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What does it mean to be 'Australian'?

By Don Aitkin - posted Monday, 29 April 2013


Plainly Anzac Day is more important to us all than Australia Day, if attendances at Dawn services are anything to go by. And the young have discovered Anzac Day, which has given it a great shot in the arm. I think my first Anzac Day was 1951, and we Air Training Corps cadets did something at the special moment, though I can no longer remember what it was. We were in uniform, anyway, and marched, though not in the march proper.

There were still quite a lot of Great War diggers left, and they were the focus of the march. Their numbers dwindled, and after the Vietnam War it seemed to me that Anzac Day might dwindle away too. But it is reborn, and in robust health. The centenary of the landing at Gallipoli will be a major national event.

And each year I wonder, again, what it all means. Would the 1914-18 Diggers have thought they were fighting for the right to a gay marriage, an end to climate change or an Australian republic? It's a rhetorical question, but there is a serious side to it. I can remember a returned soldier from the 1939-45 conflict telling me seriously that he felt that he was fighting to allow Australians to decide what sort of society they wanted to live in. And I can also remember returned soldiers having a go at the RSL, when it was going through one of its frequent conservative phases.

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We've been lucky, and we are still able to decide, to a degree anyway, what sort of society we want to live in. But it is apparent that we don't agree about many aspects of that society. Over the years I have argued that there is a set of values that mark Australian society: equality, fairness, toleration, aspiration and respect. It is the whole set that is important, and you could say that the set would be common to any civilised society.

But as I get older I wonder how common that set of values is in contemporary Australia. A diet of television news does not offer much support for the view that any of these values, let alone the whole set, is widespread. I used to think that those core values were more prevalent here than in, say, the UK or the USA, two countries where I have lived and worked. Now I'm not sure.

I like to suggest that there is and has been an 'Australia project' – the building of a new society under the Southern Cross that would be free of the cleavages and divisions of the Old World. It was a project that waxed and waned, being interrupted by depressions and wars, and only really getting into its stride in the 1950s. I'm not sure how many realise that the Australia of 1947, some 7 million strong, would take in another 6 million by 2002, and with a great amount of goodwill and harmony. Now we're past 23 million, and where is the Australia project? Where will it be when we pass 35 million, in the next decade or two?

So I can get gloomy, and say that this is not what I expected, and act like the classic Grumpy Old Man. But when I look at my children and grandchildren I become more cheerful, thinking that they're a pretty good lot, and love their country. I think about the young people who graduated from my University, for whom I had a lot of time.

And I think about the young woman whom I saw on television news last night. Asked what she had gained from the Anzac Day march, she replied, her eyes glowing, 'They inspire me!' That's what I've been looking for – the notion of inspiration that comes, not for how much money they might earn or, even worse, how much money they might win, but from the notion that great good comes from doing things for others.

That notion of service, especially of voluntary service, underpins all the other values I mentioned earlier. It is what I treasure most about our country. I don't think that Anzac Day glorifies war. Rather, it glorifies service, and mateship, and sacrifice. In what is presently a somewhat self-centred society, there is a lot to be said for one day when we talk about, and honour, men and women who have done the hard yards for the rest of us – and present them as the right models for the young.

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About the Author

Don Aitkin has been an academic and vice-chancellor. His latest book, published in 2015, is Turning Point, the second novel in The Hogarth Trilogy.

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