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Reflections on the Idea of 'the Nation' in a Globalised World

Michael Pezzullo, Secretary, Department of Immigration and Border Protection
26 January 2017

The Australian national story, in its European form, began on this day in 1788.  Within a century of settlement, Australia would become one of the richest nations on earth, thanks largely to wool, gold and other fruits of the land.  We achieved nationhood by way of federation in 1901, without war or strife.  Over this period, we built the key national governance framework of our nation: parliamentary democracy and representative government; the rule of the common law; the structures of executive government; and the practice of the freedom of speech, belief, faith and ideas. 

Australia’s blessing in this period was to embark on this journey of nation-building precisely at a time when – throughout the 19th Century – people were pursuing what used to be termed, without a sense of irony, Progress.  It was often spelt in those days as a proper noun, with a capital ‘P’.  We do not speak or write like that anymore.  This was the great first age of global commerce and trade, when the telegraph line and the railway changed our very sense of time and speed, when the growth in commercial shipping made the world a smaller place, and when global markets were formed to power and finance the efficient trade of commodities and manufactured goods.

During this time, the Europeans who settled the land had to come to terms with a unique geography to which they were utterly unaccustomed – the isolation and the overwhelming vastness of the great Australian interior; the searing heat of summer; the still silence of the bush; the strange light and the stunning colours of the arid and rolling landscape; the exotic birds, animals, plants and insects not found anywhere else; the endless ribbon of sand and the crashing waves of the sea which girded the land.  In recent years, we have started to better appreciate how well the Indigenous first peoples of this nation had managed the land and the seas around it, with clear purpose and deep understanding, gained over countless generations.  The early European settlers learned more from indigenous land management than we perhaps today realise and recognise.  In this very tangible way, and in so many others, the indigenous foundation of the national story needs to be better appreciated. 

As our forebears grappled with an unfamiliar land, and built a nation, they created a cultural system of norms, codes of behaviour and language (including slang).  A recognisable sensibility was seared into our national character between European settlement and the terrible crucible of the Great War.  Australians by that time, and for some decades before, knew and sensed that social acceptance and approval flowed from the simple traits of our national character - do your job well; avoid pomposity and excessive deference; crack a joke and share a laugh (especially when things were not ‘looking too flash’); be practical and utilitarian in your outlook; give everyone a ‘fair go’, irrespective of social ‘rank’ and standing; and help your mate.  A decent way to live, one would have to say.

Towards the end of the 19th Century, Australians were starting to conceive of the establishment of a nation to embrace this settled and prosperous continent.  Our act of Federation on 1st January 1901 was, as some have suggested, largely a transactional compact concerned in the main with inter-state trade and customs arrangements amongst the colonies, as well as national defence.  Certainly, our Constitution is not given to lyrical declarations and expressions of grand concepts concerned with rights and liberties and their philosophical foundations – as are some others.  It is, on the contrary, a very practical rule book for governing Australia.  As true as that might be, there was also in the lead up to Federation a strong trend of idealistic nationalism, of being embarked on a grand project of social improvement, whose aim was the building of a better and fairer society.

The older ‘Anglo Australia’ that I have described above (and I use that term both descriptively and affectionately) has largely passed into memory.  We retained for many decades very conscious links to Britain, its Empire, and above all to England – by way of our culture, customs and habits.  That started to change ever so slowly after the 1940s, as the very fabric of Australia began to change with the inauguration of the post-war immigration programme, and the gradual advent of an independent cultural and strategic outlook.  But it took a generation of national evolution.

I am old enough to recall, when visiting ‘Australian’ family friends (as we migrant families used to call them) in their homes in the 1970s, the sense of the imitation of England, and especially the English home and garden, moreso even than the evocation of ‘Britain’.  This came down to the simple things – like the crockery and cutlery, and of course the tea-sets – as well as the attitudes of mind and the habits of action.  I am certainly old enough to recall the tales of the ‘Bodyline’ Ashes tour of 1932-33, as told by those who had been there – and for whom ‘Bodyline’ was a seared memory of a tragic clash within the family.  ‘Anglo Australia’ entailed for many, I suspect, a love of two lands.

So, as someone whose childhood was in the 1960s and 1970s, Australia certainly looks and feels very different from what it once did.  We should not be overly nostalgic about this.  Ours is not an ethnically-based nationalism, which is based on ties of blood, race, monocultural origin and common religious observance.  Irrespective of our ethnic origins, we should, nonetheless, recognise the thread of fraternity and association we have with that older Australia, and with those early settlers, as well as the farmers and the pastoralists, the miners, the stockmen, and those who built the colonial cities and towns in which most of us today live.  Without their labour and their commitment to the Australian project, we would be much diminished and impoverished. 

It is the duty of every generation to build the nation. We should, therefore, celebrate the historical foundations of our nation.  A nation is not an arbitrary geographical construct that happens to be inhabited at any one time by randomly selected individuals who lack any prior connections or common history.  It is not a blank slate that can be completely re-made every generation.  The very idea of ‘the nation’ implies continuities in terms of common identity, the durability and strength of institutions, as well as expectations of mutual trust and recognition, and common allegiance.  Nations are biographies of a people – an intergenerational story flowing through time.  Each of us carries a shared heritage, history and identity.  Our national biography contains many chapters, some dating back thousands of years, some a few hundred, and some, of course, yet to be written.

Australians are not given to highly symbolic expressions of nationalism, and the pomp and ceremony that is found in some other national cultures.  Most pleasingly, our national culture is not reproduced in every generation on the basis of some deep historical enmity which is held against another people, and where the sorrows of long and violent grudges are ingrained into the collective consciousness and passed from one generation to the next.  Indeed, Australia’s success as a multicultural society challenges the idea that citizens of a nation-state have to share a singular identity that is grounded in a differentiator of race, creed or belief.  Australians respect one another regardless of our cultural, racial, religious or other differences, and expect all to participate equitably in our society, with a full appreciation of the rights and responsibilities that come with membership of that society.  Our nationalism is a civic compact, expressed as loyalty to the community that inhabits our nation-state, within its defined territorial limits and borders, and allegiance to the sovereignty of the people’s will, as expressed through our public institutions of governance.

A nation is of course an ‘imagined community’.  We will never know more than a handful of our fellow countrymen and women, meet them, or even hear of them - even with the spread of social media.  But it is not an ‘imaginary community’.  It is a real phenomenon, with tangible features and material consequences.  To prove the point, think about this: to say that you have no country, and that you are a ‘global citizen’ or a ‘citizen of the world’ is to say that you inhabit a planetary home, without territorial limits or borders.  Well might you imagine living out a counter-cultural vision, where there are no countries, and all the people share all the world, but you would still have to deal with tricky dilemmas. Questions such as who provides you with consular protection when you are ‘overseas’ (I suppose that a global citizen is never ‘overseas’); who provides your essential public services, and collects your contribution to those services by way of taxes, fees and charges; who protects you from criminal violence?

In short, membership of the national community is a real and tangible component of personal identity. Our status as ‘citizen’ cannot mean different things to different people, depending on their personal, self-constructed ‘identity’.  You cannot construct your own citizenship ‘experience’ so as to negate your status and duties as a citizen.  That is why our citizenship pledge and affirmation recognises allegiance to Australia and its people; our shared democratic beliefs, rights and liberties; and the observance of our laws.  With every pledge of allegiance on the part of new citizens, and affirmation of allegiance on the part of existing citizens, our mutual bonds of national association are invoked - as is our national story, our cultural system of customs and norms, and the undertakings that we have made to one another, to our forebears and to our descendants.

In last year’s Australia Day reflection, I drew attention to the social consequences of globalisation, transnational mobility, and ‘borderless’ connectivity.  I observed that with high levels of global mobility, and increasing levels of temporary migration, the traditional model of social integration was being challenged around the world.  In Australia, earlier periods of isolation from family, friends, and ethnic culture and language, often compelled new migrants to integrate into their host societies.  Consequently, we managed to avoid the creation of a confederation of separate communities, defined by race, religion or ethnicity. Certainly, that was my personal experience in the 1960s and 1970s.  In this age of globalisation and planetary connectivity, which is seeing the unmooring of communities from traditional cultural roots and points of reference, we could see the emergence of ‘virtual’ transnational communities that are disengaged from their host societies, and which are perhaps built around resurgent and ancient bonds of race or religion (or both).  Perversely, in some parts of the world, globalisation and ‘borderless’ connectivity seem to be exacerbating trends of fragmentation, isolation and disengagement.

We are entitled to expect that those who come here – to settle, work or study – will integrate into our community in terms of adhering to our values, respecting our laws and institutions, and exhibiting mutual respect towards one and all.  We should be very confident of achieving this.  We have a very strong foundation of social cohesion, well-supported multiculturalism, and a long tradition of orderly migration which has typically enjoyed high levels of public confidence and support.  Arguably, we are one of the most successful multiethnic societies in human history.  My thesis today is that our national story, properly told in its many phases, episodes and anecdotes, and shorn of any mindless chauvinism, is the essential foundational layer for the constant generation and regeneration of our national culture and our tangible sense of community, which brings us together as a cohesive society.  So, today let us reflect on our indigenous heritage, our British political, social and economic foundations, and the vivid multicultural strands of our contemporary society.  Happy Australia Day!