The first instalment of our new series explores the stereotype of Australia as a “perfect vacationland”, a gross contradiction of the terrors of its history that are still active today.
I’m sure I’m not the only Australian that frequently gets asked why I’d ever want to live in the UK when I could be back home, in the sun, at the beach, throwing another “shrimp” on the barbie. Truth is, literally no one in Australia calls them shrimps, they’re bloody prawns. And no one drinks the waste that is Fosters, either. In between the great beaches and the arid desert centre, there’s also small mountains, and it snows. Like most countries, Australia has its stereotypes, and they’re largely harmless.
"Truth is, literally no one in Australia calls them shrimps, they’re bloody prawns. And no one drinks the waste that is Fosters, either."
What is harmful, however, is reducing a country to its “best of” highlight reel. Australia itself has propagated the image of an easy-going, dry-humoured and idyllic outdoorsy lifestyle. Well, that or we’re all Mick Dundee. I’m not going to pretend that doesn’t exist (except maybe Mick), but like many countries whose modern conception was born from colonisation, there’s a darker side to Australia that it’s been unable to confront.
The single historical story that I was taught in school was the one that begins with the British claim to Australia in 1770, and subsequent settlement 1788 - when the boatloads of convicts that everyone likes to joke about arrived. Captain Cook proclaimed the land to the British on the myth of terra nullius, that it was “nobody’s land”. He failed to acknowledge that for more than 60,000 years, Australian First Nations peoples had been on that land. We’re not taught that part in school. We learn about the Federation in 1901, but not about assimilation and the Stolen Generations, when First Nations children were forcibly taken from their families and had white culture imposed on them. This was still happening in the 1970s.
We’re also taught the happy story of immigration: how discovery of gold brought about diverse immigration - that’s part of how we got to be so multicultural! We don’t, however, learn about White Australia Policy which banned non-European immigration until the 1950s. There is growing momentum to tell the truthful version of Australia’s ugly history, but it’s a frustratingly slow process. We like to keep to our light-hearted story because the truth makes us all uncomfortable.
"There is growing momentum to tell the truthful version of Australia’s ugly history, but it’s a frustratingly slow process."
Echoes of these abhorrent policies that some suggest are firm “history” are still evident in Australia’s immigration strategies today. The United Nations has frequently condemned our use of offshore processing in particular. We proclaim ourselves to be a country proud of its multiculturalism, but the government’s treatment of anyone beyond the formulaic “Australian” has been nefarious. Community attitudes are contradictory; we’re proud of our diversity, but also think immigrants need to do more to adapt to “our” way of life. The fault lines run deep; it’s people from Asia, Africa and the Middle East that face heightened discrimination, the same places subject to White Australia immigration bans.
It’s in Australia’s inability to take itself too seriously that many of these issues are obscured. We like the idea of the stereotypical Aussie that we think the outside world sees, though it conflicts with the realities we face. Australians eschew the idea of class, but there are substantial inequalities maintained through popular discourses of “the Aussie battler” and having a “fair go”.
"We like the idea of the stereotypical Aussie that we think the outside world sees, though it conflicts with the realities we face."
The laid-back approach is beginning to sit up when it comes to the climate crisis, though our government is slow on the uptake. For a country that has, with increasing regularity, made international headlines for the infernos that burn every summer, it’s an excruciatingly slow change. Australia’s government, tied to big mining conglomerates, doesn’t want to act. These companies are the same ones that continue to blow up sacred First Nations sites for profit.
The light-hearted stereotypes of cork-hats and scary animals, of world class beaches and sun, aren’t completely divorced from the reality of modern Australia. Playing up the idea of a laid-back, multicultural, sun-soaked island nation might alleviate negative international press. The danger of these stereotypes, for Australians and others, is that they help to obscure a more nuanced reality. I want to be proud of where I’m from, but the Australia I see is small, isolationist, and in denial of both of its past, and its present-day inequalities.
Vegemite forever, though.
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