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Mark Latham: A Big Country – Australia’s National Identity

This is the text of a speech delivered by the Leader of the Opposition, Mark Latham, to The Global Foundation, in Sydney.

Text of speech by Mark Latham to The Global Foundation.

LathamI have always believed in Australia as a big country – big in size, big in spirit, big in its egalitarian ways. These are the values that will guide a future Labor Government. Always reaching out to our fellow citizens. Always trying to build a more cohesive and just society. Always standing up for Australian independence and Australian sovereignty.

Already we have released a wad of policy aimed at achieving these social goals. Our Read Aloud program for early childhood development. Our Aim Higher policy for TAFE and university access. Our plan to save bulk billing and establish a national dental program. And to help parents balance their work and family commitments, Labor’s Baby Care Payment.

These are all important programs, important ways of helping people. They’re part of what I call the ladder of opportunity: the powerful combination of hard work, good families and communities and the civilising role of government services.

That’s the core purpose of modern Labor politics: connecting with people and improving their daily lives. But we also believe in an extra dimension. Political leadership that opens up a different sort of dialogue with the Australian people. A dialogue about how we define our national purpose and our national identity. How we see ourselves and how we hope Australia will be seen by others.

For much of last century, this debate was conducted from a position of weakness. We were never too sure of our place in the world. And never too confident about Australia’s role and identity.

Until the 1970s, we suffered from the cultural cringe – an assumption that our institutions and culture could never be as good as Europe or North America. Our geography also made us feel vulnerable – searching for security from Asia, instead of seeing ourselves as a natural part of the region.

It also took us a long time to come to terms with our history, the good and the bad of white settlement and our relationship with Indigenous Australians. Even today, academics at either end of the political spectrum are still waging the history wars.

My feeling is that the rest of the country has moved on. After the progressive economic, social and cultural changes of the last 30 years, Australians have a renewed faith in our national identity. We have a renewed confidence in being Australian, drawing strength from the modern Australian story:

  • The economic reforms of the 1980s and 90s that drew us into the world economy and opened up new opportunities for Australian enterprise.
  • Our engagement with Asia under the Hawke and Keating Governments – finally reconciling Australia’s geography with Australia’s history.
  • The rebirth of the Australian arts and cultural identity in the 1970s, paving the way for the international success of our artists and actors today.
  • And in their own special way, the extraordinary success of Australian sporting teams over the past decade – one of our strongest points of identity and acclaim overseas.

While the odd historian or newspaper columnist still agonises about these things, the Australian people themselves have left the old debates behind. I regard this as unequivocally good for our country.

A nation agonising about itself is a nation held back by the weight of insecurity and uncertainty. Rare among the nations of the world, the Australian character is outward-going and confident – a larrikin streak among the conservatism of the international community. But still smart enough, like a Peter Carey or a David Malouf, to conquer the critics of New York and London. Now, after decades of doubt and introspection, our collective character, our identity as a nation, matches this individual profile.

The challenge for government is to add to this process, to add to our national confidence and pride. How do we define and debate the modern Australian identity? Not by telling the public what to think. But by moving forward with the Australian people themselves, adding to our national success stories and the public dialogue about them.

I want a future Labor Government to contribute to this process. This is our big country agenda:

  • Building a more creative Australia through the power of education.
  • Strengthening the foundations of our culturally diverse and pluralistic society.
  • Expressing the values of Australian independence and self-reliance.
  • And rebuilding our national reputation for egalitarianism – a fair go for all.

Australian Creativity

Our first priority is to develop the nation’s creativity, truly valuing the importance of lifelong learning. Under the current government, education has been singled out for budget cuts. Under Labor, it will be our heaviest area of social investment. When people think about Australia, I want them to think about the quality of our education system.

Education has always been important for creating the virtues of reason and tolerance. But now, with so many technological changes, it has become more than a pathway to social enrichment. It is the key to economic success – for individuals, communities and nations.

There is a lot of talk in the media about the new economy. Its meaning is actually quite simple. The things we used to do with our hands are now being done with our heads. Jobs based on muscle power and machine power are being replaced by brain power.

And the pace of change is accelerating all the time. The education system is being called on to prepare students for the work of the future, not just the jobs of today. In many cases, today’s high school students will be working in positions which have not yet been conceived, using technologies that have not yet been invented.

This is a challenge for all nations, but more so ours. In the past, Australia’s wealth came out of the ground – from mining, agriculture and property development. It used to be called “riding on the sheep’s back”. In the future, these industries will still be important, but increasingly the wealth of our nation will come out of our minds – from the skills and insights of the Australian people. We will need to ride on the back of our education system.

This means setting bold national targets for lifelong learning. Every infant child must be the beneficiary of reading programs, making them ready to learn as soon as they are ready for school – literacy and numeracy for five-year olds.

Every 10-year-old must be able to log onto the Internet and manage information. Every 14-year-old must find the courses and settings which excite their learning interests and give them a hunger for more education. Every 17-year-old must be ready to extend their education into post-secondary qualifications.

Every adult must be able to keep on learning for the rest of their lives. Every education and research institution must not only be resourced for success, but pressured to succeed. Every teacher must be at the peak of their professional expertise and rewarded accordingly.

These are the benchmarks of a creative and capable nation. Our future success depends on investing in all our people, not just the lucky few.

But education is not just a matter of accessing learning institutions. It is also a question of how we learn. How we manage information and make the best use of it.

The challenge for the education system is to draw out the learning interests and capabilities of all its students. To give them access to information. And to recognise that just as intelligence comes in many forms, learning also needs to be fostered in many ways.

Our starting point must be that every student is capable of achieving excellence. And our guiding philosophy must be to customise our teaching methods to the needs of every student. No student left behind. Equality and excellence through education – that’s something I want all Australians to be able to identify with.


A second source of national identity is our cultural diversity. We pride ourselves on being a multicultural society – one of the few nations on earth with ethnic diversity but without ingrained ethnic tensions or violence.

Our challenge now is to build on this success, to give new meaning and depth to our multicultural identity. Again, this is an area where the Australian people have moved on.

In the early stages of multiculturalism we spent a lot of time trying to prove our diversity and then celebrate it. This is still reflected in government policies and programs: multiculturalism as a celebration of diversity for diversity’s sake.

Most Australians no longer see the need to prove our ethnic diversity. They are too busy practising it and enjoying its benefits. They are already living a life of many cultures.

In the communities I visit, multiculturalism is alive. It’s in our schools, our streets, our news and entertainment, our way of thinking about the neighbourhood in which we live. It’s always evolving, always creating new connections between people and between cultures.

And this is the way it should be. If we treat multiculturalism as a static concept, as something frozen in time – each of us pigeon-holed into past habits and past identities – then inevitably, it will be a policy based more on difference than diversity. A policy that separates people from each other, rather than bringing them together to share each other’s cultures and the goals of a good society.

We shouldn’t assume that a person’s culture comes from a narrow set of attitudes and beliefs, that they are restricted to their nationality-of-origin or ethnic group. The reality is more complex and dynamic, with people picking and choosing from a range of cultural influences. This is true of many second-generation migrants. They do not necessarily see themselves as “Chinese Australians” or “Greek Australians” but rather, citizens with a range of interests and identities.

Government policies and definitions of multiculturalism need to catch up with this reality. They should not automatically treat nationality-of-origin as a marker of cultural identity. They should recognise that multiculturalism lies, not so much between individuals, but within them – the habit of living one’s life through many cultural habits.

This should be a unifying idea in Australia’s national identity – a new and realistic way of thinking about multiculturalism. In a diverse nation, social cohesion is as important as respect for difference. It provides the foundations by which people of different cultural backgrounds can interact and learn from each other. This is the key to national progress: our capacity to absorb the best of the world’s cultures and create a stronger Australia, built on the best of the things we already possess.

This is how I think of multiculturalism – a community of communities, bound together by our duty to respect the law, to recognise the Indigenous inhabitants of our continent, to understand our national language (English) and to learn from each other. As a nation, we have nothing left to prove in this regard. Our diversity speaks for itself. The challenge is to modernise our multicultural policies, to make them relevant to our multicultural identity.

Australian Sovereignty

There’s another issue on which the political class lags behind the Australian people, and that’s the question of Australian sovereignty. Part of our national maturity is knowing we can match it with the world’s best. The cringe has gone forever – economic, social and cultural.

The Australian character has always been independent and sceptical of authority. We are at our best as a nation when we play a questioning role, challenging the status quo and trying to deliver a fair go. Scepticism of this kind has served our democracy well. Politicians who try to take too much power into their own hands are quickly cut down to size.

One of our enduring challenges as a nation is to express these traits in our relationship with the rest of the world. We need to clearly assert Australia’s interests, using our reputation for openness and directness to good effect. I’m convinced that the Australian people want a more self-assured debate about our foreign policy and our constitutional independence.

They want to step forward and confidently express their point of view, rather than having the issues determined by the simplistic labels of the past. It is no longer sufficient to define ourselves through the prism of other nations. It is not a question of being pro- or anti-British or pro- or anti-American. The debate must be unequivocally pro-Australian.

This is what I mean by maturity – the self-confidence in our diplomacy to have a clear sense of Australia’s interests and stand by them. The Australian people have this sort of confidence. They are just waiting for a national government to match them.

As an Australian nationalist, I take offence at Mr Howard’s depiction of Australia as a deputy sheriff. If you truly love this country, if you truly believe in our national potential, you would always position Australia as an equal, never a deputy. You would never under-sell Australia’s role.

This is how I see our modern national identity: an equal place in the world, firmly committed to the US Alliance and the United Nations, but also actively engaged in the Asia-Pacific. An outward-looking and self-assured Australia, always an equal partner with other nations.

The same principle applies to our constitution. As an Australian nationalist, I want our Head of State to be one of us – an Australian citizen.

When young Australians study hard at school and aspire to important jobs in the future, I want them to know that every position in this country is within their reach, including our Head of State. This is one of the basic tests of Australian independence.

I believe the 1999 Republican referendum was lost because the political class got in the way. Too many people felt left out of the process for there to be public confidence in the model on offer. This is why Labor plans to recommence the process of creating an Australian Republic – and hand it over to the people themselves. After all, this is the true republican ideal.

In government this will involve a three-stage process. An initial plebiscite will ask the threshold question: do we want to become a republic? If the majority answers Yes, a second plebiscite will ask about the most appropriate model. The people’s choice will then be put to a formal referendum.

No constitutional conventions. No control by the politicians. No veto for the powerful. Instead, real democratic trust in the judgement of the Australian people.

This type of Republic will provide a powerful statement of Australian independence, in which the people themselves are sovereign. It will be an important addition to our national pride and identity.

Australian Equality

My fourth and final area of national identity is perhaps the most characteristic and unifying of all Australia’s traits: our egalitarianism.

Since the early 1990s, the debate about what our nation stands for has been mainly about symbols; particularly the ‘three Rs’ – reconciliation, the republic and refugees. Instead of being symbols of national unity – as originally conceived – lately these ‘3 Rs’ have been used to divide us. To get us squabbling amongst each other instead of looking at our government and asking what’s happened to our real values – Australian mateship and opportunity for all.

At a time when many Australians worry that our society has become too individualised and too commercialised, we need to preserve Australia’s egalitarian values. We need to take the best of our past – the social habits of mateship – and ensure that all Australians, no matter their gender, race or creed, are cared for in the future.

The institution of mateship reflects both the good and the bad in Australian history. It was forged out of social necessity, part of the way in which the colony was settled. Small groups of men worked together on the Australian frontier, learning to rely on each other and look out for each other’s interests.

Mateship remains an endearing part of the Australian character. It is the social habit by which Australians take each other at face value, irrespective of family and class. From mixing together as equals, mates work on the assumption that ‘Jack is as good as his master’. They know the value of the fair go and shared responsibility.

Traditionally, mateship was an exclusive institution, limited to white men only. It provided equality within the mateship group, but left out the rest of society. Today our challenge is to extend the principles of mateship and equality to all Australians. This is already happening among younger generations, breaking down the barriers of gender and race.

Labor wants to add to this process, widening the mateship circle – all Australians on the ladder of opportunity. Often this requires extra assistance for people and groups excluded in the past:

  • Equal rights and opportunities for women: quality child care, our Baby Care Payment and no weakening of the Sex Discrimination Act.
  • Genuine reconciliation with Indigenous Australia: a new effort against Aboriginal poverty and an apology for the Stolen Generations.
  • And respect for difference in our society: fairer treatment of same-sex couples. And the type of modern, multicultural society I mentioned earlier.

To give our egalitarian values new meaning and relevance, we need to reach out to all Australians. That’s the type of society Labor believes in: the fair go ethos, not just for some, but for all. And in my experience, it’s a belief shared by the Australian people themselves.

Since becoming Federal Labor Leader, I’ve been moving around this vast country, trying to talk directly to as many people as I can. Let me tell you what I’ve found.

People haven’t been coming up to me asking to give them hundred dollar notes. They’ve been urging me to invest in others. Their hospitals and dental services. Their neighbourhood schools. Their environment. Getting our young people off drugs and into training and jobs. Decent support for the aged and disabled.

These Australians know from personal experience that their mates and neighbours are doing it tough. They know we’re on the way to becoming a permanently two-tiered society. And they know that the argument governments make for not changing course – that there is no alternative – is false. They know there is a better and fairer way of running our society.

Of course, people also want rising living standards, fairer taxes and greater economic incentive. That’s natural and proper. But overwhelmingly, what comes across to me is that Australians are a caring and warm-hearted people.

We like the idea of the common good. We’re uneasy feeling like a country of competing interests, one getting momentarily ahead at the expense of the other. Honesty matters to us. We tell it like it is. We understand the importance of character. And while we sometimes lapse into prejudice, we do so with a knowing sense of regret because we know that we’re better than that.

It’s this egalitarian and straight-talking spirit that we need to project if our nation is to harvest its full potential. The Australian people are willing. They just need the national leadership and policies to make it possible. For me, that’s our authentic national identity: an Australia forever young and forever fair.


As a nation, our identity and values matter. They underpin our patriotism and sense of belonging. And we should never hesitate to talk about them – a public dialogue on national identity.

In the past we haven’t done enough of this. It’s part of the Australian style: we’re not always comfortable talking about ourselves. Yet we have a great story to tell the rest of the world and we should do more of it.

It’s the story of a people with a uniquely democratic temper – a habit of mind that is creative, inclusive, fiercely independent and egalitarian. A democratic attitude that believes in opportunity for all as the starting point for all our national policies. A true social democracy, without doctrine.

This democratic temper has served us well in the past. And in it, I believe, lies the best hope for our future. With our population of only 20 million people, we can’t look to the practices and values of other nations with 60, 200 or 400 million people to provide models for us – culturally or economically. Only by including everyone in our national story and proudly asserting who we are and what we believe, can we generate security and opportunity for our people in the 21st Century.

But before this future can be assured, we need one important ingredient – a government that reflects the values and best instincts of its people. That’s my goal – to give this country a government every bit as big and warm hearted as the Australian people themselves. A Government as big and generous as the country we love. That’s what I hope to achieve through the election of an Australian Labor Government.

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Malcolm Farnsworth
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