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Celebrating our Western tradition

By Kevin Donnelly - posted Monday, 11 September 2006

Joseph Furphy, in a letter to The Bulletin magazine’s editor JF Archibald, describes Such is Life as follows: “temper, democratic; bias, offensively Australian”. In answering the question: what creeds should we hold in common? Furphy’s description encapsulates what is unique about our culture and what we should celebrate as a nation.

Australia has a long and proud history of democratic freedom, based on the Westminster parliamentary system and English common law. Since federation we have led the world in introducing reforms such as universal franchise, the old age pension and a conciliation and arbitration system based on “a fair go for all”.

One only needs to travel abroad or to look at our music, literature, film and other cultural expressions like fashion and sport, to appreciate what is unique and distinctive about the Australian character. Laconic, open and practical, egalitarian, but also competitive and compared to closed societies, tolerant to a degree that is sometimes counter productive.


While our society and culture have evolved, especially since the end of World War II as a result of our immigration policy, and it is no longer fashionable to acknowledge the values we hold in common, the reality is that Australia, in a region surrounded by instability and violence, is an outpost of Western civilisation characterised by an open and free society.

Those on the “cultural left” deny this heritage. Especially when it comes to education, much of the curriculum associated with studies of society and the environment (SOSE) states that Australian culture and society is characterised by diversity and difference.

As noted by Kenan Malik in All cultures are not equal, the prevailing intellectual climate in the West is to disparage what we should hold most dear, he states:

To be radical today is to display disenchantment with all that is “Western” - by which means modernism and the ideas of the Enlightenment - in the name of “diversity” and “difference”. The modernist project of pursuing a rational, scientific understanding of the natural and social world is now widely regarded as a dangerous fantasy, even as oppressive.

Instead of celebrating Australia’s Western tradition, including our Anglo-Celtic heritage, students are told that we have always been multicultural and that all cultures are of equal worth. When one reads the SOSE documents the focus is on what divides us, instead of what we share in common.

The Tasmanian curriculum, when explaining what is meant by social responsibility, emphasises the need to endorse “multiple perspectives” and “diverse views”.


The South Australian curriculum, in outlining the importance of students understanding cultural and global connections, also emphasises “diversity” and “difference”, as does the ACT curriculum, under the heading “Australian Perspectives”, when it says that students should experience the “diversity of Australian life”.

The way studying Australian history is described in the Victorian curriculum also stresses diversity, multiple influences and the multicultural nature of Australian society - with the exception of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander communities that are given special treatment.

The Italian philosopher, Marcello Pera describes the argument in favour of cultural relativism as follows:

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About the Author

Dr Kevin Donnelly is a Senior Research Fellow at the Australian Catholic University and he recently co-chaired the review of the Australian national curriculum. He can be contacted at He is author of Australia’s Education Revolution: How Kevin Rudd Won and Lost the Education Wars available to purchase at

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