So, I’ve been in Australia for all of about a week and it hasn’t taken me long to discover– Australia has got a major identity crisis.
Really- Australia just doesn’t know what it is. Australian scholar and author James Curran argues “we have no guiding philosophy… There’s nothing at the moment that allows us to define ourselves and our future.” If that isn’t confusion, I’m not sure what is.
Here lies the Australian Identity problem: Geography vs Nationality. This is a Asian located (and populated) country that is trying to deny this, to fight it because of its colonized Western past. (Disclaimer: I’ve been here one week and this is my simplified version of a greater, contentious issue)
For those unaware, here is the basic breakdown of Australian population history: The aborigines have lived in Australia for over 40,000 years. The British discovered Australia and more or less took over in the 18th century and used it as a prison island for their convicts. This is when mainstream Australian culture began to develop into what it is today. With the Aboriginals as a forgotten people, the majority of its population has been formed by immigrants of other countries.
An unknown philosopher said it best — “If you want to define Australia, choose your narrative — British colony, aboriginal, immigrant cosmopolis. In other words, there is no one shared story, no essential Australia.”
Australia is an odd country in that it is a western nation found in the “far east.” It is defined by a European history, political system, tradition. It is even still a British Commonwealth with Queen Elizabeth swearing in Australian Prime Ministers. Robert Menzies, Australia’s longest-serving Prime Minister, famously described himself as being “British to his bootstraps.”
Modern day descriptions of Australia are defined by its up-and-coming Asian destiny; the Australian plight is a case of Geography vs Nationality. Geographically, Australia can be argued as an Asian country. There are many who believe this to be Australia’s future, judging by Asia’s potential as a 21st century powerhouse. And who is better positioned to take advantage of this fact than Australia- the closest country to it?
In the 1970’s this idea of an Asian future became mainstream enough that Australian politics internally realigned its positioning on immigration; they launched generous immigration policies and dismantled remnants of the White Australia policy that had historically blocked nonwhite immigration. Here was the launch of a new geopolitical reality.
By 2005, six of the ten most common countries of origin for Australian immigrants were Asian.
So why is Australia trying to deny its future and potential? I can’t help but think that the only way for Australia to move forward, to leave behind the crisis, and form a new, stronger identity for James Curran to praise would be to embrace it. Integrate. Move forward. The “Asian Destiny” may be a step in the future. But what do I know anyway?
P.S. A big thank you to the author of this article from the LA Times for helping inspire me with this post!