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Last Updated: Monday, 28 November 2005, 10:44 GMT
The big debate Down Under
By David Cannadine

David Cannadine

The debate about Australia's national identity is raging intensely, encompassing its history and foreign policy. But will it ever be solved, asks historian David Cannadine.

Earlier this year I spent six very enjoyable weeks at the Australian National University in Canberra.

Some friends had warned me that I would find it a boring and parochial place.

It was a city with scarcely any history before the 1960s, and with scarcely any culture at any time; and like other purpose-built capitals, such as Washington and Brasilia, there was no life outside politics, and there was no life at all at weekends, when everyone who could do so went off to sample the more sophisticated delights of Sydney and Melbourne - as, on several occasions, I did myself.

But I have to say that I found Canberra fascinating. It's ringed by mountains, built around a huge lake, the air is like champagne, and its population is only in the region of 300,000. It boasts some splendid modern architecture, especially the new parliament house, which is partly underground but which also dominates the skyline.

Its roads combine grand processional routes with elaborate (and sometimes confusing) clover-leaf junctions, as if Kingsway in Lutyens's New Delhi had been imposed on top of the 12-lane freeways of Los Angeles. And it's full of trees and flowers and birds and animals, all in bright and vivid colours, which hold out the hope that even in the city, nature somehow still has a chance.

Uluru/Ayers Rock
What is Australian, is the question of the moment
One of the subjects that was constantly being discussed in the academic-cum-government milieu of Canberra was Australia's sense of itself, and of its place in the world today. And in August this year, those discussions briefly - and revealingly - centred on a man named John Simpson Kirkpatrick.

He served with the Australian troops at Gallipoli, where he demonstrated great pluck and compassion, and heroism and selflessness, famously carrying wounded soldiers to safety on his donkey; and, in the words of the education minister in the current Liberal government, Brendan Nelson, Simpson (as he was known) represented "everything at the heart of what it means to be Australian".

Not so, retorted those whose sympathies lie with the opposition Labor Party. As they hasten to point out, Simpson was not an Aussie, but a Pom: he was a Geordie who had been born in Durham.


He worked in the merchant navy and went to Australia in 1910 but he got there by deserting his ship, which means that in today's jargon, he was an illegal immigrant. And his letters home suggest that, for all his undeniably good qualities, he was also something of a bully, certainly a brawler, and sometimes a slacker.

The whole issue of what it means to be an Australian in 2005 is very vexed
How, Brendan Nelson's critics wondered, could such a foreign and tainted figure possibly be nominated as representing everything at the heart of what it means to be Australian?

The answer is: very easily, but also very controversially. For the whole issue of what it means to be an Australian in 2005 is very vexed.

Down Under, this debate over national identity comes in two separate guises - in one case external, in the other case domestic, although obviously the two are interlinked.

In terms of its history and its culture, Australia is still tied to Britain, as the original coloniser and settler. But it's also tied to the United States as the dominant world power located on the other side of the Pacific, and to Europe more broadly, because it has provided so many new immigrants to the country since the 1970s.

Yet in terms of Australia's closest contacts, the nations which increasingly matter are Japan (a former enemy, long since turned friend), India and China (the two most rapidly growing economies in the area), and Indonesia (the largest Islamic nation in the world).

East and West

In the light of these varied connections and challenges, a major problem for Australia's leaders is where to focus their most serious foreign policy initiatives. The former Labor Prime Minister Paul Keating is remembered in Britain (if he is remembered at all), as the man who put his arm round the Queen, who advocated an Australian republic, and who was denounced by our tabloid press as the "Lizard of Oz".

More significantly, he also sought to reorient Australia's foreign policy away from America and Britain, and towards China and south east Asia. But since 1996, his Liberal successor, John Howard, has put that policy sharply into reverse, standing shoulder to shoulder with Bush and Blair over Iraq and the war on terror.

While I was in Australia, Howard made a much publicised journey to Washington and London, where he played the role of world statesman and reaffirmed these traditional ties.

John Howard and George Bush
Australia and the US have stood shoulder to shoulder
There is much debate among Australians as to whether this is the right thing to be doing.

But this disagreement about Australia's foreign policy is as nothing compared with the disagreement that rages about its domestic identity, which is fought out among academics, pundits and politicians with an engaged ferocity and a public resonance which is by turns disconcerting yet in a way enviable.

Much more than the British, and more even than the Americans, Australians are engaged in fighting history wars about their past which impinge closely on their present and their future. For them right now, history really matters.

Here is one version of Australia's past, which was largely accepted until the 1950s and early 1960s. According to this account, Australia's history was an heroic story, as convicts and settlers took over an empty land, which they transformed into a thriving economy and a great nation, by courage, bravery, hard work and dogged determination.

They loyally came to Britain's aid during the First and Second World Wars, but after the disasters of Gallipoli and Singapore, they gradually began to find a sense of their own nationhood, embodied in such iconic figures as Sir Donald Bradman - and John Simpson Kirkpatrick.

Indigenous Oz

This Australia was a white man's nation, built around sheep and cricket and mate-ship, and it seemed a blessed and prosperous place.

Many Australians still sign up to that view of their country's past history and present identity, including John Howard and Brendan Nelson.

But since the 1970s, there has been another and very different, view of Australian history that has been advanced, by a new generation of scholars, who have been responding to the greater ethnic diversity of Australia as it has increasingly absorbed immigrants from Asia, the Middle East and central and eastern Europe.

These two historical narratives are not easily reconciled
They have stressed the importance of the indigenous peoples, who were there long before the British ever arrived; and they record (and regret) the brutal methods which the white settlers used to take the country over, grabbing land wherever they could, and driving the aborigines to near-extinction.

Here, then, is a very different national story, which is guilt-ridden and apologetic, rather than proud and celebratory: a story not of patriotic endeavour, but of dispossession and even, some say, of genocide.

These two historical narratives are not easily reconciled, and they fuel a bitter public debate which shows no signs of abating.

Should the Australian prime minister apologise to the Aborigines for past wrongs? John Howard thinks not. Should aboriginal culture be protected and nurtured, as something unique, historic and beautiful? Or should aborigines be assimilated completely into what others insist in regarding as mainstream Australian culture and life?


These are not easy questions to answer, and the debate over them is intensified by the fact that whereas the federal government is Liberal, most of the state governments are Labor. For the Liberals, the traditional grand narrative of colony to nation remains iconic; but for Labor, the newer, more questioning story seems much more resonant and right.

While I was in Australia, I sometimes found it hard to realise that this uncrowded land of such haunting beauty and exceptional potential could be so divided over its past and so uncertain about its identity. As a result, immigration and race are very hot and sensitive issues and they won't be going away any time soon.

Yet Australia is only one of many countries that were created by overwhelming the indigenous population: and so it's not surprising that similar debates and disagreements are to be found across north and south America, and also in South Africa and New Zealand.

They will never be solved to everyone's satisfaction. Despite what politicians say, and claim they want, the verdict of history is rarely clear-cut. Step forward, once again, John Simpson Kirkpatrick.



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