We Must Protect The Australian Way Of Life

30 March 2022

By: Centre For The Australian Way Of Life

The damage done to the American psyche through unrelenting attacks on its core values. For Australia, it is a cautionary tale.

Our way of life has faced some serious challenges over the past year. For a long time, for many of us, it changed. And so this discussion is as pertinent as it is important.

I suppose you must start with some basic questions. Is there a unique Australian way of life? If so, what is it? And ultimately, why is it essential? Is it worth investing in?

Well, the first question is easy. Yes. Anyone of us; all of us lucky to have spent time living or travelling overseas know that Australia does have its own identity, its own unique culture and a specific way of life.

Let me start with identity, which is a bit easier, and move on to way of life later on.

If we just take the two countries we are seen as culturally closest to, America and the United Kingdom, we can see clear differences.

Having grown up and lived in the US, in the UK and in Australia, I appreciate our historical bonds and the similarities of our character. But I also know and appreciate what makes Australia different.

Our Constitution, for instance, is a melding of the Westminster system and the American federation, the best of the old world and of the new.

All three nations value freedom, democracy, aspiration and endeavour – qualities we have fought hard to protect. And while we differ in national character, there are similarities there too.

The ironic Australian sense of humour can be traced to Britain and Ireland, while our nation was forged with a frontier attitude, reminiscent of the US drive westwards, with strong veins of optimism and self-reliance.

But as America expanded west, their explorers and pioneers found rich plains, vast rivers and mountains; we found a far harsher and more difficult environment. Perhaps this added to our sense of irony; it certainly added to our enduring resilience.

When my father delivered his first Boyer lecture nearly 13 years ago, he referenced a favourite Russell Drysdale painting that to him represents the beauty, character and resilience of the Australian landscape and its people.

The painting, The Stockman and His Family, depicts an Aboriginal family, clearly burdened by the hardships of the past, weathered by the harshness of their environment, but with eyes cast hopefully to the future.

Without ignoring issues of Indigenous disadvantage, my father was focusing on the shared characteristics and experiences of Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal Australians – isolated from the rest of the world, tested by the vicissitudes of our climate, and together carving out a future on our continent. Drawing inspiration from the strength in that image, my father said, “Our national character should never lose that steeliness.”

The streets of Lismore, in northern NSW, inundated with floodwater. Picture: Nathan Edwards
The streets of Lismore, in northern NSW, inundated with floodwater. Picture: Nathan Edwards

The streets of Lismore, in northern NSW, inundated with floodwater. Picture: Nathan Edwards

Steeliness: it is a good word, isn’t it? It’s a better quality, one that Australians have displayed handily throughout the past.

That my father warned, or implored us not to lose that quality, tacitly acknowledges that we could. It is understood that national identity and culture is, rightly, a constantly evolving, always living thing. It is always a work in progress.

Identity is like a long rope, made up of hundreds of woven strands of shorter individual fibres. In totality the woven strands provide strength and purpose, and a kind of collective unity. But as one strand ends, others are woven in. That’s what gives a rope its strength. But the strands at the beginning of the rope are entirely different from the strands at the end.

We are not who we were 100 years ago, or who we might become 100 years from now. Culture and identity are not, and cannot be, frozen in time. It is this fluid aspect of identity that makes the Centre for the Australian Way of Life such an inspired idea.

Understanding first what characteristics make us unique and what shared values unite us is essential before we can celebrate the good, reject the bad and, yes, embrace the new.

This endeavour works only if you believe, as I do, that together we are incredibly lucky to be Australian. That our country, while not perfect, represents invaluable freedoms and characteristics that are worth celebrating, nourishing and defending.

I am always saddened when elements of our citizenry, often the elites who have benefited most from our country, display not a love of our values but a disdain for them.

This is why some of what sets Australia apart is under threat. Our core values, our successes and even our history are under constant attack.

Nourishing and defending those core values are extremely important. Not to do so has real world, real bad outcomes.

This past month we have all been both horrified by the brutality of Russia’s unprovoked invasion of Ukraine and inspired by its leaders and its people in their courageous defence of their country. The people of Ukraine were living in an emerging democracy, embracing their post-Soviet sovereignty, working hard to achieve their economic and political aspirations, when Russia decided to snatch that future away from them.

Ukrainians also know that their country is not perfect, and yet tonight they continue to fight and to die for their sovereignty, their identity and their most basic of freedoms.

It is heart-wrenching to watch, and we must continue to help them defend themselves. Most of us agree on this basic point.

People walk in front of a church as smoke rises after an air strike in the western Ukrainian city of Lviv on March 26. Picture: AFP

People walk in front of a church as smoke rises after an air strike in the western Ukrainian city of Lviv on March 26. Picture: AFP

And so I was shocked when a respected poll in the United States last week revealed that barely a majority of Americans would defend their country if invaded in a similar way. Could it really be that the America that fought not just a bloody war of independence from a foreign empire but also an even bloodier and more nationally defining civil war of emancipation not long after; could it be that this exceptional country is now so politically divided that barely half of its citizens care deeply enough for its values that they would fight for them?

The damage done to the American psyche through unrelenting attacks on its core values and via the destructive rewriting of its history is very real.

It has been widely reported that Russia’s attempts to influence recent American elections were designed to sow anger and discord on all sides. There were, and presumably remain, efforts to divide the country and undermine its faith in its core values and institutions.

The Russians found fertile ground. In 2019 The New York Times published the first of a series of essays called the 1619 Project, which recast American exceptionalism as racist from inception.

You couldn’t have picked a more polarising and dividing thesis. The essays, criticised by many historians, are what they profess to be in their title: a project to recast American history and long accepted values through a radical and radically divisive lens.

Its author, Nikole Hannah-Jones, has said that “all journalism is activism”. That’s wrong. And it has done great damage. America is a great country, populated by an amazing and also resilient people. It will overcome these challenges.

But here, in Australia, let’s learn from this cautionary tale.

Let me go back to one of my original questions. Why is our identity and our culture so important? Why is it worth investing so much in?

By definition an Australian identity must apply to all of us. It is something that is not political, or economic, not drawn by class or education, not based in race or sex, or whether you are a new immigrant or a member of our oldest peoples. An Australian identity unites all of us.

Together we are strong. Divided we are weak.

Supporters of US President Donald Trump protest outside the US Capitol on January 6, 2021.
Supporters of US President Donald Trump protest outside the US Capitol on January 6, 2021.

Supporters of US President Donald Trump protest outside the US Capitol on January 6, 2021.

But our national identity and culture are weathering constant attempts to recast Australia as something it isn’t.

To listen to our national broadcaster or much of the media elite is to hear about a uniquely racist, selfish, slavish and monochromatic country.

The reality could not be more different – we are one of the most tolerant, generous, independent and multicultural countries in human history. Not without fault, but without peer.

How can we expect people to defend the values, interests and sovereignty of this nation if we teach our children only our faults and none of our virtues?

We must arm our young people with the facts and not undermine them with false ideological narratives.

Australians have an innate concept of fairness.

We have a visceral sense of what we call a “fair go”. This is our own idea, an antipodean concept, a deeply rooted understanding that whatever our circumstances, we deserve the same opportun­ities, the same respect, the same fair go.

It is why we welcome immigrants, embrace aspiration and scoff at class-based deference