At home in Australia

Today we celebrate Australia Day – or do we? For many it’s a last-ditch chance to revel in the lazier pace of the Christmas and New Year holiday period before school begins and work takes off again with a gallop. But can it or should it be something more? After all, this is the single public holiday that pushes us to consider how our collective national identity is evolving and – more crucially – what each of us is contributing to it.

Most of us love this country. Without falling into sentimental nationalism, we have countless reasons to be grateful that we live somewhere so starkly beautiful, richly resourced and socially optimistic. But it would be foolish to imagine that in 2010 there is anything like an homogeneous experience of being Australian. Between people of varying ages, social classes, cultures and religions, even between people living in comfort in global cities or struggling in inner-city poverty or ravished rural areas, the differences may be so great as to describe a different country and nationality.

It is anyway barely possible to regard Australia Day as an unconditional celebration. The colonisation of Australia that began in 1788 came at a tremendous cost, for the aboriginal population, obviously, which suffered appallingly from the unreflective racism and colonialism of the time, but perhaps less obviously also for the earliest generations of new arrivals – especially those who came involuntarily. To get some glimmering of what those early settlers endured we have only to look around or perhaps observe our own families to see how difficult it is for many first generation migrants to feel at home in a new country. This is still exacerbated when people are fleeing war, persecution or poverty. And it’s particularly exacerbated when people look or sound different from the majority of the population and are judged on the basis of stereotypes.

Today’s migrants come to a country where life is far safer and kinder than in the early decades of settlement. But the psychological disruptions of leaving one home country for another, or, today, of leaving a mono-cultural society for a multicultural one, can still be extreme. There seems little doubt, listening to migrants’ stories, that each individual’s experience of loss, gain and change is deeply felt. Nor can there be much doubt that these successive waves of change will go on shaping our national identity. At every level what it means to be “Australian” is in a state of flux. The equivalent is true in many countries in the world, perhaps far less predictably in the major countries of the European Community, some of them strikingly different in population makeup from thirty or even twenty years ago. But the days are gone here, too, when being Australian only meant being Aboriginal, Anglo or European in origin, with a tiny number of Asians thrown in.

It is one of the inescapable markers of 21st-century life that populations are on the move. Without a radical reassignment of global wealth those tides of change will continue. In vast numbers, people will keep coming together in new combinations and ways. While this social revolution is unrolling, we can’t predict how it will alter our conceptions of nationality and belonging. But we can recognise the inevitability of this change and think hard about how it can socially enrich us.

Racist outbursts make it clear that changes in population and culture are frightening for some. A common reaction to such fears is defensiveness and bigotry. And a common reaction to bigotry is contempt and derision. Neither set of reactions is helpful. Fear of change, like the need for home, runs deep in the human psyche. What’s more, fears are seldom overcome to order. What can help are first-hand insights into the commonalities that allow differences in background and experience to be thought about more generously. Few people’s “Australian life” is unaffected by deep and often painful disruption, whether in their own generation or earlier. A recognition of that helps. So does thinking about what allows people to feel quickly and consistently part of society and not extraneous to it.

Our best chance for contributing to an Australia that we can wholeheartedly celebrate comes from thinking about national identity far less in terms of racial or cultural origins and far more in terms of the traits and qualities on which we also pride ourselves. These include generosity, respect, neighbourliness, resourcefulness and, above all, kindness. These are human qualities, not national ones. They demand an awareness of other people’s dignity and are as available to the highly educated as to those just making their way. They bring people together rather than dividing them. They give space for differences while also making everyone’s life safer and more pleasurable. They give children and adults alike a genuine stability. As crucially, they are qualities for which each one of us is individually responsible that can also transform our collective understanding of belonging – and of home.