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Focus question 1: What sort of nation has Australia been? What sort of nation is it today?

Teaching and learning activities

Activity 1: Australian identity - yesterday and today ESL Activity 1
Assessment tasks ESL Assessment task
Assessment criteria  

Activity 1: Australian identity - yesterday and today

Here are some images of Australia, expressed in painting, sculpture and words. Look at them and read them carefully.

Refer to page 137 of Commonwealth of Australia 1998, Discovering Democracy Middle Secondary Units, Curriculum Corporation, Melbourne.

Aboriginal people and the land

We heard the other day land being described as a 'piece of dirt'. That would be the same as someone who considered St Peter's as just a barnyard to Catholics. But for the Aboriginal people land is a dynamic notion; it is something that is creative ... Land is the generation point of your existence ... it's the spirit from which Aboriginal existence comes. It's a place; a living thing made up of sky, of clouds, of rivers, of trees, of the wind, of the sand, and of the Spirit that's created all those things; the Spirit that has planted my own spirit there, my own country ... It belongs to me; I belong to the land; I rest in it; I come from there.

Patrick Dodson describing the Aboriginal people's relationship with their land at a conference in 1976, in an introductory address.

Report of the Third Annual Queensland Conference of the Aboriginal and Islander Catholic Council, 1976, p 16.

Refer to page 138 of Commonwealth of Australia 1998, Discovering Democracy Middle Secondary Units, Curriculum Corporation, Melbourne.

The Conciliation

Benjamin Duterrau painted this picture in 1840. The white man in the picture is George Robinson, a Christian missionary who worked with Aboriginal people in Tasmania. He became commandant of Wybalenna on Flinders Island, a 'resettlement' for Tasmanian Aboriginals. More than half died over a period of six years, but as one historian notes, 'Robinson never wavered from his belief that it was better for the Aborigines to die on the threshold of British civilisation than to live as savages in their own'.

Atkinson, A and Aveling, M (eds) 1987, Australians '38, Fairfax, Syme & Weldon, Broadway, NSW, p 306.

The Conciliation
Benjamin Duterrau, The Conciliation, 1840. Oil on canvas, 121 x 170.5
Collection: The Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, Hobart (purchased 1945).

The Australian language

Balls up: to make a muddle or mess of

Bludge: to loaf, or an easy job; also Bludger, a person living off other people's work, lazy

[make it a] Boomerang: make sure it comes back to me

Bore it up them: shoot at the enemy rapidly and effectively

Browned off: bored, fed up

Hammer like a tack: tell off, punish

Have the game sewn up: to have mastered, to know how

Troppo: mad, loopy (from the impact of tropical weather on some people's nerves and well being)

Baker, Sidney J 1970, The Australian Language, Sun Books, Melbourne, pp 169-72.

In his classic work, The Australian Language, Sidney J Baker suggests that these and other terms have evolved in a language, aspects of which are unique to Australia. You might be able to think of other words and phrases that are unique to Australian English.

Down on His Luck

Down on His Luck
Frederick McCubbin, Down on His Luck, 1889, Oil on canvas, 114.3 x 152.4cm
Collection: Art Gallery of Western Australia.

Frederick McCubbin painted this picture in 1889 at Box Hill, now a Melbourne suburb. It was a time when the idea of the 'noble bushman' as a symbol of Australian-ness had caught hold of the public imagination despite the fact that most people lived in the coastal cities, just as they do today.

A Bushman's Song

Banjo Paterson, author of 'Waltzing Matilda', wrote many ballads about bush life in Australia. These verses from Banjo Paterson's 'A Bushman's Song' were sung to Russell Ward by Joseph Cashmere in the 1950s.

I asked a bloke for shearing down on the Marthaguy.

'We shear non-union here,' he said. 'I call it scab,' said I.

I looked along the shearing-board before I chanced to go,

Saw eight or ten dashed Chinamen all shearing in a row.


It was shift, boys shift, there was not the slightest doubt

It was time to make a shift with leprosy about.

So I saddled up my horses and whistled to my dog,

And I left the scabby station at the old jig-jog.

Courtesy of JJ Cashmere.


DH Lawrence, an English writer, visited Australia in the 1920s. He was the son of a coalminer and hated the English class society.

There was really no class distinction. There was a difference of money and of 'smartness'. But nobody felt better than anybody else, or higher; only better-off. And there is all the difference in the world between feeling better than your fellow man, and merely feeling better-off.

Lawrence, DH 1981, Kangaroo, Penguin Books, p 27.
Reproduced courtesy of Laurence Pollinger Ltd and the Estate of Frieda Lawrence Ravagli.

Australian Beach Pattern

Australian Beach Pattern
Charles Meere, Australian Beach Pattern, 1940. Oil on canvas, 90.1 x 120.7 cm
The Art Gallery of New South Wales.
Reproduced with permission of Margaret Stephenson-Meere and the Art Gallery of New South Wales.

Charles Meere painted this over the years 1938-40. Many of his other works had Greek and Roman myths and legends as their subjects, and he was interested to illustrate 'national types'. Public swimming during daylight hours at beaches had been banned until 1903, after which it became very popular.

Collins St, 5 p.m.

Collins St, 5 p.m.
John Brack, b. Australia 1920, Collins St, 5 p.m., 1955. Oil on canvas, 114.8 x 162.8 cm
Purchased, 1956.
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne

John Brack's painting (1955) provides a very different idea of Australia: life in the cities and a reminder that not all of Australia basks daily in sunshine.

Migrants Arriving in Sydney - 1966

Migrants Arriving in Sydney
David Moore, Australia, b. 1927.
Migrants Arriving in Sydney, 1966
Reproduced with permission of David Moore.

David Moore's photograph (1966) has become famous for the range of emotions it captures about the process of migration.

Backyard - Clothesline

Backyard - Clothesline
From Board of Studies NSW 1994, ArtExpress: A selection of outstanding works from the 1994 HSC examination in Visual Arts, North Sydney, p 15
Reproduced with permission of Matt Cosgrove/Art Express.

This painting was done by Matt Cosgrove from Richmond High School in New South Wales in 1994. He writes: 'The backyard is an important environment of suburban Australia with the patch of lawn, flower beds and clothes hoist providing a setting for various stages of life'.

In Search of Faraway Places

In Search of Faraway Places
Wong, Hoy Cheong, Malaysia, b. 1960. In Search of Faraway Places (from 'Migrant' series) 1996. Charcoal, photocopy transfer and collage on paper scroll. Three panels: 204.5 x 151 cm (each); 204.5 x 453 cm (overall)
The Kenneth and Yasuko Myer Collection of Contemporary Asian Art. Purchased 1996 with funds from Michael Myer and Ann Gamble Myer through and with the assistance of the Queensland Art Gallery Foundation. Collection of the Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane.
Reproduced by permission.

1a If you had recently come from another country and had had no contact with Australians previously, what do you think the text and images could tell you about this country? Which do you think are misleading?

1b Choose one or two of the images and provide some background which would help an overseas visitor to understand them. Consider questions such as:

  • What events do they relate to?
  • What period do they come from?
  • What else do you need to know to make sense of them?

1c Which of the images come closest to your idea of Australia as a nation today? Explain your answer.

Assessment tasks

a If you had to choose an image of your own to show your idea of the Australian nation today, what would it include? Do a labelled sketch, write a poem or a short piece of prose, or make a collage to illustrate your image. In notes, explain why you have chosen it.

b If you had to describe a nation, what things would you refer to? In the rest of this unit you will look at the population and the ways in which the country produces wealth and welfare (how a country supports people who are in need), but there are many other possibilities, for example the system of government, the types and amount of education that are available, and the nation's history. Working with a partner, list as many characteristics as you can, and then underline those that you think are the most important.

Assessment criteria

Your work will be assessed on:

  • use of words and/or pictures to show a view of the Australian nation today and clearly explaining your view
  • identifying important characteristics that describe a nation.

ESL activities

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

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