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Culturally transmitted identity

By Patricia Jenkings - posted Monday, 26 June 2006

Gough Whitlam was right when he said Australia is a nation of immigrants. In fact, the nature of Australia’s immigration process has significantly influenced the establishment of Australian cultural identity.

In defining the experiential factors of immigration, the cultural component has been the essential element that tied the experience of new Australians to his or her country of origin. This act of transference or transmission, through immigration as a vehicle, can be referred to as cultural transmission and it could be argued has increasingly influenced Australia’s cultural direction.

The Australian Aborigines are descendants of migrants who settled in this continent approximately 40,000 years ago. With the arrival of the First Fleet to Australian shores in 1788, the British set about establishing Australia’s first white settler society, which included a parliamentary system based on the Westminster model, trade unions, businesses, universities, clubs, schools and the playing of sports including rugby football, cricket and tennis.


Many new settlers, however, endeavoured to break from their past and start again due to hardships endured in their native land. The Irish came to escape religious and political tyrannies and the Great Famine (1845-59). Following the pattern of Irish immigration to America, the Irish settlers to Australian shores arrived with their cultural baggage. In both Australia and America, the Irish Catholics exemplified a sense of cohesion because of their size, clannishness and strong religious ties.

The preference to retain the old way of life was also evident in the moderate number of non-British immigrants who were filtering into the colony.  Between 1838 and 1860 about 6,000 Germans fled their homeland for the same reasons the majority of Irish fled, poor economic conditions, particularly in rural areas and religious oppression.

The arrival of large numbers of Chinese had a significant and lasting effect on Australian immigration policies. Between 1851 and 1861, their numbers increased from less than 2,000 to over 40,000 making them the third largest national group in Australia after the British and the Germans. The Chinese were largely treated with indifference and discriminated against because of their cultural differences and appearance, but their cuisine became quite popular among native-born Australians.

The effect of cultural transmission was most evident, however, in the aftermath of the World War II. During this period, Prime Minister Chifley’s Labor Government introduced an unprecedented immigration program which fundamentally changed Australia’s cultural composition. The Chifley Government proposed an annual intake of 1 per cent of the population. British immigrations were afforded highest priority and ten British for every non-British were sought. However, as sufficient numbers did not arrive to satisfy the government’s requirements, Australia looked beyond Britain and for the first time, the Australian Government provided substantial assistance for large numbers of new settlers of non-British extraction.

Newcomers were expected to conform to established patterns and not destroy the cultural identity of Australian society. An important feature of the 1949 Australia Day Act introduced by the Chifley Government was that it provided the means for new arrivals to join the native-born as Australians. Through the legislation the notion of “Australian citizen” allowed all Australians, whether of British or non-British background, to have membership of Australian society, including all the legal and political responsibilities and privileges accompanying such status.

Immigrants who became Australian citizens, therefore, shared with the native-born the same basic responsibilities and privileges. Subsequently, the acquisition of Australian citizenship by migrants gave them greater opportunity to amalgamate into the wider Australian community.


Nevertheless, basic habits such as eating, drinking, fashion and involvement in “new” sports, including soccer, increasingly became popular through the new settlers' impact on established traditions and the effects of cultural transmission. New settlers to Australian shores of non-English speaking background blended old cultural habits with those of the new land.

Recently, the effects of cultural transmission have been evidenced in sport and an increasing interest in soccer. Large numbers have chosen to stay up until all hours of the morning to watch World Cup football matches. Mike Field, Deputy Manager of SBS, reported that the soccer match between Australian and Japan was the biggest audience for a program at that time of night on any station. He added, “the only thing that’s comparable is Wimbledon and the Ashes, but the average audiences for both were much lower. It’s really phenomenal.” The figures exclude the large number watching the match in pubs and clubs.

Thus, Australia has more readily culturally transformed since the arrival of the First Fleet with their English-made cultural habits. The overseas origins of Australia’s culture have created a society, which increasingly exhibits a “patchwork quilt” of overseas influences. As we move into the 21st Century, with globalisation and the effects of global and domestic conflict on cultural grounds, one wonders what future implications will emanate from the impact of cultural transmission.

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About the Author

Patricia Jenkings is a former political advisor. She has a PhD from the University of Sydney in social policy studies and education.

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