Journal Entry #5

Published

4 years ago

What does Keating’s speech and the re-action to it reflect about the problem of Australian nationalism, the legacy of Britishness and the conundrum of Australian ‘independence’?

Australian prime ministers have, since federation, faced the issue of an Australian national identity. From the mid 1960s, as the British race patriot idea collapsed, Australian political leaders were faced with a deep cultural dilemma in their need to combat a lingering emotional link to Britain with a viable image that met the realities of Australia’s growing multicultural society. Prime Ministers Whitlam, Fraser, Hawke, Keating and even Howard, all to varying degrees, fashioned new meanings that would try to make sense of this new era; an era that saw Australia more engaged with Asia than Britain.

This struggle with an inherited ‘Britishness’ would continue to persist as a key discussion of Australian national identity. Nowhere is this more evident than in the re-actions to the ‘radical nationalist’ doctrine of Paul Keating, specifically in his ‘outburst’ in parliament 27 February 1992. This essay proposes to use the re-action to Keating’s speech as a means to identify the key problems faced in understanding and shaping the national Australian image. This paper will argue that ‘Britishness’ has maintained an enduring hold on the Australian psyche, rendering the problem of Australian nationalistic ‘independence’ and the fierce nature of Keating’s national outlook, problematic for popular consumption.

It is first important, before directly addressing Keating, to note that the colonists in Australia never sought to rebel against the British, but rather quite happily accepted that sense of national identity as their own. As Australian historian Neville Meaney argued, “in the nationalist era Britishness was the dominant cultural myth in Australia, the dominant social idea giving meaning to the people.”[1]Unlike America, for example, ‘Australianness’ was thus crucially not reliant upon a forceful independent nationalism but tied to an accepted British heritage because Australian colonists viewed themselves as part of the organic worldwide community of British people.

A gradual movement away from Britain that first manifested itself aggressively with Britain’s withdrawal from South East Asia in the 60s and 70s, in part, directly influenced Keating. Speaking in parliament, his remarks were distinctly anti-British in sentiment:

I was told that I did not learn respect at school. I learned one thing: I learned about self-respect and self-regard for Australia – not about some cultural cringe to a country which decided not to defend the Malayan peninsula, not to worry about Singapore and not to give us our troops back to keep ourselves free from Japanese domination… You can go back to the fifties to your nostalgia, your Menzies, the Caseys and the whole lot. They were not aggressively Australian, they were not aggressively proud of our culture…[2]

An un-scripted ‘outburst’ in parliament, Keating reveals the essence of his ‘radical nationalism’: the heart to Australia’s true independence is in the defiance and opposition to British rule.[3] Central to this independence is the memory of the ‘great betrayal’ – the fall of Singapore; that while Britain was willing to use Australian forces for their own European battles, they had displayed little attention to Australia’s security needs in the Asian region. Those past leaders who had appealed to their ‘great and powerful friends’, namely Menzies, in Keating’s eyes had simply never fought for Australian interests.

In an editorial two days after Keating’s remarks, the Sydney Morning Herald noted “that while Australians are certainly less attached to the monarchy than they were four years ago… whatever the well of nationalist sentiment Mr. Keating has been trying to tap, is by no means as deep as he might have thought.”[4] Indeed, as deep as he perhaps never had thought. Reactions to his anti-British tones followed immediately: Senator Robert Hill, Shadow minister for Foreign Affairs, wrote Keating was on “the path of destroying Australia’s important bilateral relationships in pursuit of domestic political objectives”[5], President of the RSL Brigadier AB Garland expressed that Keating “would see [his] error in this instance and apologise”[6], and the Sunday Age noted “his decision to exploit nationalist sentiment seems like a hazardous expedition into the unknown.”[7] As the first prime minister to advocate the creation of an Australian republic and encourage this assertive national doctrine, his endeavours certainly did venture into the unknown, but the re-actions to this expedition were perhaps not as equally un-foreseeable.

Key to Keating’s rhetoric was the creation of an aggressive nationalism, an identity that through its defiance of British control could provide a uniquely Australian myth reminiscent of the old, romantic notions of European nationalism. Even writing some twenty years earlier, Australian journalist Donald Horne noted on this form of nationalism, “to certain kinds of Australians, to speak of a possible Australian nationalism is to speak of something that they distrust or even despise.”[8] The problem with advocating a distinctly Australian identity is quite simply that Australia has never manifested that traditional teleological view of nationalistic pursuit – colonial Australians never struggled against the British for independence.[9] A nationalism that sought to dismantle what had once been the very core of Australian identity would never stand up against the seemingly enduring tide of British sentiment.

As the polls would later show, Keating’s aggressive stance did not sit well with the Australian public. Interestingly, the nationalistic rhetoric of Whitlam, Fraser and Hawke enjoyed a greater consensus – all had crucially distanced themselves from associating with the classical excess of nationalistic sentiment that Keating so ardently pursued. Instead they fashioned a new language of ‘multiculturalism’, a view that embraced the diverse cultural past of Australia’s heritage. Perhaps they realized that the time for this kind of intense nationalism had long since passed. And indeed, it would seem that it has.

Keating, to this day, is the only prime minister who has held firm to a radical nationalist position. While perhaps the legacy of Britishness may not be as equally strong today, the re-actions to Keating’s anti-British remarks proves that the innate forces of British sentiment are still very much apart of the national psyche. Its legacy is paramount in Keating’s failure to replace Britishness with a new, independent myth of Australian identity. This conundrum of Australian nationalism is deeply woven within a past that saw no need to rebel against the British Empire, a nationalism that has never been since its inception unique to this land. Political leaders will continue to face this problem of Australian identity, what will replace Britishness as the dominant culture myth will always be debated, but one thing would seem for certain – not for us the classical romance of European derived nationalism.

Bibliography:

Correspondence, Brigadier AB Garland to the Prime Minister, 26 March 1992.

Curran, James, The Power of Speech: Australian Prime Ministers defining the national image(Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 2004).

Editorial, Sydney Morning Herald, 29 February 1992.

Editorial, The Sunday Age, 1 March 1992.

Horne, Donald, ‘The New Nationalism?’, The Bulletin, 5 October 1968, p. 36.

Keating, Paul, Commonwealth Parliamentary Debates, House of Representatives, 27 February 1992, p. 373 – 374.

Meaney, Neville, ‘Britishness and Australian Identity: The Problem of Nationalism in Australian History and Historiography’, Australian Historical Studies, 116, April 2011, pp. 76 – 90.

Media Release, Senator Robert Hill, 28 February 1992.


[1] Neville Meaney, ‘Britishness and Australian Identity: The Problem of Nationalism in Australian History and Historiography’, Australian Historical Studies, 116, April 2011, p. 79.

[2] Paul Keating, Commonwealth Parliamentary Debates, House of Representatives, 27 February 1992, p. 374.

[3] James Curran, The Power of Speech: Australian Prime Ministers defining the national image (Melbourne: Melbourne University Press, 2004), pp. 216 – 219.

[4] Editorial, Sydney Morning Herald, 29 February 1992.

[5] Media Release, Senator Robert Hill, 28 February 1992.

[6] Correspondence, Brigadier AB Garland to the Prime Minister, 26 March 1992.

[7] Editorial, The Sunday Age, 1 March 1992.

[8] Donald Horne, ‘The New Nationalism?’, The Bulletin, 5 October 1968, p. 36.

[9] Neville Meaney, ‘Britishness and Australian Identity: The Problem of Nationalism in Australian History and Historiography’, Australian Historical Studies, pp. 76 – 90.

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