When a teacher asked me recently to give this speech, though honoured and excited, I was also daunted – I don’t think I could have been presented with a harder question to answer than ‘what does it mean to be a young Australian?’ A family friend told me that he has been trying to answer this question for 50 years.
I am limited in my ability to answer this question in one particularly important way: my lack of experience of being a young person in any place other than Australia. But in trying to get a grip on this issue without ever having been able to look at it from another perspective, I hope I will be able to remind some of you, and inform others, of what young Australians like myself do value about Australia, and how we would like to see Australia change in the future.
Some have suggested that expressing a love of one’s country is a step towards fascism, but I think we should foster a ‘critical patriotism’, because we care enough about Australia to be vigilant about the good things we may be losing.
How to distinguish between my ideas of what it means to be young and what it means to be a young Australian? The ideas are entwined because I think to be young anywhere is to be young – even with the different responsibilities and rights that exist around the world. I could be young anywhere. The point, then, is that there is something about being a young person in Australia that is different from being a young person anywhere else in the world.
The second difficulty is distinguishing between being a young Australian and simply being Australian. What our youth confers is sometimes a different understanding and interpretation of the same situation and, undoubtedly, a different outlook on the future.
Something that Australia constantly reminds me of, through my experience of bushwalking and generally enjoying the outdoors, is how small and vulnerable we humans are. To forget that is to be arrogant about our past, neglectful of the way our culture has responded to the pressures of the physical world we live in, and to remember it is to keep a check on any ideas of superiority or omnipotence. This land is also a powerful connection to Australia’s Indigenous people and culture and we should never forget that.
|Peter Nicholson at The Australian|
As young Australians, our views on contemporary issues are shaped by the history we know, that is recent to us – and so a very different set of social issues and events have moulded the way we think and view the world. My grandparents were conditioned by the Great Depression and two World Wars, while my parents were young Australians during the Vietnam War, decolonisation and in a time which marked the end of some forms of racial and sexual discrimination.
My background illuminates my view of what it means to be a young Australian: I have had a very fortunate life; a wonderful family, and a community – Canberra – in which I have been able to try all sorts of things. To me, living in Australia has meant being provided with a lot of good things, and being surrounded by older and younger people I find inspiring.
Clearly, there is something good about Australia, and something good about being a young Australian, if I feel this way about my life. However, I can speak only for myself. I wish all young Australians could say the same thing about where they live, but that is not the case.
Australians, young and old, do face poverty and hardship, and they do not have the access to opportunities that some Australians have. The geography of Australia is in part a factor in this, but we cannot rely on it as an excuse: we have a responsibility to those Australians whose lives are very hard, who are poor, and who have terrible health problems.
Among young Australians I know there is a feeling that we want to do good things and go to places. As young Australians, we accept and expect that there will be young people in our lives who are from many different countries, who all have the right to call themselves Australians. We are oblivious to ‘racial’ differences – whatever race is – but respectful of cultural differences.
We want to not just be tolerant, because tolerance can be grudgingly given, but for all our actions to be informed by openness to new ideas. However, I do not believe this should just be a characteristic of youth.
I don’t have a full appreciation of the forces that have shaped contemporary public opinion. What my perspective does offer me is the idea that humanity and compassion are common, global characteristics – not a soft alternative consideration in ‘real’ politics, but an important aspect of the decisions we make, because living in support of shared humanity means living in support of life itself.
In contemporary Australia, this idea is supremely relevant to the issue of asylum seekers and refugees. Australia’s treatment of other human beings has been one of the few things to make me truly ashamed of the country I come from, and the criticism that has been expressed by many people should be a clear indication that Australians are concerned about Australia, critically assessing what will continue to make it a good country.
Some people are fearful that Australia will lose something of its essential nature by extending its curiosity and interest into the affairs of the world, and bringing new ideas, experiences and customs back to this country. I don’t think this is the case. People have such differing ideas the world over, such different histories and interests, that there is not a danger that Australia will become just like any other country. To accept that idea would be to accept fear of difference, and, as I have explained, a fearlessness of difference is a crucial part of being a young Australian today.
So what I have been able to tell you this evening is that young Australians are lucky to exploit the opportunities that Australia offers. Furthermore, I have described the way that young Australians are hopeful about the future, while nevertheless anxious that some aspects of the country in which they live should change. Not such a different description to what a young Canadian or Scot or Indian might give. And that is the most important point of all: as young people, growing up in the freedom Australia offers, we feel confident and safe enough to identify firstly as young people, subscribing to all the idealism of youth, and secondly as young Australians.
As Sir William Deane eloquently and compassionately said on the event of the canyoning tragedy in Switzerland in 1999, ‘The young people all shared the spirit of adventure, the joy of living, the exuberance and the delight of youth.’ Spirit, joy, exuberance, and delight should be possible for all young Australians.
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