|Issue 41, February 2007|
|Post-Colonial Boredom: The Myth Of Australian Sameness
Could Australian Federalism Represent The Real Diversity Of Our Physical And Cultural Landscapes?
by John Milfull
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In a special number of AJPH (Vol 50 No., 1, March 2004) I edited papers from a Sydney conference which had tried to inject ideas from the lively European debate on regionalism and federalism into the comatose body of Australian federation (the centenary was almost fatal). In this paper I would like to attack the common objection that Australians are "all the same", which seems to me blatantly untrue, even on the geographic level, and suggest the need for a strategy to overcome the post-colonial / imperial boredom of Australian politics.
"Boredom", wrote Baudelaire, "is pain spread out over time". In Australian politics, it is spread out over a lot of space as well. In a recent essay on the future of federalism, Roger Wilkins, Head of the NSW Cabinet Office, contrasts Australia with North America:
The combination is interesting: a vast desert of a continent, relieved only by a few "interesting" climatic contrasts, is settled on its outer rim by a scattering of average New South Welshmen and West Australians ["Europeans"] with no essential differences, not even the odd climate-induced divergence from the Anglo norm. This "sameness" is obviously a late consequence of the struggle which united convicts and military, English, Irish and Scots in the "imposition of settlement" on an inhospitable environment "by an authoritarian military system of government".3 This "marriage of convenience" excludes the Kooris and the Chinese, who were visibly other and subject to the "if it moves, shoot it" response.
An oddly old-fashioned vision - it reminds me strongly of A.D.Hope's poem "Australia " , with its bleak view of the Australian landscape and its "monotonous tribes from Cairns to Perth", its "second hand Europeans pullulat[ing]/ Timidly on the edge of alien shores"4 - a kind of spiritual terra nullius , a vacuum abhorred by ["European"] man and nature alike. Apart from its obvious unsuitability for attracting tourists - ironically, many can scarcely wait to hop into their 4WDs and head for the Red Centre - it is not a vision of Australia, or Australian society, I share. It is not so much the sameness of the landscape that struck settlers as its difference from what they were used to, its "strangeness". And even its so-called emptiness, real or imaginary, was ambivalent, as Hope seems to have realised - it could well be filled by something new and startling. Echoing Hesse and Eliot, he hopes that Zarathustras will emerge from the desert, that:
I am relieved that we got Queen Priscilla instead, we had quite enough savage messiahs in the twentieth century.
On the social level, the claim that Australians' "interests, skills, language, economic and social prospects and expectations are more or less the same" seems an absurd anachronism in one of the most diverse societies in the world, and I question whether it was ever really true. I should like to see an Identikit image of an "average" New South Welshman or woman. Both Hope and Wilkins would simply assume that the average is Angloid, the bastard offspring of the settlement project. I prescribe some regular travel on the Sydney Buses and a bit more attention to minority Australian histories.
Yet the sense of an "emptiness" at the heart of Australia, and especially of Australian politics, seems real enough, and generates a specific kind of post-colonial or post-imperial boredom. While there is no doubt that Australia exhibits a dominant "Anglo" culture, Anglo-Australians have been "de-ethnicised". Within a self-styled multicultural society, only non-Anglo-Australians are "ethnic" and represent a [problematic] "cultural variability", while "Anglo-Australians" remain "the major signifier of Australian nationality" and "cultural unity". As Norman Saadi Nikro writes in a recent dissertation,
These "abstract generalisations" stand in marked opposition to the actual history and diversity of Anglo-Australian communities and are the key to "structures of power that have much to do with the maintenance of binary oppositions that measure cultural diversity from the standpoint of cultural unity defined by a(n) (in)visible Anglo-Australianness".6 In the last analysis, they are a relict of the ideology of Empire which corresponds neither to present geopolitical nor social realities, and condemn Anglo-Australians to an unfortunate mix of arrogance and cringe to mask their eroded post-imperial identities, while presenting the ever-increasing non-Anglo contingent with a troubling vacuum at the centre of "cultural diversity". It is, after all, a parental ideology which has survived the departure of the parent and an unimagined reconstitution of the family. The ambiguities of independence without decolonisation are extraordinary; the parent lingers on in the negative, ghost-like image of its own absence which is at the same time our continuing Anglo presence . We are both colonised and colonisers.
Imperial "sameness", the binding force of the imperial upon the colonisers, proved only a temporary diversion from the problems of internal colonisation within Britain itself. As Krishan Kumar writes:
These days, "Britishness" is as problematic a construct as Australianness, a kind of troubling black hole of identity. This is one of the many reasons why the relics of monarchy play an essentially negative role in our search for a genuine autonomy and independence.
The two most obvious manifestations of this unresolved post-imperial heritage are:
The current attempts in Britain and Australia to regain a sense of imperial power by "piggybacking" on George W. Bush's incoherent empire are dangerously delusional, and will end in much grief. Just as Britain will ultimately be forced to abandon its grand illusion of "pulling the strings" in Washington DC and "leading" Europe, and learn to be a partner among partners, Australia will have to come to terms with the reality of a minor power whose only real hope of "influence" in the international scene of the future can stem from its successful development of an innovative, culturally diverse and productive society at home, which may serve as a bridge between Europe (in the broadest sense) and Asia.
In the remainder of this brief paper I should like to present a number of theses for discussion in which I have tried to translate some insights from overseas debates into an Australian context:
1. [Tim] Flannery, The Eternal Frontier [Melbourne 2001- note by Wilkins]
2. Roger Wilkins, "Federalism: Distance and Devolution", AJPH Vol. 50 No. 1 (Special Issue), The Same but Different : Representing Diversity , ed. John Milfull, March 2004, p. 96.
5. Norman Saadi Nikro, Shifting Margins, Imaginary Journeys: Writing Migrant Experience, Ph.D. thesis, University of New South Wales 1997, p. 234.
7. Krishan Kumar, "'Britishness and 'Englishness': what prospect for a European identity in Britain today?", in British Studies Now, anthology issues 1-5, The British Council 1995, p. 88, 93.
In Australian Humanities Review, see also:
Also by John Milfull in Australian Humanities Review:
Please feel free to contribute to this discourse.
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