From Mimesis to Catharsis: Rethinking Australian nationhood

Tim Soutphommasane and Gerald Ng

It is probably true that Australians, more so than others, are a people sceptical of symbolic gestures. And yet in spite of this, one cannot help but feel some measure of surprise, if not alarm, at the failure of last year’s centenary of Federation to deliver on its promise of an opportunity for national reflection and redefinition. Now, as much as ever, we seem befuddled about what it means to be Australian. For a nation which has come so far after little over a century, Australia has clearly a lot further to travel.

In a time of unprecedented global upheaval, we are by no means the only nation in the world facing a multitude of challenges. However, the internal pressures associated with Australia having become more cosmopolitan and pluralistic over the past three decades have cast in bold relief our own protracted struggle with the adequacy of our conception of the national self.

Much of this has arisen from the manner in which the nation was created. For when the colonies federated in 1901, they did so in an act of administrative union, establishing nothing more than the mere institutional architecture of modern federalism without embracing such notions as a collective philosophy, moral in its focus and pragmatic in its application. No such aspirational essence is to be found in our founding fathers or in the national institutions and instruments they left behind. As such, Federation failed to forge a distinct national identity for Australians. Indeed, Australians after Federation, as much as they had been before 1901, chose to be disciplined by their identity as far-flung subjects of the British Empire.

Australia sought to define itself almost exclusively in terms of others.

Of course, this inchoate sense of nationhood could never persist for too long. With the palpable decline of British imperial power came the need for Australia to define itself, and—as was only to be expected from one whose identity was as yet amorphous—Australia sought to define itself almost exclusively in terms of others—other peoples, other nations, other cultures. The problem, however, is that we remain locked in this mode.

There has been in our experience of nationhood too much mimesis—that is, imitation and comparison with others—and not enough catharsis—that is, a transformation of the internal self. This explains, for example, why competitive sport is such an indelible feature in the life of the Australian nation. For a nation so uncomfortable with its identity and its place in the world, sporting achievement has been the conduit for the release of frustrated nationhood.

It explains why Bradman, rather than, say, Deakin, is regarded as the nation’s greatest hero. Why Australians of the Year are so frequently sportspeople. Why the feats of a Dawn Fraser or an Ian Thorpe, will be celebrated by generations to come, while the achievements of a figure such as Howard Florey will remain largely ignored. Such is the immaturity of the Australian national identity that Australia can only reinforce a meaningful sense of national character when it is expressed as superior to others, and only superficially so.

Unfortunately, this malady, manifested in the disproportionate emphasis on sport as a civic arena, has proven difficult to conquer. And because Australia persists so vainly in defining itself in terms of others, the national identity has, despite 101 years of Federation, failed to progress much beyond the Anzac legend. For so many, what happened at Anzac Cove on 25 April 1915 remains the definitive statement of Australian nationhood. Conventional wisdom would have it that Anzac was an exemplary illustration of the resilient mateship that lies at the heart of the Australian character. It is perhaps misleading, however, to construe mateship as the lasting legacy of Anzac. For what Anzac ossified in the Australian psyche was not so much mateship, but rather a peculiar spirit of defiance. What resonated and continues to resonate most about Anzac is Australian defiance: defiance against the odds of battle; defiance against authority; defiance against Imperial military folly. It is this quality that has come to characterise the underlying Australian mood so regularly over the years, for better and for worse.

What Anzac ossified in the Australian psyche was not so much mateship, but rather a peculiar spirit of defiance.

One sees it in the plangent insularity of Hansonism and in the contempt for international institutions that has blighted the foreign policy of the Howard Government, its shrill insistence that mandatory sentencing will stay and that our borders will be protected, even at the cost of our reputation. And sadly, one sees it too in those who have attempted to expand Australia’s sense of self. For example, the Australian Republican Movement celebrated the idea of a resident (as opposed to a foreign head of state) for president, without ever insisting that the very notion of inherited power runs contrary to our national philosophy. It was as if we had no national philosophy at all.

Anzac perhaps did not create the defiance embedded in the national psyche all on its own. Though subsumed within the rhetoric of mateship and egalitarianism, this quality was ever present within the seeds that bore the Australian nation. It is a tradition encapsulated in the Eureka Stockade, in our idealised vision of one Ned Kelly and in the oft-celebrated, quintessentially Australian bush literature of Henry Lawson.

But the defiance which has nurtured our popular national character for so long offers an inadequate foundation upon which to build a national ethos for a modern Australia. We need look no further than the ideals of egalitarianism and mateship, so often extolled as Australian virtues, to understand the problem.

For whilst it is undeniable that the foundations of the nation were cast, to some degree, in a ‘fair go’ mould—given for example, its perceived lack of rigid class boundaries and the institutionalisation of the principle of a ‘fair and reasonable wage’—it would be disingenuous to assert that the Australian ethos is founded upon a genuine model of a ‘fair go’. Australian egalitarianism, at its best, has been a material value, rather than a genuine humanist ideal. One need only point out the pallid spectre of White Australia to understand the deep ambivalence of Australian values. The contradictory nature of Australian egalitarianism, one where practice has historically betrayed the rhetoric, has more recently re-emerged only last year. The Tampa incident seemed to suggest that the values of mateship and the ‘fair go’, both of which John Howard has championed in a multiplicity of contexts, continue to have only a limited application.

Indeed, the Prime Minister’s political success has long been predicated upon an assault on a politically correct ‘élite’ (presumably Australia’s answer to those ‘Eastern intellectuals’ who haunted Richard Nixon) and downward envy—that is, the resentment of the blue-collar working class toward those who supposedly receive special treatment, among them indigenous Australians and asylum seekers. It is only because our construction of egalitarianism is so facile and so emotive that the very concept of egalitarianism in our public discourse can thus function as a label for resentment, as opposed to indicating true north on our moral compass.

Indeed Australians lack any cognitive or idealistic conception of those values they declare most sacrosanct. This can be attributed to the utilitarian nature of Australian political culture, framed around questions of redistributing economic rewards, without any spiritual or moral focus.

Australian egalitarianism, at its best, has been a material value, rather than a genuine humanist ideal.

Essentially, Australian nationhood is not embedded within any meaningful structures, institutionally or culturally. There have admittedly been attempts to rectify this shortcoming. The thrust of republicanism, for example, sought to entrench nationhood into something with a meaning that all Australians could identify with clarity and poignancy. The republic was that bright hope which offered Australia a new maturity with the prospect of achieving an identity and an ethos all its own.

Past leaders such as Paul Keating understood this well, as did many leading republicans. What they failed to recognise, however, was the deep-seated defiance of the Australian nation. Indeed, as has already been noted, they played to that defiance and fed it, the republicans with their jingoism and Keating with his brooding passions, and in so doing, they armed the resistance to their own cause. Imposing a republic from the top was never going to be easy, and in circumstances where the top was encouraging the defiance in our national character, it proved impossible.

Maturing as a nation must be a process in which all Australians share. It requires a conception of nationhood that is able to engage with contemporary national concerns. It also demands leadership, a leadership that does not pander to our national tendency toward defiance and does not arrogantly proclaim itself the source of all solutions (thus unleashing that tendency). It requires leadership that must be capable of giving new depth and meaning to those most cherished of our values.

The centenary of Federation, with its symbolic richness, offered the perfect opportunity to catalyse the process of national maturation, but it was, in the end, a moment washed away in a tide of benign indifference. It may well be a long time before an occasion of such symbolic potency arises again. But if John Howard, as he enters the twilight period of his Prime Ministership, can be thought of as symbolising the narrow, recidivist Australia of a by-gone era, that occasion may arrive sooner than expected.

Tim Soutphommasane is in the third year of a combined Economics (Social Sciences) / Law degree, majoring in Government and International Relations, at the University of Sydney as an E. Trenchard Miller Memorial Scholar. Gerald Ng is a third year student in Economics / Law, majoring in Economics and Government, at the University of Sydney as a Distinguished Undergraduate Scholar. Their interests include civic education, corporate citizenship and social entrepreneurship.

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