What does it mean to be Australian? What is our national story? How are Australians connected to place, to country, to history? What binds us together? What do we hold true? Who are Australians? What is our national identity? What is our national character? Has it changed over time or has it remained constant? Is it time for a new chapter to be written in the Australian story? Or are Australians content with things the way they are?
This chapter presents insights from a broad range of participants on the Australian nation, its history and character, and the hopes diverse Australians hold for our nation's future.
This chapter is focussed primarily on the role of governments in articulating national stories and national identity. The role of national institutions, cultural institutions, key educational institutions, galleries, libraries, heritage bodies and collecting institutions is explored in Chapter 6.
National stories and national identity
The arts have told and retold the many and diverse unfolding stories of our nation – in the paintings of Tom Roberts, from shearing sheds to Coogee beach; the bush poetry of Henry Lawson and Banjo Paterson, from the Drover's Wife to Waltzing Matilda; in the struggles and humour of family and community life, from Ruth Park's The Harp in the South to Tim Winton's Cloudstreet; in the migrant experiences of Melina Marchetta's Looking for Alibrandi and Ahn Do's The Happiest Refugee; and in the working class anthems of Jimmy Barnes and the songs of Paul Kelly, Archie Roach and Courtney Barnett, to name but a few.
Australia Council for the Arts, Submission 102, p. 6.
Although the world we live in is heavily globalised, with goods and commodities passing freely across borders, and many social and political issues taking on a global character, the nation state still matters. The University of Western Australia stated that the nation 'remains the key geo-political entity that provides individuals with rights, as well as a sense of identity and emotional connection'.
Feeling a sense of connection to the nation state, and belonging to the Australian community, contributes to the wellbeing and security of individual Australians. This, in turn, bolsters the security of Australian democracy.
Evidence indicates that a majority of Australians feel a sense of belonging and connectedness. The Scanlon Foundation submitted:
For all the impacts of globalisation on the way humans live, work and think, people retain a deep desire to identify with a place and a community. In 2018 the Index showed that the vast majority of Australians feel a sense of belonging in Australia and pride in the Australian way of life. In the 2018 survey, 90 per cent of respondents said they had a sense of belonging in Australia to a great or moderate extent. Respondents to Scanlon's surveys believe in the importance of maintaining the Australian way of life and culture, again with 90 per cent of respondents either strongly agreeing or agreeing.
However, for a significant number of Australians, this feeling is complex. For many Australians, both Indigenous and non‑Indigenous, as well as those from non-English speaking backgrounds, some questions remain unanswered, and some wounds remain unhealed. While there is much to celebrate in our nation's history, many participants maintained that Australia's national story is incomplete.
Governments play a key role in building a sense of national identity through articulating national stories. These stories, which offer official versions of Australia's history, are articulated through official documents, acts of parliament, speeches, events and celebrations, and Australia's national symbols, including the flag and National Anthem. According to history professor, Dr Ann McGrath, 'the way history is told…shapes the national psyche. It becomes our story'.
The Department of Home Affairs (the department) submitted that Australia's political and cultural institutions and 'shared values' have been influenced by Australia's 'Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, British history and multicultural ancestries'. The way Australia's national story is told has changed over the decades, and with these changes, a more 'inclusive identity has evolved over time'.
According to the Australian Museums and Galleries Association (AMaGA), the ways in which Australia's national story has been told has evolved over time through 'three successive frameworks':
a history shaped by predominantly white 'explorers, pioneers, settlers, rural farmers, itinerant workers, miners [and] soldiers';
a history shaped by 'immigrants, multicultural communities, urbanism, the contributions of women, environmental awareness, and study of Indigenous prehistory'; and, more recently
a history shaped by 'multifaceted processes, multiple stories and perspectives, asking new questions, and increasingly recognising the continuity of Indigenous cultures'.
Inquiry participants observed that history can be contested, with different understandings of the national story and national identity coexisting. Professor Frank Bongiorno from the Australian National University (ANU) proposed that 'a unitary and homogenous national identity is neither possible nor desirable in a modern, democratic and multicultural country such as Australia'. Central governments cannot 'dictate', or impose a definition of Australian identity, as any definition would become 'out of date pretty quickly' in our diverse democratic society.
This view was echoed by historians Associate Professor Martin Crotty, Associate Professor Lisa Featherstone and Dr Geoff Ginn, who said:
We believe that the controversy about national identity and nationhood is an overstated problem…Plural identities no longer challenge contemporary ideas of national identity or the nation state.
Other participants, however, saw the role of governments in articulating, and from time to time re-articulating, stories about the nation and our national identity as critical.
For many decades, official versions of Australian history have been told from the arrival of Captain Cook in 1770 and the First Fleet in 1788, but Australia has a much older history. Over many decades, Australians have come to learn and share what the Australian Historical Association referred to as 'a much longer Australian history'. Emeritus Professor Genevieve Lloyd submitted that new research has shone a light on the length of time First Nations Australians have lived on the Australian continent, and the 'mode of their presence on—and interaction with—their land':
It is now widely recognised that they developed a rich civilization involving agriculture, aquaculture, and land management — along with complex systems of governance, communicated through generations.
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples have inhabited Australia for at least 60,000 years, with strong and diverse cultures, laws, languages, ceremonies and connection to lands and waters. These cultures and connections endure. According to Reconciliation Australia:
The nation of Australia resides on land that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people have lived on, cared for, governed their communities within, and been custodians of for some 60,000 years. The First Nations Peoples of this continent are also members of the oldest living cultures in the world.
Before the arrival of Europeans, there were over 500 nations, around 270 different language groups, and 'many different cultural ways' practiced on the continent.
Many First Nations peoples have a deep spiritual connection to lands and waters. First Nations peoples are connected to country through lines of descent (paternal and maternal), as well as through clan and language groups. According to Professor Mick Dodson AM:
Territory is defined by spiritual as well as physical links. Landforms have deep meaning, recorded in art, stories, songs and dance. Songlines or Dreaming Tracks as well as [Kinship structures] link Indigenous peoples to the territories of other groups. In the past, these links were also used for trade…When we say country we might mean homeland, or tribal or clan area and in saying so we may mean something more than just a place; somewhere on the map. We are not necessarily referring to place in a geographical sense. But we are talking about the whole of the landscape, not just the places on it.
The doctrine of terra nullius
Terra nullius is a Latin phrase meaning 'no-one's land'. The doctrine of terra nullius 'existed in the law of nations throughout the development of Western democracy', and was derived from Roman law. It is the concept that 'ownership by seizure of a thing no one owns is legitimate' applied to lands and waters that were 'discovered', or 'conquered', during the period of empire building between the 15th century and the middle of the 18th century. Captain Cook had been instructed by the British Admiralty to take possession of undiscovered land in the South Pacific if he found it to be uninhabited. Despite seeing many Aboriginal people when he arrived on the continent that would later be called Australia, Captain Cook did not see what he understood to be agriculture or signs of permanent habitation, and he claimed the eastern half of the continent for the for the British Crown.
The term terra nullius was used in an 1835 proclamation by Governor Bourke of NSW, which was intended to reinforce the notion that no one owned the land before British possession and settlement. Bourke's understanding of the term became accepted doctrine in the law of the colonies, and remained a cornerstone of Australian law until its repudiation by the High Court Mabo judgment in 1992.
According to Justice Jayne Margaret Jagot:
By the doctrine of terra nullius, the common law of Australia could not and did not recognise the laws and customs of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. It should be apparent from this that, in such a context and until 1992 and the Mabo decision, to acknowledge that land is the land of Aboriginal people would have conflicted with legal doctrine. That legal doctrine, in common it must be said with a number of others, did great harm to our society, and its consequences continue today…
The doctrine of terra nullius was challenged and eventually overturned as a result of the Mabo case. Meriam man from the Island of Mer in the Torres Strait, Eddie Koiki Mabo, discovered that according to Australian law, he and his family did not own their land on Mer. In 1982, Mr Mabo, the Reverend David Passi, Celuia Mapo Salee, Sam Passi and James Rice brought an action against the State of Queensland and the Commonwealth of Australia in the High Court. The Mabo case challenged the legal doctrines that:
Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples had no concept of land ownership prior to the arrival of British colonisers in 1788 (the doctrine of terra nullius); and
sovereignty delivered complete ownership of all land in the new colony to the Crown, abolishing any existing rights that may have existed previously.
Mabo v Queensland (No. 1) was heard in 1986 and 1988. After a number of intervening steps at state and national levels, over many years, the High Court's decision in Mabo v Queensland (No. 1) led to the subsequent High Court case, Mabo v Queensland (No. 2), which would determine the matter of the plaintiffs' land rights.
On 3 June 1992, the High Court upheld the plaintiffs' claim and ruled that the lands of the Australian continent were not terra nullius when European settlement occurred. The High Court ruled that the Meriam people were 'entitled as against the whole world to possession, occupation, use and enjoyment of (most of) the lands of the Murray Islands'.
The High Court decision in Mabo v Queensland (No. 2) established the doctrine of native title in Australian law, recognised that Indigenous peoples have lived in Australia for thousands of years and enjoy rights to their land according to their own laws and customs, and overturned the doctrine of terra nullius. In 1993, the Native Title Act 1993 (Cth) was passed by the Australian Parliament, paving the way for claims by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples to their traditional rights to land and compensation.
The High Court's decision also held, however, 'that native title is extinguished by valid government acts that are inconsistent with the continued existence of native title rights and interests, such as the grant of freehold or leasehold estates'.
Some inquiry participants argued there are significant problems with existing native title claims processes and legislation. For instance, Indigenous health organisations peak body, the National Health Leadership Forum submitted:
Native Title was meant to recognise rights and interests over land or waters where Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples practiced and continue to practice, traditional laws and customs prior to colonisation. However, the process is tedious and time consuming which has been compounded by a series of amendments to the Native Title Act (1998, 2007 and 2009) which have reduced the ability to make claims, where previously it was possible, in order to favour other forms of land use such as mining. In addition, the Native Title has also created divisions within communities through the reorganising of Aboriginal communities which has been imposed on by the state through the process of Native Title countering its original intent.
Changing the story
First Nations Australians and their supporters have been trying to tell the story of Australia from a First Nations' perspective for many years. On the 26 January 1938, which was the sesquicentenary of the arrival of the First Fleet, Aboriginal activists held a conference at Australia Hall in Sydney at which they declared a 'Day of Mourning'. The conference, which was open only to Aboriginal people, passed the following resolution:
We, representing the Aborigines of Australia, assembled in conference at the Australian Hall, Sydney, on the 26th day of January, 1938, this being the 150th Anniversary of the Whiteman's seizure of our country, herby make protest against the callous treatment of our people by the whiteman during the past 150 years, and we appeal to the Australian nation of today to make new laws for the education and care of Aborigines, and we ask for a new policy which will raise our people to full citizen status and equality within the community.
The Day of Mourning, which included prominent Aboriginal activists, Jack Patten (who had founded the Abo Call, a newspaper written and published by Aboriginal people), and William Ferguson (from the Aborigines' Progressive Association) and William Cooper (from the Australian Aborigines' League), was the first time Aboriginal activist groups from different states had fully cooperated and was 'the first national Aboriginal civil rights gathering and represents the most clearly identifiable beginning of the contemporary Aboriginal political movement'.
The message of these activists, and the many who would join the struggle over subsequent years, would take years to break through to the mainstream. Professor Lloyd explained that historical research has increased our understanding of the extent to which First Nations people resisted colonisation, of the 'frontier wars and massacres', of the 'mistreatment associated with dispossession', and the trauma that continues for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians today. The professor concluded: 'The facts are now widely known'.
Dr McGrath noted that, over the years, Australians have increasingly come to appreciate that Australian history goes back to long before 1788. It is a history of the continent long before European settlement.
Sociologist, Mr Salvatore Babones, observed that most Australians now appreciate the state institutions to which Australian national identity is tied, such as citizenship and parliamentary democracy, were imposed upon functioning and complex First Nations societies by force:
Arthur Phillip was not an immigrant to Australia. You could call him an invader—that's reasonable. You can have a debate about that. But don't call him an immigrant. To call him an immigrant suggests that there was a civic community on this continent that admitted him through some welcome ceremony, perhaps a welcome to country, thanking him for coming. I doubt that that is how history played out.
The Australia Council for the Arts highlighted the work of Bruce Pascoe, award-winning Yuin, Bunurong and Tasmanian author whose non-fiction book Dark Emu, published in 2014:
…is a monumental work of scholarship that disproved the long-held myth that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples were nomadic hunter gatherers before European colonisation.
Darebin City Council submitted that truth-telling 'is missing in the way our history has been told, to ourselves and to the world'. The Closing the Gap Campaign Steering Committee shared this view, questioning:
How can all Australians including those who have recently arrived feel safe, comfortable and united while aware that the truth has never been respectfully told in relation to the First Australians?
The council argued that truth-telling 'is the hallmark of a functioning democracy', and should be a non-partisan exercise. The New South Wales Aboriginal Land Council articulated the value of truth-telling, a sentiment shared by numerous participants to the inquiry, as 'healing and moving forward together in genuine partnership'.
Publicly and officially acknowledging this history, Dr McGrath contended, would have profound impacts for many Australians:
I do remember, with the [2008 Apology to the Stolen Generations], Jackie Huggins on Radio National actually said it was the first day she really felt like she was an Australian, included in the nation. When we look at the relationship between citizenship and nation, it is not only about legal rights, citizenship and the Constitution but also about emotion, sense of belonging and so forth—and a collective imaginary, you may call it.
It was Professor Lloyd's view that the work of researchers, artists and writers have led to 'changes in Australian consciousness' in recent decades, giving Australians a deeper understanding of First Nations history: 'It is crucial that this transformation should find reflection in the articulation of Australian nationhood and identity'.
The pivotal questions of truth-telling and recognition are discussed further on in this chapter.
The Australian nation
The nation of Australia was officially created on 1 January 1901 with the establishment of the Commonwealth of Australia and the federal system of government, which is 'based on the liberal democratic traditions of an active citizenry and representative democracy'.
The dominant narrative around the time of Federation was one in which Australia was seen as part of Britain, and Australians as essentially British. The Department of Home Affairs (the department) quoted a High Court ruling from 1906 in which the Justices stated; 'we are not disposed to give any countenance to the novel doctrine that there is an Australian nationality as distinguished from a British nationality'. The Australian Historical Association, however, said research shows there were a diverse range of cultural and ethnic identifications among settler populations in colonial Australia, many of whom identified 'more strongly as Irish, Scottish, Welsh, Cornish, German or Chinese', than British.
At this time, Australia's story of nationhood did not include Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, who were 'excluded from the new nation'. This is discussed further in the next section.
Historians observe that early Australian nationhood was 'framed by a larger imperial identity', and governments of the era were keen to preserve what they saw as the defining characteristics of Australia–'whiteness' and 'Britishness'. The Immigration Restriction Act 1901 (known as the White Australia Policy) was one of the first pieces of legislation introduced into the federal parliament. According to then Attorney-General, the Hon Alfred Deakin MP, it was intended to enable:
…the prohibition of all alien coloured immigration, and more, it means at the earliest time, by reasonable and just means, the deportation or reduction of the number of aliens now in our midst. The two things go hand in hand, and are the necessary complement of a single policy — the policy of securing a 'white Australia'.
Immigration historian, Ms Ann-Mari Jordens, submitted that this law 'marginalised and rendered invisible large sections of Australia's population', including the Chinese, Afghans and Jewish people who had immigrated to Australia during the preceding century.
The implementation of the law had a dramatic impact on Australia's demographics. Where Chinese people had made up 3.5 per cent of the Australian population in 1901, they accounted for only 0.2 per cent in the 1954 census. By 1947, only 2.7 per cent of Australia's total population was born outside of Australia, Ireland or the United Kingdom. The History Council of Western Australia (WA) explained that, during this period, Chinese people who had settled in Australia were 'feared and maligned' for 'their appearance and cultural practices' despite their 'hard work and innovation'.
At the same time, a concept of Australian national identity as distinct from 'Britishness', was emerging. The new nation sought to establish a unique 'new world' identity, as a nation committed to equal opportunity, 'expressed in the national commitment to a 'living wage' – and the political equality of men and women'. According to the department, the forging of this 'unique' Australian identity was solidified in 1949 by the enactment of the Nationality and Citizenship Act 1948, and the creation of Australia's first Department of Immigration. In this period of 'nation building' after the Second World War, the Commonwealth of Australia sought to 'share the future' with 'vast numbers' of 'new Australians'.
A migrant nation
World War II had left Australia feeling vulnerable to invasion, and needing to fill critical labour shortages. Despite the government's preference for British immigrants, insufficient numbers of British immigrants could be secured to fulfil the ambitious quotas. Department of Immigration staff were dispatched to Germany, to select 'young, physically strong and attractive' candidates from Estonia, Latvia and Lithuania, and efforts were made to 'promote them in a positive light to the Australian public'. Following the initial scheme, between 1947 and 1954, 'more than 170,000 displaced persons arrived in Australia from countries across Eastern and Western Europe'.
Historians reflected that this post-war immigration 'challenged Australians' tolerance' of new migrants, with '[o]liveskinned dark-haired southern Europeans' receiving racial slurs and being stigmatized. Despite the tensions, difficulties and challenges faced by migrant populations to Australia, Australia continued to be a destination 'in high demand'. Since 1945, around seven million migrants have settled in Australia, with over 60 per cent becoming Australian citizens.
Over time, as post-war immigration diversified the Australian population, 'the White Australia Policy was gradually dismantled', and the notion of Britishness lost its primacy in relation to Australian national identity.
The 1980s saw a concerted effort to restate and promote an understanding of Australian national identity as a multicultural society, such as through the 1989 National Agenda for a Multicultural Australia. The National Agenda included 'eight goals of multiculturalism', which were directed towards 'all Australians', and ranged from (goal 1) having 'a commitment to Australia' and 'our national interests', to (goal 8): 'Australian institutions should acknowledge, reflect and respond to the cultural diversity of the Australian community'.
According to the Australian Historical Association, the early multicultural agenda included 'attempts' to include First Nations people as part of the broader multicultural milieu. These attempts 'foundered on a failure to recognise the specificity of First Nations' claims to sovereignty, prior occupation, land rights and self-determination'.
Today, there is 'strong evidence' that Australians are generally positive about multiculturalism, and see it as 'an important, indeed vital and unique element of Australian identity…fundamental to their sense of themselves'.
Capturing the way in which national stories change over time, the Australian Historical Association observed:
…Australia has evolved into a successful, multicultural nation located in the Asia-Pacific region. This framing of national identity would not only have been foreign to Australians in 1901; for the vast majority who supported the White Australia Policy it would have been anathema.
There was some criticism, however, for the way in which political leaders now talk about immigration. The Scanlon Foundation observed that political leaders in the last 20 years seem 'reluctant' to talk about the 'full impact' of the immigration program on Australian life, focussing only on its economic benefits:
For at least 50 years after World War Two, political leaders from both major parties spoke directly to Australians about the economic, social and cultural benefits of the nation's immigration program…[The new] approach has shrunk the Australian story; the official rationale for migration is less about nation-building than the national bottom line. Migration is simply 'recruiting'…
The Scanlon Foundation argued that 'Australia has a bigger story to tell' regarding the way immigration has changed, and continues to change, Australia, and about its many benefits. Most Australians, Scanlon's polling shows, already 'accept and endorse' this story.
Chapter 4 discusses the Australian people and social cohesion, citizenship, culture and religion, and further considers the role of multiculturalism.
An independent nation: the Australia Acts
The Australia Act 1986 (Cth) and the Australia Act 1986 (UK) (the Australia Acts) were passed concurrently in 1986 in Australia and the United Kingdom. According to legal scholar Liam Boyle, the Acts 'completed Australian independence', and:
…had the 'important effect' of 'cutting off the last links of United Kingdom sovereignty and passing into Australian hands full power to amend or repeal all Australia's constitutive documents'.
In a speech made at the time, Chief Justice Mason said:
Now that the Australia Acts 1986 have severed the residual constitutional links between Australia and the United Kingdom we are, as we have never truly been before, the masters of our own legal destiny.
History lecturer, Dr Benjamin Jones remarked that Australia did not really become a nation, independent from Britain, until the passage of the Australia Acts:
…it is extraordinary that Australia achieved independence so recently and yet the date and its significance is almost completely unknown by its citizens. Why is there no public holiday? Why does the government, like previous governments, make no attempt to celebrate this momentous occasion? Australian national life is poorer for its lack of reflection on this extraordinary and peaceful transition from dominion to nation.
Dr Jones suggested the decision of successive governments not to replace the British symbols that 'dominate' our public monuments, parliamentary oaths, flag and national holidays 'represents a failure of imagination and leadership'. He argued that new symbols would 'reflect the independent, multicultural nation that we are not the white British dominion we were'.
An egalitarian nation
A core ideal associated with the Australian nation is that of equality. Melbourne University historian, Professor Marilyn Lake, said that 'the key value of equality…was crystallised in Australia' in the late 19th and early 20th centuries as an idea through which Australia expressed its 'distinctiveness from Britain…Australia wasn't Britain, it was against class inequalities, against privilege and against hierarchy'. The Australian notion of equality was distinctly different from the American notion of 'freedom', which emphasised the rights of individuals. In contrast:
…the very term 'Commonwealth' was mindfully chosen for our nation state because it suggested the commonweal, the common good or, as that great liberal, HB Higgins, said, that we preferred the common good to private greed.
Along with the value of equality, Australia has historically been associated with 'a culture of egalitarianism'. Professor Lake tied this culture to a framework of secular, 'binding civic values' established at Federation dedicated to 'social justice and the common good', and commitment to the fundamental (British) idea of 'equality before the law'.
Australia's welfare system is often seen as an expression of the value of equality. Anglicare WA submitted that providing all Australians with access to 'a safety net' is an expression of our 'national values of compassion, fairness and justice', because 'we all have value beyond our economic contribution'.
Director of the Australian War Memorial, Mr Matt Anderson said:
There are 102,800 women and men recorded on the Roll of Honour, and they're all equal under death. There are no postnominals. There's no rank. We just see that as an Australian society we're being very egalitarian in what we seek to do in the highest honour we can bestow upon someone—to have them recorded on the Roll of Honour. William Throsby Bridges was a major general commanding the Australian troops at Gallipoli and was commandant at Duntroon. Above him is a driver. Below him is a private. That speaks to us a nation, both at that time and perhaps as an ideal that's worth retaining—that we are actually fundamentally decent, equal human beings.
The History Council of WA cautioned that the notion of Australia as an egalitarian society 'deserves scrutiny'. While early Australian society may have lacked the obvious class stratification characteristic of British society, it was not 'classless', nor, the History Council argued, is Australian society classless now: 'We may not have an aristocracy, but there are certainly graduations based on wealth and other socio-economic factors'.
Participants in the roundtable on 7 February 2020 debated whether Australia was ever, and is still, an egalitarian nation. The Academy of Science's Professor Ian Chubb AC was critical, pointing to unequal access to medical treatment in regional areas. Policy specialist, Dr Scott Prasser expressed a more positive view, saying, 'Australia has a very outstanding record—far better than other countries—of distributing money and resources to areas of need'.
Mr Sam Roggeveen from the Lowy Institute argued that Australia was not more egalitarian in the past, observing there were previously fewer women and people from 'non-Anglo backgrounds' in Australia's parliaments than there are today. Professor Lake agreed that the ideal of equality was 'limited in its application at first', excluding certain groups. However, over the years, through the participation of Australians in civil and political society:
…we had campaigns and struggles to extend equality to women, to Indigenous people and to migrants, so that those ideals of equality extended to become multiculturalism or Aboriginal rights.
The Australian Multicultural Council suggested the ideal of equality has an ongoing role to play in uniting diverse Australians by focussing 'on ideas that unite all Australians, such as equality and democracy'.
Professor Lake expressed a similar view, proposing that government should revitalise the idea of egalitarianism as all that is best about Australia:
…to re-invoke this national story of equality that was laid down in the 1890s and the 1900s by those great liberal founding fathers and mothers, including women like Vida Goldstein, Catherine Spence and Alice Henry. They laid down this vision of a country, a Commonwealth, based on the common good and the ideal of equality.
Conversely, the University of WA cautioned that promoting the notion of specific 'Australian values', should be 'undertaken with great care to ensure it doesn't become a means by which to exclude certain members'.
A nation forged through military service
We welcomed 1.3 million visitors to the memorial in 2018-19, more than any other cultural institution in Australia. Of those visitors, 191,000 were schoolchildren. At its heart, the memorial represents how highly Australians value democracy and the willingness to serve, to sacrifice and to preserve our freedoms. We honour those who put service before self. We develop in young learners a deeper understanding of the connection between civic responsibility and military service by exploring the stories of Australians who have served.
Mr Matt Anderson, Director, Australian War Memorial, Committee Hansard, 13 November 2020, p. 51.
The Australian War Memorial's Director, Mr Matt Anderson said, through depicting the Australian experience of war and conflict, the memorial 'seeks to define part of our national identity', and reflect the 'values and aspirations' of Australian society.
The values captured in the memorial's Hall of Memory are values associated with service, and sacrifice. These are values that capture the imaginations of Australians today. They are: 'resource, candour, devotion, curiosity and independence; comradeship, ancestry, patriotism, chivalry and loyalty; and coolness, control, audacity, endurance and decision'.
While its role has changed over the years, the memorial remains a place of reflection, a place for research, and place for healing. Mr Anderson said the memorial is also a place of 'truth-telling' and does not shy away from telling stories in a 'holistic way', including where those stories may not be heroic.
Mr Anderson commented on the continuing strong interest in the memorial and Australia's military history:
The importance of the Anzac spirit and what it stands for today is also a key element in defining our national identity. Though born from the ill-fated campaign on Gallipoli, the spirit of Anzac is of course not about loss at all; it's about courage, endurance, duty, love of country, mateship, good humour and the survival of a sense of self-worth and decency in the face of dreadful odds.
The Australia Council for the Arts submitted that the memorial's Official War Art Scheme 'is one of the longest running commissioning programs of art in Australia' and the 1981 film Gallipoli, directed by Peter Weir, broke box office records and 'helped to shape the national understanding of Australian identity'.
Dr Clare Wright criticised the focus of successive governments on ANZAC Day and Gallipoli, saying that the Australian nation 'was not born on the blood-soaked beaches of a far-flung militarised zone'. Instead, Dr Wright argued, the nation was born 'in the town halls and parliaments' at home, and also at Eureka. Dr Wright believed a bigger focus should be on these histories than on the history of war as a component of nation building.
This criticism was echoed by the History Council of Western Australia, which submitted:
Commencing with Bob Hawke's pilgrimage to Gallipoli in 1990, we have seen a return to the militaristic Victorian concept that nations are born in war. Despite many commentators refuting the rationality of this concept, it persists in the public mind and is rewarded by immense government funding.
Mr Anderson remarked that our military history is not 'the sole story' of who we are as a nation, but 'it's an important part of what we are'. Ensuring the memorial remains relevant in a modern Australia, where 'about one in three Australians' were born overseas, Mr Anderson said, is about 'making sure that it tells a story of a culturally diverse Australian Defence Force':
The last post ceremony last weekend was delivered by a young private wearing a hijab. That's how you do it. You make it relevant by speaking to every generation in the farthest corners of this massive country of ours…
Mr Anderson also talked about the War Memorial's increasing focus on peace-keeping, which he argued goes to Australian values of 'services beyond self':
We've sent more than 40,000 peacekeepers on, I think, more than 60 peacekeeping operations to over 30 countries and disputed territories. That goes to our values. That goes to those things that we seek to engage in—these services beyond self, both at the individual level and as a nation. We say, 'We want to uphold the rules based international order and we want to uphold United Nations Security Council resolutions.' I think we should absolutely be telling the story of what we've done and what we continue to do in the South Sudan today, and what we did in Timor Leste, in Bougainville, in the Regional Assistance Mission to Solomon Islands or RAMSI, where we went in and then we stayed.
The most important thing, Mr Anderson said, is that the memorial does not mythologise, or glorify war or service people. Australians can see when they come to the memorial that service men and women 'were ordinary men and women who proved capable of extraordinary things'.
A resilient, resourceful nation
The committee heard evidence about the contribution of agricultural shows to Australia's national identity. Dr Robert Wilson, Chairman, Agricultural Shows Australia, said the 580 shows around Australia, including regional and country shows, and capital city royals, are 'an iconic part of Australia's history', with many shows in their 100th or 150th year, and the Sydney Royal Easter Show in its 200th year.
Dr Wilson explained that agriculture societies arose 'very early in our colonial history' as a way of dealing with the 'harshness and isolation of our early settlers and land owners'. Shows provide 'a community connection' important to Australian culture, Mr Wilson said, are and 'good for community wellbeing':
The annual show is the glue in most small country towns. It gives the opportunity for them to compete, to learn and to be involved, particularly it's a great opportunity for the volunteers because most of these are run by volunteers. That ongoing connection with the land, the celebration of agriculture, the competition and the education through competition continues now.
Over six million people attend an agricultural show every year, which equates to one quarter of the population, and around 50,000 volunteers are involved across all agricultural shows each year, with more than 12,000 volunteering at country shows.
Dr Wilson highlighted the role of shows in reflecting the importance of agriculture to Australia's history and to future, bridging the divides between city and country, demonstrating the creativity, resourcefulness and inventiveness of farmers, and providing an outlet for arts and crafts.
The shows also provide an opportunity for city people to learn about agricultural practice and 'where their food comes from', and for young people interested in agriculture to participate in competitions and programs where they can become the rural leaders of the future.
Truth-telling and recognition
What is Australia? Who are the Australians? These are questions we have never properly answered as an Australian people. That there is an Australian people, there is no question. That this continent and its islands are our land, there is no question. And when I say ours, I mean all of us.
Yet we have never properly faced the idea of Australia. How could the idea of Australia conjured in our mythic reconstruction of January 26, 1788, or the Federation of 1901 — without contending with the indigenous inhabitants of our land — be a proper answer to the question of Australia?
Noel Pearson, 'Grand narrative holds epic strands: A Declaration of Australia requires three verses, but it must be one song', The Australian, 16 September 2017, p. 19.
This section addresses a key concern raised by a majority of submitters to the inquiry – Australia's ongoing relationship with First Nations peoples.
The constitution as originally drafted included section 127, which read: 'In reckoning the numbers of the people of the Commonwealth, or of a State or other part of the Commonwealth, aboriginal natives shall not be counted'.
While there is significant complexity and some misconceptions around what section 127 meant in practice for Aboriginal and Islander Australians at the time, legal academic Elisa Arcioni argues that it meant First Nations Australians were excluded from 'membership of the constitutional community'. First Nations Australians, Arcioni writes, were deliberately excluded from being counted as 'one of the "people" of the Commonwealth Constitution, represented by parliament', and excluded from being counted to determine the number of representatives each state should have in the parliament.
Section 127 was repealed after a referendum in 1967. In his second reading speech, then Prime Minister, Sir Robert Menzies MP said '[s]ection 127 is completely out of harmony with our national attitudes and with the elevation of the Aborigines into the ranks of citizenship which we all wish to see'.
A number of inquiry participants suggested the failure of the framers, and early national governments, to accommodate First Nations Australians meant the modern Australian nation was constructed upon unstable foundations. The Australian Lawyers Alliance said, despite their special place, Australia's First Nations 'were completely ignored at Federation in 1901'. Similarly, Mr Peter Fisher submitted that the concept of 'terra nullius' (land that is unoccupied), overturned by the High Court in 1992, lies at the foundation of 'the fundamental flaw of the modern Australia'.
Since the 1967 referendum repealed section 127, there have been a number of inquiries and other processes aimed at progressing further changes to the Constitution, exploring options for a treaty or compact with Australia's First Nations peoples, or other proposals for recognition. The Final Report of the Referendum Council (2017) lists:
Gough Whitlam's statement that Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples needed to take 'their rightful place in this nation';
Malcolm Fraser's inquiry into the feasibility of a compact or 'Makarrata' between the Commonwealth and Aboriginal People;
Bob Hawke's response to the Barunga Statement at the bicentenary of 1988, which supported a treaty or compact;
Paul Keating's 'Redfern Speech' in 1991; and
John Howard's commitment to a referendum in 2007, when he said: 'I believe we must find room in our national life to formally recognise the special status of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders as the first peoples of our nation.'
The Referendum Council notes that none of these 'promising intentions' ever came to fruition. However, in the Council's view, this history of bipartisan action and intention confirms that constitutional recognition is a 'longstanding and unfinished business for the nation'.
A large number of participants in the inquiry shared this view, and argued that the time is right to start a national conversation aimed at resetting the relationship between the nation-state and Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians.
Three great streams
The first part of this story is the epic trek out of Africa. Latest research pushes back the date of Aboriginal presence in Australia beyond 60,000 years. Our epic story begins from science as well; as from within the mythologies of the First Peoples of this continent…There is a second epic story of Australia: the voyage of the Endeavour…I now want to turn to the third species of epic story. There are in fact millions of such stories. The epic migrations from Auschwitz, Somalia, Italy, Vietnam, Beirut and Tiananmen Square, and so many other places.
These are three equally epic parts to our national story. A Declaration of Australia should have three verses, but it must be one song. A Declaration will enable us to thread together these three epic stories into the one story of our Australian commonwealth: a declaration to unite the nation.
Noel Pearson, 'Grand narrative holds epic strands: A Declaration of Australia requires three verses, but it must be one song', The Australian, 16 September 2017, p. 19.
Participants in the roundtable on the 14 February 2020 discussed the construction of Australian nationhood put forward in the Final Report of the Referendum Council in 2017. The report, which includes the Uluru Statement from the Heart, and recommends a referendum on constitutional recognition of First Nations Australians and a voice to the parliament, also recommends progressing an 'extra-constitutional Declaration of Recognition'. The declaration would be legislated by all Australian parliaments simultaneously, 'as an expression of national unity and reconciliation'.
The Referendum Council states that the declaration would 'bring together the three parts of our Australian story: our ancient First Peoples' heritage and culture, our British institutions, and our multicultural unity'.
Sydney-based historian, Professor Heidi Norman, described the 'three great streams', or 'three epic strands', articulated by Noel Pearson and others, as the 'ancient Indigenous heritage, which is its foundation; the British institutions built upon it; and the adorning gift of multicultural migration'. Professor Janet McCalman AC added:
The first is the great stream of traditional Aboriginal knowledge. Bruce Pascoe has shown that in fact there was a diversified horticulture at the time the Europeans arrived and that the land was cultivated in all sorts of very interesting ways; actually, the archaeologists have been telling us that for a long time. The oldest tools for making flour have been found in this country, 30,000 years old, 20,000 years before we have evidence of that happening…So we've got that rich tradition and that sense of belonging to country. Secondly, we have the British tradition, which has given us our institutions, and, thirdly, we have the rich multicultural. These three great streams flow together.
This point of view should be seen as a 'gift', Professor McCalman said:
I think that the Uluru statement, and what Noel Pearson has been talking about, is in fact an extraordinary gift to modern Australia. The Aboriginal community has made a gift to us of giving us a new way of imagining what we are. We come from three great streams.
The National Museum of Australia indicated support for this construction of Australian history, submitting:
The Museum is committed to representing the long human history of the continent through the history and experience of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples in all their diversity, and joining this to the remarkable story of the making of modern Australian in the past two centuries or so. This story, unique in terms of the global storytelling of human experience, is composed of three important, inherent strengths, as identified by Noel Pearson and others:
The lives and cultures of the First Peoples of Australia, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples;
The foundation of Australian democracy upon British forms and institutions; and
The successful integration of people of varied faiths, cultures and ethnic backgrounds in a diverse, multicultural Australian people.
We stand at a crossroads, historically unlike any other, as we are aware now of the damage that has and is still being wrought on first nation's peoples, the environment and future generation's peacefulness. We cannot claim ignorance of the colonial project legacy in Australia, but we can take a mature and responsible attitude to acknowledge, recognise and listen to the truth.
We have an amazing opportunity, an invitation to draw on the unique wealth of knowledge about this country held in the multitude of Aboriginal nations and their communities and make a significant and profound statement as a nation about a new stance with which to face the future. Please embrace this goodwill as a gift to be treasured.
Paul McGaw, Leanne Thompson, Lily McGaw and Ella McGaw, Uluru Statement from the Heart form letters, [p. 42]
A majority of submissions to the inquiry, along with the approximately 250 form letters the committee received, expressed support for the Uluru Statement from the Heart, and for the recommendations of the Referendum Council for a Voice to Parliament and a Declaration of Recognition. The Uluru Statement and recommendations were the end result of the '12 First Nations Regional Dialogues', which culminated in the National Constitutional Convention at Uluru in May 2017, at which First Nations peoples from around the country formed 'a consensus position on the form constitutional recognition should take'. According the Referendum Council, '[t]his is the first time in Australia's history that such a process has been undertaken'.
The Uluru Statement includes the following:
We seek constitutional reforms to empower our people and take a rightful place in our own country. When we have power over our destiny our children will flourish. They will walk in two worlds and their culture will be a gift to their country.
We call for the establishment of a First Nations Voice enshrined in the Constitution.
Makarrata is the culmination of our agenda: the coming together after a struggle. It captures our aspirations for a fair and truthful relationship with the people of Australia and a better future for our children based on justice and self-determination.
We seek a Makarrata Commission to supervise a process of agreement-making between governments and First Nations and truth-telling about our history.
In 1967 we were counted, in 2017 we seek to be heard.
Reconciliation Australia acknowledged that we are making progress toward 'a reconciled Australia', but argued that 'we must address the calls made in the Uluru Statement from the Heart in relation to progressing Agreement Making/Treaties, an Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Representative Voice to parliament, and truth telling'.
Professor Norman described the Uluru Statement as 'an attempt to build a political strategy', to establish a relationship between First Nations peoples as 'a polity' and the state, where previously that relationship was been absent or dysfunctional.
The Australian Lawyers Alliance described the Statement's call for a constitutionally enshrined Voice to Parliament as 'sensible, pragmatic and legally moderate':
The proposed amendment would serve a dual purpose in that it would constitutionally empower Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples with a voice to Parliament, but at the same time would respect parliamentary supremacy and sovereignty and uphold the Constitution.
UWA submitted that recognition of Australia's First Nations peoples in the Constitution is 'vital' and failure to progress it will put 'the legitimacy of the nation-state itself' at risk. UWA suggested Australia could learn from New Zealand, which 'has created a national identity based on its relationship with its indigenous peoples', and strengthened by the Treaty of Waitangi.
Anglicare WA emphasised that Australia is among a minority of Commonwealth nations that do not have treaties with their First Nations peoples. The Fred Hollows Foundation highlighted that state governments are moving independently 'in the absence of leadership at the national level':
This is exemplified by the current treaty process between First Peoples and the state of Victoria, the Northern Territory Treaty Commission and the Barunga Agreement 2018, and the recent announcement of the Queensland Government to embark up on a similar process.
Australians for Native Title and Recognition (ANTaR) echoed this view and called for the government to 'finally enter into a negotiated settlement or treaty with the First Nations peoples to truly reconcile the last 230 years of shared history'. ANTaR drew attention to the progress that had been made in Canada, the USA and New Zealand and acknowledged that while treaties are 'not perfect', treaty frameworks in like jurisdictions 'have been the mechanism for ongoing dialogue and agreement'.
Greater inclusion of First Nations voices in our national dialogue, the Australian Lawyers Alliance said, would give Australia 'a unique cultural identity that we can be proud of – more than 60,000 years of continuous culture'.
Box 3.2 below contains extracts from the Uluru Statement from the Heart form letters received by the committee from Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians all over the country, some of which included heartfelt personalised messages.
Box 3.1: Extracts from the Uluru Statement From the Heart form letters
I walked in the Reconciliation Bridge Walk of 2000, it is almost twenty years later and nothing has really changed for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Please, give us the opportunity to make Constitutional enshrinement of a Voice happen in my lifetime, put the Uluru Statement from the Heart to the people. Our democratic society can only benefit.
Carmel Grimmett, Marrickville NSW, [p. 3]
Allowing Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people a voice in laws that affect them as [suggested] in the Uluru Statement of the Heart to me is not only logical but decent and right, and the only true way forward to show the respect and understanding to the Aboriginal people. I also strongly believe that it is the only way we will see positive social changes for the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people. Clearly the current way of things in managing Aboriginal affairs is not working to anyone's benefit.
Renee Dwight, [p. 10]
I work on the primary prevention of violence against women. I believe that accepting this statement and the changes that can flow from it are fundamental to ending the pandemic of violence that Aboriginal women are facing. Evidence shows us that inequality is the key driver of violence, and this would be both a moral and practical step toward a more equal and violence free society.
Belinda O'Connor, [p. 15]
The fact that, upon the foundation of Australia as a federation of states in 1901, a binding agreement was not been made with Australia's First Peoples means that now in a democracy in which they are numerically a minority, any current voice they may have can inevitably be submerged and superseded by the interests of the majority…The customisation of engagement and formulation of success-producing responses need to be guided by them.
Dr Maria Power, [p. 24]
I acknowledge the grit, courage and determination of the first settlers and the diggers, but so much of who we are as a nation is built on a foundation of lies, denial and disassociation. We whitewash everything, including the deep subjugation, trauma, and dispossession in our own pre-colonial history, and in our journey across the sea to the land later to be known as Australia…I am not ashamed of who we are, but we can be so much more. There is much truth to be revealed, and healing to be done…If only we would begin to restore some of what was stolen. If only we would allow their voices into our consciousness, hearts, and yes, into our nation state and politics.
Luke Ringland, [p. 29]
I lived and worked in Redfern in the 1970's and 1980's where my father owned a Milk Bar which…was the only one that served Aboriginal people and he had great relationships with them…As a migrant child I was discriminated as the policy of the Government during the time we migrated in 1954 was one of assimilation…Eventually a position became available for Aboriginal Welfare Officer at an organisation called South Sydney Community Aid in Redfern which was assisting Aboriginal, migrant and other people with the numerous problems…
I heard from the Aboriginal people the blatant discrimination in all spheres of their lives, the racism, the persecution of them by the police…They were discriminated when looking for jobs, or seeking accommodation, homelessness and living in terrible conditions…Their children did not attend school…I learned of the stolen generation and the Aboriginal Welfare Protection Act.
The working together at South Sydney Community Aid of the migrant, Aboriginal and Anglo communities on the issues which were experienced by them was a unique experience which governments recognised and the policies of Multiculturalism, Social Justice and Human Rights were instituted but there is the missing link of the Aboriginal people feeling excluded and deprived of their land which is the backbone of their civilisation.
Vivi Germanos-Koutsounadis OAM, [pp. 52-53]
We were outraged that the Prime Minister of the day, Malcolm Turnbull, rejected the statement and the Referendum Council's recommendation for an Indigenous Voice in Parliament. We wrote to the Prime Minister on 8th November 2017 expressing our disappointment and how we disagreed with the decision and that the government must begin the process for constitutional change and bring on the referendum for the people of Australia to make the decision and that there was no other outcome.
Patricia David, Secretary, Unions Shoalhaven, [p. 56]
In my work with Indigenous young people at the Australian Indigenous Education Foundation…the one thread that connected every story was the racism that comes as part and parcel of Indigeneity in this country. Young Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders are suffering because of the abuse, exclusion, and institutionalised racism they experience every day in a country that doesn't understand them, and doesn't try to. We owe those young people a country that they can participate in; that they can feel proud of; and where they feel belonging: a country where social cohesion and cultural identity in the nation state belongs to everyone.
Anna Mackiewicz, [p. 71]
My great great grandmother stolen, I also adopted out in the 60's to white family/ lost identity and culture.
Jking, [p. 73]
Not all witnesses agreed that constitutional recognition was the priority issue in relation to First Nations Australians and nationhood. Psychology academic, Dr Anthony Dillon said:
I don't have a problem with there being some insertion which recognises Aboriginal people as the first people here. What I do have a problem with—and it's been used often; we see it in the media and in meetings—is where there are people saying, 'Until we do recognise Aboriginal people in the Constitution we cannot move forward or we cannot fix the problems that are plaguing too many Aboriginal people, particularly in remote communities.' That's the main point I wanted to make. Constitutional recognition is fine: do it if you think it's the right thing, but the absence of it should not be an excuse for people not to take action now in fixing those problems that are in Aboriginal communities as we speak.
Dr Dillon argued that governments should focus on trying to close the gap 'within' Aboriginal communities (that is between First Nations Australians who are doing well in terms of social and economic indicators, and those who are not doing well), rather than 'between' Indigenous and non-Indigenous Australians.
Questions of constitutional recognition and constitutional change are further addressed in the final part of this chapter, Australian nationhood, the future.
Teaching Australia's history
Our cultural identity is far too complex and far too vibrant to be summed up by a statue or any one version of history, even though those individual works can of course inspire us and educate us. In the words of EH Carr, history is 'an unending dialogue between past and present'. I think in Australia we can accommodate a robust, open and unending dialogue [about] who we are as a nation. As we do this, I think we strengthen our resilience if we maintain the ability for all Australians to engage in their own discovery for truth telling and the constructive reappraisal of history.
Mr David, Director-General, National Archives of Australia, Committee Hansard, 13 November 2020, p. 23.
Participants talked about the importance of historical knowledge in addressing concepts of nationhood, national identity, and democracy. President of the Australian Historical Association, Professor Melanie Oppenheimer, maintained that nationhood and national identity are 'dynamic' concepts, changing and evolving over time. Associate Professor Don Garden, President of the Federation of Australian Historical Societies, agreed, adding '[y]ou cannot value democracy if you cannot understand it'.
Professor Garden argued that there are 'failures in our education system' at the moment, which result in young people not being provided with the 'capacity to understand, to analyse and to discriminate' as civic citizens. He suggested there is a lack of knowledge among Australians of Australia's democratic history, and the significance and rarity of our institutions. This leads to many students leaving school ill equipped to engage as civic citizens.
One reason suggested for this is that 'history has been swamped', or 'watered down' in the school curriculum as a result of 'the culture wars and parochial protection from the states'.
Professor Garden said studying history provides skills in research, writing, analysis, to and how to assess and critically analyse evidence, as well as helping students 'discern between the fake news, the fake evidence, and the truth'.
The British Australian Community expressed the view that Australian schools are failing to teach students 'about British Isles culture and history or about the characteristics and values of Australia's pioneers' and 'tend to emphasise Aboriginal [and] Asian history and environmental issues' instead. This view could be seen as controversial. Complex constructions of First Nations' history have only recently begun to be taught in schools, and are still not taught consistently across all schools, with reports suggesting the level of detail and coverage are dependent on teacher interest and capacity. A study of the New South Wales syllabus, reported in the Sydney Morning Herald, found:
Most students will leave history lessons knowing about the Stolen Generations and campaigns for Indigenous rights, such as the freedom rides and 1967 referendum. Their understanding of frontier wars, forced labour or blackbirding, however, might be less robust…The NSW curriculum gives teachers scope to cover different aspects of 50,000 to 60,000 years of Indigenous history. But insufficient teacher training and discomfort about confronting content, as well as limited teaching hours, can mean students graduate with gaps in their knowledge.
A number of submitters did not share this view and instead argued that stronger emphasis needs to be placed on teaching First Nations history at all levels of schooling. Reconciliation Australia drew attention to its research findings that 'perceptions of the relationship between Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples and other Australians improve when Australians are more aware of our history, and its ongoing impacts'.
Dr Wright argued that Australian school students should learn an expanded Australian history, which includes more about First Nations 'frontier warriors', and Australia's suffrage campaigners:
…just as they learn about Charles Macarthur, John Monash, Charles Bean, Weary Dunlop or Peter Lalor. I would prefer that every school child has the opportunity to forget their names than never have learned them at all.
Professor Garden said the fact that Australia has compulsory voting makes it all the more 'essential' that all students in primary and secondary schools 'are provided with a good basis of Australian history, and, with that, an understanding of civics'.
Professors Garden and Oppenheimer argued that history teaching at the year 9 or 10 level, with a focus on civics and Australia's democratic history, should be made compulsory in all states and territories, as it is currently in New South Wales schools. Professor Oppenheimer observed that it has 'been very successful' in New South Wales, and can be 'taught well', in a 'holistic way that is not bogged down in the culture wars'.
Professor Garden noted a decrease in specialised training of history teachers over recent decades, and recommended more dedicated training of history teachers. At the moment some of the professional development of teachers in history and civics is provided by historical community groups and professional associations and the Museum of Australian Democracy.
Participants in the inquiry also talked about history teaching at universities. Professor Greg Melleuish argued that Australian universities have developed a new kind of 'cultural cringe' and are failing to serve the national interest by 'promoting the study of things Australian'. Associate Professor Martin Crotty, Associate Professor Lisa Featherstone and Dr Geoff Ginn of the University of Queensland School of Historical and Philosophical Inquiry presented a counter argument. They reported the results of research examining all history courses taught in Australian universities over 2015 and 2016, including enrolment numbers. It found that traditional areas of European history, world history, wars, and Australian history were still the most popular. The submitters concluded '[t]he "Western canon" survives and thrives in Australian history teaching'.
Professor Crotty, Professor Featherstone and Dr Ginn observed that Australian history courses look 'very different' to the way they looked fifty years ago, because 'Australia looks very different':
Students are growing up and engaging in a vastly different country and vastly different and more interconnected world, with changing values about race, ethnicity, sex and gender.
Dr McGrath commented that Australian history 'used to be only about white male politicians' but much has changed, with progress made towards 'a more inclusive history and national story'.
When asked about academic freedom in universities, Professor Oppenheimer said she had never felt her freedom to teach had been restricted in her 25 years of teaching. Professor David Carment, from the Federation of Australian Historical Societies, agreed:
In fact, with history one of the important things to emphasise to students is that it's a discipline which involves debate. It's a discipline where you look at historians disagreeing with one other on fundamental issues.
The community also has responsibility for the health of a democratic political system. It has an obligation to consider, with an open mind, all aspects of an argument before coming to a conclusion and to resist the easy option of being influenced by fear campaigns, robo calls, three-word slogans and pork barreling. In other words, the community has an obligation to be well informed before casting a vote and to value and protect the political system that allows them to vote in free and fair elections not rigged to achieve a pre-determined outcome.
Dr Collen Lewis, Submission 155, p. 7.
In a democratic society, responsibility for the fate of the nation rests with every citizen. Every person of voting age not otherwise disqualified from voting (for instance due to incarceration for greater than five years, or a similar reason) has a direct say in the future direction of their nation. Some value and cherish this role, some take it for granted, and some choose not to exercise it at all.
The Department of Home Affairs submitted that the nation 'is stronger' when citizens are 'informed' and 'understand their rights and responsibilities'. The department maintained that students at all levels in Australia's 'strong universal education system…learn about Australia's history, democracy and their obligations as citizens of our society'.
However, many inquiry participants argued that Australia is not currently providing enough civics education, and that much more is needed to ensure citizens can engage effectively in their democracy. This section looks at civic education and democratic empowerment in Australia, and proposals for increasing and improving these important functions.
Dr Prasser observed that there has been 'a decline in civic education' of young people, and a corresponding decline in the study of political science:
We don't teach state politics. Federalism, so important, is hardly taught, except maybe in law faculties. You said that the federalism research centre at ANU got closed down. The Fraser government set up the Advisory Council for Inter-Government Relations, a research institute based in Tasmania. It got closed down in 1986.
Mrs Karp confirmed that only two universities now provide 'dedicated courses on civics and citizenship for preservice teachers in Australia…Monash and Sydney University'. She maintained that civics education in schools has been 'really, really marginalised'.
Dr Karena Menzie-Ballantyne, from CQUniversity, said the civics and citizenship curriculum in Queensland is currently allocated 18 hours a year. A civics and citizenship test is conducted 'with a selection of schools around Australia' in grade 6 and grade 10:
[S]tatistics from those tests are that, on the whole, the highest score we ever get from our grade 6s is somewhere between 50 and 60 per cent—and then the scores go backwards. Our grade 10s scored about 47 per cent in the last testing. I hasten to add that what they are testing is the thing that is easy to measure—civic knowledge. And yes, we are failing the children in that because we have only 18 hours a year to do it.
The Constitution Education Fund released a research paper in March 2019 reporting on results of the triennial sample assessment of year 6 and year 10 students on civics and citizenship. The paper reported a 'very large drop in results over the last two cycles of testing (2013 and 2010)' for year 10 students. In 2016, 55 per cent of year 6 students achieved a 'proficiency standard'; a result relatively in line with the 2004 results. However, only 38 per cent of year 10 students achieved 'proficiency'; representing a 'very large drop' over the last two cycles.
Ms Deborah Sulway, Manager of Learning at MoAD, argued that 'teachers want to teach civics and citizenship and they see it as very important', but they do not have the knowledge, time or resources:
…it's not overt in the Australian curriculum: it's either not taught or it's embedded across other subjects and extracurricular activities. Democracy and civics knowledge has to be learnt. It's not innate knowledge. The most effective way to increase civic knowledge for young Australians is by making civics and citizenship overt in the Australian curriculum and providing consistent high-quality professional development for teachers.
Professor Evans said the way in which civics is taught is also important. Democracy 2025's survey data indicates young people think current civics education 'is not in tune with how they understand and think about democracy'. Rather than approaching civics from the point of view of teaching about the institutions, young people may respond better to an approach that focusses on issues and problems to be solved.
UWA highlighted research on the Australian National Curriculum which found student 'disengagement may be due to the traditional and proceduralist approach' to civics and citizenship education in schools, 'as well as the very limited time' (a maximum of 20 hours annually): 'The focus of the module is on teaching students about the governmental system, rather than engaging them in creative ways to consider their relationship with the nation and beyond'.
UWA suggested that a 'reconsideration' and redesign of the civics and citizenship module may have the effect of improving young people's 'engagement and commitment' to civics. UWA recommended 'an urgent reconsideration of the content of the module and the improving the 'quality and range of resources available for teachers', as well as dedicating more time to the civics.
Dr April Biccum, from the ANU, and Dr Karena Menzie-Ballantyne argued that a global citizenship education model 'is the appropriate education to respond to the challenges articulated by this Inquiry'. Global citizenship is 'already embedded in Australian educational policy and curriculum', and could be a powerful tool for promoting democracy if provided with 'proper political, institutional and financial backing from the Australian government'.
Dr Menzie-Ballantyne asked the committee to consider recommending that the federal government endorse 'education for global citizenship', and provide 'some funding to give teachers professional development' so that they could better deliver the civics already in the national curriculum: 'They have a mandate to do it, but, as was pointed out earlier, they simply have not been professionally trained to tease it out'.
The committee recommends that the teaching of history and active citizenship should be made compulsory in years 9 and 10 and conducted by appropriately trained teachers. The Australian government should:
increase the time dedicated to civics and citizenship education to at least 30 hours per year;
review the current civics and citizenship module of the Australian National Curriculum with a view to redesigning it to make it more engaging for students; and
commit to a review of the new civics and citizenship module five years after its implementation to assess its effectiveness in increasing knowledge and engagement of young people in relation to civics and democracy.
The new civics and citizenship module should:
be based on international best‑practice, evidence-based pedagogical approaches;
include content about First Nations history, and issues of civics and citizenship for Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander Australians;
include resources developed by First Nations people; and
focus on issues of interest to young people.
The committee recommends that the Australian government funds annual national excellence in teaching awards, which incorporate grants, scholarships and teaching placements, in the following categories:
Australian History and Civics; and
First Nations History and Civics.
The Parliamentary and Civics Education Rebate (PACER)
Administered by the Department of Education Skills and Employment, the Parliament and Civics Education Rebate (PACER) Program provides a travel subsidy for Year 4-12 students across Australia to visit Parliament House, the Museum of Australian Democracy, the National Electoral Education Centre, the Australian War Memorial and other national institutions as part of their civics and citizenship education. The PACER program provides subsidies per student, on a sliding scale depending on the distance from Canberra (See Figure 3.1).
Figure 3.1: PACER subsidies, per student
Source: Parliament and Civics Education Rebate (PACER), www.pacer.org.au/faqs.
To qualify for the subsidy, students must participate in an educational tour of Parliament House and, where possible, a role-play in the Parliamentary Education Office, the Museum of Australian Democracy and/or the National Electoral Education Centre at Old Parliament House, and the Australian War Memorial. Schools are required to report on the funding the school receives, and activities undertaken, in the school newsletter or equivalent.
Ms Sulway praised the PACER subsidy program, saying:
Our approach is to provide unique and transformative learning experiences that explore what it means to be an informed and engaged citizen through curriculum aligned education programs for schools, tertiary and teacher professional development programs, and youth leadership programs such as the National Indigenous Youth Parliament, the National Schools Constitutional Convention and mentoring programs.
The National Museum of Australia stated that it is not currently a mandatory PACER recognised organisation, 'despite the fact that there is a clear sense in which the history of the nation is essential to understanding one's place in our civil society and the responsibilities such membership of the national community confers'.
The Constitutional Education Fund noted that in 2016, 58 per cent of year 6 students and 44 per cent of year 10 students 'reported having been on an excursion to a parliament, local government or a law court'. The students who had reported going on an excursion to a democratic institution 'generally did better on the test'.
Between 2014 and 2019, at total of 558,243 students received funding (see Figure 3.2). In any one year, there are about 3.8 million school students enrolled in Australian schools.
Figure 3.2: Students and schools that have received PACER funding
Source: Department of Education, Skills and Employment, Parliament and Civics Education Rebate (PACER) Factsheet.
The committee recommends that the Australian government works through the National Cabinet to increase the number of school children accessing trips to Australia's democratic and cultural institutions through the Parliamentary and Civics Education Rebate program each year.
Australian nationhood, the future
Australia has reason to be proud of, and to preserve, its democratic history. Equally, it should recognise and address its tragic history of Indigenous dispossession. For Australia's nationhood to become fully modern it needs to reconcile these historical legacies.
Associate Professor Elisa Arcioni, Professor Helen Irving, and Dr Rayner Thwaites, Submission 151, p. 5.
The way Australia's national story is told has changed since Federation, and continues to evolve. These changes have been brought about by broad cultural and academic movements, as well as through the struggles of sections of Australia's community who fought to have their stories added to the wider narrative. However, many Australians feel that the process has stalled, and is incomplete.
Historian, Dr Benjamin Jones, submitted that in its 'privileging of Britishness', Australia's official construction of nationhood 'isolates those without British heritage and undermines the concepts of Australian independence and multiculturalism'.
Professor Alexander Reilly from the Adelaide Law School argued older versions of nationhood, 'built on the defence of the nation in conventional war, or on building the nation's wealth in a world of unlimited potential, no longer serve us'. Professor Reilly suggested a national conversation 'around values and identity' would help Australia respond to global challenges that threaten democracies. This view was supported by International IDEA, which argued that a process of constitutional change 'could help sustain democracy in the face of threats like populism and institutional capture'.
Ms Mary Jane Ahern identified 'growing support' across Australian society and business for the calls in the Uluru Statement, citing 2019 Federal Election Vote Compass data. The survey of 368,097 respondents found 64 per cent of voters supported the idea of changing the Constitution to establish a First Nations body to advise parliament, while 22 per cent rejected it.
Welcoming Australia submitted that recent global events, such as the Black Lives Matter protests, and increased media attention on issues of racism and police brutality, have 'invigorated' the Australian public's concern about Aboriginal deaths in custody and structural racism, making change even more critical.
Professor Oppenheimer said, from a historian's perspective:
We need to be conscious and aware of our history and the continuing legacies of that past. As we all know, modern Australia rests on a much longer Australian history, and Indigenous people have lived on this continent for 60,000 years, but that date is being pushed back as science and technology and archaeologists get more data. So it is continuously evolving. I think the failure to acknowledge Indigenous demands for constitutional recognition and acknowledgement of the history of dispossession in a real and meaningful way makes social cohesion difficult.
A new constitutional chapter?
Participants believed that a process of constitutional reform, led by governments in a spirit of positivity, could be used to redefine a coherent national identity and set of national values that heal wounds and unite the nation. Professor Reilly said:
The process of constitutional change is a highly effective way to engage the polity in this conversation…The benefit of interrogating issues of national identity through constitutional change is that the whole community has a tangible stake in the proposal and its outcome through the requirement to vote in the referendum. A referendum is our only formal exercise of direct democracy. It is the only process by which the Australian people are forced to consider their position on issues of national significance. If the referendum process is managed well, it has the potential to provide a platform for a productive discussion about Australian identity at the national level…If we are to find a coherent image of Australia to rally around for the future, it must emerge from the people. Constitutional change offers a vehicle for the people's voices to be heard. It is time to re-engage with this mechanism of democratic governance.
Australia's Constitution is unusual among modern democracies as it is 'a very "thin" document', providing a framework for a stable federated government, while leaving many other fundamental issues unarticulated. Mr Geoffrey Robin submitted that the Constitution:
…has nothing to say about the Australian people, about citizens or citizenship, Australian values…It does nothing to express our humanitarian values, it has nothing to say about our national identity and nothing to say about our democratic beliefs, rights and liberties…At some stage Australian Members of Parliament must decide that it is time to bring our 19th century Constitution up-to-date.
Intergovernmental think tank, International IDEA said that a primary function of most constitutions is establishing 'the political community, defining who is in (who is a citizen, and what that means) and who is out', and what the rights of citizenship entail. Modern constitutions also increasingly spell out 'the shared values of the community, present a narrative of a country's history, and set a roadmap for the future'.
International IDEA examined two alternative ways of 'managing diversity' in national constitutions: 'an accommodative approach, seeking to recognise differences, and an integrative one, seeking to overcome differences'. Ms Leena Rikkila Tamang said that nations can utilise 'a mixed approach', 'dealing with broader diversity [such as immigration] through an integrative approach', while 'taking an accommodative approach to certain groups of people', such as First Nations peoples.
Ms Ann-Mari Jordens recommended, along with recognition of First Nations Australians, amending the Constitution to 'acknowledge and define the scope of citizenship, to clarify its extent and operation and the concept of national identity'. Citizenship is further discussed in Chapter 4.
Constitutional law lecturer, Dr Matt Harvey, argued that 'thinness' of the Constitution, and reluctance to attempt constitutional change, means that 'deep constitutional or metaconstitutional issues' are being decided by the High Court rather than through democratic processes:
I know constitutional change is extremely difficult. There has been talk of constitutional change for Indigenous recognition or for a First Peoples voice or other things, but it has to be wider than that. The Constitution is about all of us. It seems to be in the too-hard basket to look at constitutional reform that makes our Constitution really stand for who we are and what we're about.
Professor Irving said that, unlike the United States Constitution, which is seen as 'a constraint and a limitation upon and a suspicion of the exercise of power', Australia's Constitution has always been seen more 'as a facilitator of the public good, and we should not lose sight of that'.
Is constitutional change achievable?
In its report, the Referendum Council stated the reforms called for in the Uluru Statement 'conform to the weight of views of First Peoples expressed in the First Nations Regional Dialogues as well as those of the wider community'. It was the council's view that the proposal for a Voice to Parliament could succeed at a referendum if it were progressed with 'focussed political leadership and continued multiparty support for meaningful recognition'.
Having researched constitutions around the world, International IDEA highlighted the need for the process to unite, rather than divide Australians. This is not an impossible task, but requires careful balancing of the desire to reflect and recognise the concerns of First Nations Australians, while also 'reassuring' mainstream Australia, and reflecting mainstream identities:
Recent decades have in many countries seen a whirlwind pace of technological, sociological, and demographic change. Identities of people and places change. Some thrive on that. Others are unsettled by it. A constitution – as a supreme and fundamental law that attempts to be an instrument of national unity, a common point of reference, and a shared cornerstone of legitimacy even in the midst of profound disagreement on policy choices – has to somehow recognise and mediate between both of those concerns. A constitutional formulation of national identity that is too conservative or exclusive may alienate some. A constitutional formulation that is too progressive or inclusive may alienate others. This is not to argue against attempting to use the constitution as a means to reinforce national unity and national identity, but it is to counsel caution in adopting divisive – and counter-productive – wording.
The Australian Historical Association pointed to the slow pace of change in Australia's history. Australia did not adopt the Statute of Westminster, passed in the United Kingdom in 1931, until 1942, and did not legislate for an independent Australian citizenship until 1949, or adopt a national flag until 1954. Australia did not have its own national anthem until 1984, and did not achieve 'full legal independence' from Britain until 3 March 1986, with the passage of the Australia Acts.
These changes, though considered gradual by some, are still considered radical by others. The Australian Monarchist League argued that Australia's nationhood is 'under attack', through 'suppression of the place of Christian belief and thought in our heritage, history, values and character'. The Monarchist League recommended that 'Australian governments should encourage patriotism, and in particular should foster all Australians' shared allegiance to the Crown'.
International IDEA explained that 'groups and communities who have been historically dominant may feel a disproportionate sense of loss of ownership of the State as it becomes more diverse', which can lead to a sense that these groups are 'unwelcome in the public space', which is not a productive or positive outcome for Australia's social cohesion.
Some have opposed the call for a Voice to the Parliament on the grounds that it could constitute a 'third chamber of parliament'. International IDEA submitted that a Voice to the Parliament is not a third house of the legislature, but 'a permanent representative body of aboriginal interests to the legislature', and 'there are international precedents for such bodies'. For instance, the parliament of Greenland is consulted by Denmark on decisions that impact it, and the Chittagong Hill Tracts (CHT) region of Bangladesh is represented by a tribal council that must be consulted on laws impacting the CHT.
The characterisation of a Voice to Parliament as a 'third chamber' was opposed by a number of participants, and has been rejected by constitutional law experts. Professor Anne Twomey argued that a constitutionally enshrined Voice would not amount to a 'third chamber', on the basis that the body would not have power to 'initiate, pass or reject bills'. Rather, its role would be to give a voice to First Nations people that could be heard within the parliament, so that parliament could be better informed to make laws. This model is similar to the way in which existing bodies, such as the Auditor-General, Australian Human Rights Commission, and Australian Law Reform Commission provide advice and report to parliament.
Professor Twomey argued that a constitutional amendment is necessary to ensure that the Voice to Parliament has 'the moral authority of the people', and to 'prevent future backsliding by governments' that may otherwise be possible if the Voice was not enshrined in the constitution. The most recent Australian Reconciliation Barometer recorded that 81 per cent of the general community, and 88 per cent of First Nations people, support a constitutionally entrenched Indigenous representative body. Previous barometer studies have also consistently shown majority support for such a proposal.
Australia's national story has evolved and continues to evolve today. There is room within a healthy democracy for debate, discussion and disagreement on nationhood. It is not for governments to impose a strict interpretation of history, or to tell Australians how to feel about our past. All the same, what governments do and say matters.
Gestures that may seem symbolic have real-world effects, touching souls, hearts and minds, changing the way Australians feel about themselves, their place in the nation, and their fellow Australians.
There is strength in unity, of that there is no doubt. A country that is united is strong. A country where citizens feel connected, feel that they belong, is a country that can better withstand threats to its peace and stability. An Australia in which all Australians feel respected, in which the heritage and contribution of all Australians is clearly valued, can only be a more united Australia.
There are many ways to be an Australian. To attempt to define or impose a homogeneous national identity can only have the effect of excluding a multitude of Australians. In the words of Mr Aleem Ali:
…it's important that we increasingly acknowledge a complex past, that informs our present and the opportunity to shape our future. There is no such thing as a single or archetypal Australian story and yet, we can often perpetuate one.
The days of the White Australia Policy are long behind us. We have come a long way, and changed beyond recognition from the nation envisioned by those who framed our Constitution. Yet some of the qualities valued by the framers remain, and should be nurtured: egalitarianism, our commitment to equality, our resilience, resourcefulness and community spirit, the drive to volunteer, to help out when times are tough. These are attributes that should be fostered and encouraged.
Australia today is a relatively prosperous, diverse and cohesive society, in which most Australians feel a sense of belonging and connectedness. However, First Nations Australians have told us they do not feel seen or heard. They do not feel their stories have been told. They do not feel our national story respects their place in the past, present and future of this land.
The committee believes that the calls in the Uluru Statement from the Heart represent unfinished business. The committee notes the recent release of the Indigenous Voice Co-design Process Interim Report to the Australian Government, and the Minister's invitation to all Australians to 'have a say' on the final design of a Voice to parliament. These are positive steps, and the momentum must be maintained. Committee members may not agree on the best way to respond to the calls, but we all appreciate the need to progress a sincere and meaningful response.
The idea of the Australian nation as being composed from 'three great streams' is compelling. This idea, constructed by Noel Pearson and the Referendum Council in its proposal for a Declaration of Recognition, offers a new way of telling Australia's national story. It is model that is uniquely inclusive, respectful and optimistic.
The 'three great streams' idea acknowledges the different but equally important place of each of the three:
our Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander cultures and their ancient heritage;
our British institutions and histories, which are the foundation of our democracy; and
our rich multicultural diversity, varying faiths, cultures and ethnic backgrounds.
To diminish any one of these is to leave the nation impoverished.
As well as lifting up Australia's First Nations peoples to take their rightful place as equals in our national story, the model of three great streams provides proper acknowledgement of the nation-building role played by waves of immigrants who have settled here over the decades. Evidence from the Scanlon Foundation indicates a majority of Australians already support this view of immigration. This support should be nurtured.
Contemporary conversations about nationhood and national identity are about writing the next chapter in Australia's story; not erasing the past, or seeking to devalue it. It is about making something that is great, even better.
A conversation about healing the rift between the nation-state of Australia, and Australia's First Nations peoples has been going on for decades. It is within the power of the parliament, in conjunction with the people of Australia, to bring it to a conclusion.
Taking this step will benefit all Australians. It will build national pride, increase social harmony, and lift our international standing.
The importance of broad political and community support for this process cannot be overstated. History shows that major changes, including changes to Australia's Constitution, if that is the approach taken, are unlikely to succeed without bipartisan support.
The committee encourages all parliamentarians to look beyond the short term and consider the health of the nation and of Australia's democracy. The people of Australia look to us to work together, with them, in a spirit of sincere cooperation, to find solutions to complex questions. This is achievable.
The committee recommends that the Australian government prioritises engaging fully and respectfully with the calls of the Referendum Council and the Uluru Statement from the Heart.
The committee recommends that the Australian government adopts the 'three great streams' model as a powerful and inclusive image of Australian nationhood, and as a way of telling Australia's national story that offers dignity and respect to all Australians.