What's in a Word?


Last week was an extraordinary one in Australian politics – arguably the most eventful for 30 years. Amid the hullabaloo surrounding the announcement of the threat of an imminent but strangely unspecified terrorist attack on Australian soil (an attack that has this week become all-to specific), and the ejection of 11 Opposition MPs during a fiery debate on the government’s IR changes, one word kept popping up on both sides.

It’s a word that’s regained significant political capital in recent years and entered the popular lexicon in relation to everything from vegetarianism to deeply held religious belief. It’s occasionally a source of humour, but more often a cause of division. The word is ‘un-Australian’, and it’s become the ultimate verbal weapon in Australia’s culture wars.

Thanks to Sean Leahy

Thanks to Sean Leahy

Calling something or someone un-Australian is an example of attack as the best form of defence. The only response if one is accused of being un-Australian is to deny it – the ‘am NOT!’ answer you gave the schoolyard bully who sneered that you were smelly or dirty or a teacher’s pet while the other kids looked on and laughed. Rational argument against the accusation is impossible, since we have no hard and fast definition of what it is to be Australian in the first place.

Politicians on both sides of any argument know this, and both use the accusation, often in contradictory ways. Perhaps the clearest example is its use in the industrial relations debate. During the Melbourne waterfront crisis of 1998, striking wharf workers were accused of ‘un-Australian’ behaviour by Prime Minister John Howard, reflecting a precedent set in 1925 when Stanley Bruce labelled seamen on strike for better conditions with the pejorative term.

At the same time, the action of Patrick Stevedores, in training ‘scab’ workers to replace their unionised workforce after it was sacked en masse, was branded with the same word by the union movement. The right to protest and to go on strike was seen by one side as an intrinsically Australian value; by the other, it was regarded as being damaging to the economy and, thus, against the national interest.

Reviving this sentiment last week, Bob Hawke, an inveterate and inventive user of the term in political debate, threw a verbal grenade into the IR debate when he labelled Howard’s proposed changes ‘wrong unfair un-Australian immoral’. Hawke’s no fool and, despite the over-use of the term and its meaninglessness in any qualitative sense, his application of the word drew on a long tradition of enshrining the ‘fair go’ and the rights of the worker in Australian law that goes back, beyond the Harvester judgement of 1907, to the earliest battles between Australia’s colonial rulers and its free immigrants and emancipated convict classes.

On the same day as Hawke’s comments, the Prime Minister himself was accused of being un-Australian for trying to bury the contentious counter-terrorism laws from public scrutiny by introducing them on Melbourne Cup Day. Howard’s response to this was extraordinary, and faintly amusing for anyone who has kept track of his own profligate use of the term over recent years.

Yet to suggest that it was un-Australian to propose such significant changes to our civil liberties on a day when Australians traditionally watch ‘the race that stops a nation’ was apparently beyond the pale for Howard. ‘I think the word un-Australian is used too indiscriminately by people who disagree with what somebody else is saying or doing’ he said:

I think we should treat the description of our country and our national identity with a bit more common sense than often is the case in political debate and comment. It’s not an expression I would use carelessly and I think people who want to criticise the Government should find a rather more appropriate, a rather more genuine expression than that.

This from the man who, according to Media Monitors, was the source of almost 30% of all mentions of the term un-Australian in major metropolitan newspapers in 2004. This from the man who has used the word perhaps more often than any other politician in our history: for example, to campaign against Hawke’s national identity card in the mid-1980s, to describe protesters at the World Economic Forum in Melbourne in 2000, and most recently, in reference to anyone opposed to Australia’s involvement in the war in Iraq. It’s particularly un-Australian, according to Howard, to suggest Australia ‘sit on the sidelines’ of such an action or, once involved, to ‘cut and run’ from the quagmire.

If these are not ‘careless’ utterances, may we assume that only the PM knows what it is to be Australian? Is Australia, then, just an economy with a military wing, rather than a nation or a community of people?

Howard’s right about one thing. Whichever political position you agree with, calling someone or something un-Australian is not a useful or illuminating argument. It’s usually the word you resort to when you’ve run out of ideas, when there’s no common ground between you and your opponent, when you want to shut down the debate, when you want to win. It’s what increasingly makes so many Australians of non-English speaking or indigenous backgrounds feel ostracised and marginalised. It’s exclusionary, jingoistic, divisive and sneeringly superior – and none of those things should be part of what it is to be Australian.

This is an edited extract of Emma Dawson’s paper for the OzProspect/The Age public affairs forum held at the State Library of Victoria on Tuesday 8 November.

Launched in 2004, New Matilda is one of Australia's oldest online independent publications. It's focus is on investigative journalism and analysis, with occasional smart arsery thrown in for reasons of sanity. New Matilda is owned and edited by Walkley Award and Human Rights Award winning journalist Chris Graham.