After a long break, the stirrer returns with some musings on our national day, culture and character.
I have now been an Australian for more than ten years. At this time of year, I find myself wondering, not for the first time, what actually is “Australian”? Is there, in fact, anything we can really call “Australian Culture”?
There are the Australians I mostly live among. Mostly white, mostly Anglo-Irish, working class origins, now relaxed and comfortable in the middle, without being in any sense rich. My people, in a way. I fit right in, as a typical Brit: more or less half Anglo, half Irish, with a fair peppering of French and Danish on top (it’s all those pesky invaders, you know).
There’s little ethnic diversity: my Japanese/Hawaiian husband really stands out. Apart from the sunshine and the general lack of snobbery (and the occasional bushfire), I could be in the Home Counties.
My second home is in another Australia altogether: Far North Queensland, where the white population is similar, but gives off an air of being permanently under siege, slightly on edge, defensive, insecure. No wonder Pauline Hanson does well there.
As we walked the beach one Australia Day, I smiled and waved a “Happy Australia Day” at a barbie on the Esplanade. The father of the family yelled “What youse doing with that slope?” You wouldn’t get that in Eltham. Not in public, anyway.
Eltham is in many ways an Australian mirror of my England: in the same way, Cairns is a mirror of my husband’s Hawaii. Beaches, canefields, palm trees, mangoes, mountains, racially diverse (with marginalised aboriginal people), hordes of tourists: it’s just like home. Plus crocodiles.
We’ve lived in Little England, Victoria, almost since we came here, so now it’s his turn: in 2019 we move to Little Hawaii, FNQ.
I said he was Japanese/Hawaiian, but that’s an oversimplification. Almost everyone in Hawaii, except for recent incomers, is a mixed bag: white Anglo – known as ‘haole’, (both US and British), black American, native Hawaiian (Polynesian), Chinese, Japanese, Portuguese… intermarriage and the blending of customs and traditions is the norm. You don’t get that, sadly, to anything like the same extent in Cairns.
There are more Australias I have only briefly visited and of which I have only a superficial impression: Sydney, Orthanc to New York’s Mordor; Perth, which would quite like to be in England, really, if it weren’t for the weather; Adelaide, ditto continental Europe; Brisbane, didn’t really leave any impression; Hobart, a nice little town (thank goodness for MONA); Alice/Uluru, pubs/big rocks; and Broome – hint, if you want to do diversity, just look at Hawaii, alright?
OK, I’m joking. Obviously, things are way more complicated. I did say I’d only visited these towns briefly. OK, you can stop throwing things now! Ouch!
Faced with this plethora of alt-Ozs, the idea propagated by One Nation (or John Howard, or Peter Dutton with their ridiculous tests), that there is only one way to be an Aussie, to which we all have to sign up (or else), is patently absurd.
NOT OZ – YET
Let’s start with what Australians are not: not like the Japanese, for whom conformity is everything; not like the Americans, for whom personal betterment and profit comes first; and not like the Brits, who are superior to everyone else on the planet and get terribly upset if you don’t agree (but are too polite to say so to your face).
For me, being Australian means I can embrace what I like, ignore what I don’t (but doesn’t do any harm), and speak out against what I think is wrong and diminishes us. And that’s the best definition of “being Australian” I can come up with. I feel there ought to be more, but as yet, there isn’t.
And that leads me to why I won’t be openly celebrating today. It feels too much like dancing on the graves, not only of the aboriginal nations who were here before whitey came along, but all those who still die at our hands, whether in the ‘justice’ system, or simply from our indifference and neglect.
To me, it fits with a feeling that we haven’t really started creating a truly Australian culture yet. It’s all a bit hand-me-down and patched together. This bit’s English. That bit’s American. A lot of the rest doesn’t really seem to know what it is – yet. This, I think, is part of white Queensland’s unease: they know something is missing, they don’t know what, and they’re afraid someone will think it’s their fault. Which they suspect it is.
I don’t know what to do about our First Nations. In fact, I feel it’s not my place to try to do anything about it. Lots of whitefellahs have had a crack at it, and what good has it done? Answers on the head of a pin, please.
We need to ask aboriginal people – all of them, not just a few blowhards in suits – how they want to do it, give them the means to do it, and then get the f-ck out of the way. And don’t complain about the bills.
I think it probably starts with a treaty recognising them as a sovereign people in their own right, and whatever that leads to. I think it probably means a proportion of seats in every parliament reserved to them. I think it probably means becoming a republic, and reserving the position of Head of State to aboriginal Australians only. If that’s what they want. It’s not up to me. Not up to us.
Because the one thing that’s missing, in every alt-Oz there is, is the kind of genuine, widespread, non-patronising respect and deference owed to our original peoples.
As to how we build a truly Australian, post-colonial, free-of-Betty-Windsor’s-apron-strings culture, again, I’m not sure. But I know where I’d start.
It probably seems off topic and irrelevant at first. But it’s a question that has truly baffled me since I got here. I think we start building a truly unique Australian culture by asking the question, “Why is there no Australian cuisine?” And then creating the answer.
By which I mean a cuisine using native ingredients, not imported European ones. Why do we farm and eat cows, sheep and pigs, when we have over-abundant roos? How easy is it to farm emu? The Far North is overrun with crocs: they make great handbags and shoes, and their meat is pretty good too. People in other cultures eat dog: can we turn dingoes from annoying predators into delicious pate?
Possums are a nuisance in many areas: let’s stop being sentimental and pop them in the pot. If the Beverley Hillbillies could do it, so can we. Why are we happy to scarf down all kinds of native aquatic life, but turn our nose up at native mammals, montremes, insects, arthropods and marsupials?
Shouldn’t we be pouring research into developing and using commercial varieties of native nuts fruits, roots, grasses, leaves, berries, grains? Why does only the macadamia get a Guernsey – and get stolen by the Hawaiians, to boot?
Could we solve our feral cat problem by creating a fashion for their fur? Anyone for Chat Au Vin tonight? Likewise wild boar, camel, water buffalo, and other introduced species? OK I draw the line at eating cane toads.
Instead of growing rice on the driest continent on earth – how ridiculous is that – instead of running thousands of cattle and sheep on millions of desperately marginal hectares, why don’t we farm Australian species on Australian land in natural conditions? Surely this is what the Ministry of Agriculture should be doing? Managing a transition to truly Australian farming? Weaning us off a European diet? Phasing out cows and pigs and sheep and wheat and rice?
All to be led by the demand generated by the development of a genuinely Australian cuisine. New to almost all of us – and hence a great unifier – and respecting the traditional inhabitants and their culture. A great national project to rival any road, or rail line, or port.
Make Australian plants and animals valuable, instead of marginal and constantly under threat of extinction. Done right, it could revive the ecosystem and the landscape. It would make aboriginal peoples and their knowledge crucial, not marginal. And it would give the country truly unique products for export.
Throw an emu snag, some croc steaks and kanga burgers on the barbie! It would be the start of a genuine, unique Australian culture. Now there’s a patriotic thought for Australia Day!