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Contesting the constructs of national identity and values

By Tristan Ewins - posted Wednesday, 27 September 2006

What creeds should Australians hold in common?

In recent months, a debate has exploded about the nature of “Australian values”, and of the need to promote said values in our teaching of history and to demand an appreciation of Australian values, history and culture as a precondition of citizenship.

Prime Minister John Howard has forcefully communicated a view that multiculturalism can be taken too far, that there is a need for a clear national narrative and a clear sense of national identity. In particular, Howard’s insistence on an English proficiency test for migrants as a condition of citizenship would be certain to discriminate against older migrants.


While Kim Beazley has shadowed John Howard closely in this debate, the broad Left has been overwhelmingly critical of the Howard view of multiculturalism and of what Howard is now calling a commitment to a policy of

What are we to make of this debate and what are we to make of the call to more clearly define “Australian values”?

While some who identify as being from the Left have responded cynically to calls for a clearer definition of “Australian values”, supposing a desire among conservative politicians for a return to an imagined monocultural past, or to force a restrictive political template on a pluralist public sphere, there is much at stake in the battle to contest Australian identity and perceived national values.

Generally speaking, Australia enjoys a liberal democratic political culture: a culture where freedom of speech, assembly and association are more or less taken for granted, as are political representation and a division of powers that prevents the arbitrary exercise of authority.

It is, indeed, ironic that those on the conservative side of politics, who have historically done much to undermine Australia’s social liberal settlement - for example the attempt to ban the Communist Party; Bjelke-Petersen’s ban on street demonstrations; and more recently, the introduction of punitive labour and sedition laws - appear now to be most ardent in advocating the recognition and enforcement of liberal principles.

The hypocrisy of the conservatives in this regard, though, ought not to lead us to dismiss the value of liberal tradition, institutions and culture. Many on the Left today are dismissive of Western tradition and of the Enlightenment principles that historically have guided the development of Western liberalism. Living in a country where liberal rights are generally taken for granted, it is easy to forget that there was once a time, in the Western world, where the arbitrary power of what Sieyes called the Second and First Estates - the monarchy, aristocracy and clergy - stifled political and philosophical discourse.


More recently, brutal and arbitrary power has been exercised in its Stalinist and fascist guises, as well as in neo-liberal and US client regimes in Central and South America (for example, Guatemala, Nicaragua, Pinochet’s Chile), to devastating effect. If anything, the rapid and generally unexpected rise of fascism in the heart of Europe in the 20th century shows the potential fragility of those liberal rights and institutions we take for granted.

The point of this, essentially, is that liberal rights and institutions, as well as an open, participatory and pluralist public sphere, are things worth defending and extending. What is more, there is nothing inherently wrong with educating our youth in the values and principles that underpin the liberal tradition: in particular the pluralism and culture of open inquiry that ought to ensure the representation of diverse and opposing perspectives in our public sphere, and in the curricula of our educational institutions.

If anything, providing for a critical appreciation of history, politics, ethics and society throughout the public sphere and throughout our educational institutions, in the spirit of fearless and open inquiry, is a duty that government owes its citizens and a duty that, collectively, we have to ourselves and our children.

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About the Author

Tristan Ewins has a PhD and is a freelance writer, qualified teacher and social commentator based in Melbourne, Australia. He is also a long-time member of the Socialist Left of the Australian Labor Party (ALP). He blogs at Left Focus, ALP Socialist Left Forum and the Movement for a Democratic Mixed Economy.

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