MICHAEL MULLINS. What happened to my Australian accent?

I spent the summer of 1983-84 in the Philippines. During this time I fell in love with the Philippines and its people and felt ashamed to be Australian.

I can’t remember exactly why I was ashamed, but I think it had something to do with Australia’s misplaced sense of superiority in South East Asia. It was the era in which Singapore’s prime minister Lee Kuan Yew felt he had to warn Australians that we were in danger of becoming the ‘white trash’ of Asia.

I decided that I did not like the Australian accent because it reflected this ugliness, which we ourselves did not seem to be aware of.

Not entirely tongue in cheek, I worked to modify my spoken English. I wanted a neutral accent that would ensure I was not immediately recognisable as Australian. When overseas these days, I still get told that I don’t sound Australian.

After three and a half decades, my shame is not what it was. But I am keenly aware that every week there are new reasons for me to feel even more ashamed. A few days ago it was news of the planned overhaul of Australia’s national security laws that could lead to journalists being jailed for doing their jobs.

Indeed if there is such a thing as an international shame index, Australia would have to be much more prominent today than it was in the 1980s. We are punching below our weight in so many areas. Examples include the promotion of human rights and acting to mitigate the effects of climate change.

I tell myself that Australia is a work in progress and that for every step backwards there is arguably a step forward.

We had Paul Keating’s 1994 Redfern speech on the treatment of Indigenous Australians, which was broadly accepted by the general population. It gave us a lasting sense of national contrition that led to the 2008 Apology.

Now we have genuine and widespread criticism of the Australia Day celebration as inappropriate because it represents invasion and the beginning of annihilation for the first Australians. The celebration is on the nose to the extent that the online advertising and marketing website Mumbrella is warning brands that they should not risk damage by endorsing Australia Day.

I’m not against Australia Day, as long as it evolves to include an element of contrition alongside the self-congratulation. Shame is not a bad thing, to the extent that it acts as a reality check. And it could even bring the nation together.

Michael Mullins is a former editor of Eureka Street.


Michael Mullins is a former editor of Eureka Street.

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2 Responses to MICHAEL MULLINS. What happened to my Australian accent?

  1. Avatar Ken Fuller says:

    Interesting that people can feel proud of being ashamed of their county and its people. All the comments seem fixated on what they disagee with and little mention of the overwhelming positives of the Western Civilisation that we brought to Australaia. If we want to find shameful things try looking at the Hunter Gatherer Culture that existed when we came here and its vestiges which today with its violence towards females and children is something we are striving to turn around. Yes as the European settlers moved out into the native lands there were battles and many died and were abused. Regretably the inevitable occurred because of the nature of both societies. Today we either move forward as one people or we continue the War.

  2. Avatar Jim KABLE says:

    Michael: A courageous essay – if I might term it thus – and sad, too. I lived many years in Japan – no need to modify my Australian English teacher manner of speech – and never any comment on it apart from its clarity (in Spain even, too, while teaching there many years earlier) until some learnt I was from Australia when some equally “courageous” souls with dubious understanding of how speech and accents work would proceed at once to tell me how I spoke. The ubiquitous and apocryphal tale of a friend or the friend of a friend who had come across someone going to hospital to die! But yes – there was a time when there was a pride in announcing that one was Australian – in terms of social justice (from the early days of the Federation – and with the eventual abandonment of White Australia, the 1967 referendum – Mabo, The Redfern Speech, the Apology of Kevin Rudd – but then the roll-back and racist policies of the Howard, Abbott and Tremble years – treatment of Indigenous people via the NT Intervention, the rejection of the Uluru Statement from the Heart, of asylum-seekers Nauru and Manus and Christmas Island – of no Bill of Rights – of no taxation payment from Big Biz/Big Miners – free for all for LNP mates in “development” and “Infrastructure”! Now 60,000 march inMelbourne on Australia Day – as the protest component – while Malcolm Tremble says Nope, no change ever to our union-jacked flag! Is the man awake? With his millions in George Town on Grand Cayman – even Clive Palmer has his own eye on that rort! Still at least till now we can say these things – but what is the wily Peter Bjelke-Dutton up to one wonders with his Brown-Shirted “Home Affairs” portfolio?

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