On 2017, national identity, fear, and hope

Well, hasn’t this been an interesting year?

I don’t think I’d even know where to begin with a proper recap of all the madness that has appeared on the Australian political scene in the last twelve months.  And really, why would I need to?  We’ve all lived through it.  Most of us have no desire to relive it.  And if we do, well, there are many excellent blogs that can help you with that (did you know that Andrew P. Street now has a blog on Patreon?  It’s pretty fantastic, and this post here seems like a good place to start, though he’s pretty reliably witty and interesting at all times.).

So I’m not going to do that.

Instead, I want to write about something that has raised its head in a variety of ways this year, and has, I think, almost been a defining theme of politics in this country.  It’s a question which has been around for a while, and which seems to be being asked a lot at present – or perhaps it would be truer to say that it is a question that is continually being answered, with great forcefulness, even when nobody is asking it.  And it’s a question which I think is going to be part of the political discourse for a good long while yet.

That question is, of course, what it means to be Australian.

The most dramatic and comical manifestation of this has, of course, been the citizenship debacle, which has lost so many senators their seats, and is looking set to continue into the new year.  My personal favourite part was when Malcolm Roberts, of all people, stood up in the High Court to make the argument that it is un-Australian to treat people born overseas differently to those born here. The irony was delicious.  Oh Malcolm, honey, have you read your own party’s platform on immigration?

Of course, I have a personal stake in this situation.  In a manner of speaking.

Back in August, when Matt Canavan became the third Member of Parliament to discover that maybe he wasn’t quite as True Blue Australian as he had thought, I texted my Italian-born father to check whether I was still the only person in my family eligible to run for Parliament (due to a change in Italy’s citizenship laws when I was seventeen, my father, mother and brother all got dual citizenship.  Alas, I turned eighteen too soon to benefit from this).

His texted back that yes, of course I was.

Then he went and had a look at the Italian Embassy website, and texted me to say, well, actually, maybe I’m not, because he was underage when he renounced his Italian citizenship and was naturalised, and it’s possible that he wasn’t competent to renounce it, so technically he might have been Italian when I was born, which would mean that I was, too…

No parliament for me, then.

Then he did a bit more reading and sent me another message saying that no, I was probably OK, because it looked like I needed to actively apply for citizenship.


So my plans to run for office are now on hold until I can convene a High Court to figure this out for me…

(Good thing that I have no such plans, really…)

(Personally, I think this makes me as Australian as they come.  I mean, what more can you ask for than a child of immigrant parents who isn’t sure how many citizenships she has?  Of course, according to the ABS, I’m only somewhat typical – I’m female, married, and live in a three bedroom house, which I currently share with the bank, but I’m a couple of years older than I should be and have completely failed to have the two children that a typical Australian woman has.  I shall take comfort from the fact that I’m slightly more typical when grouped with other Victorians.  And that I apparently do a typical share of the housework, something that is not possible to discern from the usual state of the house.)

Anyway, jokes-which-may-not-entirely-be-jokes aside, I’m fascinated at how much national identity has become part of the public discourse recently, and the ways in which it manifests itself.

Consider, for example, the debate about the date of Australia Day.  This has been getting louder and broader in scope for a few years now, as more people begin to ask the question of whether it is appropriate to celebrate as our national day a date which holds such negative resonances for our Indigenous brothers and sisters.  This seems like a reasonable question.

Alas, this turns out to be something that we are not allowed to have a rational conversation about.  The date of Australia Day seems to have become a battleground for identity politics.  Several left-leaning city councils vote to drop Australia Day celebrations – in response, the government says that these councils will not be permitted to perform citizenship ceremonies.  Triple J decides to move its ‘Hottest 100’ to a different date – and so Triple M responds by announcing that they will have an ‘Ozzest 100’ on Australia Day.  Commentators on the left suggest that it is divisive to celebrate Australia Day on January 26th.  Commentators on the right retort that the left are being divisive by questioning the date at all.  Silliest of all, in my view, Australia’s lamb industry makes an ad apparently intended to celebrate Australia Day while commenting quietly that Indigenous Australians were here first, and promptly gets lambasted (ooh, pun!) by the Daily Telegraph for failing to mention Australia Day – and by Indigenous Australians for depicting the European invasion of Australia. Oops.

I find it fascinating – and a bit disturbing – that we can’t even begin to discuss this topic without the emotional temperature in the room going way up.  I don’t know, to be honest, whether changing the date of Australia Day is the best thing to do at this stage.  I’ve read more than one article suggesting that changing the date of Australia Day is a distraction, and not the most useful place for Aboriginal Australians and their allies to be spending their energies, given the many challenges still faced by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians in this country.  I think there is some merit in that argument, and that it is certainly worthy of further discussion.

But that’s not the argument one tends to hear from people who want to keep the date the same.  What one hears is a really astonishing level of anger at the very idea that change might be considered.  It is as though a change to the date of Australia Day is a threat to their very identity, which, if it is the case, argues a level of insecurity that is in itself alarming.

A similar sort of reflexive, angry patriotism applies to ANZAC Day.  This is a day that is, apparently, so sacred to the memory of Gallipoli that the use of the phrase ‘Lest we forget’ to describe a situation in which Australia itself is morally culpable leads to near-universal outrage. (I’d have more sympathy for this if the most outraged statements didn’t come from the sort of people who complain that their right to free speech is being curtailed if they don’t get to say racist things, frankly.  And if I didn’t agree about Australia’s moral culpability in the situation described, for that matter.)

I think both of these situations spring from a place where we are very invested in a particular view of ourselves as Australians.  It is a view in which we, as a country, are a land of freedom and equality, of opportunity and the fair go, of multiculturalism and mateship. And these are all good things, and worth valuing.

But this vision of ourselves seems to leave us unable to acknowledge the notion that we might have hurt other people on our way to reaching this point – let alone that we might still be hurting people – and I think that is really dangerous. ‘My country, right or wrong’ is a toxic form of patriotism, and, frankly, a recipe for abuse.  There is nothing wrong with loving one’s country, but that love must not be blind.  It is possible, I think, to be proud of our country, to rejoice in the freedoms and opportunities we have, and still to ask ourselves how we can make it better for everyone who lives here.  Indeed, I feel strongly that true patriotism demands this of us.

So much for patriotism.  Another variation on the theme of national identity this year was the (mercifully failed) attempt to amend Australian Citizenship laws, requiring university levels of English and a much longer period of residency in Australia.  In a similar category to this, we have the ongoing situation with refugees who, if the current government has its way, ‘will never call Australia home’.  I have not been covering this as closely as I would like this year, but suffice it to say that we are building ever higher walls between refugees and the possibility of safety, and making the requirements for permanent visas increasingly insurmountable.

As readers of this blog know, I am not a fan of either of these moves, but as an attempt to define what a Real Australian is, they are kind of fascinating.  We have, it seems, a deep fear of those who are not like us – a deep fear that if we let enough of ‘them’ come here, that they will change us, and for the worse.  And so, while the government may talk of wanting proof that people who are coming here are ready to be part of our culture and community, no real investment is being made in helping them to do so.   While 510 hours of English classes are available to permanent residents and some temporary visa holders through the Adult Migrant English Program, this is nowhere near sufficient to bring a person to the standard required in the tests that Dutton’s laws were proposing.  And particularly for those on humanitarian visas, access to the sorts of supports that would allow them to integrate into the community are lacking (at the government level, at least – charities and communities have been doing their best to fill the gaps, which is something.).

And so the effect of this kind of legislation is to ensure that only people who are from English-speaking countries, or else extremely well-educated, can emigrate to Australia.  This begins to look an awful lot like a White Australia policy, only we don’t have to say that out loud.

And look, I think it’s OK to say that we prefer immigrants who will contribute to the community. But the proposed citizenship legislation and our treatment of refugees does not, in fact, achieve this goal – or rather, it values one particular pocket of contributions to the exclusion of all others.  Like many Australians, I have grandparents who arrived in Australia not speaking a word of English, and they worked hard, contributed to the nation’s infrastructure, and had children and grandchildren who grew up to be teachers and lawyers and administrators and volunteers and who contributed to the community in other ways.  Along the way, my grandparents and their siblings learned English and became part of the community.  They contributed to the community in numerous ways, but this contribution they made had little to do with their ability or lack thereof to speak University-level English in the moment that they were granted permanent residency.

(And that is leaving aside the whole question of what counts as contributing to the community – employment is not, of course, the only value a person can provide.)

I was going to start talking about racism and xenophobia here, but on reflection, I’m… not sure whether this legislation – or this endless need to put boundaries about what qualifies someone as truly Australian – is racist in intent.  It is racist in effect, certainly, but that is a slightly different matter.

I think this whole nationalist conversation is actually about discomfort with the present, and fear of the future.  I think it’s about nostalgia for a past that was perhaps never real – a time when we didn’t have to worry about racism or sexism or offending people, and everyone lived together in peace and harmony and didn’t have to worry about having their jobs stolen by immigrants (or indeed, uppity women).  And I think that fear comes from the fact that in many ways our lives are more insecure than those of our parents and grandparents.  Marriage is no longer as permanent as it was (or as straight as it was).  People don’t live their lives in one place, or have a steady career in one company.  Women and minorities are no longer silent about harrassment – which is a good thing! – but it makes people who are used to being comfortable and not having to consider their words feel uneasy.  (Some of this unease, I think, comes from the fact that they are good, kind people, who certainly never intended to hurt anyone, and now fear that they have.)  We are beginning to suspect that climate change really is real, and our children’s future will be less secure even than our own.

And because we are afraid and insecure we cling hard to what we are comfortable with.  We resist change.  We take refuge in patriotism, and close our ears to anyone who tries to tell us that our country is less than perfect, because it is who we are, and we know we are good people, and therefore it is simply *not possible* that we are part of a system or a country that hurts others.  Being told otherwise feels like an attack, and that’s because it is – it’s an attack on our self-image, and sometimes that’s all we have to hold onto.

No wonder we get angry.

No wonder we are determined to hold onto the symbols of the past, even when they do us no favours.

No wonder our politicians have so much success in playing on our fears.

In several Christian traditions, despair is seen as the one sin that cannot be forgiven.  I don’t subscribe to this idea.  I think it can too easily be used as a stick to beat people who are already suffering from depression.

But I think it does contain a seed of truth, and that is that when we despair, we give into our fears – and this is very dangerous, because when we let ourselves be ruled by fear, we make terrible choices.

So I’m not going to despair at the state of politics in Australia.  I don’t think I can afford to.

I don’t think any of us can afford to, actually.  And I don’t think we need to, because we are better than this.

I’m lucky, because I know a lot of people who are doing amazing things. I have a friend who was a joint winner of the Nobel Peace Prize this year for her work on nuclear disarmament (she’s a bit of an overachiever…).  I work with people who are finding new treatments for cancer.  One of my sisters-in-law is working with farmers to protect native wildlife while preserving their own livelihoods.   I am incredibly proud to know all of these people, but they are not the only people I am proud to know.

In my circle of friends, there are a lot of people who are very sick right now, but there are also a lot of people who are visiting, pet-sitting, delivering food or doing laundry, so that the ones who are sick have a proper chance to get well.  I know, apparently, an enormous number of people who will bake cakes, write letters, publicise fundraisers, or just donate money to try to help refugees.

And I don’t think my circle of friends is actually that extraordinary (OK, maybe a little bit extraordinary.  There aren’t too many Nobel Peace Prize winners running around the place. But still.).  I think all around Australia, there are people who are doing their bit, be it small or large, to make the world around them a better place.  Maybe they are babysitting for a friend who needs a night off.  Maybe they organise a sewing group and English conversation class for new immigrants.  Maybe they are lobbying politicians to do something about climate change.  Maybe they are volunteering for a charity.  (Did you know that 36% of Australians participate in voluntary work?  And according to the ABS, that doesn’t include the 20% of people who provide informal or caring support for neighbours or colleagues.)

We are a nation that cares.  The numbers prove it!  And while this isn’t showing up very much in our political discourse, I think it’s important to remember that underneath the fear and the awful rhetoric that comes with it, we are pretty good at looking after each other.

Which sounds a lot like mateship, and I can’t believe I just wrote that sentence.  But if we want to define mateship as caring for our fellow Australians, well, that’s a form of patriotism I can get behind.

Just think what we could do if we could extend that care a little further outward.  If we could stop being afraid of people that don’t remind us of ourselves.

Let’s carry that care into 2018, and use it to build real hope for the future.

5 thoughts on “On 2017, national identity, fear, and hope

  1. Hello Cate,

    Or would you prefer Catherine.

    I’ve been meaning to write to you regarding your comments over my run for the Senate as an independent in the last federal elections.

    Thank you for your insightful observations.

    My feelings for my homeland, no not Greece but this beautiful sunburnt country, have only increased since my run.

    Thank you for your kind words.

    Warm Regards
    John Karagiannidis

    • I answer to either! Nice to see you here, and I’m glad you enjoyed my post. It’s always interesting to see where the various independents are coming from, and I must admit, I’d like to see more independent politicians in parliament. I’m not convinced our party-based system is doing us a lot of good right now – it’s a very homogenous group.

      Best wishes for 2018 – do you plan to run again?


  2. Hello Catherine,
    I’ve been reading your pieces on smaller political parties for the 2016 Federal Election and they’re terrific. It’s really interesting reading about all the smaller parties policies!

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