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What binds us?

By Bill Calcutt - posted Friday, 21 June 2013

In an earlier article in OLO ("Culture wars and national identity") I argued that many of Australia's core values are only vaguely defined, and as a consequence our national character can seem amorphous and our cultural narrative confusing. In a 2006 Australia Day address then Prime Minister John Howard lauded the absence of institutionalised standards for "Australianness" and emphatically rejected the need to codify national values in a Bill of Rights. A lack of attachment to a distinctive national identity may partially explain why, in a 2004 World Values Survey, Australia is ranked 35th out of 59 countries in terms of social inclusiveness.

Values are the core beliefs, principles and ideals that guide and motivate individual and community attitudes and actions. Values are a vital and enduring part of the fabric of Australia's cultural narrative, and are much more than the formal rules and laws that govern society. Understanding the level of commitment to shared values is crucial in any discussion about social cohesion in a pluralist society, particularly as national differences pale in an increasingly integrated global world. Issues surrounding inclusion and alienation have been bought into sharp contrast as various governments have struggled to understand and minimise ideologically-motivated violence by their own citizens, most recently in the United Kingdom following the horrific Woolwich murder (prompting a resurgence of race-based nationalism).

This article seeks to identify some of the implicit values of the "lucky country" and to consider whether these values are reflected in our contemporary cultural narrative. Australian values have their origins in a two century old European colonial heritage. Many of our national institutions, including a prosaic constitution, a policy of cultural homogeneity until the mid 1970s, a faltering reconciliation with our indigenous people, and a continuing subordination to the British monarchy, reflect an adaptive and evolving rather than mature Australian society. In his 2006 address John Howard described the elements of Australia's "dominant cultural pattern" as Judeo-Christian ethics, the institutions and values of British political culture, and an "egalitarian temper" born of Irish and non-conformist traditions.


The Howard address also acknowledges that "a sense of shared values is our social cement". The "common values that bind us together as one people" include "respect for freedom and dignity of the individual, a commitment to the rule of law, the equality of men and women, and a spirit of egalitarianism that embraces tolerance, fair play and compassion for those in need." Many of the descriptions of the Australian character refer to egalitarianism as a key national trait, seemingly reflecting wide acceptance of the concept of "a fair go for all". Likewise an informality and sense of irreverence is reflected in the idiom "she'll be right" and "no worries", and much of the historical narrative focuses on the role of the "larrikin" and resistance to authority (Ned Kelly, Eureka Stockade). The discourse around the Anzac tradition seems to encapsulate particular regard for the values of honour, courage, mateship and perseverance.

Does this vaguely romantic self-image accord with reality? In the absence of the explicit articulation of core national values do Australians actually behave in honourable and compassionate ways, or is the rhetoric of these ideals divorced from reality? How do we reconcile the idea of egalitarianism with thinly veiled racism and sexism? Many who have studied this nation from a afar have observed that Australia is a country of enormous contradictions. Despite our position as a relatively wealthy developed nation founded on migration, Australia continues to demonstrate great insecurity in responding thoughtfully and effectively to the challenges of 21st century globalisation.

The shallowness of Australia's cultural narrative (and the weakness of the underlying values) has been exposed as technology has challenged traditional power structures. As a healthy democracy, politicians have for decades been the primary custodians of the nation's (often contested) cultural narrative, perhaps augmented by the media. The ubiquitous extension of real-time information has eroded the role of elected representatives and shifted the power to inform, shape and represent public opinion to the media. While technology nominally enhances opportunities for democratic participation through the diversification of voices and avenues, it also means that "news" as a business has become highly competitive.

Technology has fundamentally transformed what was traditionally a symbiotic relationship between elected representatives and the media. Politicians have struggled to adjust to this new intense environment, increasingly reverting to simple slogans and ten second sound grabs suitable for populist consumption. As reporting has become more lurid (fighting to attract sales) politicians have reverted to personal denigration and vicious character assassination, seeking to undermine the community's trust in the opponent's integrity and to engender a toxic and seemingly chaotic political environment. With growing community cynicism of politics our elected representatives have struggled to articulate a coherent and enduring narrative on where Australia has come from, how and why it is adapting to the challenges of a rapidly changing world, and what sort of nation and society we aspire to become.

At the same time the mainstream media no longer purports to report the facts dispassionately but seeks to creates a saleable information product (typically opinion) in a highly competitive market. Given the shift of power it was perhaps inevitable that elements of the media would seek to directly influence national politics and policy. By (re)framing the narrative the media is able to create a new "reality" and use the resultant public sentiment (fear, outrage, disgust) to bring ultimately unbearable pressure to bear to force political change. Intense media coverage is able to systematically build a sense of urgency and crisis that demands political action, leading ultimately to the removal of key figures and the rejection of key policies.

It may be that the strongest sentiment that currently binds the Australian community is simply universal disgust at the standard of public discourse and the disintegration of our democratic institutions.

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About the Author

Bill Calcutt worked in a range of intelligence roles in the Australian Security Intelligence Organization and the National Crime Authority from the early 1970s till the mid 1990s.

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