Menu Close

A hybrid Australia, where identity has a multi-layered crunch

Creating a unique Australian culture has been an enduring challenge. AAP/'Bungaree, The Showman' by Mervyn Bishop

Australia today is very different to the place I grew up in: our culture has changed and is changing, but public discussion is still framed by old tropes. We need a new shorthand to capture the reality and potential of Australia in the 21st century – one that synthesises the past and casts it forward with insight into what makes this place and its people unique.

While we adjust to these changes incrementally in our own lives, making sense of them in the public domain is more of a challenge. Defining the new Australian reality and bringing it to life is not easy, especially at a time when the political debate is narrowly defined and the mass media has dissipated.

Public discussion is more fragmented and fractured than ever, the arteries of cultural communication are clogged with clutter and junk, making it hard to ensure that an authentic national voice gains momentum.

Tipping point

Some 50 years, almost to the day, after the publication of Donald Horne’s The Lucky Country (1964) we are again at a tipping point, where the rhetoric of public life does not match lived reality. If this moment can be captured and galvanised it will help define the future, possibly in the way that Horne’s book did in another era.

The statistics on popular culture tell us that Australians value their own stories, but hearing them, and the discussion about what they mean, in a noisy, connected, always-on world is harder than ever.

While there is a lot of chat on social media, the traditional platforms have shrunk. Stimulating an inclusive national conversation may be easier than ever, but drawing meaningful lessons from it is harder.

Societies such as Australia, where more than a quarter of the population was born overseas, are well suited to this global age in which people, ideas and dollars move with great ease and enormous speed.

AAP Image/Dan Himbrechts

But success also depends on a clear sense of identity. The shorthand we have used in the past no longer captures the reality of what being Australian means in the 21st century. Unless we can redefine this, we run the risk of becoming irrelevant.

Australians are diffident about delving into what makes us distinctive, to accentuate the positive while acknowledging the negative. My concern is that if we don’t do this in a serious way, we are at risk of losing our moorings, of forgetting about the values and attributes that mark us.

To my mind, Australia’s uniqueness comes from the mix of peoples, place, institutions and values. The challenge is to dig down into what this really means, to jettison both the cultural cringe and the cultural strut.

In the past couple of years there have been about a dozen books trying to reframe the question Horne posed in 1964 about the dangers of relying on luck. Despite the publishing frenzy, no-one has yet captured the zeitgeist the way The Lucky Country did.

Russell Crowe before the premiere of ‘The Water Diviner’ in Istanbul, 2014. EPA/Sedat Suna

And yet something, it seems, is happening. It has not yet crystallised. But it will. At least I hope it will.

Each year thousands of books are published in this country, and only a handful make it through the sluice gates to get a review in an outlet that is read by a significant number of people. Yet reviews of blockbuster American books can be picked up cheaply to fill the space.

As was pointed out when Richard Flanagan won the Man Booker prize for The Narrow Road to the Deep North (2014), ABC TV’s book show, which is only broadcast once a month, had in the previous year only reviewed one Australian book, and that in passing, with a more critical tone than was warranted.

The review pages of the major papers have shrunk. There is now one reviewer for all the Fairfax papers, one for The Australian and one for all the News Ltd papers. I know this because when Griffith REVIEW - which I edit – gets a review the press clippings can be wonderful – it appears in scores of papers – but it is one reviewer, not a critical cultural dialogue.

There has been a lot of hand-wringing about the limited box office appeal of Australian movies – this may in part be a result of the changing nature of the publicity industry, mass audiences, are harder, and much more costly to create. (By contrast watch the marketing of the new Russell Crowe directed film The Water Diviner as a lesson in how it can still be done.)

Simply put, we need to ensure our lived reality, our hybrid identity, is given the opportunity to flourish. Unless that’s captured in books, films, TV shows, paintings, plays and the like, and unless these are discussed widely, there will be a sense of confusion and cultural detachment.

Defining culture

Culture is complex. It is everything: language, heritage, art, social relations, education, and identity – and at the same time, it is annoyingly intangible. It is the glue that binds us, it enriches and informs our lives every day, it is something we make and something we participate in as a human right, and while its public value can be assessed it resists measurement.

Governments indeed should not, create culture. Wise leaders seek to enrich and enable its expression.

So when Prime Minister Tony Abbott recently declared, and repeated just in case it was missed the first time, that “the defining moment in the history of this continent” was the arrival of the First Fleet, the reaction was swift and loud.

Bangarra Dance Theatre’s new work Patyegarang, 2014. AAP/Queensland Performing Arts Centre, Jess Bialek

Indigenous leaders and bloggers were quick to point to the hurt embodied in the statement; conservative commentators shouted back that this sort of response was the reason the Racial Discrimination Act 1975 should be changed.

In the overheated digital world of immediate call and response, where only one truth can be left standing at the end of the day, they were all almost half right.

The problem was the use of the definite article – the defining moment – coupled with continent. The weight was wrong.

Clearly the arrival of Captain Arthur Phillip and the First Fleet in 1788 was – by definition – an essential moment in the creation of modern Australia, although as the Prime Minister noted, most Australians know almost nothing about the Enlightenment man who led that perilous journey.

I am sure I was not the only person for whom the furore was cut through by an image in my mind’s eye: Michael Cook’s wonderful rendering of the arrival of the First Fleet. An Aboriginal man holding a Union Jack on the beach, an Aboriginal man in uniform facing off local fauna, or an Aboriginal woman, London Bridge in the background and rosellas flocking around.

Cook’s work, which has been exhibited to acclaim around the world, is witty and clever as well as being beautiful and technically superb. His hybrid images go to the heart of the uniqueness of Australia – and in the process speak to the world.

Public history

Notwithstanding the work of excellent historians, we are not good enough at public history in Australia.

The desire to collapse complex layers of people and place to a single hierarchy does not work anywhere, but in a country like Australia it is especially problematic.

This is a continent with an ancient geological, botanical and zoological lineage, a place with histories of human settlement dating back tens of thousands of years.

It is a country that has in more recent times beckoned and made welcome people from every continent. But we have not been as diligent as we should be in telling these stories, in encouraging them to blend into each other. Too many are forgotten and lost.

Lisa Flanagan (left) and Wayne Blair in a scene from ABC’s Redfern Now. AAP/ ABC, Mark Rogers

The National Museum’s Defining Moments project is one of a number that are seeking to animate our history. Smart, curious, able people are doing this in many ways, digging through dusty archives, interrogating the records, finding the keepers of memory, reimagining lives in words, music and performance, on screen and in installations.

The challenge is to find ways to allow these histories to percolate and inform each other – to foster a rich, informed, hybrid culture, which is not subsumed by myth, where the truth has a multi-layered crunch.

When I think about this, the image that comes to mind is the wonderful work of Queensland-born artist Danie Mellor. He collapses the layers of settlement and tradition in his detailed paintings.

The elaborate indigo and white rendering of the Australian bush, rather than the traditional blue and white porcelain patterns from China or Europe.

Defining Australian culture

I would argue there are four distinctive characteristics to Australian culture.

The first is its Indigenous history, as home to the longest continuous living civilisations. There is no other country that can trace such a lineage. This is something that has never been properly acknowledged. Until it is, the full potential of the great southern land and its peoples will never be realised.

The second is that it has one of the most successful continuous representative democracies. It did not happen by chance or by fiat: it was shaped by a long, slow process of struggle and debate over more than a century – it was not a gift of the English, but something that was contested and resolved at the time. But it is not fixed in concrete. We need to keep it under review, to ensure it is as good as possible.

The contrivance of a vintage Wonderland by Danie Mellor was part of the National Indigenous Art Triennial at GOMA, 2009. AAP/National Gallery of Australia, Danie Mellor

Nonetheless this long democratic tradition has underpinned Australia’s openness and its resilience – even if at times it acted as a brake on change. A direct line can be drawn from this heritage to the ease with which Australia has become home to people from many different backgrounds, and the fact that despite only 23.6 million people it is the 13th richest country in the world.

The third characteristic that is unique is that, with the exception of devastating colonial wars that decimated the First Australians, there has not been a full-scale modern war fought on Australian soil. The lives lost in the colonial wars remain unacknowledged, and need to be recognised. But on every other continent millions of lives have been lost in civil wars and territorial wars over the last century.

Although Australians have fought in these wars, many lost their lives or were irreparably damaged, and others came here as refuges from those conflicts, the battles did not happen here. The Australian countryside is not marked with memorials to past battles.

I would argue that it has a legacy, one which we rarely acknowledge, but that at its best underpins Australian pragmatism. There is a strong sense that things can be sorted out without resorting to violence, that war happens elsewhere. And although this can make us want us to ignore what is happening elsewhere, that pragmatism is a great bit of cultural DNA.

The fourth is the accident of geography that places Australia in the Asian hemisphere. This provides opportunities that many Australians are now enthusiastically exploring. We seem to rediscover the potential of proximity every few decades, maybe this time we will finally embrace this in a multi-faceted way.

Culturally ambitious nation

The new mantra of the Australia Council for the Arts is to foster “a culturally ambitious nation”. This is admirable, and will hopefully embolden Australian artists at home and see them celebrated around the world – but the A$222 million annual budget at its disposal is miniscule by comparison with every other area of government expenditure, so it is a big ask – with big rewards.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics estimated this year that the economic value of the creative and cultural sector as being more than A$87 billion, about 7% of GDP in 2008-09, and employing just under a million people.

This is a big enterprise – generating more of the GDP than many other industries we spend much more time talking about, and at least as importantly providing interesting and rewarding jobs.

As this cultural commerce is conducted globally, it also sends a message to the world. It is an export with more power that ships full of coal. Sadly such is the disregard for culture in the current Australian political environment that the ABS data series on culture has been cancelled. This is a great loss, not least because these are truly the jobs of the future.

Wesley Enoch’s play Black Diggers. Jamie Williams/Sydney Festival

Even in a settler society that feels perpetually new, there is a need to unpick recent history. The next step is to synthesise this and communicate it at home and abroad, to continue listening and thinking, to realise that culture is a work in progress not something that stopped 100 or 50 or ten years ago.

Some of the most remarkable and exciting art currently being produced draws on both the Indigenous and settler traditions. The works of young artists mentioned above, Danie Mellor and Michael Cook, synthesise this in original ways.

They are two of a large group of artists – Christian Thompson, Fiona Foley, Ricky Maynard, Julie Gough, Vernon Ah Kee, and others who were given a collective voice in two wonderful National Galley of Australia exhibitions, Culture Warriors and UnDisclosed, and Djon Mundine’s Bungaree: The First Australian exhibition at the Mosman Gallery last year.

It is also happening in dance and music, performance and literature – Bangarra Dance’s recent show, Patyegarang which explores the story of Lieutenant Dawes and the Aboriginal woman who taught him the language of the Eora people and how to read the stories in the stars.

Author Alexis Wright. AAP/Dean Lewins

Paul Stanhope’s oratorio Jandamarra, for the Sydney Symphony Orchestra with Gondwana and Kimberley choirs, celebrates a warrior who betrayed and then saved his people.

Wesley Enoch’s play Black Diggers uncovers the story of Aboriginal soldiers who died on the battle fields of the first world war and the complex connections between Europe and Australia.

In The Swan Book (2013) Alexis Wright uses biting Aboriginal humour to imagine a future Australia where a reverence of Aboriginal leadership has dire consequences. And then there are movies and TV shows produced and directed by brilliant indigenous filmmakers, The Sapphires (2012) and Redfern Now (2012), to name just two.

Indigenous Australia was defined by culture – and we are increasingly recognising that it is culture rather than race as defined by bloodlines, which give this its continuing power and potency.

The task of creating and mobilising a unique Australian culture has been one of the enduring challenges ever since the First Fleet arrived. I would hope that this would always be a work in progress. The recent decision by the Sydney City Council to include the Gadigal names of major sites in the city is an important step in this direction.

The old clichés drawn from the 19th and 20th centuries are no long sufficient, so there is a need for an expansive approach, one that unpicks the layers of Australian history and identity, engages its peoples, and communicates with the world in an open minded, quietly self-confident, unapologetic manner.

This is useful in many ways, for individuals, for the society, and maybe even for the world as an example of what is possible.

This is an edited version of a talk by Julianne Schultz AM FAHA given at the 2014 VATE conference at Deakin University, November 27 2014.

Want to write?

Write an article and join a growing community of more than 179,100 academics and researchers from 4,897 institutions.

Register now