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Scorn for nationalism the second enemy of the Republic

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The second enemy I identify is the scorn for nationalism

One of the most disturbing findings about the vote in the republican referendum in 1999 is that strong Australian nationalists, proud of their country, were more likely to vote No. This is the conclusion of the sociologist Katherine Betts of Swinburne University. She identifies those most in favour of the republic as the cosmopolitans who are at home in the new world of the global economy, who support multiculturalism, closer ties

with Asia, and stronger action in recompense to Aborigines, and with these attitudes a tendency to denigrate Australia’s past. They speak of the nation still to be made; a nation that is not yet mature. I was guilty of this myself. The opening sentence of my book on the republic reads ‘Australia was born in chains and is not yet fully free’. A few pages later I wrote ‘It is only a small step to a republic, but it is the first step into full maturity’. For people who think the nation has a clear identity and is in no way unfinished, this presentation of the republican cause is naturally off-putting.

It is fashionable in the academy and among the people Betts identifies as cosmopolitans to be suspicious of nationalism, as just a step away from xenophobia and racism and to doubt the claims it makes for the distinctiveness of a people, which are seen as crude stereotypes. I am a dissenter from the accepted opinion of the academy on this question. I believe that the Australian people are distinctive and that there is an Australian culture, an Australian way of doing things and relating to each other. Can it be seriously proposed that we are in no way different from, say, the Japanese? If you truly believe this, you could try acting in all situations in Japan as you do in Australia. You could call everyone ‘mate’. The guidebooks don’t recommend it.

Here is the advice of one guide-book:

‘RESPECT. It’s the fundamental element of Japanese culture and if you remember to respect your hosts, your boss, your elders and, in fact, everyone you meet, you can’t go wrong.’


Academics and cosmopolitans still use guidebooks, which are the last books in print that talk confidently of national differences. I used to try pieces of travel advice on my students. To which country does this passage apply?:

The people are very formal in their mode of address. Individuals are always given their correct title. For example, a holder of a university degree will be addressed as Mr Bachelor Smith. Someone with a diploma in engineering will be called Mr Engineering Diplomat Brown.

Is that Australia? No it is Austria.

The people are very particular about grammar and pronunciation. They like to hear their language spoken well and they expect everyone to know the great books of the national literature.



That is France; certainly not Australia.

If we can confidently identify what is not Australia, we should be able to say what is. The writer Sally White did this in a guide to Australia for international students. She summarised Australian history and the Australian character in two pages. Among her judgements were these:

Australians don’t respect people just because of their role in society or their birth. They dislike people who seem arrogant. Australians are basically law-abiding, but they like people who bend the rules or who don’t respect authority.

Australians are relaxed and informal about most aspects of daily living. There are some rules about polite behaviour but Australians aren’t too upset if the rules are broken. As long as someone’s behaviour doesn’t interfere with another person’s activities or beliefs,

Australians are tolerant and easy-going.

That seems to me a good guide to give to a student coming from China or Japan. What a shock it must be to them.

Sally White did not mention mateship, which is usually cited as central to the Australian character. Those who won’t accept that there are national differences doubt the distinctiveness of mateship. Don’t the people of all nations help each other out in difficulties? The best evidence that I know that mateship is not universal and that Australians are good practitioners of it comes from a book by Gavin Daws on the prisoners of the Japanese in World War II. Daws writes

Isn’t that a great manifesto for the republic? They link mateship with citizenship, which is a key republican term. In the republic during the French revolution everyone had to be called citizen; even those who were sent to the guillotine after a kangaroo court trial. Citizen was something artificial and imposed—just as the term comrade was in communist regimes. Our history has given us the term mate, a strongly valued and unselfconscious indicator of equality.

In the eyes of cosmopolitans, multicultural, modern Australia is a welcome departure from old macho Australia, which we should get as far away from as we can. The four authors of Imagining Australia wanted to expand the terms and values of old Australia to support the new. As a historian, I go

further. The reason why multiculturalism has worked well in Australia is that we have an easy-going, egalitarian style—which comes from old Australia. Imagine a society in which birth and background rate highly or attendance at the right schools, or the ability to speak correctly and know the national literature, in all those cases foreigners will struggle for acceptance. Australia does not erect those barriers to social acceptance or they are much weaker than they are elsewhere which has led migrants to be welcomed into Australian society and not kept outside it. It’s not so surprising is it? Old Australia made New Australia.

So we republicans should not talk of an immature or a benighted nation that is to be rescued by republicanism. Rather we should depict the republic as a natural form for a people who have long recognised the fundamental equality of each other and have been suspicious of social hierarchies. Our republic will still be known as the Commonwealth of Australia. That name signifies a commitment to the common good which in an informal way is embodied in mateship.

These matters will become important when we come again to consider a preamble to a republican constitution and they are important now as we consider how to shape our campaign for a republic.



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