A new form of nationalism has emerged on the Australian Left. It is a nationalism that centres the perspectives, histories, spirituality and cultures of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in Australia’s national identity. This new form of nationalism was very much on display as new Labor, Teal and Greens members of parliament made their first speeches for the new parliamentary term.
This essay appears in the latest Quadrant.
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Rather than trying to balance Aboriginal perspectives with more traditional conceptions of Australian identity, many progressive new members simply ignored any positive aspects of the Anglo-European contribution to Australia. In general, the narrative seems to go something like this:
For 65,000 years, the Australian continent was home to a rich and enduring culture. This culture provided the continent with its first scientists, doctors, artists and astronomers. Therefore, this culture’s perspectives on every issue must be given particular weight.
This enduring culture was then suppressed by British colonisation and the period from 1788 to approximately 1972 is one of great darkness.
Finally, in the 1970s, the Whitlam government ended immigration restrictions and implemented multiculturalism. Now, a more diverse nation allows the country to redeem (just a little) the sins of its past.
In this framing, the unique role of Anglo-Celtic or British Australians in building, settling, farming, constitution-making, fighting and defending the Australian continent is ignored. In this narrative, Anglo-European Australia is something of which we are to be ashamed. It constitutes a darkness bound on either side by the lightness of indigenous Australia and multiculturalism.
While thirty-five new MPs were elected to the forty-seventh Commonwealth Parliament, I have selected a few each from the groups that broadly can be seen as constituting the progressive sectors of Australian politics.
The new Member for Reid, Labor’s Sally Sitou, began with the obligatory acknowledgment of country: “I stand here on the land of the Ngunnawal and Ngambri people, and I represent an area that is the land of the Wangal people.”
Not a single first speech from the progressives began in any other way. It seems that every event, be it a speech in parliament or a game at a sports stadium, must now open with a ritual acknowledgment or welcome, no matter how frequent these events might be. What began as small acknowledgments at occasional events of significance has become ubiquitous in Australian life. This has happened slowly and with little discussion. It’s assumed that those who criticise these practices are engaged in a culture war, but there has never been a debate about incorporating Aboriginal symbols and ceremonies into Australian public life.
Sitou (right) then endorsed the incorporation of the “voice” of indigenous Australians into the Constitution (“enshrine their voice in our Constitution”). This call was echoed after the acknowledgments of country of all three Teals and Labor members covered in this article.
Sitou concluded the opening section of her speech with a bold assertion of the new progressive nationalism: “When I acknowledge country, I’m reminded that I am but a small addition to a long and continuing history. I am a custodian for the present so that future generations may also care for this country.”
In this framing, modern Australians can join in and participate in the continuing culture of indigenous peoples. However, it is not clear that it’s acceptable for non-indigenous people in Australia to claim indigenous culture as their own. For Sitou, though, that’s just what a good Australian does.
Sitou then jumps to the dismantling of White Australia and how it enabled the welcome of her family into the country. At no stage in her speech is there an appreciation for the democratic culture and society that developed in Australia from 1788 to 1972. In the new progressive nationalism, this foundation stone is never to be honoured.
The Member for Swan, Zaneta Mascarenhas, initiated her first speech by proclaiming, “It’s astounding that we have the oldest continuous culture right here. Australia’s connection to country, family and knowledge will be critical to help us navigate our future.” Mascarenhas (left) seemed to be suggesting that Australia’s future is intimately tied to harnessing the knowledge of indigenous peoples. This may or may not be the case, but whether the customs of the British foundation of the Australian state might also provide a pathway forward seems unimaginable.
Like Sitou, Mascarenhas jumps to a condemnation of Australia’s twentieth-century immigration regime: “When my Goan Indian parents went to the embassy in Kenya they said to my dad: ‘You have the right skills, but you’re the wrong colour.’ This situation, of course, was because we still had the White Australia policy in place.”
While Mascarenahas has every right to celebrate the White Australia policy’s downfall, she seems uninterested in the culture that formed a nation so many people like her parents have desired to come to. Since we have only recently started to “listen” to indigenous perspectives, might it be possible that there was something good and noble in the foundations of Anglo-European Australia?
Finally, the new member for the wealthy denizens of Higgins, Dr Michelle Ananda-Rajah (right), ascribed insights to indigenous Australians that are unknown to the rest of us:
Self-interest is out, and the national interest is in, but it’s planetary and interspecies interests that are trending. Our First Nations people have known this for eons.
Western imperialism and capitalism are responsible for the potential destruction of our planet. Only listening to First Nations can save us—that seems to be the theme.
For these MPs, to be a good Australian patriot in 2022 means celebrating indigeneity and multiculturalism. The development of the Australian nation from 1788 onwards can only be mentioned if one condemns it. Strangely, these three new Labor MPs seem uninterested in their party’s English and Irish radical origins. This is a pity, because the trade union movement and its achievements are a positive legacy of Western civilisation in Australia—the concept of Western civilisation should not just be a right-wing thing.
To their credit, the Teals’ speeches revealed that they know there may have been some good things happening in Australia during the period of darkness. But, of course, they still needed to genuflect towards the original custodians.
North Sydney MP Kyleah Tink ensured we knew that she not only supports the “voice” but also “treaty and truth for our First Nations”. Fortunately, a treaty is unlikely to impact any waterfront properties in Kirribilli.
The new Member for Goldstein, Zoe Daniel, displayed that she is much more in touch with woke trends by reminding us that the lands on which she lives and works are “unceded”. Since it is compulsory in many public sector and corporate settings to do a land acknowledgment, a good way to show your sincerity is to add that these lands are unceded.
Kate Chaney, the Member for Curtin, sought inspiration from Aborigines on the environment. She put forth:
We need to learn from the perspectives of our First Nations people [because their] sense of the long term brings a deeply sophisticated knowledge of a society in delicate balance with its natural resources, in tune with the cycle of time. This was dramatically interrupted by the painful arrival of a people with a linear view of time. Even in Western cultures the concept of time as linear is only 500 years old, but it’s deeply embedded.
At least Chaney does recognise that Western science and technology have brought advancement—“This concept of progress has provided incredible leaps in life expectancy, population growth and interconnectedness”—but suggests we now need a new paradigm. Once again, an almost religious quality is ascribed to the perspectives of “First Nations”, a caste of people who must always be acknowledged as the source of wisdom. Chaney and company always feel comfortable criticising the broad Western tradition, but it’s impossible to imagine them ever critically interrogating indigenous culture.
Some Teals did break the mould in paying tribute to Australian forebears. Daniel referred to her electorate’s namesake, Vida Goldstein. She noted that Goldstein had been “a peace advocate, an activist, a politician” who had been the first woman to stand for the national parliament. It seems that movements for women’s equality were able to develop even in the great Australian darkness.
Dr Monique Ryan, the Member for Kooyong, paid tribute to her blue-ribbon Liberal predecessors in Kooyong. She provided a positive description of the liberalism represented by Menzies: “Those men were all true liberals. They recognised that open markets are the best way to boost prosperity. They were committed to protecting individuals’ rights.” The society informed by such a philosophy could not have been so bad.
The Teals seem to have a more positive vision of Australia’s past than the new Labor members. But, of course, their nationalism still centres on indigenous perspectives.
The Greens are a different ballgame altogether. They give no quarter to Anglo-European Australia at all.
Elizabeth Watson-Brown, the Member for Ryan, committed herself to a treaty and spoke only of the “shameful truth of our history”. She expressed no gratitude to the culture from which she has emerged.
The Member for the Brisbane seat of Griffith, Max Chandler-Mather, can only speak of “so-called Brisbane”. He paid tribute to the “warriors” that resisted and continue to resist colonisation but did not bother to make a passing reference to the man after whom his electorate is named. Sir Samuel Griffith was crucial in drafting the democratic Australian Constitution under which we have lived for more than a century. While not perfect, it provides avenues for activists like the Greens to seek redress and change for their various issues.
For a party whose leader cannot abide being seen in the presence of the Australian national flag, this lack of respect for the cultural foundations of the nation is hardly surprising, but nevertheless it is profoundly disappointing. Moreover, the type of nationalism exhibited by the Greens does not even try to develop a positive outlook on Australia’s colonial past; instead, it adopts in its entirety the perspective of the most radical subset of Aboriginal activists.
A FEW conclusions can be reached from these first speeches. First, many new Labor members conceive of a national identity with an indigenous foundation and a modern multi-ethnic character. Since Labor played a role in dismantling the period of darkness, they express pride that a whole kaleidoscope of ethnicities and cultures can share a continent with “the world’s oldest living culture”.
The Teals essentially share the progressive Labor perspective. Still, Chaney, Daniel and Ryan are so embedded in the elite community of European Australia that they cannot help but recognise the liberal and progressive aspects of our national heritage.
Finally, the Greens find nothing redemptive about Australia’s settlement and development. Instead, they want our symbols and forms of government radically overturned to empower “First Nations” and make up for past injustices. They do not seem to have a goal of equal citizenship and opportunity for all the continent’s inhabitants, but rather a special role and power for the hundreds of Aboriginal tribes. These people who have benefited so much from Australia cannot find it in themselves to be grateful for some element of their heritage.
What should conservatives do?
To his credit, Tony Abbott (inspired by Noel Pearson’s reflections) did try to formulate a conservative perspective on national identity suitable for the times. Abbott argued in 2014 (and often since) that: “This country we created, as a matter of undisputed fact, has an indigenous heritage, a British foundation, and a multicultural character, and it’s high time that this reality was recognised in our Constitution.” He wanted a preamble to the Constitution that expressed this statement. This was his idea of constitutional recognition. Abbott’s plan was always going to fail. In seeking indigenous input on the proposal, any chance of merely symbolic recognition was rejected. Voice, treaty and truth became the demand of the Uluru Statement from the Heart.
Putting such a detailed formulation of national identity in a preamble would be a grave mistake. Indeed, this was the conclusion of the Referendum Council in 2015. They instead opted for advocating an extra-constitutional declaration. But at least Abbott attempted to develop a coherent understanding of national identity on the conservative side of politics. Unfortunately, too many Centre-Right politicians fail to engage in these discussions meaningfully. While they are right to prioritise practical economic and security issues, leaving the field to the progressive forces is wrong.
In an opinion piece exploring the results of the federal election, George Megalogenis suggested that the Uluru Statement from the Heart could provide the basis of a new Australian identity. However, this would mean that Anglo-Europeans and other Australians would have to genuflect towards Aboriginal culture in their civic culture and observances. While the Anglocentric national identity of the pre-1970s era is obviously never coming back, it is essential that the British and European foundations of the Australian achievement are proudly celebrated, acknowledged and understood. Anything less is a lie about our country.
Tony Abbott and John Howard understood this problem to some extent. The most significant difference between conservative-minded Australians and those in the progressive camp is their outlook on a future Australian relationship with indigenous peoples. Right-leaning Australians assume that through equal citizenship and economic opportunity, Aboriginal people will become like other Australians while preserving their own cultures if they choose to do so. The progressives see the “First Nations” as a permanently separate category of citizens entitled to special rights due to indigeneity. Aboriginal people could be the wealthiest group in the country, but they would still be entitled to a voice and treaty due to their indigeneity.
Right-leaning politicians in Australia should do more to understand the new nationalism of the progressives and offer a compelling counter-vision. A pure focus on the rational low ground of economics and security leaves the cultural field to forces hostile to crucial foundation stones of Australian heritage.
Lucas McLennan is a Melbourne school teacher of English and History.