A Very ‘UnAustralian’ Story About The Origins Of Being ‘UnAustralian’


Tuesday marks Australia Day, when we stream down to the beach or the pub. We slip, slop, slap and slurp. There are barbecues with harbour views, and the cloudless sky echoes with 80’s rock and the sound of leather on willow.

But it’s not all smiles and sunshine on January 26. There are many voices of discontent. The are some who disapprove of the day’s name, or the nationalistic manner in which it is celebrated. But the loudest and most valid among this chorus are the First Peoples, for whom 26 January is Invasion Day or Survival Day.

Most Australians tend to treat these opinions like someone who declines a proffered coldie, with raised eyebrows and suspicion. They think it’s ridiculous. In fact, you know what, it’s bloody unAustralian!

Ah, the ‘un’ word. Where did this peculiar term originate?

The very Australian Macquarie Dictionary notes the first use of ‘unAustralian’ in 1855, but back then it was only used to describe the character of art, or the landscape rather than the character of an individual.

Its current usage as personal invective owes a debt to the word made notorious in 1950’s USA, when the House Un-American Activities Committee engaged in its Communist witch-hunt.

The one person most responsible for turning ‘unAustralian’ from a simple description into a derogatory accusation is former Prime Minister John Howard. He used it regularly as a rhetorical device against his political opponents. Yet Howard himself is tainted by one of the most heinous unAustralian flaws known.

He is unable to bowl a cricket ball.

Here are a few recent examples of the different contexts in which the word has been used:

So why are these attributes considered unAustralian when all of them (including the last one about not liking an iconic food) are considered wrong in any country? And if the term ‘unAustralian’ is being used so often, is it a sign that these particular deeds are commonplace? Is it unAustralian to coward-punch? Is it unAustralian to racially abuse someone?

Well, the answer is no. Those actions are wrong, grievously so, but it would be ludicrous to call them unAustralian acts when there are constant instances of Australians doing these things. Disturbingly many of them.

But compensating beautifully for those who will be acting in a so-called unAustralian manner on Australia Day will be a larger group actually becoming Australians. Citizenship ceremonies will be held across the country. Tens of thousands of people, young and old, will proudly swear the Pledge of Commitment. Their duties as Australians will be to obey the law; pay tax; defend Australia should the need arise; enrol to vote; and serve on a jury if called upon.

Noting this, perhaps a legal argument could be raised to unAustralianise anyone who fails to uphold one or more of these duties.

Driving over the speed limit or not stopping at a red light? UnAustralian.

Not listing that second part-time job on your tax return? UnAustralian.

Seriously – if we were to revoke the citizenship of every person who has ever done or said something deemed to be unAustralian, then there will be less Aussies left standing than there are Twelve Apostles (of which there are only eight remaining, in case you’ve been too unAustralian to visit them recently).

Indeed, even I, born, bred and bronzed here, would have to join the ranks of the unAustralians. For, far worse, it seems, than disobeying the Australian law is the heresy of disobeying the high priest of citizenship matters, Sam Kekovich.

On behalf of Meat and Livestock Australia, he decrees that it’s unAustralian not to consume lamb on our national day.

Well, Mr Kekovich, I’m a vegetarian so I guess I’d better surrender my passport and be deported.

So today, as you barbecue your lamb chops, spare a moment to wave your tongs at me as I fly overhead, destination unknown, and then consider the fact that the concept of unAustralianism is irrelevant and laughable.

What really matters is whether or not we are kind and caring toward each other, not just today but every day.

Even toward those who can’t bowl a cricket ball.


Maurits Zwankhuizen is a freelance writer based in Canberra in the ACT.