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What does it mean to be Australian?

By Bert Hetebry

Sometimes we are proud to be Australian. We cheer on our cricket teams, we carry high hopes for our tennis players, cheer on the Matildas and their home-grown stars.

But what really defines us as a nation?

We are essentially a nation of immigrants, even those who can trace their lineage to the First Fleet, whether as convict or guard, can only claim about ten generations as Australian. According to the Australian Bureau of Statistics, First Nations people represent 3.8% of the population at 30 June, 2021. The rest, 96.2% are either immigrant or descendants of immigrants coming from over 190 different countries.

With the exception of students arriving after 1950 from Asian and Pacific nations, immigration from the time of Federation until 1973 was ‘white’, essentially European. People deemed to be ‘non-white’ were subjected to a language test and in the first 8 years after Federation only 52 people passed the test from 1359 tests, after 1909 no one passed the tests. Immigrants did arrive from number of European countries, but the ideal immigrant was of Anglo-Celtic origin.

After World War II immigration was open to non-British Europeans as many left war-ravaged Europe to settle in the ‘New World’. That Australia was a large land mass with a very small population that was threatened by Japan during the way, the cry was ‘Populate or perish’ and incentives were introduced to attract immigrants, the ten-pound pom, but the ten-pound price for coming here was offered to many more than just the British.

The Whitlam government passed the Racial Discrimination Act in 1973, ending the White Australia Policy and opening the door to all comers, leading to the diversity of ethnicity we have in 21st Century Australia. Today the proportion of Australia’s population born overseas is 29.5% (ABS).

Leaving a homeland is difficult. To leave behind the family and ethnic connections, even though the homeland may have been war ravaged, leaving is not an easy decision, understanding that there may not be a chance to return. And so, the ties to whatever cultural roots that can be brought to the new land are important, sporting clubs to encourage the playing of sports such as soccer, sorry real football, national clubs, a meeting place for fellow expatriates, churches and so forth, vestiges of home to keep cultures alive, albeit as remembered from the time of leaving.

The idea of a nation implies a common cultural identity, yet Australia, as an immigrant nation is culturally one of the most diverse nations on earth, so perhaps that cultural diversity is what draws us together as a nation, perhaps that we claim our citizenship without needing to shrug off the other bits of our identities makes us uniquely Australian. That by and large we accept difference in our midst, we accept that people are of different origins, dress differently, believe differently, that we have Muslims, Sikhs, Hindu, Buddhist, Judaism and all branches of Christianity living largely in peaceful coexistence is in part what makes us who we are, a largely tolerant community where despite our differences we call ourselves Australian.

And yet we see the elements of fear, the differences which divide, especially when faced with new arrivals who try to come in through the back door so to speak, people who are leaving countries where their lives are threatened for whatever reason, be it leaving war torn Syria where cities have been razed to the ground, or Afghanistan where the Taliban is making life difficult for those who do not comply with the orthodoxy which is strictly enforced, or from Somali where warlords fight for control over a country already in the grips of severe drought, worsening the plight of a starving population, and so it goes, these people are not welcome because they do not arrive through the formal channels, probably because they could not access Australian embassy officials to make formal application requiring proof of identity which is buried somewhere in a bombed out city or burned along with the rest of their belongings.

(We are not alone in not wanting to accept refugees. The film Human Tide by Ai WeiWei documents the plight of refugees vividly. At the time the film was made, 2017, there were almost 70 million refugees searching for somewhere safe to live. The problem has got worse since then.)

This Australia Day, as we pull out the flags and thongs we bought last year, and head out to enjoy the fireworks and homegrown Aussie music, we could probably think about our origins, what brought us here, us or our parents or grandparents, or for some, remembering those who came as convicts, banished from Britain because their forebear stole a rabbit from the King’s forest so he could feed his starving family.

Or for some, who look at the immigrants and see what they have lost, and yet are Australians too, remember that despite the best efforts of the immigrants that culture which dates back over 60,000 years survives still, and makes up another chapter in what it means to be Australian.


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  1. New England Cocky

    ”And yet we see the elements of fear, the differences which divide, especially when faced with new arrivals who try to come in through the back door so to speak, people who are leaving countries where their lives are threatened for whatever reason,”
    The fear was first generated by Little Johnnie Howard, the most self-centred & destructive Prim Monster since Billy Hughes. Think the Tampa attack and Children Overboard campaigns by the COALition & the Murdoch Media Monopoly. Both lies!!
    The allegedly Christian Scummo did everything possible to make life on Earth hell for any boat-people, the refugees from discrimination and death threats from other oppressive governments, who had the courage & gumption to travel to Australia for a safe haven and job opportunities. Meanwhile Boofhead Duddo was doing deals to allow au pair girls into Australia for the LIARBRAL$ party faithful.
    How much did the concentration camps on Manus and Nauru cost the Australian taxpayer? How much to re-open Christmas Island jail camp for a day’s publicity pic shoot?
    Now we are told that there is a shortage of unskilled labour ….. but these refugees, rotting in expensive metropolitan hotels at Australian taxpayer expense are ready, willing & able to fill those positions. False economy?? Definitely!!
    It appears that xenophobia, the fear of unknown people, is an essential pre-requisite for LIARBRAL$ party membership. Certainly ability to scheme an$80 MILLION glass of MDB water has gone unaccounted.
    But Australian voters living in regional electorates prefer the representatives of the Notional$ to be adulterous, alcoholic misogynists and their wives quietly allow their partners to vote for those candidates.

  2. paul walter

    NEC, opening bat on a lively pitch.


    We can do the thongs and bonhomie, it is normal enough at the village square level and life’s for living and laughing.
    But laughing at what?
    Elements like the Voice rejection indicate a problematic with culture as fail safe component for building community and individuals, rather than a fatalistic “it is as it is” and no further thought. When tampered with, as we have seen in Gaza and even over taxcuts modification, from the hysterics at the IPABC. incubating an attitude that balance and proportion no longer matter, using “messaging” and “spin” to divert from facts, can only be ruinous for socio-cultural inscription but good for commodification.

  3. Canguro

    What does it mean to be Australian? Egalitarianism, nominal equality, freedom from state persecution wrt personal beliefs (within acceptable limits; neo-nazis and deeply dangerous racists et al excluded), freedom of movement within & between states, generous to others in distress re. fires, floods, droughts etc., not American, not British, not consumed by the political madness that characterises those two countries. To be an Australian is to have won a ticket in the lottery of life, per where one’s feet stand upon the planet.

  4. Anon.E. Mouse

    Will Australian citizens feel any sense of legitimacy, acceptance, without reconciling the history of the country now known as Australia?

    Leaving a post script to mention the original peoples and culture that dates back at least 60000 years or some suggest over 120000 years to celebrate the day of colonisation by the Brits as Australia day is odd. It reinforces that 26 January is coloniser’s day of celebrating Invasion day. It really raises the question as to whether Australia is a country dominated by immigrants or colonisers/settlers.

    26 January, and the lead up to it, are fast becoming the focus for truth telling. The failure of the Voice referendum shows that the so called ‘immigrant multi-cultural’ Australian community has more of a settler/coloniser mindset than a unified Australian-mateship society.

  5. Kerri

    And then there’s Peter Dutton!?!?!?

  6. corvusboreus

    Being an Australian mean being lucky enough to live in a relatively unspoiled but infertile landmass (+islands) that contains a swathe of unique local fauna and fauna.
    I reckon that being a ‘good Australian’ means trying not to irreperably phuq up the inherited habitat upon which we have but temporary tenancy.

  7. Paul Smith

    What does it mean to be Australian is one of the questions I asked over a decade ago when preparing the rationale for a war memorial whose mission statement was: To remember who we have been as a people, while honouring those who fell, serving the nation we are still becoming. Remembrance can’t just be about the past but must include our responsibility in the present to the future. If I was writing it in 2024 I would be explicit about what is hinted at in the last 200 words, and reflect on the failed referendum as proof of WIMTBA as unfinished business.http://mullumremembers.blogspot.com/2012/11/what-does-it-mean-to-be-australian.html?view=flipcard

  8. Canguro

    Twenty-seven million different takes on what it is to be Australian. Most would sit comfortably within the median range of the bell curve, smaller numbers at the margins such as the RWNJs, sovereign citizens, dogged eccentrics. Given the breadth of this continent and the full gamut of conditions and experiences, it’s unrealistic to expect conformity of view on the identity question.

    UnAustralian is something else altogether…

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