180 million dollars sounds a lot to spend on an advertising campaign but it worked for Scott Morrisson when he was the Managing Director of Tourism Australia in 2006.
The ad, which was banned in the UK and later had to be pulled as it was too provocative, told the world that we’ve got the place ready. We’ve poured you a beer, shampooed the camels, taken the sharks out of the pool, and the roos off the green.
So where the bloody hell are you? asks the bikini clad Lara Bingle as she steps onto a sun kissed beach at the end of the ad.
A decade and a half on it sounds more like, stay the bloody hell out!
The trouble is we’ve already let everyone in. Never mind that us colonials, convicts and immigrants over the last few hundred years were not the first to arrive. With Australia Day upon us again, now is as good a time as any to ask: What is an Australian and what do we stand for?
Thomas Keneally asks this question in his recent book, A Bloody Good Rant. Two essays bookend his collection of rants: “Commonwealth” and “That Old Chestnut: What Is An Australian?”
In his first essay, Keneally traces the decline of Australian fraternity in the face of ‘the relentless doctrine of market economics’. Australia traded faith from a commonwealth for the benefit of all to a market deity promising that wealth will trickle down when in fact it gushes up.1
The concluding essay explores how republicanism aligns itself with the necessity of constitutional change in recognising a First Nations Voice as a move towards healing and reconciliation of Aboriginal dispossession of the land by British colonisers. Which explains why republicanism polarises those in favour of keeping the entitled staus quo under the Monarchy.
The depressing conclusion by Keneally is “… we have not decided what an Australian is. One man’s or woman’s Australian is another man’s or woman’s hater of Australia. The question hangs most definitely over this volume.”2
One way to think about this question is to imagine Australia as a pub. Three aliens walk in to Pub Australia: a French ambassador, a Serbian tennis star and a refugee. They swagger up to the bar with more front than Myers.
The barman looks suspiciously at this unlikely trio. How the bloody hell did you lot get in? The diplomat said he had diplomatic immunity but still had to leave to get back in after the submarine debacle. The tennis star said he had Covid immunity but had been waiting for an umpire’s decision to let him play.
And what’s your story, the barman grunted looking beady eyed at the refugee. Hey mate, said the refugee. I got in early while they were still letting in the convicts.
Getting in early wasn’t that far back. Transportation of convicts from the home land continued as late as 1868. That’s less than a hundred years before I was born. And Keneally reminds us that doesn’t mean convicts stopped serving sentences, stopped breathing, stopped passing on their warnings and attitudes to their children.
Furthermore, not all convicts were ‘criminals’. There were political prisoners and social bandits.3 Revolutionaries that rebelled against the British monarchy. Who’s to say that such convict stains didn’t give us our progressive bent in our first two hundred years, asks Keneally.4
Convicts weren’t the only stains in our past. Massacres of Aboriginal Australians continued until at least 1928.5 In recent years, calls have grown for a national truth telling process to counter what a 1927 Royal Commission called a ‘conspiracy of silence’ on the mass slaughter of Aboriginals by colonisers.6
Australia is barely 120 years old as a nation marked by the first parliament of the new Federation of British Colonies on 1 January, 1901, at what is now the Royal Exhibition Building opposite the new Melbourne Museum.
Perhaps this is not just a coincidental juxtaposition. It may portend a republican revolution or a regression of the States back to independent colonies, relegating the existing Federation as we know it to the museum.
In any case, the ANZAC spirit to defend king, country and empire had more to do with birthing the Australian national imagination, not the constitution holding up our Federation.
Federation never sat entirely comfortably with the former colonies, now states in the Federation, with Western Australia attempting to secede as recently as the 1930s.7
But there are other reasons for this discomfort aside from old colonial interests. The sins of the father were perpetuated in the Australian Constitution. Section 127 read: ‘In reckoning the numbers of the people of the Commonwealth, or of a State or other part of the Commonwealth, Aboriginal natives shall not be counted.’ It took a referendum as late as 1967 for this section to be repealed.8
And then Covid came along pushing everything, including the Federation, to its limits. George Megalogenis writes in a recent Quarterly Essay, Exit Strategy: Politics after the Pandemic, that “the politics of lockdown weren’t local, they were colonial… We had slipped, instinctively, into our pre-federation identities… The first wave of the virus fractured the federation.”9
States retreated away from the Commonwealth, back toward independence, closing borders, accussing the Federal government of inequitable access to vaccinations, and paranoid Premieres bickering across state lines with a Prime Minister finding it an increasing challenge to maintain the illusion of calm and control.
Recent scandals over the French submarines and Serbia’s Djokovic are traumatic symptoms of our Aussie psyche asking, what is real? (See my post, When Is A Chair Not A Chair? which explains how trauma defines what’s real).
Who is on Australia’s side and who are the aliens railed against us?
The cancelation of French submarines wasn’t about nuclear capability. It was about having more faith in American forces to defend our borders.
Romain Fathi, senior lecturer in History at Flinders University, in The Conversation says, “Post-colonial Australia has never been truly sovereign in the way the French understand this notion. Nor does it want to be, because what matters to Australians is not so much sovereignty as security. In this respect, France has neither the scope nor the military capabilities of the United States to attach Australia to its Indo-Pacific policy.”
“The dispossession of Aboriginal lands and the geographical situation of Australia as a settler state in Asia has long led to a widespread sense of the country being under siege.”
“But is anyone truly interested in taking over Australia? Aren’t we big-noting ourselves in thinking that we matter to others?”11
And as far as reprobate Serbian tennis stars go. Former Labor Prime Minister, Kevin Rudd reminds us that it’s not normal for world leaders to announce individual visa cancelations via Twitter. Scott Morrison tweeted, “Mr Djokovic’s visa has been cancelled. Rules are rules, especially when it comes to our borders.”
Rudd insists that “the government’s management of the tennis star’s fate has in part been designed to distract Australians from the real-world consequences of Scott Morrison’s ‘living with the virus’ – a testing system that has collapsed, hospitalisations rising exponentially and frontline medical workers at breaking point.”12
But you have to ask why such politics work in the first place. Is it because we are traumatised by fear of invasion by aliens and microbes? It used to be ‘Reds under the bed’ and then the ‘yellow peril.’ Is it now contagion by aliens?
The real reason for the mess is the Australian governments’ – state and federal – belief that the market will most efficiently allocate resources for our needs and wants including vaccinations, RATs, and hospital beds. So why isn’t that happening? The market is not perfect, and it most certainly isn’t the hidden hand of God as proclaimed by Adam Smith whom the neo-liberals have appointed their high priest.
But God forbid we hold our governments to account for this mess. They were just bowing down to the great market god of Mammon that will heal all our wounds, save our mortal souls and fill our bellies with trickle down manna of the minimally taxed rich.
The fault line running at subterranean depths beneath our collective Great Southern Land consciousness, manifest in international scandals and invasion paranoia is not Covid, the Federation, Monarchy or Republicanism.
What really spooks the Australian psyche is a deep fear that what was stolen may be invaded and stolen back by not only the disposed ancient ancestral spirits of the land but the lost wandering refugees of the world.
In 2020, 3.5% of our earth’s population had been forced to flee their home country making up some 276 million lost souls. Keneally is wry on this point. The hysterics would ask: “They’re all coming to Australia, aren’t they?”13
On this Australia Day, are we still able to ask what a real Australian is? The answer, of course, will depend on who you ask.
I suspect that half of us (measured on poll days by the dodgy electoral carve up, stacked by political horse trading) would offer up the Monarchy and some expanded white Australia policy.
The other half might remember the promise of a future Australia republic compelled to recognise its past, the disposed indigenous Aboriginals that were written out of the constitution, and its future in the exiled and homeless refugees, which includes those of us who come from exiled convict stock.
But few of our pollies are brave enough to raise such questions and not enough of us seem brave enough to ask why. So we fixate on protecting our borders, a symptom of our deep seated trauma. And this is what Scott Morrison plays to for political advantage. 15-love.
We believe that only our US distant colonial cousins and Monarchial mother land can keep our borders safe. Which is the real reason why we’re buying American subs. The great allied triune – England, America, and Australia. Is it past the use by date from two world wars almost a century behind us? Apparently not.
And let’s make bloody sure that no one jumps the queue to get in. Rules are rules, gushes our PM, confident of the political point scoring his pollsters assure such a stance will return.
At the start of the second decade of the twenty first century, Australian national hysteria over border controls and lock downs is a symptom of the sins of the fathers catching up with the immigrant sons and daughters.
While the American church becomes increasingly divided over evangelical alt right politics to usher in God’s rule as theodicy, the Australian church is fighting different demons.
Many were inspired by Trump’s advocacy of conservative Christian causes which gravitate toward sexual privilege in the form of orientation (LGBQTI+), authority (feminism, complementarianism) and body rights (right to life vs. pro choice).
But the battle lines in Australia are drawn up differently along a great divide between the possessed and dispossessed, the entitled and the alien.
Yet, despite our paranoia, the Australian soul is still planted in the egalitarian spirit of fraternity and having a ‘fair go’.
We don’t favour those who think they are above the crowd. The queue jumpers and tall poppies.
This is how we’re fundamentally different to our brothers and sisters across the Pacific who are prone to the rhetoric of individual rights. We too believe in human rights but not at the cost of privilege or elitism. That’s because the convict blood still pulsates through our veins crying out for justice and fairness even though we have not practiced it as we should have on those we dispossessed.
And this is where the church should be focused. Evangelicals talk much about mission and evangelism. Unfortunately, much of this is the American import variety aimed at the salvation of the individual soul. But before we can preach Christ, we need to understand our need in the place where we are.
We are preaching to a lost nation that is at a crisis of identity while still in its youth. We have still not worked out who we are. The message of the church should be clear. In Christ there is no colonial, immigrant or Aboriginal; street person, working poor or well off; male or female. (Galatians 3:20).
As Christ’s body, we the church should be as one, in Christ. Once we understand and live what we preach we might yet see revival in our great southern land.
- Thomas Keneally, A Bloody Good Rant: My Passions, Memories and Demons, Allen & Unwin, Ceros Nest NSW, 2021, pp 4; 12
- Keneally, 344
- Keneally, 33
- Keneally, 38
- Keneally, 52
- The Killing Times, The Guardian
- Keneally, 14
- Keneally, 271
- George Megalogenis, Exit Strategy: Politics after the Pandemic, Quarterly Essay, Issue 82, 202162, 64
- 190712-N-ZQ950-1046 CORAL SEA (July 12, 2019) Prime Minister Scott Morrison, prime minister of Australia, speaks to Sailors aboard the Navy’s forward-deployed aircraft carrier USS Ronald Reagan (CVN 76) during Talisman Sabre 2019. Morrison was given a tour of the ship before speaking with the crew during an all-hands call. Talisman Sabre 2019 illustrates the closeness of the Australian and U.S. alliance and the strength of the military-to-military relationship. This is the eighth iteration of this exercise. (U.S. Navy photo by Aviation Boatswain’s Mate (Handling) 3rd Class Kimani J. Wint)
- The Conversation
- The New Daily
- Keneally, 341
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