National Identity: John Howard Headland Speech

This is the text of John Howard’s Headland speech on National Identity, one of a series given by the Leader of the Opposition during 1995.

A Reflection on the National Identity Debate

John HowardToday I want to talk about our national identity and the shared values and history that have shaped it. National identity used to be a subject on which there was a broad measure of agreement between the major parties. But the Keating Government is attempting to redefine national identity in a crudely self-serving way.

And in doing so, the Keating Government is living proof of the Orwellian dictum that those who seek to control the future first try to control the past by distorting it for their own particular narrow purpose.

Now is the time to reply: to puncture that hot air balloon. As the debate has become grossly politicised, it’s been accompanied by a negative, simplistic rewriting of history. That too needs to be shown for what it is.

But my task today is not simply one of demolition. I want to talk about lively traditions and values which bind us together as a people. Reflecting on them restores a sense of proportion. And coming to a fuller understanding of the past is the best ground for mature confidence about the future.

No One Owns the National Identity

Our identity is so distinct and our shared values so robust that we cheerfully take them for granted unless something threatens them or someone challenges them. Our past is a legitimate source of pride as well as confidence and self-understanding.

Endless bouts of introspection and navel gazing are unhealthy. Mostly they arise out of attempts to rewrite our past or reposition our history by people with axes to grind who aren’t all that interested in the truth.

The suggestion that we have yet to develop a proper identity, or that government can deliver us a new and improved one, treats us like children. It smacks of Big Brother. It also suggests that we need someone else to dream our dreams for us.

As it is modern government is too often like a juggernaut. What Australians want now, and what they have always chosen, given a chance, is a government with a capacity for humility as well as determination, the ability to acknowledge mistakes and to learn from them and, above all, a sense of proportion. As with our individual experience of success and failure, so it is with our history.

We learn from our history and we build on it. But we should not deny it or misrepresent it. The current Prime Minister must be one of the few leaders from any era, anywhere in the world, who appears to have so little respect for his own country’s history that he is attempting to rewrite it.

Put bluntly, Mr Keating has been engaged in an attempted heist of Australian nationalism.

It is not my intention to replace his attempted heist with a heist of my own.

To do so would be to undermine the nature of the national identity as the glue that binds us together.

The Keating heist has come in three forms.

First there was the sneering attempt to paint the Coalition and its supporters as more British than the British.

Secondly, there has been an attempt to paint republicanism as a higher form of Australian nationalism.

And finally there has been the broader attempt to depict the Australian Labor Party as the only true party of Australian nationalism.

Ironically, the Labor Party once had a strong internationalist streak which sat oddly with some of its more aggressive nationalist poses.

Currently the Keating Government has distinguished itself by an almost ritualistic resort to the alleged moral superiority of International Treaties so as to radically change the domestic legal and political balance within Australia.

If, therefore, the role of a national leader is to heal and unite, not wound and divide, then the Prime Minister’s attempt to clutch the Australian identity to his political bosom represents a failure, not a triumph of political leadership.

It also fatally misreads the extent to which the spotlight of that ingrained Australian characteristic of scepticism is trained upon the behaviour of the nation’s political leaders.

It is not the role of any political leader to politicise patriotism. Arguably, however, it is one of the duties of political leaders to articulate the links between what we are and what we can be.

As the Australian historian, Charles Wilson, said, it is a true test. For issues of national identity, he said, “will not be solved simply by catchwords and slogans, by debased prejudiced history or the political dodges of expediency or fanaticism. ‘Identity’ is not a passport or a bankcard or a title deed to rights and privileges. It is a description of historic tradition and a way of life which includes heavy responsibilities as well as rewards.”

So when politicians approach the subject of national identity it’s fitting that we do so with a measure of humility. For, while we can celebrate that identity and even hope that our policies may enhance it, it is not ours to own, any more than we can claim to own the future. It is our common inheritance – as the future is our shared destiny – something no political party can expect to monopolise or turn into its plaything.

National identity is, and must remain, in a realm above the partisan fray because it enshrines the virtues which unite us, and give us cohesion. By the rest of the world’s standards ours is a remarkably cohesive society. And yet we are all aware of the rents and tears in the social fabric. The task for the times is repair, practical reform and nation-building. We can’t afford the politics of division and should not tolerate them.

Our Inheritance

National identity develops in an organic way over time. It may be changed dramatically by cataclysmic events like Gallipoli. But governments and their social engineers shouldn’t try to manipulate it, or to create a sense of crisis about identity. Constant debate about identity implies either that we don’t already have one or, worse, that it is somehow inadequate.

Listening to the Government you could be forgiven for thinking that it is only in the year 2000 that Australia is, finally, going to throw off the last vestiges of 200 years of troubled adolescence. This is to underrate not only the sacrifices of preceding generations but also their sophistication and it insults us all. It is to turn our history into the simplicities of a cartoon. A better understanding of the past would, I suggest, leave us more humble about the relative significance of our current achievements but vastly more optimistic about our future prospects.

It is currently fashionable in some quarters to underestimate what we have inherited – its uniqueness, its basic fairness and its proven ability to be able to produce cohesion, tolerance and stability unmatched in any other country around the world.

In his Curtin Lecture in 1993, Eugene Kamenka contrasted the Australia he encountered when he arrived here as a Russian Jewish immigrant in 1937, with the way in which that period is often portrayed in the 1990s. He said that the period is “now mostly portrayed as deeply racist, socially, religiously and ethnically intolerant, full of cultural cringe and ruled by undeserving elites”. By contrast, he said, “I was struck by the opposite, the basic kindness and ease of social relations …. the accessibility and lack of pomposity of people in positions of minor and major authority, the non-intrusive friendliness of neighbours, the diffidence about telling other people how to live….”

Certainly, Kamenka had experienced Nazi Germany. However, the picture he painted of 1937 Australia was a sharp rebuke to those who always see our past in such negative terms.

There are many examples of our uniqueness. One springs to mind. In the Second World War Australian prisoners of war were famous for three things. Officers refused to be separated from their men, the sick and injured were an absolute priority and the cooks ate last. It’s a distinctive combination of decency and pragmatism.

Our national character reflects the generosity of people used to living in a lucky country where there has been an unusually broad distribution of wealth. The only elite to which we have conceded much deference has been that based on ability and achievement – sporting, intellectual or artistic. We are still surprisingly free of class divisions, snobbery and envy, and remain so in spite of the gulf in recent years between the rich and the poor. Increased equality of opportunity has been by consensus a national policy priority for many generations.

None of these things can plausibly be attributed to the work of any single political party, much as the Labor Party tries to claim them in its bolder attempts at rewriting history.

Our national character springs not from particular ideologies but from mainstream, egalitarian values, a robust democratic tradition, our history, our geography, many Liberal or Conservative-minded Governments; and Labor ones as well, successive waves of immigration which have beneficially shaped our identity and, most of all, generations of unique individuals who have all played their part in moulding our national character.

The Prime Minister has a totally different concept of national identity – and a vindictively exclusivist one. He attempts to demean anything for which he can’t claim the credit. And he claims credit for policies and outcomes he doesn’t own. He even lays claim to a mortgage on the national identity itself. He openly talks of 2001 as “the great national identity roundup” – as though Australians were waiting to be herded and branded to be given an identity.

I know that the Australian people are too sceptical and independently minded to be fooled by this posturing. Like his clumsy attempts to minimise the importance of our historical origins, his attempts will falter because we are a nation of realists and we know who we are.

The Creative Nation package was another classic attempt – to beguile our artists and writers into singing the government’s tunes. But those free spirits who help to express our identity will not conform to any government’s agendas or be content to be corralled.

The same is true of the republican debate. If the majority of the people decide to redefine the nation’s Constitution I am certain that it will be a model of their own choosing rather than one foisted on them by a politician with Napoleonic delusions.

Debunking the Deceptions

If we are to have a sensible community discussion about national identity, we first need to look at some of the deceptions, to nail the lies and to talk about the politics of division. I also want to talk about some of the abiding values that make up our national identity – the spirit of tolerance, independence and inclusion. Seldom have we been more in need of them.

In the current debate one big lie on which the Prime Minister’s strategy of division depends is to claim that the Coalition is, and always has been, a bunch of lickspittles with a servile attitude towards Britain. He would have you believe that the Labor Party has historically been the only party of true nationalism and independence. Clearly it is nonsense to make that accusation of the present Opposition parties, but was it true even half a century ago?

The republican historian John Hirst has examined these claims and refuted them. He has written: “If the Prime Minister wants to attack the supporters of empire, he will have to attack not only Menzies but Curtin, not only Casey but Chifley.” To imply otherwise, as he has done, is “a gross distortion”. Discussing the resolution of conflicting wartime priorities and the policies of Evatt and Calwell, Dr Hirst says this: “It is true that none of these Labor leaders was subservient to Britain …. Though they accepted Australia as part of the British Empire-Commonwealth, they had a lively sense of Australia’s separate interests. But so did leaders on the non-Labor side of politics. To claim that the supporters of the British empire in Australia were tugging the forelock to Britain is the second of the Prime Minister’s distortions.”

The strategic point of these distortions is not merely to call into question the patriotism of his opponents. It is to intimidate all those Australians who still feel strong ties with Britain. He would not dare do so with people of any other country of origin, of course, and it’s completely contrary to the national interest. If anyone else denigrated the cultural and historic ties of Australians from a background other than British, the Prime Minister and his coterie would brand them with all types of labels. But that is the logic of the politics of division. As well, in asserting that the only nationalism worthy of the name is republican nationalism, or chip-on-the-shoulder nationalism, he is prepared to politicise national identity.

Australian Tolerance

When the electorate comes to judge the Prime Minister’s claims to be a statesman, I hope they’ll apply Charles Wilson’s test. Let me repeat it: issues of national identity “will not be solved simply by catchwords and slogans, by debased prejudiced history or the political dodges of expediency and fanaticism”.

Fanaticism has played very little part in the value systems which define our identity – except in sporting contests where, of course, it’s almost mandatory. But there is a tendency which I’ve referred to as “minority fundamentalism” which is worth mentioning here.

Minority fundamentalism is based on the assumption that if you extol mainstream practices or values then you must automatically be intolerant of the values or circumstances of minorities – despite overwhelming evidence to the contrary.

I encountered this absurd phenomenon some years ago when I launched “Future Directions”. Rather famously that document featured a two-parent family with two children in front of a picket-fenced house. Such a depiction spawned numerous stories that because I had represented an Australian family in that fashion I was in some way prejudiced against others.

This was despite the fact that not one critical word about any household arrangement appeared in the document. Indeed, I have frequently challenged people to find any public utterance of mine over the past 20 years to support an allegation of such a prejudice.

Tolerance has been one of our distinguishing virtues for a very long time. It’s easy to lose sight of that fact because there is a school of “history” which ignores or trivialises all those parts of the past which can’t be conscripted into glorifying a politically correct version of the present. In that version of events, history for all practical purposes began with the Whitlam Government. It is founded on implied or expressed denigration of mainstream Australian traditions and self-understandings. The contempt for inconvenient facts is a measure of its contempt for its audience.

The Prime Minister himself describes the 26 years before Whitlam as the Rip van Winkle era, and although it’s a throwaway line it tells us what he really thinks. We weren’t a nation asleep. There was a lively, even passionate, debate throughout those years about many of the questions that still concern us. Certainly, we were then less in the grip of stifling orthodoxies like political correctness and government didn’t conduct domestic politics like a form of total war.

When governments overstepped the mark we soon let them know about it. For example, Australians demonstrated a concern for political liberty and tolerance in defeating Menzies’ attempts to outlaw the Communist Party.

That case also showed a capacity for independent-mindedness and demonstrated a boisterous, sceptical tradition – a no-nonsense approach combined with a dislike of being stampeded.

It’s important to remember that lively tradition because we are so often confronted with a cartoon version of the past, where black and white only gives way to living colour in the 70s. In that version, our capacity for tolerance is merely a new-found product of TV, cafe society and general urbanity. That is to overlook at least a hundred years’ worth of fascination with bush characters, Bohemians and non-conformists. Some of them may have been labelled ratbags, and no doubt some of them deserved it. But the fact is that they were often treasured or at least grudgingly admired both in the city and the bush by many who wouldn’t have dreamed of following their example. Even when they stood out like sore thumbs – we saw that they were part of the sum of us.

Inclusion and Pluralism

Inclusion rather than exclusion is also an essential part of the Australian identity. It is a value which featured prominently in pioneering days, although tragically it didn’t extend to Aboriginal Australia. Nor was it much in evidence during the gold rushes.

Afterwards, our capacity for exercising it was almost untested until the era of post-war immigration. It was an indication of great confidence, openness and maturity that Australia undertook such vast programmes.

There is no sense in understating the difficulties and adjustments that were necessary for all concerned. For that would be to fail to appreciate the nature of the overall triumph. That triumph changed our situation forever – and to our enduring benefit as a nation. The triumph lay in the emphasis on inclusion, diversity, participation in the body politic, and an enlargement of our understanding of what it meant to be an Australian.

This is an opportune moment to recall with pride our party’s record on multicultural issues, starting with Menzies’ bipartisan support for the continuation of Calwell’s immigration scheme. I remind you that it was the Coalition which finally put an end to Labor’s White Australia policy. That it was the Fraser Government, of which I was a member, which accepted our national responsibilities towards Indo-Chinese refugees at a time when Gough Whitlam had failed to do so.

Genuine pluralism involves embracing other cultures. It is the enthusiastic acceptance of differences in others – especially by younger Australians – which is a sign of tolerant maturity.

Immigration has played, and will continue to play, a vital nation-building role in Australia’s development. The strength of a culturally diverse community, united by an overriding and unifying commitment to Australia, is one of Australia’s unique and enduring achievements and one of our great national assets.

The Media, the Arts and National Identity

No consideration of national identity can overlook the role of the media, including the national broadcaster, the ABC, and the arts. The development and refinement of the sense of identity depends on complex processes of articulation. At its best the media holds up mirrors in which we can discover versions of an evolving Australia. Some of them are in the form of news and commentary. Others are TV and radio dramas. It is crucial that our media not become captive to a distillation of views of our foremost cultural dietitians – the we-know-what’s-best-for-you brigade. For example, I believe that often it is in comic mode, in shows like the award-winning Frontline that the ABC forgets about political correctness, and excels.

The Coalition is pledged to maintain existing levels of funding to the ABC. It has an important role to play in Australian society, promoting balanced debate, reflecting on the evolution of Australian culture and providing a forum for community views. The arts community and communication fields comprise many people whose work gives expression to our national identity and the Coalition has a long, proud tradition of support for the Arts. Coalition Governments established the Australian Film Development Corporation, the National Institute of Dramatic Art, the Film Television and Radio School and the body we now know as the Australia Council.

A constant challenge to our distinctive Australian cultural identity is the rising tide of global American monoculture. As with all things, we must maintain a sense of proportion but it represents more than a nagging concern. It represents a powerful reason for the maintenance of local content requirements, as well as continued public support, in appropriate ways, for the arts.

We do not believe that government has any right to pontificate to artists, telling them how to think or what to think and imposing its agendas. This is more than political correctness run amok. It is the antithesis of artistic independence, which underpins every free, enlightened society. Like most Australian artists, especially those from families that have encountered political repression in countries less free than ours, we take the idea of intellectual liberty very seriously. The recent emergence of the Campaign for a Democratic Australia Council, and its petition signed by over 260 prominent artists and writers, is evidence of widespread concern and independence of spirit. Free expression is part of the Australian national identity which must be cherished.

Cultural vitality and its role in shaping our national identity includes very importantly the contribution of Aboriginal artists, especially those working within the visual arts. There is a whole new interest in the expression of Aboriginal beliefs and it’s time their Dreaming stories and their history were better understood by all Australians. A developing appreciation of the Aboriginal heritage enhances and enriches our sense of the whole national inheritance.

The National Language and Institutions

A core inheritance of modern generations is the English language and, in a broader sense, western civilisation. English gives us access to a richer and more varied tradition than its Anglo-Saxon origins. To the world of Shakespeare and Wordsworth add the New World – from nineteenth century American poets like Emily Dickinson to contemporary Caribbeans like V.S. Naipaul – and the imaginative world of a twentieth century Australian of Lebanese descent, David Malouf.

Along with the language and its literature there are institutions we share with others which are at the core of our national life. They are parliamentary democracy, an incorruptible judiciary and a free press. Between them they provide a better guarantee of our liberties than any Bill of Rights. But each is threatened by the overweening ambition of executive government to subvert the checks and balances in our system and extend its own power. I need only mention the Government’s recent proposals to put inconvenient journalists in gaol – now reportedly abandoned – to remind you that these are not merely theoretical concerns.

National leadership can be of two kinds. It can be arrogant, proscriptive, divisive and manipulative. Or it can be strong but also down-to-earth, unifying and responsive. One of the choices at the next federal election is between the former kind of leadership, and a change to the latter.

The divisive, manipulative style of the Keating Government has had a deeply damaging effect on national institutions – institutions that highlight and reflect the values inherent in the Australian identity.

The national Parliament is one such institution. The Keating Government has reduced its processes to a farce because it sees them as an irritant to implementing its partisan agenda, rather than as a fundamental element of our democratic inheritance.

The Parliament itself has been treated to regular displays of executive arrogance, its role as a watchdog made unconscionably more difficult and its institutions subverted. Question Time is now treated like a courtesy that the executive extends to the Parliament rather than a right – the main forum through which government is held accountable. Ministers in the Lower House follow the Prime Minister’s example and hold the Senate and Committees of Inquiry in open contempt.

The Government may delude itself that none of this matters much and that the people generally share their view that Parliament is no more than a talk-shop or a stage for vaudeville. I believe that Australians want a democratic system that works properly and is treated with respect. When Parliament is demeaned, so are we all.

Australians want a democratic system that works properly and responsively. They want, and respect, much more than a talk-shop or a switch to vaudeville. They want responsible national authorities held to account. They want their democratic rights protected and upheld.

I want the rest of the decade to be remembered as a time of renewal and renovation in the symbols and structures of our national institutions. I hope to lead a government which knows the proper limits on executive power, and which is free of delusions of grandeur – a government with the strength born of conviction and the restraint and tolerance that Australians expect. I intend to provide government which is clean and competent, accountable to Parliament and responsive to the will of the people.

National Symbols and the Constitution

Responsiveness on the part of governments is an important obligation. But it shouldn’t be used as an excuse for abrogating the role of leadership. The two exist, at their best, in a creative tension. When it comes to national symbols like the flag, and debate over the constitution, deep, sometimes needlessly divisive passions are easily aroused. The art of good statecraft has always been to preserve from the past that which continues to serve the national interest, while discarding the tired and the failed.

I don’t believe it is the business of government to decide Constitutional questions in advance, let alone to proclaim that one outcome is more patriotic than another. No political party has a mortgage on love of country or the forms in which that love finds appropriate expression.

Tolerance and inclusion have a greater part to play in these debates than we have yet seen. For example, we are not offering a republic by stealth. Nor do we believe that government ought to try to create a stampede. Nor will we erect artificial barriers to prevent the people expressing their views. A Constitutional Convention will provide a calm forum for deliberation – in which the issues and the options can be carefully considered.

There have been periods in recent times when the debate has been anything but calm; instead it has been rather one-sided and one-dimensional. I’m sure that thoughtful people, whatever their views, will agree that resolving issues so central to our national identity deserves better than that.

Constitutional issues have brought the nature of our collective identity into sharper than usual focus. If that leads to a better understanding of our history and a greater recognition of our shared values and strengths, that’s no bad thing. But there is always the danger of a paralysing kind of self-consciousness, which is at odds with the understated, laconic wit, confident give-it-a-try attitude and the practical virtues on which have long prided ourselves.

National Identity and Australia’s Future

National identity evolves. It draws on what is best in our past, but it is not rooted down in the past.

National identity reflects its changing environment. The aspirations of Australians, for themselves and their families, respond to new opportunities, new dimensions, new possibilities.

Our national identity into the next century will evolve in the context of a rapidly changing domestic and international environment.

There is the reality of the increasingly “borderless work” of global markets for goods, services and investment, and the pressures for economic competitiveness that they are creating.

There is the rapidly changing nature of work itself as a result of the technology, automation and communications revolution.

There are continuing and accelerating social transformations, such as the changing roles of men and women and the ageing of our population.

These changes must be harnessed to give hope and opportunities to future generations.

How much hope – indeed how many jobs – will depend on how intelligently we manage the inevitable changes that come with technology. We’ll need the resilience, decency and good sense that we’ve often shown in the past. It will test our cohesiveness as a people.

Governments will have to live up to the ideal of making decisions in the national interest. Employers who can’t develop relations of mutual trust with their staff – who increasingly will work from home with significantly less supervision – will go the way of the dinosaur.

Likewise, some sections of the trade union movement will very quickly be seen by their members as expensive anachronisms. Their main role in 25 years’ time is likely to be as competitive service providers.

Some other things are quite clear about the ways we will be working in 2020. Working conditions will change more than anyone now imagines and will call for vastly more flexibility from all parties concerned.

In particular the old fixed patterns of the working week will disappear at a faster rate than they are already. That is a value-neutral change, like the certainty that large numbers of Australians will be working from home.

What we make of that change is up to us – it’s going to be a test of creative adaptation. The same is true of the way we handle modifications to long-established patterns of other kinds. To take one example, school hours and child care will continue to change in response to the fact that more families now have both parents in the workforce.

Earlier I said that one of the duties of a political leader was to reflect on the links between what we are and what we can be.

One cannot reflect upon Australia’s future without dwelling on the great potential of our relationship with and in the Asia-Pacific region. Properly handled, it will leave an indelible imprint upon Australia’s future.

In that reflection, however, we should not confuse the question of identity with the question of relationship. We relate to our friends – both at a personal level and as nations – on the basis of a mature sense of self.

I don’t believe that Australia faces some kind of exclusive choice between our past and our future, between our history and our geography. To me such a choice is phoney and irrelevant – only posed by those with ulterior motives.

Australia must meet the regional challenges of the future, in Asia and elsewhere, with the capacity and the willingness to adapt to changing circumstances but with constant pride in our history, our values and our institutions. The dynamically successful economies of East Asia have done that in relation to their own national histories, values and institutions.

If Australia starts disavowing her history or disowning her values or changing her institutions simply because we think countries in the region will respect us more for doing so, then we will be badly mistaken.

The choice is not between our history and our geography, not between disowning our past and embracing the challenges of the future.

The task is to take with us into the future what is best from our past, as well as to maximise the potential benefits of our geographic position.

We have strong links through language and culture to Europe and North America. We have the benefits of close proximity to our Asia-Pacific neighbours. If we do not fulfil that obvious bridging opportunity, future generations are entitled to judge us harshly.

Those future generations will be entitled to make an equally harsh judgment of us if we fail to confront the domestic challenges which surround us.

No community which holds dear practical mateship as a core national value can feel comfortable with a youth unemployment level of over 30 per cent.

No community which treasures egalitarianism as part of the Australian birthright can look with equanimity on the widening gulf between rich and poor.

No nation with a natural environment as precious as ours can feel comfortable about its failure to achieve a lasting national consensus on sustainable development.

And no society which values frankness and civility as national character traits can feel comfortable with the almost unparalleled level of public cynicism and disbelief towards the pronouncements of many of our political figures.

The restoration of trust in our institutions and a renewed belief that the political process can work to deliver better outcomes for people, must remain a critical national goal for all Australians.

There are 18 million Australians. Each has his or her view of the Australian identity.

To me, like many, the Australian identity has always meant practical mateship. It has meant a great egalitarian tradition, shunning pretension and pomposity.

It has comprised a sometimes fierce and irreverent scepticism which has stopped many pretenders dead in their tracks.

I think of our identity as embracing a level of tolerance and warm-heartedness for which we have given ourselves too little credit.

In an ideal world of national identity I would like there to be greater incentives and awards for those who successfully exhibit that independent can-do quality so redolent of many Australians.

And I would like an Australia where the cohesive, stabilising and supporting qualities of families were given greater encouragement, not only for the emotional worth that would bring but for the contribution it would make to the aggregate good of society.

National identity can never be defined according to partisan political goals and objectives.

It’s about the character and essence of us as a people, about our strengths as well as our weaknesses. It can never belong to one or other side of politics. It belongs to us all. There is no hierarchy of affection amongst us in love of country.

Print Friendly, PDF & Email