There’s been a lot of hostility among progressives to the resurgent interest in national values and citizenship. The consensus seems to be that ‘Australian values’ is merely a dog whistle, if not a foghorn, for intolerance and cultural exclusion.
However, we would be making a mistake if we believe the current debate should be foremost a warning about the dangers and absurdity of nationalism. Progressives (and I would consider myself as one) should appreciate that talk about national values needn’t amount to incoherent or jingoistic populism.
There’s nothing inherently nasty about Australian values, at least there shouldn’t be. To be sure, there are some who believe they can judge who are authentic Aussies and who aren’t. As a migrant myself of Asian extraction, I’ve experienced occasions in my hometown of Sydney where I’ve been made to feel I don’t belong. I’ve been called names and been told to ‘go home.’ And I’m sure there are many who’d still consider me as someone who’s not a ‘real’ Aussie. So I can understand the concern. But this doesn’t mean we should therefore abandon all talk of Australianness.
We should avoid thinking that Australian values mean ‘Whiteness’ inaccessible to those who don’t sport golden locks or speak with a broad twang. At a personal level, I can recall the many heated arguments I had during the late 1990s, when I tried to convince many of my Anglo friends that Pauline Hanson’s politics didn’t give a ‘fair go’ to certain minorities.
Properly understood, Australian values can speak to, and on behalf of, all of us.
Thanks to Sharyn Raggett
Let’s be clear about what exactly we mean when we appeal to Australian values and advocate integration. At a very basic level, at issue is the meaning of a national culture. When we speak of integration, most of us mean that diverse groups should be absorbed into a common, national culture based on the shared experiences, traditions, and commitments of a historic community.
For those suspicious of nationalism, it’s here that the idea of integration supposedly begins collapsing into cultural assimilation. But the concept of a national culture doesn’t have to be a monolithic ideal that insists on a White Australia as the only Real Australia.
Much of the confusion can be eliminated if we distinguish between the ‘private’ and ‘public’ dimensions of national culture. Where there’s concern about integration stifling multiculturalism, it’s when national culture is understood in terms of a ‘private’ culture, defined by lifestyle, shared tastes and social customs. It’s a fear heightened by how reference to a common culture often focuses on things which exclude many non-Anglo Australians.
But Australianness needn’t refer only to a passion for sport, a special preference for Akubras, and an enthusiasm for barbeques. Not every Australian shares an affection for such things.
Indeed a national culture is broad enough to encompass a variety of ‘private’ ones. Within certain limits, it can include a range of cultures based around different ethnicities and religious commitments. All national cultures are internally pluralistic. Diversity and national identity are not competing values.
A mature understanding of Australian values should appreciate their most meaningful expressions come in the form of a ‘public’ culture the beliefs and attitudes that underpin the public character of the national community. Civic values like a belief in the rule of law, equality, fairness, and parliamentary democracy are just as much Australian values. It’s the bonds of citizenship that define our solidarity.
What makes these things ‘Australian’ (and not just generic liberal democratic values) is they are filtered and negotiated through the debates that comprise our national conversation. They are realised in the public institutions that are the achievements of our community through time. Even the most abstract of civic values are coloured by our historical experiences and our own distinctive language. Just look at the way we understand equality and solidarity through the lens of a ‘fair go’ and ‘mateship,’ two of the most powerful and potentially unifying evocations of Australian values.
So while many of us are right to be concerned about intolerance, we shouldn’t reject the notion of national values altogether. It’s not a question of whether we should do away with nationalism, but what kind of nationalism is most appropriate.
Understood in terms of a civic, liberal nationalism, the idea of Australian values doesn’t spiral into a nasty form of chauvinism. More than anything, it offers us the best language for understanding each other as fellow citizens and members of a national community from diverse backgrounds and with our differences, perhaps, but ultimately Australians.
There’s nothing ugly about that.
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