Discovering Democracy Units
HomeThe UnitsTeachers NotesState & Territory LinksKey TermsA Guide to Government & Law in AustraliaSelected SourcesESL InformationCivics and Citizenship Education About DDUDownloadsSitemapSearchHelpDiscovering Democracy Banner

What Sort of Nation?

Teacher notes

What sort of nation have Australians sought to create? What sort of nation do they want in the future? What can our public policy tell us about our national identity? These questions are explored in the context of public policy on the composition of the population, the management of the economy and the distribution of wealth.

About the unit | Indicators of student achievement | Background notes | Discovering Democracy resources | Other resources | Links to other units | Notes

About the unit

  • The meaning and relevance of images of a nation
  • The demography of Australia: immigration policies and practices
  • Economic policies: work and the marketplace
  • Social policies: historical and contemporary debates about welfare

Contexts: images of Australia, Australia’s population over time, changes in the nature of employment and working conditions, the impact of globalisation on trade policies, systems of welfare and their limits

Indicators of student achievement

The student can:

  • identify significant and changing representations of Australia as a nation
  • describe some aspects of immigration, welfare and economic policies over time
  • evaluate ways Australian society maintains cohesion and allows for diversity
  • justify opinions about the future nature of the Australian nation.

Background notes

In the first years after Federation, many Australians wanted their country to be different from the class-divided British society from which most of them had come. They wanted a society in which everyone was entitled to a ‘fair go’.

In attempts to ensure generally high living standards, the early national governments adopted policies which were intended to protect the country and its population - controlling migration on the basis of race, establishing tariff walls to support local business and industry and legislating for a series of measures to ensure the quality of working conditions and social welfare. At the time Australia was viewed internationally as something of a social laboratory for the implementation of new ideas about the role and responsibility of governments.

During the course of the century, a number of demographic, social and economic trends occurred which would redefine that civic image.

The change in the nature and sources of immigration was one of these trends. The tension between social and economic arguments about migration came to a head after World War II when, for both economic and defence reasons, a massive program was mounted to support immigration from countries other than Britain and Ireland. The cluster of legislation which embodied a policy of a 'White Australia' was increasingly undermined by the facts of the make-up of Australia's population as well as a growing body of public opinion that a race-based policy was insupportable.

This change was followed by a new official acceptance of cultural diversity. Where assimilationist policies and practices had dominated treatment of Indigenous peoples and immigrants, integration in the context of a pluralist and diverse culture became the tenor of government policy.

Disputes over the value and viability of government-imposed economic protection was one of the key issues that held up Federation. Changing patterns in trade, established again after World War II, re-opened the argument. In more recent years the globalisation of the economy has accelerated demands for review of tariff policy internationally. Proponents of the free market as the most efficient and effective means of production and of establishing and maintaining ‘real’ jobs have become increasingly ascendant.

The notions underpinning government provision of social welfare have also changed considerably. The institution of the age pension in 1908 was an early sign of a shift in the national government's priorities, from charity-based to state-based provision. Australia’s welfare system grew after World War II with new target groups and programs, consuming an increasing proportion of government revenue. During the 1980s there was a major effort to shift expenditure from a wide range of welfare programs to a more carefully targeted and comprehensive system of social security. Expenditure continues to rise, however, and the issue of limits to government support is frequently debated.

These issues are all fundamental to the nature of a society and subject to heated debate, especially in times of economic stringency. The issues to be faced in deciding the future of the nation are complex, and few have easy answers. One of these issues is, of course, how much control a nation has over its own destiny.

Discovering Democracy resources

Parliament at Work CD ROM - budget simulation

Stories of Democracy CD ROM - sources

Discovering Democracy - A Guide to Government and Law in Australia

Discovering Democracy website:

Further teacher reference material can be found in Discovering Democracy Middle Secondary Units, page 206.

Other resources

Australian Bureau of Statistics, Year Book, annual

Australian Bureau of Statistics, Australian Social Trends, annual

Australian Archives 1997, Exploring Citizenship: Teachers Resource Kit.

Links to other units

  • Democratic Struggles (lower secondary) focuses on key elements of a democracy and the struggle of diggers at Eureka, women and Indigenous people to gain political rights.
  • Making a Nation (middle secondary) focuses on the difference between the peaceful creation of the Australian nation compared with the violent creation of the United States of America with its war of independence and civil war; Australia’s allegiance to great Britain at the time of Federation; the structures of government created at Federation; changes since Federation and whether Australia should become a republic.
  • Human Rights (middle secondary) examines Australia’s civic rights denied to Indigenous people and how they were eventually gained.


It has been necessary to be selective about aspects of the issues to be dealt with in 'What Sort of Nation?' A study of migration to Australia, for example, could be far more extensive than the material included here.

Focus question 1 should get students thinking about the country as a whole, from an evolutionary perspective as well as taking into account the breadth of their own and others’ personal experiences. It would be useful to focus on cultural conformity and diversity.

Focus question 2 deals with the establishment of a factual basis for thinking about migration; attaching governmental responses and the public attitudes they reflect to those facts; and exploring the relationships between the changing composition of the population and cultural identity.

Although the major focus of this question is migration, there are various points of cross-reference to the similarities in public policy regarding the treatment of Indigenous peoples.

Focus question 3 is intended to stretch from students’ immediate concerns about their own employment to issues of globalisation and international trade. The underlying notion is the tension between an open marketplace and what might be fair and reasonable in an economic sense.

Some of the material in Focus question 4 is apparently uncontentious. Welfare schemes help those in need but who should be supported, and how do we pay?

Focus question 5 is intended as a summative exercise in which students will put to use what they have learnt, largely in the context of a research project.

Back to 'What Sort of Nation? - At a glance'

AcknowledgementsLegal Information