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Stopping the boats as a part of our national identity

  • 18 May 2015

Searching for our identity as Australians is more than just an ivory tower exercise. Quantitative research may never provide fully satisfactory answers, but it does make a serious contribution to such searching.

Recently I joined a panel to discuss the latest in a series of ANU Polls, which seek to extend our understanding of Australian society. This one was about 'Australian Attitudes towards National Identity: Citizenship, Immigration and Tradition'.

At one level we Australians are pretty happy with ourselves; perhaps that is why we are also quite traditional and resistant to change. But there is also evidence of some disquiet with aspects of our society and of tensions in attitudes towards ‘big-ticket’ items, like immigration and the republic.

When asked what it means to be ‘Australian’ 92 per cent, higher than before, responded that it included speaking the English language, while 44 per cent, lower than previously, thought it meant being born in Australia. While I was surprised that the latter figure was so high at least the fact that it is going down is encouraging evidence that Australia is becoming a more inclusive society.

The responses related to 'Pride in Australia' were also intriguing. We are not generally 'my country right or wrong' proud, but we do come across as a nation proud of lots of things about our country; especially proud of scientific and technological achievements (90 per cent), which is perhaps surprising, and equally of our sporting achievements (90 per cent), which is to be expected. We are also proud of our armed forces (88 per cent), which in the year of the centenary of Gallipoli rings true.

But beyond that our pride diminishes. Only 82 per cent are proud of the way our democracy works, a high figure perhaps, but in comparison to the other figures above not so high. In answer to an associated question 35 per cent of us are dissatisfied with the way our country is heading.  

A relatively low 73 per cent are proud of our social security system, and an even lower 67 per cent are proud of the extent of our fair and equal treatment of groups in society. There figures contain insights and warning signs for governments, political parties and the whole community.

So far as attitudes towards immigration and monarchy/republic are concerned we are torn. It is reassuring, in a highly contested field, that 42 per cent of us, the largest group, think