top of page
Australian Culture

Literature (Year 12) - Context & Culture

Jeckmen Wu

Significant Socio-cultural Events in Australia 1960-80s

This period in Australia witnessed a profound wave of social changes, reforms, and movements dedicated to achieving justice for Indigenous Australians. Some of the significant events are outlined below:

  • 1962 – the Commonwealth Electoral Act was amended to give Indigenous Australians the right to vote in federal elections.

  • 1965 – Charles Perkins’s Freedom Ride campaign publicised the segregation and discrimination faced by Aboriginal people.

  • 1966 – Vincent Lingiari led the Wave Hill Walk-Off to protest against poor working conditions & low wages for Aboriginal workers. This further inspired national change to the land rights act (i.e. Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act) and the return of traditional Gurindji lands.

  • 1966 – Australia officially switched to decimal currency (i.e. the Australian dollar), symbolising a development in the national identity and another step towards greater independence from the UK.

  • 1967 – A national referendum was held proposing to make laws apply to all Australians and include Indigenous people in census counts. A resounding 90.8% of Australians voted “Yes”, reflecting a public recognition of Indigenous Australians as equal citizens and a positive change in the attitude of Australians.

  • 1971 – Indigenous Australians were included in the national census for the first time, following the success of the 1967 referendum.

  • 1973 – the White Australia Policy was abolished after the Whitlam Labour gov officially renounced it.

  • 1976 – the Aboriginal Land Rights (Northern Territory) Act was passed, a landmark that represented the first legislation that allowed First Nations people to claim land titles.

  • 1983 – the Aboriginal Land Rights Act of 1983 provided land rights for Aboriginal people in NSW, recognising their dispossession and displacement.

  • 1985 – the Uluru title was ceremonially handed back to the traditional owners.

  • 1988 – the Bicentenary protest saw 40,000 people stage a march in Sydney on Australia Day to challenge the commemoration of 200 years since the arrival of the First Fleet.

 

Australian Identity

The Australian national identity possesses an enigmatic quality, arising from its intricate and ever-evolving nature. It represents a multifaceted concept that has undergone continuous transformations over time and remains in a perpetual state of flux. The remarkable diversity in the formulations of identities within Australia stems from its multicultural roots as a nation primarily composed of immigrants. Though, on occasions, this diversity has triggered nationwide “identity panics” that raised fundamental questions about what it truly means to be “Australian” beyond mere residency in the country.

 

In his book, “The Quest for an Australian Identity”, Manning Clark candidly acknowledges the challenges Australians face when attempting to define themselves and delineate their ever-shifting identity, stating that “we Australians have trouble identifying ourselves, in saying what we are, and what we are coming to be.” 

 

However, while the story of Australia has been and continues to be about “the achievement of nationhood and the quest for an Australian identity” (Brian Dibble and Margaret Macintyre), Australia has had an enduring traditional national identity that originated from its British colonial past. This significant cultural root established a persisting model for an essentialised and monolithic identity that was based primarily upon a narrowly defined Anglo-centric ideal and which often overlooked Indigenous identities. Within this construct, the “typical Australian” was portrayed as a Caucasian heterosexual adult male who roamed the rural fringes (i.e. the Australian “bush”) and embodied qualities of masculinity and mateship. This representation became a prevailing symbol deeply ingrained in mainstream perceptions of Australian identity.

 

The key aspects synonymous with the traditional Australian identity are explored below: 

  • Masculine Culture – the traditional Australian identity has been closely linked to a culture of rugged masculinity, often emphasising qualities such as toughness, resilience, and stoicism exhibited by the archetypal “Aussie bloke”. This perception has been historically associated with the image of the strong, heterosexual, and outdoorsy Australian male.

  • Mateship – the spirit of companionship is a cherished value in Australian culture, emphasising the importance of camaraderie, loyalty, and mutual support among friends or “mates”.

  • Egalitarianism – the notion of a classless society is often expressed through the “fair go” ethos, which is the belief that everyone residing in the “land of the fair go” deserves an equal opportunity to succeed regardless of their background. While social divisions do obviously still exist, those who are more privileged are simply referred to as being “better off” than others.

  • Self-deprecating Humour – Australians have a tendency to remain modest and downplay one's achievements by using self-deprecating humour (or, if you will, self-effacing jokes). This practice stems from the importance of maintaining humility and an approachable demeanour in social interactions. There is a cultural pressure to avoid appearing pretentious or overly self-important, relating to “tall poppy syndrome” where individuals who excel too far beyond their peers risk being socially ostracised. Donald Horne, the Australian social critic who coined the term “lucky country”, points out that in a society that highly values fairness and equality, standing out can be discouraged, cleverness “can be considered un-Australian”, and “to appear ordinary, just like everybody else, is sometimes a necessary condition for success in Australia.” 

 

Origin

The origins of this traditional Australian identity can be traced back to various historical and cultural influences. Iconic Australian writers and bush poets like Henry Lawson, Joseph Furphy, and especially Banjo Paterson played pivotal roles in shaping this identity. They championed the ethos of the Bushman, idealising and popularising it in their prose and verses. Canonical literary works written in the 1890s, such as “Clancy of the Overflow” (1889), “The Man from Snowy River” (1890), and “Waltzing Matilda” (1895), held great significance at the time of Federation in 1901 as they became part of the drive to establish an Australian identity which advocated for masculinity, ruggedness, survival, resilience, and connection to the land. The archetypical Bushman, as a result, materialised as a “culture-hero on whose supposed characteristics many Australians tend, consciously or unconsciously, to model their attitude to life” (Russel Ward).

 

WW1 also proved to be integral in shaping the national character. The world war provided Australia with its first opportunity to prove itself on the international stage and shed the perception of being merely a British penal colony. WW1 underscored the importance of collective perseverance through hardship. As Australian soldiers departed for Gallipoli, they embraced the underdog spirit & conquered adversity through unity with phrases like “brothers in arms”. This period gave rise to the ANZAC legend which commemorates the deep bonds soldiers formed with their comrades during WW1. Despite its diminishing relevance in modern society and its exclusion of women and individuals “not substantially of European origin or descent” (e.g. Indigenous Australians), the ANZAC spirit remains a revered aspect of Australian identity that many still glorify to this day, for better or worse.

 

Archetypes

Shaped by Australia’s historical experiences and perpetuated through its literature and folklore, Australian archetypes like Clancy, the rugged settler, larrikin, and battler symbolise values and traits that have become deeply embedded in the collective Australian psyche. They reflect celebrated qualities of mateship, masculinity, resilience, resourcefulness, and adventure. Below are some of the most renowned Australian archetypes:

  • Clancy – originating from Paterson's poem “Clancy of the Overflow”, Clancy represents the quintessential Australian bushman who roams the vast outback, embodying qualities of adventure, freedom, and a deep connection to Australia’s untamed wilderness. In the bush poem, the narrator fantasises about Clancy’s life as a shearer/drover in the Australian outback, wishing to escape the monotony of his own life in “the dusty, dirty city” in favour of the idealised outdoors lifestyle of a bushman like Clancy.

  • Rugged Settler – this archetype harks back to Australia's colonial history when European settlers grappled with the rugged Australian wilderness. These settlers were known for their resilience, resourcefulness, pioneering spirit, and ability to adapt to the harsh challenges of frontier life in the unforgiving Australian terrain.

  • Larrikin – the larrikin archetype epitomises youthful rowdyism, originally referring to young, boisterous hooligans who openly mocked authorities and challenged societal norms. The likes of Ned Kelly and his gang stand as perhaps one of the most iconic examples of larrikins. They achieved notoriety as outlawed bushrangers who fearlessly defied authorities and fought against oppression. Over time, this archetype has evolved to encompass a more widespread spirit of irreverence and anti-authoritarianism seen in many Australians.

  • Battler (WW1) – the notion of the “little Aussie battler” emerged during & after WW1, encapsulating the essence of working-class Australians who persevered through economic hardships with unwavering resilience and determination. It is a term of respect and endearment for hardworking individuals who embrace the underdog spirit and strive to make ends meet despite facing significant challenges.

 

These romanticised & ennobled cultural heroes are undeniably underpinned by an outdated white colonial Australian mythology and framed within a predominantly masculine framework. However, they still enjoy a canonical status and remain inseparable from the Australian identity, continually cemented by the hegemonic social order.

 


A Hyperreal Identity

Jean Baudrillard’s concept of the hyperreal refers to a state where the boundaries between reality and the representations, or simulations, of reality become blurred, resulting in an idealised and exaggerated version of reality that becomes widely accepted as the norm. This phenomenon is particularly conspicuous in the context of the Australian identity. The simulation of an idealised Australia, based on its colonial heritage, continues to navigate contemporary society through socially hegemonised representations of what constitutes the stereotypical Australian. In the ongoing struggle for a unifying national identity, the simulation of the faux has garnered such veneration within Australian culture and identity that it aims “not to do away with reality, but on the contrary to realise it, make it real” (Rex Butler), essentially producing a simulacrum of Australian society constructed upon artificial ideals rather than an accurate reflection of reality itself. In the following paragraphs, we will investigate the hyperreal nature of this national identity, specifically focusing on its connection to the land, the quality of mateship, and the myth of egalitarianism.

 

When examining the facets of the Australian identity, it is immediately apparent that there exists a profound connection to the land, particularly the Australian bush. However, a significant contradiction undermines this connection. Dating back to the early 19th century, Australia has developed as a predominantly urbanised society, but despite this urbanisation, it was within the rugged outback that the romanticised national character (i.e. the “typical Australian”) was crafted. Consequently, this stereotypical figure presents a paradoxical rural representation within a largely urban environment. In an ironic twist, Paterson’s poem “Clancy of the Overflow” serves as a poignant illustration of the absence of truth beneath the façade of the Australian identity. The poem vividly depicts an idyllic existence in the Australian outback, but it is conveyed through an unreliable series of “wild erratic fancy visions” (Clancy of the Overflow) conceived solely within the narrator’s imagination and fantasy. Thus, the romanticised representation of the Australian landscape and the bushman’s lifestyle is, in reality, a distortion of the truth, one that doesn’t align with the lived experiences of most Australians. This highlights the dissonance between the romanticised image of the Australian landscape and the urbanised reality of modern Australia.

 

This contradiction also partially undermines the esteemed quality of mateship in Australia. Historically, it was the challenges of life in the bush that manifested into a cult of bush hospitality and mateship. However, in an increasingly modern and urbanised society driven by capitalist ideals, does the value of mateship still hold as much significance? Furthermore, the idealised notion of mateship is, in truth, “not a theory of universal brotherhood but of the brotherhood of particular men” (Donald Horne). This inherently excludes women and further underscores a preference for men who are not only Australian but preferably white.

 

This preference also extends to the cultural myth of the “fair go”, which insists on the importance of equality in economic opportunity for all. This has culminated in a constructed and clearly idealistic perception of egalitarianism in Australian society. However, even at its 1890s roots, the “land of the fair go” has never been fully realised. The idea of a “fair go” has always been reserved and limited to white Australian men, as evident by the discrimination towards non-European immigrants (e.g. the White Australia Policy) and the disparities in job opportunities and wages for women. So really, it was only ever a conditional transaction designed to benefit those deemed deserving under the conventional mainstream Australian ideal.

 

In trying to devise and cement a singular national identity that disregards its Indigenous origins and attempts to assimilate and overwrite its multiculturalism, we inadvertently start to exclude and define one’s “Australianness” based on a faulty, flawed, and faux set of criteria. Ultimately, it becomes apparent that Australia is a heterogenous cultural space where various cultures coexist within the hustle and bustle of urban chaos, rather than a white space that dwells in an imagined idyllic rural fantasy.


bottom of page