Australia’s continued success as a ‘nation-state’ depends on maintaining the political will to prioritise social cohesion, argues IPA Senior Fellow Sherry Sufi.
In his victory speech on 21 May 2022, incoming Prime Minister Anthony Albanese promised to “bring Australians together” and “to seek our common purpose and promote unity”. Party leaders from both sides tend to espouse such inspiring sentiments in their victory speeches, but actions ultimately speak louder than words. With the newly elected Government promising to entrench a Voice to Parliament in the Constitution, and to make us a republic, what will such lofty sentiments mean in practice? Proposals such as these could make Australians more divided than ever—and permanently divided by race.
But this is the pattern: politicians can always speak of unity in the abstract, without defining what it would look like in practical terms for the years ahead. Regimes around the world typically maintain unity among their citizens by evoking patriotic sentiments that appeal to the majority. In our case, the largest group happens to be of British Isles heritage. Yet these days, overt expression of patriotism towards and desire for the preservation of this majority culture and its traditions, symbols, institutions, and way of life is too often seen as obsolete … if not offensive.
According to critics, Australia has evolved into a much more cosmopolitan nation than when it was founded and—goes their argument—requires an updated national identity reflecting its changing demographics. When such critics suggest Australia should not be defined as a nation based on British culture and values, they also tend to reveal great ignorance about the emergence of nationalism as a political phenomenon. Its purpose was to enable distinct groups of ‘imagined communities’ (as political theorist Benedict Anderson called them) to live securely within their own borders. It was to enable them to preserve their own culture and way of life as they saw fit. Nationalism separates a nation from its neighbours based on actual or arbitrary distinctions. Consider the case of Spain and Portugal, which share the Iberian Peninsula. Both speak a Romance language descended from Latin, and both are Catholic. To any outside observer, their similarities would by far outweigh the differences. Yet in their own eyes, Portuguese are not Spanish and Spanish are not Portuguese. Trivial as it may seem, this divide forms the basis for putting up a fence in between called an international border, with a deliberate intention to isolate members of one imagined community from the other. There are 193 such cases around the world, judging by the membership list of the United Nations.
Despite all nationalism being a form of segregation whichever way we look at it, generally nobody outside English-speaking Western countries (the Anglosphere) bats an eyelid. The right of each country to define its own identity, preserve its own culture, maintain its own traditions, customs, and symbols is seen as natural and necessary … but apparently not if you are in an English-speaking Western nation such as Australia. While all nation-states are designed to let their national cultures flourish, not all nation-states necessarily use the same mix of ingredients to determine what their national culture should look like. Some put a single ethnic group at the centre of their national identity. For instance, in addition to Portugal and Spain we have Greece, Croatia, Macedonia, Serbia, and Slovenia.
In the Anglosphere we challenge our own identity.
Some bring multiple ethnic groups together under the banner of a shared civilisation. For instance, India, which is home to various ethnicities including Punjabis, Gujaratis, Bengalis, Marathis, or Tamils bound together in a Hindu majority nation-state. Some have religion and ethnicity as their basis of formation. For instance, Israel defines itself as the world’s only Jewish majority state, which has both a religious and an ethnic component. Yet others put religion and a federation of select ethnicities at their centre. For instance, Pakistan at its creation stressed the need for an independent state for the Muslims of the Subcontinent, separate from Hindu-majority India. It ended up bringing ethnic speakers of Pashto, Punjabi, Sindhi, Balochi, and Urdu together into a single national identity as Pakistanis (or at least continues attempting to do so).
In the vast majority of countries we do not see a strata of the intellectual elite attempting to dilute the national character and the symbols of nationalism. Talking up one’s national identity is the easiest way to mobilise the masses in the examples discussed earlier. But in the English-speaking West—or the Anglosphere as it is often called—we challenge our own identity. Our intellectual elites often take advantage of the lack of familiarity and literacy on issues concerning nations and national identities to sway mass opinion into casting doubt in its own confidence to self-preserve.
People are led to believe that nationalistic or patriotic behaviour is inherently racist. It is not encouraged in our schools. Indeed, the national curriculum is focussed much more on teaching young people the merits of ‘global citizenship’. Nevertheless, we constantly find ourselves engaging with our shared nationalism, whether on the sporting field such as an Ashes Test between Australia and England, or cricket matches between Pakistan and India, or following your favourite country’s medal tally at the Olympics. In vernacular use, nationalism often ends up being seen as synonymous with patriotism or jingoism, and to say one is ‘nationalistic’ is to essentially say they are patriotic. In this George Orwell was wrong. He had seen dark forces attempt to appropriate nationalism, and said:
Nationalism is not to be confused with patriotism. Both words are
normally used in so vague a way that any definition is liable to be challenged, but one must draw a distinction between them, since two different and even opposing ideas are involved. By ‘patriotism’ I mean devotion to a particular place and a particular way of life, which one believes to be the best in the world but has no wish to force on other people. Patriotism is of its nature defensive, both militarily and culturally. Nationalism, on the other hand, is inseparable from the desire for power.
Orwell was on the side of freedom when he wrote 1984 and Animal Farm. And he sought to be so here, too, but in this he is wrong-headed. His distinction is not supported by those who have thought most deeply about it (such as Benedict Anderson, quoted earlier). Nationalism is the force that justifies the existence of a modern country. It does not reflect a will to power—we Australians just want to live peaceably with our neighbours.
What we have learnt so far is that nationalism’s central idea was to allow members of imagined communities to exist inside secure borders and that different nation-states define their national identities and associated consciousnesses with a different mix of ingredients (such as an ethnicity, multiple ethnicities with shared civilisation, a religion, a religion and an ethnicity, or something else). Once this determination has been made by either the country’s founders or the government of the day, nation-states then go on to do all they can to safeguard their distinct way of life. That is how it works almost everywhere outside the Anglosphere.
Take for instance Israel, our closest Middle Eastern ally. Israel does not mind having an Arab minority which makes up 20 per cent of its population, so long as it gets to define itself as a Jewish state. Note we are not accounting here for the populations of the West Bank and Gaza that remain part of an on-going dispute. In Israel, Arabic is a recognised official language. Israeli Arabs have political representation in Israel’s parliament called the Knesset. Their Joint List—which is a coalition of Israeli Arab political parties (Balat, Hadash, Ta’al etc)—even held the balance of power after the 2021 elections. Affording these liberties to the Arab minority does not stop Israel from continuing to ensure it remains a ‘Jewish state’. The country’s national anthem is in Hebrew and its lyrics tell the tale of Jewish struggles from 2,000 years of diaspora. Jewish festivities are declared as national holidays, shops are closed on Shabbat from sunset Friday to sunset Saturday, and Jewish people living in other countries are automatically eligible to make ‘aliyah’—that is to apply for and obtain Israeli citizenship. These policy settings may seem odd to some observers in the Anglosphere, yet they are culturally normal and reasonable almost everywhere else. Countries criticising Israel for practising these policies to ensure its cultural preservation practice the same if not more themselves.
Australia’s British Isles heritage has made it the envy of the world.
In a nutshell, nationalism is the idea that the rulers must represent the populations over which they rule. This means the two (ruler and ruled) must share similar (though not necessarily identical) heritage, culture, customs, way of life, and language. During the heyday of colonialism, there was an obvious mismatch between the identities of the ruler and the ruled. For instance, there were British people ruling over Hindus and Muslims in the Subcontinent, French people ruling over Algeria, Italian people ruling over Libya, and the list went on and on. This cultural disconnect between the ruler and the ruled essentially morphed into a political disconnect, as it too often does, and became the major driving factor in the global revolt against imperialism on every continent over many decades. Large multi-ethnic empires began collapsing through the 1800s and particularly came to a boiling point around the time of World War I (1914-1918), ushering in an age of decolonisation.
Much more compact territorial units called ‘nation-states’ (or what we call countries) began to surface on the world map from the disintegration of now-defunct empires. The British left the Subcontinent by 1947, leaving behind not one but two independent nation-states: a Hindu-majority India and Muslim-majority Pakistan (which later lost its eastern, Bengali, portion, which became Bangladesh). The Italians were out of Libya by 1943. The British and French allies were out of Libya by 1951. The French were out of Algeria in 1962. Nationalism, as a phenomenon, did not rise overnight. Its emergence on the world map has been part of a gradual and continuing process that went well over a century. Nationalism arguably traces its roots to the period popularised by historian Eric Hobsbawm as ‘the age of revolution’ in his seminal work The Age of Revolution: Europe 1789-1848 (Vintage Books, 1962).
In the 20th century it was able to build on the system of nation-states established back at the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648. Once a nation had achieved separation and established a state, it could slot seamlessly into the global order. Nation-states freed from foreign colonial rule were premised on a shared set of stories about the heritage that represented the majority of the population. It was generally the culture, values, customs, and traditions of the dominant group present on the land which came to be embodied in the state’s branding: the flag, the coat of arms, the lyrics of the national anthem, the state religion (where applicable), and the official language. At their best, later iterations of multiculturalism make it clear the minority cultures have the right to peaceably maintain their own religions and manners, within the agreed national framework.
Australia has a British Isles heritage, and that is what has made it the envy of the world. It makes sense that everyone who chooses to call it home should respect this reality as it is (and it has been a long time since anyone was sent here against their will). Remember, the whole point of nationalism was to separate one group of people from another, often based on differences that may seem trivial or arbitrary to outside observers. A national consciousness is essentially a collective mindset. It is the underlying mythos, narratives, and ideas upon which a nation and its identity are built. An element of storytelling is always involved. The way to unite Australians is not by editing or worse yet altogether deleting our national stories or mythos. The pathway to unity that Albanese needs to find is to have us all find our place in the same national tapestry, rather than attempting to re-orient it to suit alternative identity subsets.
This is not to deny our country was already inhabited, for 60,000 years according to some estimates. That is a reality that must be respected, but so must be the reality that the political apparatus of our nation-state are all British inventions. Our parliaments, law courts, military establishments, bureaucracy, banking system, police force, dominant sports, art, literature, music, architecture, flag, anthem, currency, coat of arms, and national language have all been inherited from or patterned on those of Britain, with some variations drawn from other parts of the West.
Australia remains open to absorbing new settlers, as it has long done. This must happen on the proviso that it is the prospective settler’s responsibility to respect the State institutions and join the nation, not the other way around. We find common purpose by respecting the mythos that matter to us. We may not have something as ancient as Moses parting the Red Sea (although we do in the distant civilisational sense), but specific to Australia we do have stories of aspirational workers from the Gold Rush (1851), workers standing up for their rights at the Eureka Stockade (1854), an all-Indigenous Australian cricket team touring England (1868), women getting the vote (1902), the heroism of our soldiers at the Kokoda Track (1942), Indigenous Australians getting the vote in federal elections (1962), and 91 per cent of Australians voting ‘yes’ to remove divisive references to race in our Constitution so Indigenous Australians would be counted as equals (1967). These are just some of the seminal events we at the IPA’s Centre for the Australian Way of Life have been able to celebrate in our recent publication, ‘One and Free’.
The nation has produced many great sporting legends including but by no means limited to Dawn Fraser, Don Bradman, Shane Warne, Gary Ablett (snr), and Cathy Freeman. We have a robust democracy that enables us to vote for who we want and a free press that is constantly there to keep checks and balances on the government of the day. In short, we have plenty that binds us together as a nation. Our story is that of an ancient culture being enriched through the arrival of Enlightenment values from Europe. It is a story of what started out as a penal colony turning into an industrial paradise with democratic values comparable to those of the United States in one-third the timeframe. No nation is perfect, nor is its past. Ours too is a mixture, but a neutral observer could see that overall it has been a positive story that has a place for all Australians irrespective of how long our ancestors have walked this island. This must be the basis for our national consciousness and it is now up to Albanese to enforce it.
We have plenty that binds us together as a nation.
The absence of a national consciousness to which the majority of citizens can relate is a recipe for disintegration. There is no shortage of examples of now-defunct countries that underwent significant territorial change, breaking down into smaller and culturally homogenous independent countries. For instance, consider the cases of the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia, and Yugoslavia, where the grand narrative that had brought different groups together failed to bring everyone together into a unified national identity. Equally, there are plenty of inverse examples of now-defunct countries that were kept apart through artificial territorial carve-ups that came about as the result of war and foreign meddling. For instance, consider the cases of West Germany and East Germany, North Yemen and South Yemen, or North Vietnam and South Vietnam, all of which eventually ended up morphing back into single countries. If these diametrically opposite cases tell us anything, it is that people who feel part of the same ‘imagined community’ struggle to be kept apart and those who do not feel part of the same imagined community struggle to be kept together.
This is why the technical term for a country is ‘nation-state’—which represents not one, but two different political constructs coming together to form the concept. Even though the term ‘nation’ is often used synonymously with ‘country’, the more accurate definition of a nation is a group of people who feel they share a common heritage, culture, values, customs, language, or way of life. Whether or not such people live in an independent state is a separate issue. A group can be classified as a nation without having their own state. Take the sufferings of the Poles throughout history. When a defeat and subjugation in the 18th century is called ‘The Third Partition’ you know it is not going well. And the Soviets and the Nazis in the 1930s did a dirty deal to carve up the territory once again of what had been an independent Poland, but this did not mean they ceased to be a ‘nation’: they were in fact a nation without a state. Churchill, in 1939, not long before the ‘darkest hour’, told the House of Commons:
The heroic defence of Warsaw shows that soul of Poland is indestructible, and that she will rise again like a rock, which may for a spell be submerged by a tidal wave, but which remains a rock.
And so it came to pass, after the defeat of the Nazis—although it took until 1989 for them to also throw off the communist yoke and become truly free. To the point: the term ‘State’ simply refers to a political unit with its own administrative powers and jurisdiction. When a nation gets its own state, it becomes a ‘nation-state’ which is a concurrent reference to the coming together of culture (nation) and politics (state) in a single hyphenated word.
When a nation gets its own state, it becomes a ‘nation-state’.
We can see how Germany, Yemen, and Vietnam were single nations forced into being separate states, as West and East or North and South. It did not work. We can see how the Soviet Union, Czechoslovakia, and Yugoslavia were states that pretended to be nations. Again, it didn’t work. This is why we must understand nationalism, and appreciate what nations are. Yet far too often such important concepts are left out of big political debates about how Australia ought to define itself.
Now that we have discussed conceptual themes that help clarify the topic, we are in a much better place to start thinking about how Australia could possibly maintain a shared national identity that works for all. Conventional nation-states traditionally keep their citizens together by appealing to a common heritage, culture, values, customs, and language. From the moment the disparate British colonies became a federation in 1901, Australia was quite literally no different from any conventional nation-state.
For a long time the Australian Parliament set immigration policies with the explicit objective of favouring those who already shared the dominant culture. As Australia grew and evolved in the decades after World War II (1939-1945), these restrictive immigration policies became untenable. By the mid-1970s, Australia had embraced an immigration program that was open to all. An almost immediate consequence of this was the influx of migrants and refugees from a wide range of developing countries.
Honest assessments of the results are fraught, and typically contain an element of barracking (to use an Australian term we can thank the Irish for). Proponents continuously overplay the economic utility of increased migration numbers, even if some happen to originate in regions with values that might be antithetical to the Australian way of life. With mass migration comes gradual demographic shifts and the risk of clustering minority communities into distinct suburban enclaves. The risk is that rather than embracing a form of cohesive pluralism, we end up becoming a society with various cultural groups living separate lives.
Opportunistic politicians then seek to exploit this for their own benefit, diverting taxpayer resources to communities on ethnic rather than geographic lines. At one level this can support social cohesion, but at another it just fuels further incentives towards identity politics and a splintering of Australia’s cultural identity into many diverse and often conflicting identities, which become antithetical to the success of a ‘nation-state’.
That is why it is right and proper for the Prime Minister, Anthony Albanese, to stress the importance of bringing everyone together and uniting us all under a common purpose. Getting the balance right between preserving Australia’s time-tested common law heritage while remaining cosmopolitan will be the challenge that needs to be overcome for us to move from the rhetoric of unity to lived reality.
Dr Sherry Sufi is a Senior Fellow at the IPA’s Centre for the Australian Way of Life. His PhD thesis was on language and nationalism.