John Ralston Saul:
“There’s an interesting opportunity if you’re Australian or Canadian because we know what that (the European) tradition is, but we also belong to another tradition. One which was here before any immigrants came, and is still here and still very much alive and has many philosophical bases to it and one which has been created much more thanks to what is here than is admitted by most of the immigrants. An approach, which is not monolithic, which is not singular, which is not Westphalian, which doesn’t have one language, which has multiple myths. And if those of us who are immigrants are lucky enough to belong within that mythology that’s an enormous privilege. That’s something astonishing no matter how many things we’ve done wrong along the way.”
So what is Ralston Saul talking about? To paraphrase, he is saying, Australia is a country and a place where people, cultures and traditions existed prior to it being colonised by the British. Unlike, say France, where its citizens and intrinsically “European” culture and traditions were born out of its inception. Australia has adopted the “European” model of the nation state from the British and all that comes with it, the economic, social, habitational, legal and cultural structures. But it is not the same because we have both traditions and cultures. We hear the word multicultural bandied about incessantly, but really Australia is that and much more. It is a nation with a multitude of cultures and traditions, and with this comes so many more ideas and the opportunity to have original thoughts and solutions to the problems we face. The problem is that we have not recognised the true (and boundlessly positive) potential in Australia’s inherent difference.
John Ralston Saul goes on to say:
“…take away the commodities from Australia and Canada and I can tell you, what’s left is little better than probably a mid-level third world economy”
“We’ve all bought into the Western concept of ‘progress’…”
“So there is this contradiction between the way we’re living our lives which seems so European and Western and the reality which that there is a whole other tradition here evoked by those new Australians…”
“You have access to thoughts and ideas which are deeply outside what is taught…”
He suggests that Australia and the world have a problem, global warming, and yet all we can do is argue over percentage points. We have an economy which is heavily dependent on finite commodities and no future plan for when the ground is emptied. Our “Australian” way of life will not survive with a services-based economy, and demand for retail goods and increased population growth is not going to maintain our living standards. This is where Ralston Saul thinks our unique situation of having access to so many ideas, thoughts and cultures can lead to an Australian cultural independence and an identity that is truly our own, made up of every person living in this country; every “new Australian” and every other citizen born here. That is not to say that we should discard our cultural heritage and current identity because that is both impossible and undesirable, we would not be where we are now and would not have had the experiences and made the mistakes, without it.
This is where I extend Saul’s ideas with some of my own. There can, if we choose, be harmony and minor discord between our “blood-stained” past of colonisation and our all-inclusive future. Now, what is key to understand is that brilliant, carefully-nurtured and tested ideas will not spring from our politicians. The ideas will come from “ordinary Australians” and they will come to prominence through a gradual societal embrace of these swirling ideas. Our consciousness needs to be awake to these possibilities. Politicians will pick up on these ideas when they have intellectual and social support. Now you may be an optimist, a cynic, a realist, an idealist, a conservative, a moderate, a leftie, a greenie or a ‘not interested’, but for the sake of perhaps genuine and unique national development keep your eyes, ears and mind open.
Culture and national identity is not a list of qualities, like mateship, fairness and generosity, just as a person’s essence or soul is not a list of characteristics. There is something that drives Australia to be what it is today, and that is the sum essences of every citizen. And to figure out an individual’s essence, you need to understand your essential drive in this world, be it to help others, solve our problems, shed light on ignored areas or even assist in the smooth-running and progressivity of society. It is because of this diverse range of drives, people, culture and traditions that we can continue to avoid uniformity (or as Ralston Saul refers to it, the “monolithic state”) and better yet we can help Australia continue to be a more unique, positive and individual force than it is in the world today.
John Ralston Saul and I cannot and have not given you concrete answers to how Australia will develop, but that was not, I believe, his or my intention. Conversely, it is to open up discussion and future possibilities, and also to show you just how lucky Australia (and other nations) are to have so much potential for originality and improvement.
If you have any contributions to make regarding these ideas, both mine and John Ralston Saul’s, his lecture or Australia Day in general, please leave a comment, I’d love to hear your views.
Happy Australia Day.