The wonder of modern Australia

'Australia prompts some uncomfortable reflections on the conditions from which multiculturalism is able to emerge'

Share

As Australia enters its big year, with the Sydney Olympics opening this week and the nation's 100th birthday coming up in January 2001, it presents two sharply contrasting faces to the world. One is the hearty, red-necked Crocodile Dundee, downing a "stubbie" bottle of Castlemaine XXXX as he slaps you on the back and calls you "mate". The other is the cosmopolitan, multicultural Australia of a city such as Sydney, where a beautiful girl with Asian features and a German name dishes up sophisticated Italian food, complemented by a Californian version of an African yoghurt drink; an Australia that knows no barriers of colour or sex or class or creed.

As Australia enters its big year, with the Sydney Olympics opening this week and the nation's 100th birthday coming up in January 2001, it presents two sharply contrasting faces to the world. One is the hearty, red-necked Crocodile Dundee, downing a "stubbie" bottle of Castlemaine XXXX as he slaps you on the back and calls you "mate". The other is the cosmopolitan, multicultural Australia of a city such as Sydney, where a beautiful girl with Asian features and a German name dishes up sophisticated Italian food, complemented by a Californian version of an African yoghurt drink; an Australia that knows no barriers of colour or sex or class or creed.

Travelling round Australia this summer, I encountered both. A cheerful, tanned and matey Queenslander asked me what I did. "I'm a contemporary historian." Long pause. "Well, I bit you git to tell some good yarns down at the pub." But then, in Sydney and Melbourne, almost every taxi-driver has a foreign name and comes from a different country. And where else would I have got to eat wahoo in yufka? (That is, in case you're wondering, a tropical fish in a North African pastry case.) California, perhaps - although Gore Vidal has rather snidely remarked that Sydney is what San Francisco likes to think it is.

While the present Liberal (that is, conservative) prime minister, John Howard, does not like the term "multiculturalism", there's little doubt which face Australia would rather present to the world. So left-liberal (that is, usually Labour-voting) Australians will argue that the former, Crocodile Dundee face is the "old", while the latter is the "new", ushered in by Labour's support for non-white immigration and domestic multi-culturalism since the 1970s. In an effort to place this new Australia firmly in the heart of Asia, the last Labour prime minister, Paul Keating, even suggested that the ultimate Australian white male virtue of "mateship" could be considered an "Asian value". Others will say that the contrast is between rural and urban Australia, although the liberal hope is that Aboriginal Australians will increasingly be among the people who show foreigners the extraordinary landscapes that were once their own.

Now my impression is this. Yes, the country to which the eyes of the world will turn as the Olympics begin is some kind of a model of a liberal, open multicultural society that actually works. However, that not only coexists with but is historically founded upon a society which is about as white, male chauvinist and monocultural as you could find. So this Australian model prompts some slightly uncomfortable reflections on the conditions from which multiculturalism can emerge.

The thought was crystallised for me by an argument that erupted at a lecture I gave in Melbourne. A Hungarian Australian in the audience suddenly volunteered a spontaneous, passionate and quite moving hymn of praise to Australia. It was the one place in the world, he said, where you could really retain your own cultural identity and yet be fully a citizen. Nowhere, not even in Canada or the US, did accent, origin or class play so small a part. Nowhere were multiple identities so comfortably at home in a place that was yet still, undoubtedly, one nation.

Nonsense! cried a Polish Australian from the back of the room. This country was built on ethnic cleansing and racism. The settlers who arrived in 1788 had wiped out most of the indigenous population, the "Aborigines", and deprived the rest of their civil rights until the 1960s. Until the 1970s, it had a highly selective and restrictive immigration policy - whites only - and an explicit policy of assimilation and "Australianisation".

The awkward but interesting truth, it seems to me, is that both of them were right. Australia today is a model of a multicultural nation. But it is a model built on that earlier, exclusive and hegemonic history. It is precisely because Anglo-American institutions and the rule of law were so firmly established, and not just established on paper but rooted in a deep soil of purely English-speaking culture, that the country subsequently managed to open up so smoothly to people from other countries and cultures. (And even here there has been a reaction, in the unappetising form of the flame-haired housewife Pauline Hanson, Australia's Jörg Haider.)

Law is crucial. Even the early convicts had legal rights, and, famously, the first civil action in the Australian courts was actually won by a convict couple who claimed that a parcel of clothes had been stolen from them by a member of the ship's crew on the voyage out in 1788. Yet it was only in 1962 that Aboriginals were given the right to vote. Both are characteristic of Australia's story: the principle of equality before the law established at the outset, and the very long time before it was in practice extended to all.

Language is crucial too. I was proudly told, by an Oxford-educated descendant of a settler from the First Fleet, that according to a recent survey Australians speak no less than 282 languages in their homes. The figure becomes slightly less impressive when one learns that 171 of those are Aboriginal languages (of which there used to be some 500). Yet the point is: they speak them in their homes. Not in the office. Not in parliament. I asked if it was likely that an Australian politician would go campaigning in another language, as George W Bush does in Spanish. "Not likely," came the answer.

So Australian multiculturalism is built on a deep post-imperial bedrock of political, legal and even social monoculture. Yes, it is a wonder to behold Australians of all classes and ethnic origins piling in to the Melbourne Cricket Club stadium to watch football played according to "Aussie rules" - a sacred and incomprehensible local rite. Here there is neither white nor coloured, noble nor commoner, bond nor free - and, astonishingly to a British visitor, no hooliganism afterwards. It's great. But it's still multiculturalism played by Aussie rules.

This deep connection between hegemonic past and inclusive present need not be depressing for Australians, nor for the rest of us. Comparable stories can be told for Canada or the US. However much the descendants of white settlers may, and probably should, feel retrospective shame, these countries are still the best examples we have of functioning multicultural societies - and their limits. The Howard government is still making absurdly heavy weather of reconciliation with the indigenous population, but New Zealand has shown how that can be done.

It helps a lot, of course, to have countries where almost everyone is descended, not so many generations back, from immigrants. But to go down the Australian path - from monoculture to limited multiculture - is still entirely possible for us in Britain, with our even deeper bedrock of common law and common language, and a civic, post-imperial definition of British nationality that is already implicitly multicultural. What the signs at Heathrow call "British Nationals" have always been English British, Scottish British, Welsh British or Irish British, so it's not such a long step to Asian British, Black British, Bosnian British or whatever. In fact, this is the path we are already walking down. We are all Australians now.

That road is also relatively easy for the French to follow, with their old dialectic of assimilation and inclusive civic nationality. It's more difficult for the Germans, with their heritage of an ethnic definition of nationality, but they are getting there too. No, the real problem comes, funnily enough, in places that are already multicultural, multiethnic and multilingual, yet without that common bedrock of law, language and democratic governance. Yugoslavia. The former Soviet Union. Many states in Africa. Or Australia's troubled neighbour, Indonesia.

Ironically, the easy thing is to go from monoculture to multiculturalism, provided always that the monoculture was of the right type. The really difficult thing is to go from undemocratic multiculture to multiculturalism. There, alas, the Australian model helps us not at all.

The author is a fellow of St Antony's College, Oxford, and of the Hoover Institution, Stanford

React Now

Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
SPONSORED FEATURES
iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Recruitment Genius: IT Support Engineer

£18000 - £26000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an opportunity for an I...

Recruitment Genius: Project Assistant

£17000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: They are a leading company in the field ...

Recruitment Genius: DBA Developer - SQL Server

£30000 - £35000 per annum: Recruitment Genius: This is an exciting opportunity...

Recruitment Genius: Office Manager

£26041 - £34876 per annum: Recruitment Genius: There has never been a more exc...

Day In a Page

Read Next
Larry Fink, the boss of fund manager BlackRock , is among those sounding the alarm  

Not all discounts are welcome: Beware the myopia of company bosses

Ben Chu
Cilla Black lived her life in front of the lens, whether on television or her earlier pop career  

Cilla Black dead: A sad farewell to the singer who gave us a 'lorra, lorra laughs'

Gerard Gilbert
Turkey-Kurdish conflict: Obama's deal with Ankara is a betrayal of Syrian Kurds and may not even weaken Isis

US betrayal of old ally brings limited reward

Since the accord, the Turks have only waged war on Kurds while no US bomber has used Incirlik airbase, says Patrick Cockburn
VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but doubts linger over security

'A gift from Egypt to the rest of the world'

VIPs gather for opening of second Suez Canal - but is it really needed?
Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

Jeremy Corbyn dresses abysmally. That's a great thing because it's genuine

Fashion editor, Alexander Fury, applauds a man who clearly has more important things on his mind
The male menopause and intimations of mortality

Aches, pains and an inkling of mortality

So the male menopause is real, they say, but what would the Victorians, 'old' at 30, think of that, asks DJ Taylor
Man Booker Prize 2015: Anna Smaill - How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?

'How can I possibly be on the list with these writers I have idolised?'

Man Booker Prize nominee Anna Smaill on the rise of Kiwi lit
Bettany Hughes interview: The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems

Bettany Hughes interview

The historian on how Socrates would have solved Greece's problems
Art of the state: Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China

Art of the state

Pyongyang propaganda posters to be exhibited in China
Mildreds and Vanilla Black have given vegetarian food a makeover in new cookbooks

Vegetarian food gets a makeover

Long-time vegetarian Holly Williams tries to recreate some of the inventive recipes in Mildreds and Vanilla Black's new cookbooks
The haunting of Shirley Jackson: Was the gothic author's life really as bleak as her fiction?

The haunting of Shirley Jackson

Was the gothic author's life really as bleak as her fiction?
Bill Granger recipes: Heading off on holiday? Try out our chef's seaside-inspired dishes...

Bill Granger's seaside-inspired recipes

These dishes are so easy to make, our chef is almost embarrassed to call them recipes
Ashes 2015: Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

Tourists are limp, leaderless and distinctly UnAustralian

A woefully out-of-form Michael Clarke embodies his team's fragile Ashes campaign, says Michael Calvin
Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza

Andrew Grice: Inside Westminster

Blairites be warned, this could be the moment Labour turns into Syriza
HMS Victory: The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

The mystery of Britain's worst naval disaster is finally solved - 271 years later

Exclusive: David Keys reveals the research that finally explains why HMS Victory went down with the loss of 1,100 lives
Survivors of the Nagasaki atomic bomb attack: Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism

'I saw people so injured you couldn't tell if they were dead or alive'

Nagasaki survivors on why Japan must not abandon its post-war pacifism
Jon Stewart: The voice of Democrats who felt Obama had failed to deliver on his 'Yes We Can' slogan, and the voter he tried hardest to keep onside

The voter Obama tried hardest to keep onside

Outgoing The Daily Show host, Jon Stewart, became the voice of Democrats who felt the President had failed to deliver on his ‘Yes We Can’ slogan. Tim Walker charts the ups and downs of their 10-year relationship on screen