What Is So Different About Australia?

John Ralston Saul at the Sydney Writers Festival 2010

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…”

and hence,

“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.

Listen to John Ralston Saul’s brilliant and very entertaining lecture at the Sydney Writers Festival here.

Happy Australia Day.


Filed under Ideas, Philosophy

7 responses to “What Is So Different About Australia?

  1. It is certainly a nice idea that Australia could embrace originality and improvement, and it is certainly something I hope we can achieve. The problem becomes how? Our cultural landscape doesn’t just include European and indigenous traditions anymore, but increasingly Middle Eastern, Eastern and African. More and more people are choosing to live in this country, adding more ingredients to the melting pot we call mulitculturalism. The problem that exists with multiculturalism, at least as I see it, is that there will always be competition to become the “top” culture, if i could use that term. I don’t think it is any accident that the growth of multiculturalism coincides with the growth of global capitalism. Cultural competition has finally led to cases of assimilation throughout Europe; also leading Germany’s Chancellor, Angela Merkel, to conclude that multiculturalism has failed.

    The question is not whether Australia will develop as a nation, but how and when will Australia develop as a nation, taking it’s own course instead of following the European, American, or the broad notion of the Western model. This means, therefore, that we must take a critical look at our current political, economic and social system. As you mentioned, we definitely need to remain open to these new ideas.

    A nice little article. Looking forward to more of this discussion.

  2. Thanks Nathan, you raise important considerations and problems that stand in the way of national development in Australia. I was just reading Tony Judt’s book, ‘Ill Fares The Land’ and wanted to share a quote with everyone that gets to the heart of this post:

    “Our problem is not what to do; it is how to talk about it” p. 6, Allen Lane, 2010.

    From reading this I was immediately reminded that thoughts precede action and decision-making. So if we change the way of thinking and speaking about particular issues, like multiculturalism, naturally our communal course of action will be likely to change (more smoothly) and new ideas will emerge and have more clarity and strength in a receptive environment.

    Just an idea… and I think I might like to continue it later on. Anyone have any thoughts? Agree, disagree?

  3. David Johnston

    Australia has links to the modern world and to pre-historic times. We are truly fortunate to have these links, as the potential breadth of human experience we’re talking about encompasses a huge part of the human story. Australia and the world almost lost the entire living knowledge of Aborigines. There are only fragments left, and these are incredibly valuable. Hopefully European Australia is learning to appreciate indigenous teaching. If thirty thousand years or more of experience are lost due to Western prejudice, it’s unlikely we’ll be able to sustain life in Australia for the next couple of hundred years.

    • That’s a great point David and a perspective I hadn’t considered. When you look at it in that way you can see just how powerful and smothering many aspects of “Western” culture and/or the Westphalian state model can be. Obviously, we have not done well in trying to accept, embrace or perhaps incorporate the Aborigines’ culture into our own society, where both are as important. I think this issue will be one of the big challenges; to preserve the cultures and ideas that come from a diverse population in order to further develop one which is more tailored to our circumstances, inclusive, independent and accepting. Once again, I’m happy to open this all up for debate if anyone would like to contribute!

      • David Johnston

        Happy to contribute to a worthy discussion. As you may know, much debate on the web dissolves into vitriol, childish rant and worse. The need for calm constructive dialogue is as great as ever. Good luck with healthy intelligent conversations.

  4. Though Žižek’s article is concerned mainly with matters European, the broader context of multiculturalism and tolerance applies to this discussion and can be found here.

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