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The Australian Nation

For the ancient Greeks, a society and its government were not separate things. They belonged to a ‘polis’, what we translate as a city-state, and from which we get our word ‘politics’. The polis was small in area, a town with a circle of country around it which you could walk across in a day or two. They could not imagine a large society working well because they wanted all citizens to have a direct involvement in the business of government, even when the polis was not a thorough-going democracy. Aristotle considered that in a good polis citizens should know each other by sight. Athens, with a citizen population over 20,000, was unusually large.

The polis was not a government of the community; it was the community. The citizens were involved in government and government organised the community’s cultural life and religious festivals. Your sense of belonging was bound up with your political allegiance. Citizenship was not part of your life; it defined your life.

How do we think of ourselves as Australians? As citizens, very little. We think of ourselves as free and easy, informal and egalitarian. Citizenship is rather stuffy. Who are our heroes? Ned Kelly, an outlaw; Don Bradman, a cricketer; and Phar Lap, a horse. What are our national symbols? Kangaroo and emu, bush and beach, green and gold, the Sydney Harbour Bridge and Opera House, Uluru. In none of this do we celebrate our civic life, the common life we make as we govern ourselves. Politics is seen as an ugly business, practised by a despised group of people, the politicians. We don’t expect to find heroes there or what defines us as a people.
Our symbols

If, like the United States, we had been obliged to fight Britain to become independent, there would have been a strong civic component to our nationalism. The Declaration of Independence and the constitution are regarded by Americans as documents which define who they are – they are a people who believe in certain political principles.
Civic identity in the United States

Our history has been very different. The British Empire readily adjusted to the desire of the Australian colonies to be self-governing and in the late nineteenth century, to their wish to join together as a nation. In the Declaration of Independence, the Americans began their national life by compiling a long list of all the wicked deeds of King George III; Australians invited the future King George V to open their first national parliament.
Loyalty to the British Empire

Australian loyalty to the British Empire strengthened since Britain allowed Australians to govern themselves. It is wrong to assume that as Australian national feeling grew, loyalty to the Empire declined. In 1901 Australians were pleased with two things: that their new nation would be more independent of London than six colonies and that their union would strengthen the British Empire. Australian attachment to Britain was in part sentimental and in part born out of self-interest. Britain was a great trading and military power. It bought Australia’s primary produce and its navy protected Australian shores. In fighting for Britain in two world wars, Australians were not fighting for another country. They were fighting for the Empire of which they were a part and which was essential to their welfare. These considerations influenced even those of Irish descent in Australia who had no sentimental attachment to Britain. They fought in the wars in the same proportion as the rest of the population.

Of the self-governing dominions of the British Empire, Australia was furthest from Britain and most in need of protection. From the early years of the twentieth century Australia feared an attack from Japan. This helps to explain why Australia did not want the ties of the Empire to weaken. After World War I, South Africa, Canada and Ireland wanted to become fully independent so that Britain would no longer have any control over them and they could develop their own foreign policy. A plan was found to keep these dominions within the Empire, but without being in any way under the control of Britain. The monarch would be divided. George V would be King of Britain and King of Canada. On all Canadian matters, internal and external, he or the governor-general would act on advice only from Canadian ministers.

This formula was made into law in 1931 by the Statute of Westminster, an act of the British parliament. Australia had not wanted this formal statement of dominion independence and asked that it not apply to Australia until Australia adopted it. This was not so much because it was opposed to these arrangements; it thought formal statements would damage the informal bonds and sympathies which held the Empire together. If Australia asserted its independence, would Britain still buy its goods and protect it from the Japanese?
The Statute of Westminster

Australia did not adopt the Statute of Westminster until 1942. However, before that date it had begun to appoint its own ambassadors and act like a fully independent country. This makes it very hard to decide when exactly Australia did become an independent country. Nothing more clearly indicates that our political independence is not bound up with our national identity. We are not even sure when it happened.

Until the 1950s most Australians thought of themselves as British as well as Australian. Sir Robert Menzies, prime minister from 1949 to 1966, declared that he was British to the bootstraps. At the Melbourne Olympics in 1956
British and Australian

‘God Save the Queen’ was played when an Australian won a gold medal. It remained Australia’s national anthem until the 1970s.

It was as Britons that Australians learned what it was to be citizen. Individual liberty, the rule of law, a fair trial, parliamentary government: these were great British achievements which Australia shared because it was British. Australian school children learned about Magna Carta and Hampden defying Charles I over ship money. It was British respect for law which they were urged to follow. They were told that the great glory of the British Empire was its civic virtues. It allowed self-government to British settlers overseas and brought order and justice to its African and Asian possessions.
The British heritage and civic identity

Australia did have its political quarrels with Britain, but these were readily resolved and left no bitterness. Australia’s ongoing quarrel was with Britain’s social structure and attitudes. We did not want to reproduce here aristocratic privilege, rigid class distinctions, snobbishness, and formality. So our nationalism was much more social than political, though, as some people realised, it was only through politics that the good qualities of Australian life could be preserved and extended.

As our links with Britain have weakened and our population changed, we no longer think of ourselves as British. In losing the British side to our nationality, our sense of ourselves as citizens has weakened. Other sources of civic identity are emerging. Younger people are more likely to think of their rights not as a British inheritance, but as conferred by the Universal Declaration of Human Rights drawn up by the United Nations in 1948. They are simply human rights.

But will we come to feel that we are citizens because we are Australians? The odd thing is that the people were very closely involved in the making of the Australian nation. The United States constitution begins with the words ‘We, the people ...’ but actually the Australian people were more involved in constitution making than the Americans. If ever we want to think of ourselves as Australian citizens, we have a rich heritage to draw on.

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