So Much More Than Pickpockets And Scurvy

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It’s that time of year again. The time when Australians of all ages, and a reasonable cross section of creeds and colours, come together to celebrate and commemorate and listen to "We Are Australian" about a thousand times, proving that even normally sane, reasonable adults will happily sing along to the worst song ever written if they’re under the spell of patriotism.

Australia Day gives us all a chance to reflect on just what it means to be Australian, which is why every year we drink as much beer as possible in order to avoid thinking about the subject. However, a serious journalist has a responsibility to tackle the weighty and the dull, and in the absence of anything much happening in the rest of the world this week, it falls to me.

The 26th of January, of course, marks the anniversary of the landing of the First Fleet in 1788, when Captain Arthur Phillip arrived with nothing but 11 ships and a dream: a dream that he would, on this golden soil, establish a penal colony where Britain’s most unpleasant criminals could die well away from civilised society. And for the last 221 years, generations of Australians have worked to keep that dream alive. Even today, Australia ranks number one in international surveys of preferred places to send one’s worst enemies.

It was a harsh beginning for our nation, but in the years since, most people would agree, Australia has grown and blossomed and these days has much more to offer than pickpockets and scurvy. These days it is indeed, in the immortal words of Dorothea Mackellar, "a land".

And the land has so much to offer. From the rugged mountains of the Great Dividing Range, to the rugged desert of the red centre; from the rugged rainforests of north Queensland, to the rugged face of Bryan Brown, Australia is certainly the "place to be" for those who enjoy landscapes and shark bites.

But despite all our natural advantages, our sparkling seas and gorgeous beaches and stunning open-cut mines, still we, the people inhabiting this island of marvels, find ourselves questioning just what it means to be Australian.

What makes an Australian? Is it simply an accident of birth and geography? Surely not. No Australian would ever say that he or she was special purely due to the location they happened to be born in. No, there is more to being an Australian — a certain spirit that dwells in us all, something deep inside that says, "I am not French or Chinese or Mexican — I am something far better".

It’s in search of that elusive something that we spend our lives, forever looking for a way to sum up the experience of Australianness in a neat little package, like England with The Bill, or America with guns. To be able to finish the sentence "Being Australian is…" is the most fervent hope of Australians across the country. Many other sentences we have been able to finish easily — "Everybody needs good Neighbours," for example, or "Muslims out" — but that one Unified Field Theory of Aussie continues to elude us, like an asylum seeker eluding justice.

Perhaps a look at some great Australians can give us a clue as to what makes one. Think of the great Australians: Don Bradman; Weary Dunlop; Robert Menzies. They all have one thing in common: they are dead. So death certainly has a part to play — look at how much greater an Australian Steve Irwin has become since dying.

What other ingredients go into this marvellous cake we call Aussie? Certainly, sport is part of it. No Australian worth his salt grows up without learning to swing the willow, kick the leather, and spit in public.

Also, alcohol is involved — you simply cannot get a grasp on what it means to be Australian until you’ve gone down the pub for a few "frothies", until you’ve shown you can handle a few "cold ones", until you’ve staggered into the "street" and vomited on a "policeman", until you’ve gotten "shitfaced" and beaten your "wife". If sport is the heartbeat of Australian society, then alcohol is the plasma.

Also inherent to the Australian character is a unique way of relating to other cultures, a sort of cocky arrogance blended with aggressive superiority, our natural insularity balanced by a certain magnanimous xenophobia. This attitude to the outside world, the distinctive fusion of patriotic hatred with nationalistic rancour, has been mistaken by the ignorant for racism, but nothing could be further from the truth, unless the ignorant were to say something like, "Australia isn’t awesome".

Is it racist to love your country? Is it racist to take pride in its achievements? Is it racist to want to keep out undesirables? Is it racist to bash up Indian taxi drivers? Is it racist to consider other races to be inferior to your own? Please. To use perhaps the most quintessentially Australian saying of them all, this kind of talk is political correctness gone mad.

No, being an Australian is not about racism. And it’s not about the outback, or the beach, or Bill Hunter. These are all involved, but they’re not at the heart of it. What is? It’s hard to say, my fellow Australians, it’s hard to say. All I can tell you is what it means to me to be Australian, and hope that perhaps, in some small way, you will realise that I am right.

Because to me, being Australian is about many things.

It’s about mateship. Not friendship, that’s what foreigners have, and it’s vastly inferior. Mateship is different, not least in its spelling. And it’s the most beautiful thing in the world.

Being Australian is about larrikinism. It’s about the spark of rebellion, the hatred of authority. It’s about the Eureka spirit, about rising up against the powers that be and demanding they institute longer sentences for protesters.

Being Australian is about courage. It’s about the spirit of the Anzacs, about shedding blood for your country. It’s about standing up for your values, about defending freedom, about being willing, even when things are at their worst, to write a letter to the editor about how brave John Howard was.

Being Australian is about dreams. Dreams of hope, and liberty, and prosperity, and of a time when every day of the year will have its own arts festival.

Most of all, being Australian is about looking around Australia, and seeing the crime, and the violence, and the dishonesty, and the conflict, and the misery, and being willing to tell the truth: "That’s un-Australian!"

So in the end, being Australian is really pretty easy.

New Matilda

New Matilda is independent journalism at its finest. The site has been publishing intelligent coverage of Australian and international politics, media and culture since 2004.

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