David Malouf’s evocative account of the Australia of his childhood is a personal narrative of what it means to be Australian. There is an intimacy in his nostalgia for the Australia of his youth – one in which we can see Rita Hayworth on the big screen, hear Bing Crosby singing “White Christmas” and taste the bread-and-butter pudding. Made in England proudly acknowledges a British inheritance whose culture and values are so adopted into everyday life here in the antipodes that we hardly noticed that they were not ours. This easy integration is, as Malouf acknowledges, both a testament to the diversity of “British” culture and the diversity of “Australian” experience.
This is a different perspective on Australia to the one evoked by Germaine Greer in her essay Whitefella Jump Up. Malouf sees the normality of our British idiosyncrasies in his childhood where adaptation is as natural as ownership; Greer sees a discomfort and a cringe in the inability of white Australians to find their place here. Hers is a country where the sense of belonging needs to be cultivated and a feeling of acceptance needs to be learnt.
Both Malouf and Greer understand that it is only through the past that the way forward can be grasped. For Malouf, the acknowledgement of all that is solid and reliable about the cornerstones of our inherited British system of laws and governance provides the necessary confidence to look towards a content and independent Australia. Ours is a country blessed with a history of peaceful political change and the stability of the rule of law. For Greer, confessions of the inability to embrace Aboriginal experience and the treatment of Aboriginal people are the keys to an imagined future Australia where non-Indigenous people feel as at ease with this country as the original custodians.
In these assessments of what Australia was, is and may become, it is hard to forget Don Watson’s pessimistic and fatalistic essay, Rabbit Syndrome. As someone who was present when Paul Keating delivered the Redfern Park speech, I found much that resonated in Watson’s lament for the changing course of Australia. As an Aboriginal person, I see the turn away from the acknowledgement of Indigenous presence and culture as alienating. As Malouf writes: we find it so difficult to imagine any history but the one we have actually experienced. Malouf, as much as Greer, sees the acknowledgement of Indigenous presence and experience as a central part of an honest Australian persona.
Malouf’s contribution to this debate is that he acknowledges that, without the seeds of where we come from we would not be where we are now and, more importantly, would not have the same ability to determine our future. He makes a powerful argument that there is much to celebrate in that history which the recognition of historical truths that are unpalatable and shameful could not erase. I’ve never understood the argument that acknowledging the mistreatment of Indigenous people and saying “sorry” was a way of making Australians feel ashamed of their past. Recognition and acceptance of the past – even those things that we wished we had done differently – does not mean that we somehow lose the ability to appreciate all that there is to be proud about. Either view – all positive or all doom-and-gloom – is too superficial to be helpful in creating character and shaping identity.
Identity is as much defined by the way you see yourself as it is created by the way that others see you. Our idea of who we are is not just formed through our internal distinctiveness but also through our experience with others and the stereotypes society lays before us. It is shaped by self-expression and through our interaction with others, our socialisation by family, education and community, and our positive and negative experience in the world. Who we are is a process, transformed by our intellectual, emotional and spiritual growth, moulded by the actions, judgements and expectations of others. Our identity has a narcissistic, introverted and existential aspect that has the need for space and freedom for self-expression. It also has a symbiotic communal, extroverted and fraternal aspect that requires public space and institutional arrangements that provide the space and freedom to do as we wish.
The strength of Malouf’s essay lies in his ability to connect the trappings of culture and language to their institutional form. The relationship between society and its institutions is one that is often overlooked or downplayed. Laws are only a reflection of the society that makes them. Perhaps the best, and most quoted, example of this phenomenon is that Stalin’s Russia had a Bill of Rights. Our laws mean nothing if they are not enacted into a society that has the political, social and ethical will to ensure that they are interpreted and applied in the way they are intended to be.
However, there is one trap in the exaltation of our current legal system. We can all acknowledge that the common law is the most superior form of legal system and that the Westminster system the most democratic form of government, but that should not lead to the conclusion that they are perfect. Nor can the nobility of their principle lead to the supposition that they are implemented in the spirit in which they were intended. In fact, for all of the cornerstones of British law that we inherit – innocent until proven guilty, the rule of law, separation of powers, free elections – there are many examples of the way in which the gaps in that common law have led to the gross violation of human rights, particularly of the poor, marginalised, culturally distinct.
Malouf’s example of slavery raises this very issue. It is often held to be a distinguishing feature of the superiority of our legal system that there has never been an institutionalised form of slavery as part of our laws and that, as a result, we have avoided the hypocrisy of creating social and moral stigma while espousing egalitarianism. That may be the case that can be argued when looking at the black and white of the statute books. But Pacific Islanders who were “black-birded” and Aboriginal people who were unpaid for their work on cattle stations and in the kitchens of middle-class Australia found little comfort in the lack of legal sanction for the deprivation of their liberty and the exploitation of their labour. The fact that we have a system of laws that is silent on rights protection and therefore allows such violations of commonly assumed liberties without the need for formal laws is one of the more unfortunate legacies of our constitutional heritage. Idolisation of the English system of government often leads to the “if it ain’t broke, don’t fix it” attitude that sees endorsement of laws if they work for the rich, middle-class and culturally dominant rather than measuring them against the way they work for the poor, marginalised and culturally distinct.
Malouf’s honest affection and insightful reflections on Australia and its embrace of British culture, like all powerful ideas, will be misinterpreted and exploited by those who are engaged in Australia’s vicious “culture wars”. Those who have sought to discredit the “black armband” view of Australia understand better than anyone how the values of society shape our institutions. These fierce debates focus on the telling of history, the squabbling about numbers killed on the frontier and the debates over the proper legal definition of “genocide”. But they are not discussions about “Aboriginal history”; the experience and perspectives of Indigenous people remains unchanged by semantic and numerical debates by academics. They are, instead, a battle about “non-Aboriginal” history and, more importantly, “white” identity. It is a debate whose results will have a profound influence on the values of our society for years to come and will determine whether we move towards tolerance, acceptance, co-existence and diversity, or whether we continue to move towards intolerance, suspicion, fear and conformity. It is because the stakes are so high that this war has been waged through so many of our cultural institutions, including the Australian Broadcasting Commission and the National Museum of Australia.
The use of Malouf’s essay to merely extol the virtues of our British past would misrepresent the undercurrent of recognition of Indigenous experience beneath his honest affection for what it is that makes us proud to be Australian. The real promise of his essay is that, if we are as truthful about what makes us great as we are about what we could have done better, we will be better equipped, more confident, as a nation to choose a dynamic, independent, unique and exciting future. I think Greer, and even Watson, would agree with that proposition even if their blueprints for that pathway would be vastly different.
Aboriginal Australia has long embraced its diversity while struggling to maintain a unified national front. We will continue to watch with interest as our fellow Australians struggle with their own identity crisis.
Larissa Behrendt is Professor of Law and Indigenous Studies and Director of the Jumbunna Indigenous House of Learning at the University of Technology, Sydney. Her latest book, Achieving Social Justice, is published by the Federation Press. Home, her first novel, will be published in May by UQP.
This correspondence featured in Quarterly Essay 13, Sending Them Home.
ALSO FROM QUARTERLY ESSAY