Bob Carr: What Australia Means To Me

In an extract from his new book, the Premier of NSW, Bob Carr, has described his view of Australian patriotism.

The extract from “What Australia Means To Me” was published in today’s edition of the Sydney Daily Telegraph.

What Australia Means To Me

by Bob Carr

Ten years ago, I said in a speech that there were three elements in an Australian patriotism.

The first was our response to the land itself, unique and beautiful. The second was the people. I said we were a “motley” people, and I meant that in the most generous way, meaning an immigrant people, from diverse sources – indeed, almost every country in the world.

There are not many societies – the USA and Canada, perhaps Israel – with such diversity.

In a quarter of the homes in New South Wales lives someone who was born overseas. The third element, I said, was the unusual society that resulted from the interaction of that land and that people: a working democracy where the rule of law prevails, where the fairness of policies is the essence of the political debate. In my speech I called it a funny, friendly, benign country. A happy country, too.. There is no country happier than this – a country that comes to a halt for a horse race, whose most successful comedian is a madcap female impersonator.

It’s a country that has the weirdest animals, none of them predators. A country where the birds laugh at us. A funny country, in the nicest way. Perhaps I’d add now: an unpretentious country. For what I’d like to see is a patriotism without pomposity, never solemn or grandiose, and never saccharine.

It would be a patriotism based on reality rather than symbols or theories. It would come from a recognition of things as they are and as they were, not a vision of what dreamers or zealots would like us to be. Not a blind, uncritical, my-country-right-or wrong patriotism. It would acknowledge the dark side of our beginnings, our failings as well as our achievements, both the good side and the bad side, because Australian history has many stories. And this is a helpful notion: we don’t have to choose a blackarmband view or a celebratory white-settler view.

History doesn’t have to be a choice. History is different stories. And they can live side by side, merge and overlap, jostle and elbow one another.

But first we have to clear away some myths, some old habits of mind. The first is the myth that we are a young country. It’s an idea enshrined in our national anthem: “for we are young and free”. We are “young” only in terms of European perceptions. Our indigenous people are the oldest surviving human culture. Geologically, we are the oldest continent. In political terms, we are among the most mature societies in the world. Not many have had parliamentary systems since the mid-19th century.

And that’s how we should think of ourselves: grown-up and confident. The idea of Australia as a young country suggests there’s a mother country willing to take care of us.

We shook off that delusion in 1942 when Britain had too much else on its hands. Or in 1962 when she opted to enter the European Common Market. I still remember the shock in my classroom at Matraville High when we discussed it. “Could this mean the end of the Commonwealth?” a girl asked in shaken tones. “It could mean that,” came the sober reply. Unimaginable – Australia not part of the Commonwealth, all those pink spaces on the map!

Remember that many countries in Europe today did not exist when Australia became a nation in 1901. Even 14 years ago there were two Germanys, no independent Baltic states, no separate Russia, no independent Central Asian republics. As a political entity we are older than most of the countries of Africa, older than Indonesia.

Another myth is the idea that we’re a distant country, far from the great centres of power. After the Bali bombing, no one believes it. We are scarcely more remote from Afghanistan than New York or Washington are. Indonesia, the world’s largest Islamic State, is our neighbour.

Then there’s the myth that we are underpopulated. It took hold during the gold rushes, when Australians entertained the idea that we could be a continental power like the USA and could fill our open spaces just as the Americans did. But we ran into problems: thin soil, dry rivers, low rainfall, sparse vegetation.

In the 1920s, when Griffith Taylor, a geographer at the University of Sydney, suggested an optimum population of only 20 million – he was ridiculed for his conservatism and run out of town. Now we know more about our country’s limitations.

Another myth: the idea that we’re good at sport and not much else. The best news I read last year wasn’t in the sports pages. It was the announcement that the hole in the ozone layer, the result mainly of fluorocarbon emissions, is expected to close by 2050. I felt pride when our CSIRO scientists announced that news. Of course, it isn’t all our doing, but it was a good reminder of our scientific strength. It also showed that international environmental protocols can work when enough countries get behind them. It was a reminder that we are part of the planet. So let us, even now, get behind Kyoto.

Talking up Australia as a “sporting nation” only reinforces a stereotype – and you can always lose a sporting medal.. Sporting successes send an up-beat, happy-warrior image of Australia to the world. But if we hadn’t won a single medal at the Sydney Olympics, those Games would still have been a triumph for us – a triumph of planning, of organisation, of a cooperative society getting things done.

That news about the ozone layer set me thinking about other achievements. Half as many of us are dying of heart disease as 20 years ago. Smoking is no longer the smart thing to do. Australia has one of the best records of beating the public health challenge of HIV/AIDS. Look at our harbours and beaches: cleaner, healthier. I can swim at Maroubra or Clovelly without fearing sewage grease blown in by a southerly. We’re cutting the road toll. Never have Australians been more aware of the fragile beauty of the natural world, the importance of historic buildings, our wildlife, the techniques of bush regeneration. Thirty-five years ago there was hardly a place for women in parliament, on the bench, in business or in the boardroom. All that has changed. In a quiet way we’re winning on alcoholism, literacy, on aged care, safety in the workplace.

…We’ve stopped people rorting the system with outrageous public-liability claims, reversing a trend towards a culture of litigation. A visitor from California was almost dumbstruck at how we had turned that tendency around. Something like that shows our arteries haven’t hardened, we can be flexible, move fast.

We saw it in the transformation of the Australian economy after 1983. We were highly protected, sluggish and inwardlooking until the burst of reformist energy released by the first decisions of the Hawke-Keating Government to float the currency. Without that impetus Australia could not have enjoyed the productivity growth and economic performance of the 1990s. It is hard to be proud of a country that gets economic decisions consistently wrong, easier to relate to a national performance that has us competing with the best.

In any case, modernity becomes us. Modern air terminals, transport systems, city buildings and street furniture and public works: “You’ve got a snappy place here,” a Disney executive told me. I took to that description, a “snappy” place. The pride of Australians in the look of Sydney during the Olympics was irrepressible. That look reflected the emergence of a high-productivity, world-competitive economy. Creaking, clapped-out economies give little reason for pride. The latest generation of Australians produced a burst of modernisation.

These, I stress, have all been national achievements. They show a capacity to adapt and think smartly. They should form a part of how we see ourselves. They should feed a quiet, unassertive pride, a self-esteem at the core of a new Australian patriotism.

“What Australia Means to Me”, by Bob Carr, is published by Penguin, price $9.95.

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