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The values of democracy, mateship and country

By Peter van Vliet - posted Friday, 15 September 2006

The values that to me help define what it means to be Australian are those of democracy, mateship, and country. These are inclusive and profoundly optimistic values, which all Australians, regardless of their cultural background, can carry into the 21st century. Combined with recognition of our Indigenous history and a celebration of our status as an immigrant nation these are values that can serve to unite rather than divide Australians.

As a federal, parliamentary democracy, Australia’s system of government is among the most continuous and stable in the world. Our collective commitment to democracy is something that should be universally celebrated to a much greater extent than is currently the case.

In Australia we can take great pride in being world leaders in the democratic project. The continuing rise of democracy is based on the simple, universal and powerful truth that governments should ultimately be accountable to, ruled by and governed for the people. While America’s current botched international policies are giving democracy a bad name, the move towards global democracy continues unabated anyway. This is because democracy is something that all free people aspire to - it is a truly universal value.


Our democratic history can be traced back to the Ballarat Eureka uprising of 1854 and the granting of representative and responsible government to most of Australia’s then colonies around that time. Our democratic tradition was further confirmed at federation in 1901 where our Federal Constitution was agreed to peacefully and democratically by the Australian people by referendum, highly unusual at the time.

During the constitutional crisis of 1975 other countries might have collapsed if placed in a similar scenario. But Australians simply chose to refer their differences to the ballot box. It was the instinctively Australian and democratic thing to do. Political disputes in Australia are settled by votes not violence. The noble creed of democracy is the first Australian value that we should all acknowledge and celebrate. It is a creed that holds us all together.

Being Australian also means acknowledging the great local creed of mateship. Mateship means lending a helping hand and looking out for others. It means relating to all people as equals and not according to the caste and class distinctions more characteristic of the old world. Some older feminists cringe at the term “mate” with its blokey blue collar connotations. But many younger women have embraced the term. Recently arrived migrants often develop an immediate connection with the term mate and use it proudly.

Whatever terminology we use, the values of equality and egalitarianism are unashamedly Australia. Being Australian now also recognises that women are equal to men and should be able to participate in our society to the fullest. Mateship and equality across the sexes is something we should all be proud of.

Being Australian also means having connection to country. Indigenous Australians connection to country is deeply spiritual and hugely significant to their cultural identity. Their connection to country dates back 40,000 years as the first Australian arrivals from the North.

But to non-Indigenous Australians there is also strong connection. A connection to the open skies and the wide space of our shared homeland. A connection to the smell of eucalyptus, the blossom of the wattle, and to our magnificent fauna. A connection to the great Southern Cross which helps light up our sky at night and keeps a watchful eye over our national destiny.


Celebrating the creed of country also puts Indigenous Australians right at the centre of our national story where they belong. It acknowledges Indigenous Australians special connection to our great land. Love of our big country is our biggest pride. The creed of country should be a creed that unites us all.

Australia is a multicultural, multilayered nation. Only Indigenous Australians can lay claim to ancestry that dates back more than 220 years and even they arrived as immigrants from distant lands many thousands years ago. On top of recognising our indigenous heritage, we need to celebrate and acknowledge our status as an immigrant nation.

From the first prison ships of 1788, to the significant numbers of skilled and humanitarian migrants arriving by jet in the 21st century, Australia is a land that continues to be populated by immigrants. With one in four Australians born overseas and 40 per cent of Australians either being born overseas, or having at least one parent born overseas, Australia status as an immigrant nation is an indisputable truth. In our big cities like Sydney and Melbourne multiculturalism is now the mainstream. It is something to celebrate and something that brings profound cultural, social and economic benefits.

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About the Author

Peter van Vliet is a senior public servant.

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