Defining Australia’s national identity
There is a danger in the collective West, including Australia, that we become a people increasingly overwhelmed, confused and frightened. We do so in the face of the intensity, complexity and rapidity of mega-changes washing over us.
Among these are the impact of compounding technological change on both national competitiveness and labour force displacement; the disappearing drivers of long-term economic growth for Australia, including population, workforce participation and productivity; as well as the clear ravages of climate change. Our society confronts an ageing population; an unsustainable healthcare, hospital and aged-care system; as well as a hollowing out of science, technology, engineering and mathematics across our education system.
We also confront a fragmenting global order given China’s rise and America’s response to it; a growing wave of people movements across the world generated by political or climate instability; the polarisation of our democracies between rich and poor; and the failure of much of the traditional politics of the centre-right and the centre-left to offer real solutions, resulting in a hollowing out of the political centre.
And underpinning all of this, a new, gaping chasm in our deepest underlying values as Christianity declines and almost disappears in the West after 1700 years of cultural dominance, replaced by a secularism that has yet to evolve its own persuasive ethical framework, other than the relativisation of everything.
Not only are these policy challenges formidable in themselves, but buried among them are challenges to the continuing legitimacy of the very liberal democratic political system that is supposed to deliver credible policy responses to them all.
Already, we see a range of political responses. One is retreat, isolationism, protectionism and a New Parochialism, of the type that is increasingly evident in America, Europe and to some degree in Australia. A second response, and indeed a comfortable bed-partner to the first, is nationalism. We see evidence of this in Trump’s America, parts of Europe and in some respects China. A further response is simple indifference, apathy and complacency. There is a lot of this at play in Australia. Indeed, we are in danger of becoming the complacent country.
In time, we may in fact become an unhealthy blend of all three possibilities – with nationalism, parochialism and xenophobia becoming the loudest voices, accommodated by the apathy, indifference and self-satisfaction of the rest. This is in part the product of long-term political drift. It’s also the reflection of a deeper societal malaise, whereby we delude ourselves that we somehow “punch above our weight”. The cold reality is that we don’t anymore, if indeed we ever did, and this particularly hackneyed phrase has become part of the fraudulent, self-affirming psychology of our wider national inertia.
Political drift doesn’t offer any substantive response to the “great disruptions” now bearing down on us. It just capitulates to them. That’s why it’s now urgent to re-engineer our national imagination and paint the picture of a different future for our country, and then to choose the type of Australia we wish to become.
Australia’s political culture tends to look askance at the idea of a national vision. Our reflex instinct is to lampoon the notion that we might actually want to create a better country than the one we have. My argument is that the business of crafting a national vision for Australia’s future is not so much an exercise in high ideals: it’s a matter of urgent, pragmatic policy necessity. The forces arrayed against us in the world are too formidable for us to entertain the luxury of continuing national drift.
So, what are the foundation stones of any such national vision? I argue it must be grounded in a shared understanding of our identity, about who we are as a people, and how we conceive of ourselves as a nation. It must also be anchored in our shared values, as well as our enduring national interests. Based on these fundamentals, it also demands of us the formulation of a national policy strategy to secure our survival, our prosperity, our sustainability, and to give effect to our responsibilities in the world. And it’s this process that should drive the hard business of putting public policy options to the people.
For Australia, this process should begin with a confident definition of our national and cultural identity. If the centre-left fails to address this question of identity, we vacate the field and leave a vacuum. The right and the far-right will always seek to occupy this ground, thereby using identity politics to comfortably define the terms of the culture wars of the future. For conservatives, national identity is still ultimately about race, rather than the laws that define the rights, duties and common beliefs of our civil polity. Conservatives find it irresistible to play with the politics of racial anxiety whenever the opportunity arises because, properly manipulated, they know it becomes a potent source of fear, capable of masking so much else in the core political and policy debates of the nation. This task is made much easier if the centre-left simply disengages from the identity debate altogether.
For the centre-left, our definition of Australia’s national identity must be grounded in the ideals, institutions and conventions of our democratic society, not in its racial composition. Our definition of identity should begin with a profound pride in Australia’s Indigenous origins. This of course must also be anchored in a shared responsibility for past injustices to our Indigenous brothers and sisters and a common resolve to chart a fully reconciled future as one national family. Unlike conservatives, we cannot choose to sweep uncomfortable facts arising from European occupation under the carpet. Notwithstanding the complexity of our national origins, our modern Australian identity should also own with pride our Anglo-Celtic traditions, not as a tradition of vicarious triumphalism as part of a once-great British Empire, but as the inheritors of the common law, centuries of legal constraints against the arbitrary exercise of absolute power, and an independent legal system to give effect to the principle of equality before the law.
So, too, has our identity been shaped by the arrival of millions from other lands, whom we have welcomed to these shores. The truth is that together we have all built the nation’s economic prosperity and social diversity, widening the Anglo-Celtic monoculture into a living, dynamic, creative multiculture, all within the framework of the common rights and responsibilities of our nation’s citizenship.
While the national census reminds us that the question of spiritual sensibilities remains a deeply contested question for Australians, the centre-left would be unwise to concede the domains of religious faith, Christianity and our broader national spirituality to the conservatives. The uncomfortable truth for some is that the strident secular, atheist voice, however unimpeachable its appeal to the rational and empirical mind might be, has been only one of many progressive voices shaping our common Australian identity. Progressive religionists of various persuasions have also contributed to the shaping of who we are. In short, our concept of national identity needs to embrace both our national mind and soul.
A further element of our identity, which we should unapologetically claim as our progressive own, is our deep sense of a fair go for all. Amid the deepest, levelling instincts of Australian identity, we have rightly despised the sort of class society that has riven the old countries from which we came. Likewise, we are enriched by the feminisation of our national identity beyond the tediously macho stereotypes of the past, and with our fuller understanding of human sexuality. These are things that should and, I believe do, define our Australian identity.
A progressive definition of national identity will always be a more complex task than for our opponents, because as progressives we are required to embrace an identity of what holds together both our past and our future.
A second foundation stone for our vision for Australia’s future should be about our common values. Once again, we cannot concede this ground to the conservatives. Whereas the conservatives will always talk about freedom, prosperity and security, to these we on the centre-left should add “other-regarding” values of fairness, inclusion, compassion and sustainability. The conservatives pay episodic lip service to these latter four. Our mission as progressives is to embrace all seven.
In building a framework for a national vision for Australia, we must be equally clear-minded about our core, enduring national interests that transcend the political terms of each government. The conservatives argue a narrow proposition focused almost exclusively on limited definitions of national security and macroeconomic management. We of course argue these as well, because the defence of our territorial integrity and the maintenance of our political sovereignty and macroeconomic stability are essential to the progressive project. But to these we also add the need for democratic renewal, a more comprehensive definition of national security, a concern as well for microeconomic drivers of long-term growth, a comprehensive and substantive commitment to environmentally sustainable development, and system-wide engagement with the international community on maintaining the principles and practice of the global rules-based order. This wider definition of our core national interests is not simply a reflection of a classically progressive world view: it’s because we also see this wider set of interests as now fundamental to our long-term national survival.
These are the critical foundations on which we then need to build a credible national policy strategy to deal with the mega-challenges now bearing down on the nation – on the future of our economy, social cohesion, climate change, our navigation of the US–China divide, as well as the cancerous impact on our democracy of the Murdoch media that undermines our capacity to have a substantive conversation on all of the above.
My central argument is that the world has entered a new, 21st-century reality, infinitely less predictable than the world of the second half of the 20th century. Therefore, a more anticipatory political and reformist agenda is necessary if we are to secure our national future, let alone our progressive future. The alternative is to be tossed about on the winds and currents of international change, uncertain of our course, potentially to our national peril. That is indeed the course of a complacent country. Our challenge is to sound the alarums and so turn our national politics around.
A version of this piece was first delivered as a speech at the University of Queensland. The full version may be found on www.kevinrudd.com.au
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Aug 31, 2019 as "The complacent country". Subscribe here.