It is certainly a sign of collective maturity that we as a people have grown cautious of the notion of Nationalism. Whilst a relatively new concept by historical standards Nationalism is the dangerous idea that the Nation State as an entity holds some innate value beyond the sum of its parts and that demands allegiance to a dogma, free from critical evaluation.
It is fair to ask then, as we collectively gather to celebrate a national day, are we in fact engaging in an anachronistic practice of Nationalism by waving our flags and worshiping the imagined reality of the country we happen to find ourselves inhabiting?
To those that may suggest this I will first congratulate you on your caution, you have strong historical cause to be vigilant. Nationalism has rarely served the cause of peace and is too often utilised as a thinly veiled banner from which racists advance their sad causes. However I sincerely sense there is something different about Australia Day.
We exist in a culture of perpetual self-criticism. Far from worshipping nationalist leaders we treat our politicians with contempt, their motives with suspicion, and the institutions through which they exist with cynicism. Our media is keen to tap into the market of outrage by highlighting any failing in our nation’s operations. Our culture is one of ‘cringe’, and our humour is quick to place ourselves as the butt of the joke.
None of these facets of our national character are something I am endeavouring to alter in any way. These are the characteristics of a mature society more concerned in how it can improve that wallowing in self-glorification.
We have made a point to teach our children not to idolise the actors in our Nation’s history but instead encourage them to learn from our collective mistakes. Because of this we have a generation of Australians quick to identify the possibility of fault in our current practices. It explains the current climate of trepidation in celebrating a Nation that has consistently played host to cultural genocide and institutionalised racism throughout its limited years.
Again, I don’t seek to discourage this. It has served us well. However I do believe there is merit in pausing, if only for one day, and reflecting on what is great about this country and what we should celebrate.
Australia’s story is an unlikely one. We were unromantically ignored by European powers for centuries until the English finally utilised this land for a far from glorious purpose. For the first two centuries there was little acknowledgement of the unrivalled history of an indigenous population that had survived as a collective for around 50,000 years, a culture that was all but extinguished by European settlement. Yet upon our initial conception as a European colony, this continent inherited the institutions of the most democratic empire in the world at the time.
Whilst we immediately associate the British Empire with monarchy and subjugation, the reality is the slowly evolving mechanisms of governance in that small island was slowly developing unrivalled levels of democratisation. By an accident of history, the demographics of the small population introduced to initiate the fledgling economy of New South Wales, and the fact the indigenous population were in no mood to find themselves enslaved in the manner of their native counterparts in South America, this larger island too was forced to adopt increasingly democratised values to ensure its viability.
We don’t imagine that these accidents of history are somehow a manifest destiny of the Australian state. We could have so easily ended up like the colonies of the Caribbean, dependent on slave labour and thus perpetuating a political system of inequality. We could have ended up like any number of South American nations in which absolutist Spain merely ransacked the spoils of conquest and brought it back to the kingdom to enrich a minuscule elite. But this didn’t happen. By little more than historical accident, we were on a path to stable and equal democracy.
Our path to where we are today is ultimately remarkable in its unremarkable-ness. No civil wars, no war of independence, no real era of national disaster. Yet here we are, almost through no deed of our own, sitting as one of the most envied countries in the world. What makes us envied?
Let’s start with the basics. Out of the 196 (give or take) countries in the world; Australia has the 17th highest GDP per Capita; the 8th highest average wage; and the highest minimum wage in the world. So we’re all doing pretty well! This is no accident; this spread of wealth is a direct result of our inclusive political system that ensures the treasures of this country are not only enjoyed by our elite.
According to the Economist we are ranked 10th in the world on the ‘Democracy Index’ whilst the United Nations Human Development Index ranks Australia as the second most developed country on Earth! (second only to Norway for those who were wondering).
But what do we have that Norway doesn’t? Culture… yes I said it… a lot of culture from every corner of the planet. Not only do we proudly host the oldest culture on Earth but we are also one of the most ethnically diverse and multicultural nations on the planet (some people say the most… depends who you ask). At least a quarter of our population are migrants from every imaginable corner of the planet, yet unlike so many countries that experience almost unbearable social friction and conflict with their diversity, we somehow make this all work. Yes there are racists, in a country of 25 million it’s hard to avoid it, but we are undeniably one the greatest examples of a successful and cohesive multi-cultural society on this planet.
We have the 4th highest life expectancy in the world, ranked 5th in the economic freedom index, 2nd in the UNDP Education Index, and 13th in the Corruption Perception Index. Needless to say when any NGO or academic group tries to piece together a ranking of countries by quality of life Australia is usually in the top 5 or thereabouts.
Add on to this all the things that we immediately love about the country that can’t be measured; our landscape, our sporting culture, our sense of humour, even our weather. Australia is a bloody fantastic place to live.
The indigenous story is certainly one tainted by tragedy and they have undeniably been starved of the full benefits of this nation’s wealth. However despite immeasurable historical hardship and dispossession, the indigenous story is one of increasing pride, new found identity, and optimism. We as a nation have identified the immense inequality that has befallen this element of our population (roughly 2% of the nation) and whilst the pathway to making up for the mistakes of the past is long and unclear, we generally appear to have a collective will to make this journey together.
What you will notice from this abbreviated list of what makes this country great is that nothing I have presented here is an inevitable result of our history. There is nothing about being born in this country that has given me an innate capacity for wealth and democracy. We don’t suggest that Australia exists with some pre-determined right to any of these achievements and nor that they are even necessarily our inherited birth right. To do so would indeed by the hallmarks of the nationalism we so rightfully fear.
What we do is recognise that there are certain tangible reasons to say this country is actually great. They are not inevitable and have been inherited by chance. We celebrate how lucky, that in a world of almost 8 billion people, a small handful of us have found ourselves, through various avenues, living on this island that offers such unparalleled good fortune.
I am not great because I am Australian, but I am immensely grateful that I am Australian. Australia Day is not about pretending we don’t have problems or haven’t made mistakes, it’s about acknowledging all the things we got right. By celebrating our democracy, our multiculturalism, and our inclusive society, we take a step to ensuring these facets are cherished and preserved. These aren’t values I was born with and they are values that can be shared by anyone who comes here, however as we look around the world today we must accept these values are not universal.
So please let us have this one day where we celebrate how lucky we are, one day where we seek to highlight the things that are great about living in Australia, one day where the focus is on how successful this island nation has been. Because if we fail to acknowledge what is great about this country then we risk losing sight of what we want to continue to be, and if we don’t pause to recognise the actual reasons why this country is great then we risk being apathetic to their demise.
So once the fireworks has cleared the sky and the left over sausages are leveraged of the now cold BBQ plate, we can go back to being that country that humbly focusses on its short comings and failures, but for one day it is important to realise that some things are worth celebrating.