Julian Schultz searches but does not find ‘the soul of the nation’

Jun 16, 2022
Pages turning in a book with a blue sky background

When a book called ‘The Idea of Australia: A search for the nation’s soul’ is touted as ‘A brilliant successor to Donald Horne’s ‘The Lucky Country’, and as ‘A triumph of art, politics, literature, history, and the deepest scholarship’, one would expect a truly exciting read that clarifies or refocuses ‘the idea of Australia’.

The task of defining a nation’s ‘identity’ is fraught with difficulty and Schultz draws on her personal life story to illustrate what she sees as our deeply wrongful ‘silence’ about Australia’s first people and our need to be more ‘engaged, fair and informed’. Yet her examples are thereby limited to her own experience, and she ignores much that has influenced the lives of other ordinary Australians.

I searched the book’s Index in vain for any reference to many factors that would seem obviously to help define Australia’s identity. There is scant mention of political forces – the rise of unions and the Labor Party, the ongoing influence of the Country Party on policy and government spending; nor of regional differences, urban versus rural vested interests, the impact of geography on our history and economic fortunes. No discussion of ‘the Bush’ as a factor in exploration and fearful settlement; or of ‘the beach’ to which most of the nation turns. Little is said of Australian artists – Buvelot, McCubbin, Streeton, Fred Williams, Drysdale – who altered our perception of who we are, or the jingoistic nationalism bred by ‘The Bulletin’ and writers such as Henry Lawson or Banjo Patterson. Where is our persistent image of Australia as a land of vast open spaces and skies? Or the tyranny of distance? We are, after all, still a land of droughts, fire and flooding plains, repeatedly challenged by our physical environment.

Schultz does not discuss the ongoing influence of our convict days (as per Sol Encel and Humphrey McQueen) still resonant in the acceptance of detention centres and black internment numbers), our history of anti-authoritarianism yet acceptance of authority (as more recently in our diverse reactions to Covid-19 mandates, the plaintive cries of ‘freedom’ from State control, of ‘rights’ compared to responsibilities.) Even a National Cabinet did not obscure State and regional differences, but surely much of our collective ‘soul’ was revealed in these differences.

One of the strongest threads in Australian history is that of ‘community’, of people together forging networks of support via family life – through churches, local councils, neighbourhood sports clubs and social welfare societies: Rotary, the CWA, the Salvos, footie clubs, etc., repeatedly evident in our response to national disasters of fire and flood. Community spirit thrives at times of disaster and triumphs over the cult of individualism and gender or racial identity. Is the spirit of Biloela closer to our ‘soul’ than the Cronulla Riots? And does it characterise the whole nation in an age where tribalism separates people from what we used to call ‘the common good’? Schultz does not address this change in the nature of society, but writes as if indigenous separation is the chief problem and formal ‘recognition’ will magically restore the nation’s soul. The election of a new Labor government will be a testing point for her thesis.

Schultz describes the spectacle of Sydney’s 2001 Olympic Games (horsemen in Akubras, Hills Hoist clothes lines, lawnmowers, Aboriginal dance), but not the fanaticism of Aussie Rules football or the hero worship of cricketers like Don Bradman or Shane Warne (given a State memorial service at the MCG, televised nation-wide by every channel at the same time). Eureka gets a mention, but not the long struggle to win voting rights or equal pay.

The centrality of family life, our home-owning fetish, the slow shifts in gender discrimination and equal opportunity in jobs, pay or education need much more attention, with ‘mateship’ often focused on intimate partnerships rather than on the gold digger or ANZAC myths. It was hardy families, including women and children, who forged the nation out of a harsh land. Is that pioneering ‘can-do‘ spirit still part of our soul, or has complacency and laziness overtaken us? Where does suburbia and urban sprawl figure in the essence of Australian identity?

Moreover, the ageing of our society through longer life expectancy must be factored in to any notion of national identity. We are no longer (if ‘we’ ever were )the lean, suntanned bushman or the blonde surfie, but rather an ageing society clinging to our dominant British heritage and fear of hostile Asians, with intergenerational conflict being drummed up as another form of discrimination. Are we truly a ‘caring’ society?

Perhaps the most surprising omission is that concerning immigration policy and its effects on industry and our notions of community. The inbred racism which Schultz describes as our shameful silence flies in the face of waves of acceptance (of Italians, Greeks, Vietnamese, and Chinese) who have helped build the nation despite political stirring of ongoing fears of ‘boat people’, terrorists, etc.

Schultz gives a sympathetic rendering of Yasmin Abdel-Mageid’s hounding out of the country, but fails to put that into the context of 9/11, terrorist bombings and political fear-mongering. Nor does she analyse why a multiculturalism that goes beyond acceptance of cultural difference to an assertion of Sharia law may have frightened the horses; or consider that the constant insistence on respecting the elders, past and present of our first nations people may alienate those who see a history of tribal violence and domestic dysfunction as a problem. Australia now has multiple cultural identities and recognition of the rights of refugees probably figures larger than it ever has in our short history. The fact that each wave of settlers resents the new waves is more economic than racist; it is still a Western – not just Australian – prejudice against ‘coloured’ people.

The great ‘silence’ she bemoans has been broken thoroughly in recent decades by local leaders, and in books like Bruce Pascoe’s ‘Dark Emu’, Grace Karsken’s “The People of the River’, or films such as ’Yolgnu Boy’ and ‘High Ground’ as examples. Kids in school get repeated lessons on indigenous culture. We knew about the stone houses and eel traps built by the local tribes long ago, and their possum fur capes to keep out the cold of the Western District; they were not, in our minds, naked savages living in bark shelters. We will see if an indigenous ‘Voice’ is truly singular or repeats an ongoing division between urban and remote indigenous Australians.

The real underpinning of inequality is what needs addressing, not simply with symbolic gestures. Schultz does not include inequality and class injustice as elements of the national character.

Other omissions that need to be addressed in such a discussion include globalisation and corporate undermining of national authority, the role of education in altering people’s understanding of where they fit in a global information universe, the significance of religious prejudice in our past and present politics (no mention here of Santamaria, Cardinal Mannix and the DLP split), of cultural cringe and a structured sense of inferiority, the impact of social media on tribalised identities, recent distortions of liberal theory, identity politics and cancel culture.

In this book, the rock band ‘Midnight Oil’ gets a mention, but not Slim Dusty, Jessica Mauboy or Paul Hogan, and ‘patriotism’ is left as an unexamined concept. The book’s Index does not mention ‘republicanism’ or ‘same sex marriage’, both strongly contested elements in what is seen to be Australia’s ‘soul’. Nor of male chauvinism and domestic violence, endemic both currently and in the past. Is violence a key to the Australian (male) character?

In short, I cannot see the basis of claims that this book is ‘subtle, powerful and compelling’ or a worthy successor to The Lucky Country. The book is a sort of biography using atypical Queensland to typify what is a much more complex concept. It has certainly made me think hard about what an Australian identity might mean in today’s world, but the gaps are too many to ignore.

Dr Don Edgar is a sociologist, author of ‘Introduction to Australian Society’, ‘Men, Mateship, Marriage’, ‘The Patchwork Nation’, and ‘Peak: reinventing middle age’. He is an Ambassador for NARI, the National Ageing Research Institute, and was founding Director of the Australian Institute of Family Studies.

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