A modestly gilded podium stands unattended in a decadent room. To the left stands an easel with a portrait of Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth II and to the right, the Australian Coat of Arms. Some two hundred seats are spread across the room, becoming increasingly occupied as we waited for the ceremony to begin. I sat in the visitors section, watching the to-be Australian Citizens proceed into the room, accompanied by friends, family and colleagues from all walks of life.
I attended the City of Melbourne’s final Australian Citizenship Ceremony for the year last week after learning, first, that they existed and, second, that they’re a requirement for new Australians to legally join our community. Reflecting on what it means to be a citizen of a country, I felt mixed emotions as to what kind of country we are creating for newcomers and, at first, my thoughts were not so positive.
Like most Australians, I have spent the majority of my life taking the country I live in for granted… and with good reason. We have everything. Literally everything. Yet there’s a taboo about loving your country in Australia due, in part, to factors including: multiculturalism, rampant racism in response, complacency and The Cultural Cringe (more on that later). But as I am getting older (lol, I’m 21, but just roll with it), I am learning that it is not only okay to love my country, but that it is something that should be celebrated.
I have always had what I’ll call an ‘affinity’ for Australia, but I had never before loved it. This was largely because every time you see somebody express their love for Australia they’re either a politician leveraging the notion to justify some cringe-worthy conservative policy or its some derro trotting down the street in protest of Halal certification or the proposed mosque in their town. It’s a common trope and it’s not a pretty sight.
Of these 90-something new citizens, I spoke to but a handful. They were mostly from Britain, India and China. They were cooks, students, plumbers, authors, retirees, firefighters, mothers, fathers, children and grandparents, each with their own hopes, experiences and perspectives that they have decided they will contribute to the Australian community.
They had all made such a big decision to come. But as I sat there watching each person step to the podium before Melbourne Lord Mayor Robert Doyle and read aloud their Pledge, I couldn’t help but wonder how Australia’s deep-running cultural flaws would affect them.
From this time forward, (under God),
I pledge my loyalty to Australia and its people,
whose democratic beliefs I share,
whose rights and liberties I respect, and
whose laws I will uphold and obey.
– All prospective citizens must say the words aloud to be legally-recognised citizens.
A field of poppies that are far too tall
Australians are renowned worldwide for being some of the most friendly, laid-back, outgoing and fun-loving people on Earth. But for the majority of my 21 years on the continent, that could not have been further from the truth.
Australian culture is rooted in the idea of ‘a fair go for all’. The belief is based on the stories of Australia’s first settlers: they all came out to Australia from diverse backgrounds as equals with a clean slate, who could make a comfortable living for themselves through hard work. At the same time however, this idea gave birth to the biggest flaw in Australia’s culture and one I will never forgive or accept: Tall Poppy Syndrome.
Tall Poppy Syndrome reveals the great paradox of the Australian identity:
We [Australians] are all free and equal, but because we are all equal nobody deserves to have more than anyone else.
Australians feel entitled to bring down others for achieving goals, making money, earning fame and achieving what their counterparts have not. As a consequence, Australians will go out of their way to tear down anyone’s success for any reason.
- We hate the student with high grades yet we never congratulate them.
- We think all politicians are corrupt grubs yet we never hear them out.
- We tell people all the reasons why they will fail instead of supporting them to succeed.
- We’re all very hostile to people who earn more money than us.
It works the other way too: we’re hostile to those who earn less, grouping them together under the banner of ‘dole bludgers’ for not doing enough. Aussies’ “get your hand out of my pocket” attitude to people on welfare leads them to see welfare recipients as leeches, even when they have never met one.
All that a bit too vague?
- In 2003, Aussies pummeled rock singer Peter Garrett for joining politics after so many years singing about it. “Turn-coat,” they laughed.
- In 2010, Julia Gillard became Australia’s first female Prime Minister. All her wins and losses were “because she’s a woman,” they sneered.
- In 2012, the majority of the Australian population, along with its media and influential public figures laid a barrage of abuse towards Australians Olympians for winning a high number of Silver Medals at the London Games. “Pathetic,” they cried.
- In 2014, soccer team Melbourne Heart re-branded to Melbourne City. “Try-hards,” they dismissed.
- In 2015, Australia collectively laughed at rugby star Jarryd Hayne for accepting a high-paying deal to play in America’s NFL. “Sell out,” they snubbed.
Many Aussies spend their lives fearing judgement, burning bridges with friends and colleagues, and being intimidated rather than inspired when it comes to success.
The problem of Australia’s racist patriotism
In Australia, there is the often-held belief in Australia that if you exclaim your love for Australia you are a xenophobic bigot with a Southern Cross tattoo and a “fuck off we’re full” sticker on the back of your car. This is for three reasons. Firstly, when one proclaims a love for Australia, they are seen to be inadvertently supporting the imposition of European settlement on the traditional inhabitants of the land. Secondly, the people who usually make their love for Australia known so vocally are most often the Pauline Hanson supporters and Rise Up Australia neo-fascists on television (see below). And finally, there is a widespread Cultural Cringe embedded deep in the hearts of Australians—a subject I wrote in-depth about earlier this year.
This perception, while somewhat inaccurate, has made it shameful to express a love for your country. But for me, saying that I love Australia is not about banning migrants, it’s about welcoming them.
So how and why am I learning to love Oz?
I got home from 6 months in Europe on Christmas Eve 2015 and for the first time, I saw my homeland as a tourist. And I wanted to know everything about it. One aspect that really captivated me was my new perspective on Australia’s legendary pub rock scene from the 70’s, 80’s and 90’s. I grew up listening to these bands, artists and songwriters: Midnight Oil, Cold Chisel, Hunters and Collectors, Paul Kelly, Australian Crawl, INXS, Men At Work, Crowded House, and so on. They crafted grand narratives and intricate portraits about being Australian: what it is, what it means and where it comes from. I wanted to know how Paul Kelly could sound so patriotic and not get cut down by the rest of Australia.
What was unique about this era of Australian rock, one thing that tied all these musicians together, was their roots in Australian folk music. These bands spliced harmonica, electric guitar, acoustic guitar, unashamed Australian accents, drums with cowbells, and unpretentious low-key bass lines with storytelling and imagery of the Australian landscape. They sang of the struggles that characterised the Australian nation. Whether its the law, the family, gambling, success and failure, alcoholism, politics or the under-representation of the indigenous peoples of the Australian continent, they did everything but cut others down. Their music united people either in orating common struggles or sharing unknown ones.
The Great Australian Road
2016 has been a privotal year for me. Wedged between my big European adventure and my 2017 year on the road, this year was all about the Lucky Land, my home, Australia. In June and July, I took to the roads on my own, jumping from town to town, regional and urban, inland shacks and coastal cities, and met all sorts of funny and interesting characters along the way.
In that month I listened only to Australian music (easy when you’re following an Aussie band on tour), and ate only Australian made food. I made the effort to chat to as many people as I could along the way: miners in Dalby, the fish n chip shop owner in Bateman’s Bay, the backpackers in Byron, a homeless man in Toowoomba and a new friend in Jed Gordon, the unofficial 6th member of Parkway Drive and an all-round great bloke.
While I was driving through The Pilliga, the vast plains of deep regional Queensland, the Great Scenic Drive and even Kosciusko National Park (without chained tyres, yikes!) I asked myself what it meant to be Australian. And I learned it wasn’t much in particular.
- You don’t have to live here to be an Aussie, over a million of us live abroad!
- You don’t have to be a citizen, many are residents and visitors.
- You don’t have to be born here, many of our Aussie icons like AC/DC and Jimmy Barnes are Scottish-born.
- You don’t have to be ethnically Australian! Unless you’re descended of the First Australians, we all came from somewhere else at some point.
So you can be born overseas, not get an Aussie passport, move back away and still be an Aussie. And we certainly don’t all share the same values… but most we do: personal liberty, a ‘fair go’ (for better or worse), mutual respect and admiration, and a national consciousness that we all share at home and abroad. Australia’s ‘Father of Federation’ called this “the crimson threat of kinship [that] runs through us all.”
The road told stories and I listened. The trees showed me signs and I observed. Parkway Drive rocked loud and I felt it. My take away was a greater understanding of Australia and just how varied its landscape, views, places, people and experiences really are. Now, in my own mind, I have a clearer, more diverse and informed view of the Great Southern Land. But I’ll never fully understand it, and neither will you. And that’s pretty special.
Anxious about what sort of country I thought we were going to be presenting to new Australians, I went to this Australian Citizenship Ceremony alone, for no reason other than to have the opportunity to welcome these new Australians and thank them for coming to Australia. They saw hope, prosperity and, most importantly, goodness in the Australian nation – one I had not myself fully embraced. Ironically, and I guess it is now the point or conclusion of this 2000-word essay, it is in fact true that Australia is really a polite, welcoming and easy-going nation. We just need to lift our chins a bit and listen to what our fellow Australians are saying, from any background.
At the end of the Citizenship Ceremony, the characteristically kind and funny Lord Mayor Robert Doyle invited the already Australian citizens in the room to rise and repeat after him, an affirmation pledge to the Commonwealth of Australia just as the new Australians had stood before us and read their pledge themselves. And in that moment, I felt the climax of my year’s journey to understand what Australia is and what it means. And that’s a knowledge I’ll take with me abroad for the rest of my life. But as with anywhere, I haven’t even scratched the surface of this beautiful land and the people that live in, on and around it. But in my lifetime, I will try my best to do exactly that.
As an Australian citizen,
I affirm my loyalty to Australia and its people,
Whose democratic beliefs I share,
Whose rights and liberties I respect,
And whose laws I uphold and obey.
– The Australian affirmation of allegiance
My journey to finding my place as an Australian is really all just about listening to the right voices. Just like everybody else, I am prone to focussing on the negative (another bona-fide Australian trait). All we have to do to respect each other… and turn off A Current Affair (preferably forever).
Live to learn.