LEANNE SMITH. When did Australians stop caring about our national identity?

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.


John Laurence Menadue is the publisher of Pearls & Irritations. He has had a distinguished career both in the private sector and in the Public Service.

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6 Responses to LEANNE SMITH. When did Australians stop caring about our national identity?

  1. Leanne says:

    Glad to continue the conversation about what we are working on Brendan.

  2. Paul Frijters says:

    Hi Leanne,

    I can recommend setting up annual audit studies as part of the work of the Whitlam Institute. Each year you should send round research associates to try and get apartment, noticing who is rejected because of how they look. Send associates to transport providers and see who gets a free ride. Send associates to deal with the police and see who gets treated differently. Send different ones to hospitals and see who gets treated differently. Think of similar audit studies on the internet and in all places where individuals interact regularly and resources are shared.

    From these yearly observations you build an index of how much the reality in Australia differs from our ideals and from the law. That kind of information is very powerful and allows you to observe trends over time. As an institute you can this with no problems at all. Academics in universities cannot do this at all, and journalists lack the training and the focus to do this. But you could set it up and lead the world in this.

    Of course you need courage to do this. Somebody will pretend it is unethical that you are making illegal and unethical things visible. You will need conviction.

  3. Geoff Seaman says:

    Thank you, Leanne, for reassuring us that there are people who care about what’s happening in our nation. For me one glaring issue on which we are falling down so badly is the cruel approach of the present Government to the whole question of those who seek asylum in Australia and have had the temerity to come by boat!
    On this issue the Government is not only cruel but also profoundly deaf : so many of our citizens have called for change and been ignored. If your Institute can be a voice for justice on this issue I, for one, will be applauding.

  4. Brendan Wynter says:

    This is a strange post. What exactly will the Whitlam institute do? “We don’t discuss national identity well and the Whitlam Institute aims to help us do it better.” Well, I look forward to this. Thanks for the promotion.

  5. Jim KABLE says:

    Leanne: I spent most of the1990s and 2000s outside Australia – and upon my return full-time to Australia in mid-2009 scarcely recognised it – and with the advent of the ugliness of Tony “Slogan” Abbott and his stabber-in-the-back/return-the-favour Malcolm Tremble – LNP values of all-of-for-one and that-one-is-me have trickled down all over the national face, the international awareness – and into the states where infrastructure madness favours Big-Biz – where nothing of human rights or fairness is protected – all to be overturned and re-formed to serve the vested interests. All is money – we are “customers” – no longer passengers or shoppers or citizens – everything calibrated on money to be hoovered up and placed into off-shore tax havens. The treatment of Indigenous Australians – prison rates/the NT Intervention – asylum-seekers – entry only of the super-rich and their ill-gotten gains to citizenship! (Late last year I was in Malta – shocked at the cynical nature of that government “selling” Maltese passports (hence EU membership) for EU1.5 million! It’s the same here I now learn! I am horrified! We need a Bill of Rights – we need politicians to face the same laws as the rest of us – no get-out-of-gaol cards for their rorts or other scandals. We need messages sent to them – not to the rest of us! And our politicians of the most scandalous ignorance run around the world giving speeches extolling their twisted visions or telling other nations how to behave, siding with thuggish right wing nations like the US and Israel – and Cambodia – anyone it can get to do its bidding on ideological grounds – demonising sectors within this society – and yes – J DEACON is right – the grubby paw-prints of Peter Bjelke-Dutton – a kind of FBI cross-dressing blackmailer of the nation in the making – now over much of that nastiness creeping across our society. All those questions you were faced with abroad – Leanne – I had exactly the same. So much senseless explaining to do – because our politicians are followers – not the kind of leaders we had a century and more ago!

  6. J Deacon says:

    Yes Leanne its very depressing to see what Australia had become, since those stirring years of Whitlam, and the early ones of Rudd. The current government, Abbott and Turnbull, share huge proportion of the blame, egged on of course by the odious sekf-centred, right wing mindset of Rupert Murdoch wielding his power to keep them in office. There aim in life seems to be to obstruct any kind of progress. There is a lot of pentup anger and energy out there, but we are stuck with this lot, who stymie every effort to improve the country and the life lived by its citizens. Seems simplistic, but its like banging your head against a brick wall expecting anything of value from this govt. In fact, they need careful watching, trying to sneak draconian legislation into law, including provisions to jail (up to 20 years) journos who report on leaked information. And their trying to smash GetUp and other advocacy and environmental groups, again with jail sentences for not completing a stat dec. about your $250 annual donation. I kid you not. Check it out for yourself. They all have Duttons fingerprints on them.

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