Posted by: Lisa Hill | November 28, 2019

The Golden Country, Australia’s Changing Identity, by Tim Watts

Like most people in Australia, I don’t usually have shelf-space for books written by Australian politicians.  I don’t mind the occasional political bio such as David Day’s biographies of Curtin and Chifley, but there are only two here on the blog: Margaret Simon’s recent biography of Senator Penny Wong (see my review here) and a very disappointing one of former SA Premier Don DunstanCraig Emerson’s autobiography was another exception.  But when it comes to politicians writing books about their political views, well, I’d rather do my tax return…

However, occasionally a book gets under my guard.  Some readers may remember that I reviewed Two Futures, Australia at a Crossroads about four years ago. It was written by two Labor politicians, (then) backbencher Clare O’Neil and Tim Watts, and the book explored Australia’s long-term future.  It was because I admired that book that I bought Tim Watts’ new one, and it’s turned out to be rather interesting.

(You may remember that it was the catalyst for my recent reading of Bigger or Better, Australia’s Population Debate by Ian Lowe).

As the federal member for Gellibrand, one of Melbourne’s most ethnically diverse suburbs, Watts is witness to the transformation of our society since the infamous White Australia policy was ditched, and this book is a thoughtful exploration of how that came about, as well as a discussion about how this diversity isn’t always reflected in our institutions such as parliament or the board room.

Although this diversity isn’t reflected in rural and regional areas, it seems that survey after survey reveals that Australians are mostly comfortable with multiculturalism, and we don’t (in contrast to monocultures like Japan) tend to feel that you have to be born here to be ‘truly Australian’.  But what is expected is that it’s very important to ‘share national customs and traditions’ to be truly Australian.  

This, says Watts, is a strong platform on which to build a national identity that is based on shared values and experiences, rather than birthright or ethnicity. And what are those elements of our culture that we are expected to conform to?  Oh dear, I fail two of the four that are reported as being ‘especially Australian’: 

  • ‘belief in the fair go (89%);
  • ‘love of the great outdoors’ (89%);
  • ‘a sense of humour’ (89%); and
  • ‘interest in sport’ (82%) (p.122)

Yes, you guessed it, I am not interested in the great outdoors (except for vineyards), and I have no interest in any sport, of any kind.  So notwithstanding having lived and worked and paid taxes here for over half a century, and despite my love of Australian literature, my fondness for my city, and the homesickness that assails me within three weeks of a long-anticipated overseas holiday, it turns out that I am unAustralian.

OTOH 78% of respondents said that was ‘especially Australian’ to have a diversity of background, and I’ve got that, so I expect I’ll get over it:)

Watts is optimistic about the way Australians perceive themselves:

Australians view themselves as egalitarians in norms and manners, connected with the land and the outdoors, open to newcomers to our country, but anxious to preserve Australian values as they are.  When you ask Australians how they feel about national identity and the new diversity in our nation, you hear a much more optimistic story than you would if you listen only to out polarised political debate. (p.122)

Amen to that!

However, I take issue with the suggestion that Australia’s national memory of the First World War is partly shaped by bias.  Watts reminds us of the primacy of the story of Simpson and his Donkey, and compares that with the anonymity of a sniper called Billy Sing.  (You might remember that I reviewed Ouyang Yu’s book about him in 2017).

Billy Sing was born in Clermont in outback Queensland, the country of ‘Waltzing Matilda’ and the great shearing strikes of the 1890s.  He was a stockman, cane-cutter, cricketer and kangaroo shooter who was said to be able to shoot the tail off a piglet from twenty-five yards when still a boy.  He was a joker and a larrikin whose commanding officer wrote of him: ‘I don’t think there was a man better known or respected and liked throughout the regiment and he deserved it.  He was a good-hearted, well-behaved fellow and a braver soldier never shouldered a gun.’ Sing was the living embodiment of the Australian Legend in a way that Simpson could never be. (p. 71)

He was awarded the Distinguished Conduct Medal, was wounded three times, and gassed at Gallipoli and on the Western Front.  But his only mention in Bean’s Official History is in a caption to a photo, which reads ‘Trooper W. E. Sing, 5th Light Horse Regiment, with his observer.  It was estimated that Sing had shot 250 Turks.  Although this was an exaggeration, he was probably the most effective sniper at Anzac.’ (p.70)

That, I think, is why Sing never became a national hero.  IMO It’s got nothing to do with him being ethnically Chinese. A stretcher-bearer is a unifying figure, and a healing one, for a nation in mourning.  Whatever the value of a sniper in military operations, there is something distasteful about a soldier concealed from the enemy picking off victims one-by-one.  It may be necessary, it is obviously brave, and self-evidently it takes great skill, but the mourning families and subsequent generations of Australian schoolchildren would, I think, have felt uneasy about any sniper as the embodiment of Anzac.

But Watts covers a great many more issues that this one.  For a wide-ranging review, see The Guardian.

Author: Tim Watts
Title: The Golden Country, Australia’s Changing Identity
Publisher: Text Publishing, 2019, 231 pages
ISBN: 9781925603989
Source: Personal library, purchased from Fishpond $25.87

Available from Fishpond: The Golden Country: Australia’s Changing Identity

 


Responses

  1. It disapoints me that people still try to argue that there is one set of characteristics which is Australian. Firstly that one set is often claimed by other countries too; secondly there are lots of sets; and finally you can be like no.one else at all and still be Australian

    Like

    • I hear you… but I think Watts is looking for a unifying set of values to be the glue that holds us all together. It’s just a pity that he chose to highlight values, that he thinks are common and easily adopted, when they are not. The sport thing, for example, is something that Aussies might think is what’s unique about Australian culture, and IMO they are right. Very few countries can have the luxury of spending so much money and time on sport. Many migrants come from places where sport is regarded as an indulgence and most of them don’t waste their time on it.
      But more importantly, barracking for a side brings out the tribal in any of us, and I think the subtext of the survey answer is that you can recognise a real Aussie because he barracks for Australia, not the country he came from.
      The whole topic brings up the issue of conformity, but LOL, as an import now outed as unAustralian, that’s not for me to say…

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  2. I like some sport but not the mainstream ones. I can’t believe you don’t love the great outdoors. But I don’t think Australians have the monopoly on that. What about the betting and drinking culture in this cou try? Surprised that isn’t on the list. I agree with wadholloway. You can be like no one else and still be Australian. 🐑🐑🐑

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    • To be honest, I don’t know what I’d say if I were asked what are the most important values to share: I think it would depend what mood I was in.
      I do care about the environment, but not for me since I am a city person who is happy indoors. I care about it for the animals, of course, but also for people like The Offspring who want to trek in the wilderness and climb mountains &c.

      Liked by 1 person

  3. Straight onto my library reserve list! Thank you I think ;-)

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