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A house divided

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“Exclusionary nationalism is a sickness caused by the divisive and opportunistic leadership of Howard,” says Henry Pill. “It will remain strong, and racial tensions will remain high, and debates over the meaning of Australia day will rage ever longer, without leadership which rejects the ever-dangerous spoils of racial politics.”



Another year, another Australia Day controversy. As is the recent custom, Australia Day provoked some furious debate, even compared to the levels of fury which have become the norm. It is a strange pastime for a strange time. And this is the strangest time. Australia is in the grip of a full blown crisis of national identity.

Martin Flanagan’s terrific piece here presents a strong case for moving the date of Australia’s national day. The current day is essentially a poke in the eye for Aboriginal Australia, and a national day in name only. We can do better.

But disagreements surrounding Australia Day have gone far beyond the Aboriginal community. Every year, the familiar carnival ensues:  truck loads of American-style flag waving and accompanying paraphernalia, buckets of racially-tinged jingoism, then the inevitable backlash by those uncomfortable with it, or marginalised by it.

But we should not mistake the symptom for the disease. We are a nation divided not by Australia day but by two geometrically opposed notions of national identity. The first, the product of decades of post-war nation building, the second the product, as Flanagan rightly points out, of the inglorious Howard-era culture wars. One well-worn, civic and pluralist, the other brash, new and exclusionary — particularly towards Asians.

This is the debate which is playing out, year after year on and around Australia Day, a contest for legitimacy as two groups with fundamentally different views about who Australians are and what Australia represents compete for legitimacy.

National identity has always been a question of leadership. A crisis of national identity, doubly so.

In his classic essay on the campaign trail The Weasel, Twelve Monkeys and the Shrub David Foster Wallace discusses two types of political leaders, the “real leader”, who inspires people and nations to be better, and the “salesman” who gives constituents what they want to hear.

I would add a third category of leader: The Parasite, exploiting the weaknesses of constituents for their own electoral gain.

This ascendant exclusionary nationalism is a sickness caused by the divisive and opportunistic leadership of Howard. It will remain strong, and racial tensions will remain high, and debates over the meaning of Australia Day will rage ever longer, without leadership which rejects the ever-dangerous spoils of racial politics.

In the meantime, two Australias stare at each other over an ideological chasm — both claiming to be custodians of the real Australian national identity. We are a house divided, ever closer to the rest of the world and further from each other.



 
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A house divided

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