As another Australia Day approaches and the inevitable wagons of shame begin to circle, it’s worth touching on the things to be thankful for and worth celebrating since Arthur Phillip’s First Fleet pulled into Sydney Cove.
Far from a time of historical lament, it is a starting point for a continuously democratic, tolerant and prosperous nation. While self-criticism has its place, Australia’s story of growth – from humble beginnings – is something that all Australians can be proud of, regardless of complexion or heritage.
Here aren’t just 10, but 11 reasons to stand tall this Australia Day.
1 Standard of living
Today we tend to speak like economists when describing national success – credit ratings, GDP growth and a decades-long absence from a recession.
But for everyday Australians, this means we strive to remain a mobile society. Businesses seek risk and reward, jobs are created, prosperity ensues and, even if you’re born to a poor Australian family, there’s a very good chance you won’t stay there.
Strong fundamentals and wise fiscal decisions made by earlier generations doesn’t mean there isn’t more work to do – mountains of red-green tape still daunt businesses, productivity remains a concern, and interest rates keep a lot of Aussie economists awake at night. But we should continue to pay acute attention to remaining competitive and giving commerce space to flourish.
2 Rule of law
A strong rule of law has, far from just ‘courts, clerks and contracts’, offered Australians of all backgrounds something unique to human history – protection from tyranny. This meant the rioters at Lambing Flat turning up Chinese gold mining camps in 1861 were rapidly suppressed by marines and police, that the perpetrators of the 1838 indigenous Myall Creek Massacre were properly brought to justice, and that Governor Phillip’s system where ‘each receives their due’ has aspired to last the test of time.
3 A culture of benevolence
As our recent bushfires show, Australians are great givers when times are tough.
But we also look beyond our shores in difficult times. As far back as the 1870s Indian famine, for example, the predecessor to the Australian Football League gave all gate takings to famine relief efforts, displaying a unique level of neighbourly compassion. Over a century later we would see similar efforts for the 2004 Boxing Day Tsunami.
The Thai Cave rescue and the role played by two Australians of the Year reinforce and symbolise this spirit of benevolence. “Kindness in another’s trouble,” in the words of 19th-century Australian poet Adam Gordon Lindsay, “courage in your own.”
4 A culture of manners and egalitarianism
Australians say ‘thank you’ to the bus driver, notes Nick Cater in The Lucky Culture, and we tend to sit in the front of the cab.
Good manners also reveal a sense of ‘social glue’. In the 1850s, in a public debate on transportation, David Kemp notes in his book The Land of Dreams, a Mr R Craig observed how this egalitarian thinking was helping to shape the next generation of minds: “At present the children of the once bond and the free are taught at the same schools and are taught by the same masters – and this is as it should be. How delightful it is to see the young growing up together as brethren of the same family.”
This ‘family’ would, eventually, become a new nation. And it has set the tone for a weary but genuine cliché – in Australia, it isn’t where you’re from but where you’re going that counts.
5 An appreciation for timing
Mining the past touches on many good things but generally misses the importance of the timing of the First Fleet’s arrival. The late 1700s was a time of invention – the x-ray, locomotive and the telephone had their start – and a saintly commitment to private property was buzzing, as well as concepts of enlightenment and democracy. This truly was a ‘sweet spot’ in Western history but, if Australia was settled in any other period, things could have turned out very differently.
Some Australians endlessly meditate that our ‘future lies in Asia’ and stop there. But Australia has matched its British history, and values-based alliances, while building unique ties to South Pacific neighbours and powerhouses India, Indonesia and China.
Being an island nation also means we maintain strong borders, which isn’t just about offshore processing but first-rate quarantine laws and the protection of Australia’s unique natural environment.
Every decent nation is a nation of immigrants, especially when, as Tony Abbott recently noted, “the vast majority of migrants are coming here to join us, not to change us.” This ‘open for business’ message didn’t start with Whitlam, or even the Colombo Plan, but had its roots much earlier on the Victorian goldfields. In the 1850s, on the verge of Australia’s first resources boom, nearly a quarter of the colony’s population was Chinese-born. This shows that, even at a perceived time of narrow provincialism, the colonies facilitated economic opportunity from most parts of the world.
8 The Monarchy
Australians are less keen on a republic, and for good reason. The Crown, sitting above politics, has delivered Australian institutions a level of unique stability. In 1975 – during our biggest political crisis since the Rum Rebellion – the Governor-General Sir John Kerr not only sacked the prime minister but dissolved both houses of parliament. In doing so, he ended an intractable government shutdown and returned to where democracies need to go at times of uncertainty – the people.
9 Westminster leadership
Churchill famously noted that a Westminster parliamentary system is certainly not the best but better than any others that have been tried. It has served Australia more than well – enabling politicians to remain close to constituents and generally called upon practical rather than fanciful leaders — although there are still plenty of exceptions.
But as the Australian academic John Carroll correctly observes, the traditional work of Australian politicians has been “difficult and unglamorous, requiring a lot of selfless discipline, sobriety, tenacity and judgment.” It also means that key executive decisions are subject to a noisy parliament – not something that always occurs in a presidential system.
We are heavily conditioned to think of innovation as the domain of Silicon Valley and the work of Elon Musk. But Australian history is full of examples like the stump jump plough, merino wool, the combine harvester and rust resistant wheat. While not glamorous, it is Australian innovation at its finest – driven by necessity, harnessing the tough natural environment and resulting in a better standard of living for all.
Today, in the absence of total war, it is hard to truly appreciate the past sacrifice made by so many young, good and decent Australians. In World War II, as a percentage of the population, nearly twice as many Australians gave their lives as Americans. In World War I, this sacrifice was more than ten times as many, casting a level of grief and heartbreak on many families and communities across a young nation.
One need not possess direct lineage to these Australians to participate in our symbols of thanks or remembrance. After all, they are to remind us of “comradeship”, in the words of John Monash, “which must hold us together in the same patriotic spirit in these days of peace that bound us shoulder to shoulder in the years of war.”
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