In 1998 I was a freshly minted law grad who felt great purpose in joining the Harbour Bridge march for the first ‘Sorry Day’. I had just begun my first real job with the Australian Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission, and my country was grappling with the Stolen Generation Report. It seemed the time was right for recognition and reconciliation, and I shared a sense of optimism about Australia’s identity and place in the world.
As we descend into the perennial unproductive quarrel about the 26th of January, that optimism has faded, and I think we’re missing the more important question. The date of Australia’s national day is a less significant and more divisive issue than the broader question of our shared national identity. Who are we as a people, what do we stand for, and where we are going?
Twenty years ago the referendum debate was in full swing. In broaching questions about the head of state and recognising Indigenous people in the preamble of our Constitution, Australians were questioning who we had become – and who we wanted to be.
Policy discussions around the international legality and humanity of our refugee detention regimes were still rigorous and well-informed. In 1998 the Human Rights and Equal Opportunity Commission was a widely respected, independent and constructive voice – and it still had ‘equal opportunity’ in its title. Equal opportunity meant that we were an egalitarian people, and that was a shared national value.
Things have changed in the intervening years. As an expatriate for most of that time, perhaps I notice this change more starkly. In that time as an Australian and UN diplomat in far-flung places, I faced regular questions from diverse peoples about our nation: ‘Oh but you’re not an independent country, and aren’t you all convicts?’ ‘Isn’t the Queen of England your head of state?’ ‘Why is a migrant nation like Australia so racist?’ ‘Why do Australian Aboriginals live in Third World conditions, when your country is so prosperous?’
As I consider these questions again today, having returned to Australia and in my new capacity as Director of the Whitlam Institute, one thing is clear: There is much less political leadership and public space to engage Australians around our national identity now, 20 years on. I am not alone in this concern.
Noel Pearson made a damning indictment of the political response to the Uluru Statement from the Heart, and the rigorous consultation that preceded it. He framed the question: ‘If we are not the country Gough Whitlam and Keating urged us to be – independent, reconciled, confident, creative people fully realising their talents, a true commonwealth with an economy that serves its people – then who and what are we?’
We’re not independent, not reconciled. Recent research from Oxfam asserts that inequality is higher now than at any time over the last two decades.
We want to believe that we have more that unites than divides us, but the Australia Day debate shines the light on our deep division. The limp political response to the Uluru Statement and the failure of this Prime Minister to pursue an Australian head of state appear to be based on the assumption that these issues don’t matter to ‘ordinary’ Australians. Is it true that Australians are too focused on their interest rates to care? I don’t think so. It’s insulting. If the Marriage Equality postal survey has shown us anything, it is that Australians can embrace change, and can acknowledge that we have matured as a nation.
When Gough Whitlam established the Whitlam Institute, he had grand hopes for what we might contribute to ‘the great and continuing work of building a more equal, open, tolerant and independent Australia’. As the architect of the national survey that decided whether to adopt Advance Australia Fair as our anthem in 1974, he was dedicated to the task of building our identity.
It’s time to stop seeing indigenous reconciliation, multiculturalism and an Australian head of state as separate issues – these issues all form part of our national identity. The Uluru statement is not just for indigenous Australians, but for all Australians. We need to come together as a nation to decide how to take it forward. On the Australian head of state, we need to put aside our differences about the who/what/when/how and first find some common ground about what our democracy means to us and who we want to represent us.
In 2018 the Whitlam Institute will be working to inform, engage and impact policy debates on Australian democracy, social justice and Australia’s place in the world. We will continue to educate young Australians about civics and their role in society. We will build a space for intellectual and cultural engagement for the people of Western Sydney and beyond, in our home at the historic Female Orphan School.
Whitlam’s much-cited 1972 campaign speech set a high bar: “I do not for a moment believe that we should set limits on what we can achieve together, for our country, our people, our future”. Let’s look up from the calendar, see with clear eyes where the realities of life in our nation fall short of our values, and take up the challenge of defining our national identity in a way that unites all Australians. And let us all aim high.
Leanne Smith is Director of the Whitlam Institute. She has worked in the Australian judicial system, the Australian Human Rights Commission, NGOs, regional human rights organisations, as an Australian diplomat (DFAT) and in various roles for the United Nations, most recently as Chief of Policy and Best Practices for UN Peacekeeping Operations.