Part 4 transcript

Phillip Adams:

Thank you Ghassan Hage.  I was just thinking about Rai Gaita’s delightful anecdote from the Dunera saga.  Some years ago I thought it might be interesting to explore Australian nationalism through its jokes so I started collecting them by the thousands for a book that was called the Penguin Book of Australian Jokes.  Astonishingly, this was the first joke.  It’s astonishing because of the person who told it to me.  There are two corpses on the Hume Highway.  One is a dead kangaroo and the other is a dead politician.  What’s the difference?  I said to Prime Minister Hawke, “I don’t know”.  He said “there are skid marks before the kangaroo”.

Now I found that wonderful, the self deprecation coming from an Australian Prime Minister.  Imagine, Rai, how heartbroken I was to learn that the joke was an American joke that originally took place on Route 66 with a dead animal which was a skunk. 

Marilyn Lake, your turn at the lectern.

Marilyn Lake:

Thanks.  Thank you very much.  It’s been interesting listening to the previous two speakers.  Now I must only take ten minutes.  Because both of them answered the question:  “Nationalism, is it a problem?” with a sort of a yes and a no answer, which is also the line I’m going to take.  I was interested that Raimond wanted to differentiate between, or spoke about nation on the one hand and country on the other, love of nation and love of country, and it’s an interesting distinction and it was in that distinction that I’m actually going to concentrate on the nation part and I don’t think they can be collapsed or exchanged for each other there.  Ghassan talked about nationalism as a possibility of control and companionship and what a good thing it was to have the companionship of belonging to a nation.  And it made me think about the conditions for a sense of companionship, for feeling companionship in terms of the nation. 

So my answer then to nationalism is that the problem is indeed yes and no.  And I also should say I speak as a historian and one of the things that is interesting about this panel actually is that we come from quite different disciplinary perspectives.  I was also made aware of that with an anthropologist and a philosopher and I speak very much I think as a historian and Andrew is a sort of historian sociologist.  So I say yes and no as a historian, because I think some very, and I think particularly about Australian nationalism, some very progressive reforms have been achieved here in the name of the nation, especially in Australia, in the building of a democratic welfare state.  A new society in a new world, organised around ideas of equality, of citizenship and of opportunity, with manhood and womanhood suffrage, old age and invalid pensions, maternity allowances, a fair wage and decent working conditions, child endowment and unemployment benefits, all paid not from private insurance as in other places, but from the common pool of general revenue.

The idea that unemployment benefits should be paid from the common pool of general revenue rather than from private insurance I think is a very Australian idea and it speaks to our name as the Commonwealth of Australia.  That idea of a Commonwealth which was very deliberately chosen by our founding fathers, around 1900, and interestingly it was chosen also in emulation of that country that Alfred Deakin liked to call the republic, that is, the United States, that had been eulogised in James Bryce’s famous book The Republic which had been published in 1888 and was used as a bible by those who framed the Australian Constitution in the 1890s. 

But nation building rests necessarily on narratives of nation.  Nations in that sense are historical imaginings, constructions, that work of course to exclude, even as they also build solidarity.  I was interviewed the other day by a German journalist about the Anzac book.  She was doing freelance work for German newspapers and magazines.  And she asked me, she said “What sort of weird nation was it whose national day rested on an imperial war fought by colonial white blokes in a foreign country in support of the British ally autocratic Czarist Russia?”  “Yes, it is weird” I replied, “especially as the battle in 1915 far from securing our nationhood as they would have it, in fact locked us even more firmly into the British imperial embrace”, which I always like to think was nicely symbolised in 1915,  the very same year, by the arrival in Australia that year, of Rider Haggard, an emissary from the Royal Colonial Institute, who came out here to lay the basis of a grand new imperial settlement scheme following the war.  But of course we know that Australia didn’t secure its national independence and not I think its nationhood in 1901 or 1915.  Indeed, we await our independence day still, which is why I think Anzac Day serves as both compensation and displacement. 

National narratives as I say, work to exclude even as they build, conceptions of community.  Much of my historical work on Australia has charted different conceptions of the Australian nation.  Whether it’s soldier settlement after World War I, which envisaged Australia as an imperial yeomanry on the vast empty spaces of our continent, or whether it was Faith Bandler, fighting for a racially inclusive nation, “Count us all as one” she said in the referendum on 1967, or whether indeed it was White Australia declaring itself to the world, its bold utopian vision declared on the cusp of the twentieth century, a vision in which democratic equality would be achieved, so they thought, through racial exclusion.  Or whether indeed it’s the Anzac legend, advocating military experience in the name of now what is called an Anzac spirit.  Claiming now that this spirit animates all our greatest national achievements.

The German journalist put to me that overseas, she said, overseas, she said Australia was regarded as a blokey white man’s country, and that if we held any ideas, we had always followed the United States several decades behind, she said.  In espousing freedom as a value and in the fact that our freedom was tied up with the apparent large expanse of unoccupied territory.  So she was suggesting we had no distinctive stories to tell, that we were a derivative country and that therefore, she said, if we gave up on Anzac Day, we would have nothing left.  What else was there, she said, that could possibly hold us together?  But no, I protested, being a nationalist.  The idea that we are a derivative country belies our actual history as an exporter of radical ideas as well as of commodities and minerals.  Australia, I said, had invented all of these democratic ideas and we exported them to the rest of the world, including I should add, the very radical idea that women should have full political rights.  When Australian women achieved those political rights in 1902, we were of course the first nation to do so, and I think it’s the only time historically when Australia has achieved a world historic first.  A world historic first, overturning millennia of history everywhere else.  So I said to the German journalist, this could be our story.  Why don’t you write about this story?  And she said, no, you’re a blokey country.  And there seemed to be a bit of a contradiction between her firm belief and what she saw on Anzac Day and, hold the rifle while I have a piss, that image of Australia and what I was trying to tell her.

But as I say, and one of my next research projects is to work on, to do the research actually that takes us outside Australia, to know Australia better by going beyond Australia and to look at its proud history of democratic innovation which we have indeed exported to the rest of the world, including I now have a notion, a fanciful notion, that the very ILO was founded in 1919 on the basis of the ideas of H B Higgins, the noble figure who presided over the Arbitration Court.  But of course what’s interesting about those democratic innovations as I said before, is that they rested so much on a sense of necessity as it was perceived of racial exclusion.  The two were intimately entwined.  And I think actually in terms of nations as excluding or as companionship or whatever, if you look at the history of all leading welfare states, particularly for example the Nordic countries, or Germany, you will find that racial homogeneity is central to the conception of nation and it makes you wonder whether welfare states historically were made possible by the racial homogeneity of those countries.

So, there was also then, in our history, this central idea from the 1850s in some ways, the idea of equality of opportunity.  This was espoused continually in the nineteenth century and into the twentieth century, and although equality of opportunity was only extended to white men at first, the very struggles that went on by women and non-whites to buy into, to achieve that extension of equality to themselves, I think, are key definitive stories of our nation.  Political campaigns in Australia were as often as not inspired by the idea of equality just as in the US, their national story is about the idea of freedom, which is the story that Barack Obama invoked in his inauguration address.

I think as historical stories are so important to people’s sense of nation, I think it’s important to revive these narratives, this historical knowledge.  But of course I also think it’s interesting that equality of course is a dangerous idea.  If you have politicians standing up and saying, in the name of our great national tradition of equality, you know, that might raise all sorts of demands and questions.  It might inspire people to decry the historical unprecedented gap we now witness between the rich and the poor in Australia and that also, that sort of outrage has also formed the criticism of websites such as My School. If we actually spoke of equality as a basic Australian historical value, it might indeed inspire new campaigns to achieve sexual and racial equality.

I just want to conclude with a little story about Neil Mitchell on 3AW.  I was interviewed by him yesterday morning about the Anzac book, which he hadn’t read of course, but he knew a lot of things about it.  And he asked me, which is quite a common question in the commercial media, he said, well, if you don’t have, which is indeed the question the German journalist asked, if you don’t have Anzac Day, there’s this anxiety, what national day can we have?  And I said, well, on the one hand, maybe we don’t need a national day.  Britain gets by OK without a national day.  On the other hand if we go to follow the new world societies, the great republics such as the United States, of course they have Independence Day, because, you know, they became independent, but they have a variety of national days and I found this when I was teaching at Harvard actually, because my classes were on Mondays, so half the Mondays in the calendar were wiped out, because I stumbled over the Martin Luther King day in February, you know, they have Independence Day, they have Thanksgiving, they have Labour Day as a national public holiday in the United States, and of course they have a Veterans’ Day.  So I said to Neil Mitchell, you know, maybe we could have a number of days that commemorate different aspects of our community, of our history, of our experience.  And he clearly didn’t like that idea very much and as I was driving to La Trobe I was listening to the talkback that followed this interview and I heard him say, what a crazy idea that was, he said, because next you’ll be having a special day to celebrate lesbian vegetarians.  Now I thought that was really interesting as an idea about companionship actually and our sense of companionship that the nation offers some people.  And you know, it was an idea about the group that was furthest away from his sense of companionship, that he couldn’t imagine feeling any sense of companionship if there were a national day to commemorate lesbian vegetarians.  It was clearly in his mind the most ludicrous claim.

So I want to leave you with the idea about control and companionship or about belonging or not belonging.  And the ways in practical purposes, this is tied of course to conceptions of national days and how national days recognise that sense of companionship that some people feel.  Thank you.