Australia Day has come and gone for another year. No doubt there have been many a barbeque had, game of backyard cricket played and the day off, undoubtedly enjoyed. Or perhaps I am being stereotypical? Are Australians simply people who enjoy barbeques and beaches? This is by no means a new question. Every year, every Australia Day we are asked what does it mean to be Australian. A myriad of answers have been given.
It seems to me that we have approached this discussion as if an answer is possible, or as if a definitive answer is necessary. As if a list of definitive characteristics should and can be identified for what makes an Australian. Instead I would like to propose that we have been approaching this question the wrong way. Australia and Australians cannot, and should not be reduced to a list of characteristics, although this may seem attractive, it is rather simplistic and it is not reflective of reality. Now this may seem counterintuitive to some. That is, if we are unable to define Australia, or Australian, then how are we able to define who where are, or where we are from. I do not propose that these questions cannot be answered; it’s just that we have been going around it the wrong way. Do we really want to be reduced to a list of characteristics, can we? Australia, and Australians, are complex concepts, this much should always be kept in mind.
So what makes us so complex? By way of example I want to share with you a quirk from my childhood, something I imagine that many Australians with parents born overseas can readily identify with, and others also understand. I grew up in a household in which Italy, or least the 1960s version of Italy was still very much alive. Pasta was the staple of our diets, we have tomato sauce day, pizza day, grow our own veggies and live within a stones throw from each other, all like it was back in the old country. We identified and were identified, at least in some part, in the community as being Italian. I have no problem with this, nor did any in my family, in fact they were rather proud of it. Now I do not know if this came about as a result of our Italian identity, either self adopted or imposed but whenever we talked about other families or friends, if they could not be identified according to some continental European, or Asian ethnic origin then they were (affectionately) referred to as the Australian, Australians, Australian family, or skips. Now when such a reference was made, there was an unspoken understanding that this referred to those with English, Irish, Scottish, Welsh, or basically any non continental European or Asian familial ancestry, or any with which they identified or were identified with. I am sure many are familiar with this scenario, which ever side of the experience you are situated.
Now the ironic thing from all this is that my family, and I imagine many others, also consider ourselves, and identify as Australians. I know when I travelled to Italy as a child, despite what many here in Australia might consider, myself included, my Italian appearance, I was identified by my relatives as an Australian. That sits very comfortably with me. As much as I enjoyed travelling overseas to the ‘mother country’, I am Australian, and Australia is where I belong. But what makes me Australian then?
It is clear that when I am home I identify with my Italian heritage, and many similarly identify me with that heritage. There have been many occasions in my life when people have asked me where I am from. My response, without hesitation has been Italy, or I am Italian. For most this is the type of answer they are expecting when they pose the question. There is no question as to my Australian identity, there is no questioning of my allegiance et cetera. This scenario is similar for many other people. But then again there are those that self-identify as Australian, even when a similar question is posed. I have found that on these occasions the person any question can usually trace their heritage to the British Isles to some degree. Why is this? Why is it that when asked the same question, some provide their familial heritage and others do not? Is it that some more readily identify with Australia than others? Is it that some are more Australian than others? I think that the answer to both those questions is no.
Both are Australian, and neither is less or more Australian than the other. Instead I think that answer has more to do with the fact that we are human. We are complex beings. We like to see and imagine the world in black and white, but deep down we know that life really is not that simple. How we identify ourselves and are identified by others does not escape this complexity. Identity is not fixed, nor does it operate in the singular. It is responsive to our experiences and the people with which we interact. Amartya Sen recognised this and described human beings as having ‘competing affiliations’ or ‘competing identities.’ I do not imagine anybody is immune from this.
As a result our ‘identity’ is a product of many different experiences, learnt, imagined and genetic. To be Australian, is not comprised of a singular identity. It is a combination of characteristics or traits that some may have, and others may not. For example I like to watch the cricket, am identified by my Italian heritage and detest beer. But some of my friends love to have a beer but do not identify strongly with the familial origins nor enjoy the cricket. So who is the Australian? We all are. At any one time we have many identities that come through in our personalities. But then how do we identify, or how do we know we are Australian?
I think that it is in our sense of belonging. Deep down, you feel some sought of connection to Australia; its land and its people.
Unfortunately our current citizenship policies have failed to grasp the importance of belonging. In recent years we have seen the institutionalisation of citizenship tests and language requirements for all new, would-be citizens. These policies have been supported by both sides of politics, under the premise that for successful integration, people must have an adequate understanding of Australia’s history and the English language. There is no doubt that English language proficiency, and some basic knowledge of Australian history may contribute to a sense of belonging, however it is important to keep in mind that then again they may not. In all the debate and discussion about Australian identity and citizenship in recent years, the one thing we have forgotten is that Australian citizenship is not something that most people seek out without much contemplation. For most, the decision to seek citizenship comes about after much thought and deliberation. It is a conscious decision on their part to say “I belong”.
Belonging cannot be forced, but must be fostered and supported. If we want to preserve this critical aspect of citizenship, that sense of belonging, we must reconsider our approach. Testing regimes do not foster a sense of belonging. But the value of English language proficiency and basic knowledge of Australian history need not be dispensed with as well. These should still be provided for, but not forced upon would be new citizens. Some may wholeheartedly jump at the opportunity to improve their English and knowledge of Australia, even before their sense of belonging has taken hold. Others may be a little more hesitant, and may only take up the opportunity once they feel they truly belong. Whatever path they take, so long as belonging is fostered, then the value of Australian citizenship is preserved.
So whenever Australia Day comes around, this is the thing I most look forward to, that time of the day when new citizens are given the opportunity to stand up in front of family, friends and their community to take the oath and, to so subtly say “I belong”. It is a conscious decision that no test can assess, but without which Australian citizenship has no value.