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Did Patriotism in Australia Always Look Like This?

Let's talk about why pride and celebration so often dissolves into flag capes, Southern Cross tattoos, and racism.

by Paul Gregoire
25 April 2016, 12:00am

Illustrations by Ben Thomson.

Australians are a patriotic lot. Over the last couple of decades it seems increasingly so. Today, popular images portray Aussies draped in Union Jack flags and sporting Southern Cross tattoos, as they proclaim their love for the nation. But much of what we popularly associate with being a proud Australian hearkens back to a European colonial past. It gives no representation of the multicultural makeup of Australia these days, and most of the time pays little heed to the country's First Peoples.

Anzac Day is upon us. It's a day when patriotic feelings swell in the hearts of many around the nation. So it's perhaps an ideal time to reflect upon the current state of patriotism in this great southern land.

Patriotism means "love of country." And for many it's about "celebrating and paying tribute to the institutions and symbols of the country." That's how Dr Gwenda Tavan, head of the Department of Politics and Philosophy at La Trobe University, puts it. But she thinks nowadays, much of what's termed patriotism is actually nationalism, which is "more ideological and interest driven." Tavan explained that with nationalism people's attachment to a certain place becomes the basis for their "claims about who can be a member, who should have power and who should have access to resources."

But this wasn't always the case. It's only over recent decades, that Australians have been overtly expressing loyalty to their homeland. Tavan outlined that successive governments have fostered these patriotic feelings through initiatives and specific events. An example is Australia Day. This public holiday wasn't very popular in the past, but it's no accident it is now because the "government and particular interests have worked very hard" to make it so.

And during the long period of global insecurity since the turn of the century, the government has tapped into the public's sense of allegiance. "It's much easier for political leaders to appeal to people on national grounds," Tavan said, adding, "It's also easier for people to find refuge in those sorts of ideas."

Small, but very vocal white supremacist groups have exploited the notion of Australian patriotism...

It's amidst this climate of terrorist threats and anti-refugee sentiment that a more sinister form of "Aussie pride" has developed. Extremist groups like Reclaim Australia and the United Patriots Front have formed. They advocate Anglo-Saxon privilege, claiming they have more rights than those of different ethnicities. And they've conducted nationwide anti-Islamic rallies, including protesting the now approved Bendigo mosque.

The 2005 Cronulla Riots was the first overt sign of this jingoism and it's the Australian Islamic community that have borne the brunt of it ever since. Kuranda Seyit, spokesperson for the Islamic Council of Victoria, thinks it's disappointing that these small, but very vocal "white supremacist groups have exploited" the notion of Australian patriotism, along with using Islam as a "wedge" to divide the community. "They imply there are some segments of society who are not patriotic because they don't adhere to the way of life they espouse, which is drinking alcohol and having pork on their barbie," he said. To Seyit, there's much more to being an Australian than this.

Like much of the community, Muslim Australians hold the more complex set of values underlying national identity in high esteem. "They love the freedom of Australia. They love the values of mateship and the values of a fair go," Seyit said and went on to elaborate that "these values are what it means to be patriotic."

The idea of these far-right groups trying to reclaim a country that was already inhabited prior to their ancestors' arrival is rather ironic. In 1788, when the British began their occupation, the Indigenous inhabitants had been here for a mere 60,000 years.

Murrawarri man Fred Hooper served six years in the Australian Navy as a submariner. At last year's Anzac Day march in Canberra, he was stopped from laying a wreath to commemorate Aboriginal people who've died at war. This was because he'd been leading the Frontier Wars march, which honours the Indigenous people killed during the fighting as the British took over the continent. This First Peoples procession has been following the same route as the Anzac march for the past five years.

There's no such thing as Australian patriotism, as far as Hooper's concerned. "True patriotism is about acknowledging and respecting people that have always been here," he said, as well as "respecting values that include everybody." But, as he explained, Australian identity is currently based upon European descendants and their colonial past. He points to the American model of patriotism as a more favourable example. The US base their values upon the diversity of the community that currently lives there, he added.

Hooper was also stopped from marching along with the Submarine Association Australia in last year's Anzac parade because he was holding a Murrawarri Republic flag. The republic declared independence from Australia on March 30, 2013 and Hooper is the chair of their provisional council. They're just one of several Indigenous nations that have declared they're no longer a part of Australia and never actually have been.

He was stopped from laying a wreath to commemorate Aboriginal people who've died at war...

So in the face of all this, is it possible for people who migrate to Australia to feel part of a broader patriotism that includes them? Well according to Race Discrimination Commissioner Dr Tim Soutphommasane it is. He was born in France, after his parents fled Laos, and then grew up in southwest Sydney. "Those who express jingoist national pride have a certain view of what Australia means," he told VICE. "But a modern Australia is one that is multicultural."

Soutphommasane believes that patriotism needs to be reclaimed and that this new expression of national identity would embrace the diversity of multicultural Australia. "It's great that people can be part of Australian society, regardless of their background," he said. "People can be Australian in many ways, and they should feel comfortable in their skin."

This burgeoning identity would be based on common values, rather than belonging to a certain ethnicity. And when you look beyond stereotypical portrayals of what it is to be Australian, you find that this in essence is something that already exists.

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