What are aspects of Australian national identity, and how are these important for developing a sense of belonging?
Australia’s is rather unique history. Founded as a British penal colony in 1788, it remained a part of Great Britain until independence in 1901. The continent on which the modern nation-state of Australia was founded, however, was not devoid of people when the British established it as a colony. On the contrary, it was actually home to thousands of indigenous aborigines. While the British, and later independent Australians succeeded in marginalizing the aborigines and carrying out an official practice of eliminating aboriginal culture, Australia remains to this day a nation searching for a national identity beyond its heritage as a former penal colony for a far-away monarchy.
As with other former British colonies, Australia has remained closely tied politically and culturally to its former ruler. As such, Australian soldiers have fought alongside British – and American – soldiers in virtually every war of the 20th and 21st Centuries. The legacy of this history was described well by Australian writer Cavan Hogue:
“At the time of Gallipoli [the World War I military campaign in Turkey that ended in failure], we had no doubt who we were. We were part of the superior British Race and our sons went to fight for the King and British Empire. Australia was the classic middle-class society: we touched the forelock to our betters (the UK and US) and looked down on our inferiors (Third World countries). . . While older people in particular still look nostalgically back to Mother England, many Australians question our traditional identity as tourist class British. An increasingly large percentage of the Australian population does not have a British heritage. So, if we are not British, what are we?” [www.cpd.org.au/2005/07/does-australia-have-a-national-identity/]
Australia can be seen as having a national identity in the fierce independence with which it presents itself on the world stage, and as western creation established in the decidedly unwestern region of Southeast Asia. The colonial legacy is one of Anglo ethnicity, but one that can no longer deny its repression of aboriginal culture, nor can it view itself entirely through the prism of western history given the demographic changes it has experienced as a result of immigration from other countries. Consequently, to speak of an Australian national identity is to blur the definition of what it means to be an Australian today. Immigrants settling in Australia confront the same challenges as those who emigrated to the United States and waged generations-long struggles to assimilate while retaining contact with the cultures they left behind.
In order to develop a sense of belonging in Australia, one need only identify oneself with an Australian nation undergoing transformations with regard to national identity. Just as the United States emerged as a destination for immigrants from around the world seeking economic, religious or ethnic liberation, and often encountered cultural obstacles that took years to overcome, new arrivals in Australia similarly face the task of breaking through cultural stereotypes in order to enjoy the freedom Australia has to offer once acceptance is achieved. Just as centuries of massive migrations to North American have transformed the United States, so will immigration transform Australia, a geographically isolated island existing among a myriad of ethnicities and cultures across the region to which it belongs.