction Act, which restricted migration to people with European heritage and white skin. Many existing settlers were former Irish convicts whose loyalties were hardly to the British Empire. Irish Catholics fought at Gallipoli and in other battles. However, this wasn't enough for them to be regarded as 'real' Australians.

In his ANZAC Day address in April 2015, Abbott acknowledged: 'History records that the Gallipoli campaign was a failure from the start'. He spoke highly of Keith Murdoch, who boldly wrote of the failure of British military tactics that cost so many Australian lives. But this didn't stop the Gallipoli generation from feeling British.

In 2010 Frank O'Shea wrote for the Canberra Times about Irish Australian returned soldiers causing major controversy when they marched in 1920 under the Australian flag, not the Union Jack. In doing so, they effectively declared that 'they had fought for Australia rather than for Britain ... the Irish in Australia were Australians