Australia Way

I’m not one for Australia Day.  It seems too much an accident of history to be worth celebrating.  My national day is Anzac Day – partly for family reasons, but also because it marks a separate Australian identity being defined on the world stage.  Though given a choice I would probably define our independence from “Curtin defies Churchill” Day.

Still I always find January 26th a useful pause for defining that hardy perennial – Australian values and attitudes.  Looking back on my 58 years, I can think of no place on earth that I could have been more privileged and advantage to be born into.  Talk about winning life’s lottery.

The Australian Government’s Department of Immigration and Border Protection has helpfully defined:
Australian Values Statement – Provisional and Permanent
Australian Values Statement – Temporary

It is good to know that even “Phantom” Scott Morrison is a bit uncertain about an issue as imponderable as national identity.  So here is my list with supporting examples from our sporting past.

  • The rule of law/the fair go/an even playing field:  Fairness seems to be embedded deep in the Australian psyche.  Perhaps it stems from the transported convicts who stole a loaf of bread, then realised that they were the victims of societal crimes more than perpetrators.

Whatever its origins, when I hear migrant’s stories of dispossession  I feel privileged to live in a country where political or economic power does not give you an automatic right to confiscate the hard-earned property of others.

Sport is by definition a codified rule-bound contest, but at the edges the margins of ‘fair play’ get decidedly fuzzy.  But at core we want sport to be a contest of talent, skill and work ethic.  Not a game for chancers, scammers and manipulators.

Most of our major sports have salary caps and talent drafts so that inherited wealth does not become a permanent guarantee of competitive advantage.  There is no Australian equivalent of the English Premier League where Manchester City spends 6 times more than Swansea or Norwich.  Australians aspire to being part of a meritocracy not a plutocracy.

Our cycling hero is Cadel not Lance.  In the aftermath of Lance the brutalist dictator, there is time for a Chifley or a Cadel to deliver the substance of a Snowy Mountains Scheme or a Tour win.

Similarly those who don’t support Essendon despise them, along with half of those who support them but also deplore what they have allowed themselves to become.  Essendon’s arrogance demeans cherished national values more than it trashes a sporting competition.

‘Cheating’ seems a European invention.  Perfidious Albion; slimey wops.  The use of legalisms to make big business corruption seem acceptable is more of an American invention.  Either way it is distinctly Un-Australian.

In the 32/33 Bodyline series Australia was on the receiving end.  Bodyline was within the rules of the day, but not within the hazy, undefined ‘spirit’ of the game.  My grandfather was at Adelaide Oval the day Oldfield had his skull fractured.  He always insisted that if one person had jumped the fence to protest, there would have been an all-in riot.  But we didn’t.  We sent a telegram.  And waited for the 1934 tour for our revenge.

  • Liberal Democracy:  Australia has no ‘divine right of kings’.   When you are dismissed you go quietly.  When you are beaten on the big stage you give the other mob their go – and their due.

Defeated players sit sullen on the MCG grass as the premiers collect their cup and medals, thinking “we’ll be back here next year to do you in September.”  Not “we’ll be round your house next week with a kalashnikov and a battalion to do you.”

Perhaps that is why Australians of different political persuasions found the last parliament so unedifying.  We want the contest (sporting or political) to be fierce, but then we expect the loser to shut up and let the premiers rule for the good of the country until the next season starts.  St Kilda was stiff in 2008 and 2010, but Geelong and Collingwood were still respected premiers.

  • We value humility, and our humour is self-effacing: By now we know that Adam Goodes has been named Australian of the Year, and that reflects his community contribution as much as his sporting one.

But if I was naming our Sportsman of the Year it would have to be Adam Scott.  His US Masters win was brilliant, but over the course of the year I came to respect his personal qualities as much as his flawless golf swing.

When he holed the 20-footer on the 18th that took him into the playoff against Angel Cabrera, he screamed “C’mon Aussie” as the putt dropped.  In that moment he was focussing not on his own success, as much on Greg Norman, Jim Ferrier, Jason Day and all the other Australian ‘near misses’ at Augusta down the decades.

After his British Open disappointment in 2012 of letting the unbeatable lead slip over the last 4 holes, Scott said “I’m very disappointed but I played so beautifully for most of the week I really shouldn’t let this bring me down. I know I’ve let a really great chance slip through my fingers today, but somehow I’ll look back and take the positives from it.”[

Every vanquished says this, but most are beaten men the next time the pressure cooker heat is turned to extreme.  At Augusta, Scott showed that he had the rare humility and resolve to ‘stick it’ the next time.

But the personal qualities that most endeared him to me, were shown in his return to Australia in November to play 4 consecutive local tournaments for half the money he could have been competing for overseas.  These were the places and people that nurtured him growing up, and he was back to let all of us touch the hem of his green jacket.

Importantly he competed and didn’t just ‘put in an appearance’ as others have sometimes done on their homecoming tour.  He landed 3 legs of the quaddy before a protest and short-half-head saw him nutted in the final leg.  A distinctly Australian way of celebrating!

  • Tolerance, Acceptance and Opportunity: Look at how we celebrated the international sporting deeds of ‘Aussie Hana’, ‘Aussie Kepler’ and maybe in the future even ‘Aussie Fawad’.

OK it helps if you bring established talent when you arrive.  But NicNait, Bacher and Majak were all nurtured locally before they showed the ability that excites us.  DiPierdomenico, Koutoufides and Pavlich is a champion half-forward line of Southern European descent.

There are blemishes in our history, but Australia has much to be proud of in how we have progressively assimilated and accepted waves of migration – first from war ravaged Europe, then Asia, now the Middle East and Africa.

I choose to see the current migration controversies more as questioning the volume and speed of change, rather than demanding a xenophobic exclusion of strangers.  As a country we adapt, adopt and reach out – but we also grapple with preserving the best aspects of an identity that stems from the Anglo Celtic waves that flocked to our shores in the 19th century seeking gold, farmland and above all else – freedom.

And now we have an indigenous footballer in Adam Goodes as our Australian of the Year.  I commented in May that I have long been awestruck at his skills, smarts and athleticism.  But it is his work ethic more than his talent that represents what Australia aspires to become.  To me Adam Goodes will always be like James Brown: “the hardest working man in football”.

Our country will be the better for following his example.


  1. PB, interesting read. You clearly have more faith in the nation and its culture than I do. I would be interested to know who from this generation (the younger writers) will comment,on such matters in their own work and whether they will follow in the tradition of Horne, White, Humphries or go with that maddest of notions, “It’s all good.” (I hate that phrase – because it’s just not).

  2. Malcolm Ashwood says

    Interesting read and I am with you re Anzac Day and love how it continues to grow the numbers at dawn services thru out the country show that . We unite on Anzc day to me Aust day has a feel similar to valentine day commercial bullshit .
    I agree totally with your Essendon angle and in general with your article but am with
    JTH in not being so positive overall
    While I have enormous respect re Adam Goodes I want to no exactly what he has done re charity and society in general purely from. a Sports person contributing I can not go past Shane Crawford that captured the heart of all of Aust and what he did was
    truly remarkable Thanks Peter

  3. John Butler says

    Tackling the big topics PB.

    Let no one say you don’t have a crack.

    JTH, unusually pessimistic of you?

  4. Peter Schumacher says

    And another thing, apart from the round ball game, and here I hope that what happened recently was an aberration which will not reoccur, we don’t have riots at footy matches or the need to separate our barrackers.

    In more general terms I too agree with JTH about the “It’s all good” notion, apart from every thing else because that it implies that there can be no, or no need for improvement. All the same time though when I see vision of young men attacking each other in Syria say, or South Sudan I think to myself, “why can’t it be like here where such things are decided on the sporting field? I guess that this echoes Peter B’s point re Kalashnikov’s in the scheme of things.

    I like it too that in our codes there is no need to, like occurs in USA sports, wear ridiculous clobber, particularly citing American football as an example, which to me looks plain bloody stupid and overdone.

    And I do like the fact that Mr Goodes is the Australian of the year. It’s all goodes!

  5. PB – nice to read optimism. Too often we beat ourselves up about our history. We have a lot to be proud of.

    However I’m a bit like JTH ( but perhaps for different reasons). All is not good here. I actually despair sometimes about the political and social debates.

    I’ve never been a fan of “Days”. They get hijacked. Just like words and notions get hijacked. But it doesn’t hurt if we stop to take in the positives and consider the future (beyond the next fireworks display).

  6. Luke Reynolds says

    Peter, very disappointed with one of your statements in this piece. A Southern European half forward line without P.Daicos?? Should be first picked! Certainly before Dipper, Kouta and Pav.

    Great, well thought out piece. While I’m unhappy with a lot of things that happen politically and socially in this country, your ‘winning life’s lottery line’ about being born here is spot on.
    ANZAC Day is our most significant national day and will continue to be so, there’s a lot to like about Australia Day. The honouring of people who make a significant contribution to this country and the community events celebrating the day are fantastic. I share your optimism.

  7. Peter,
    I don’t know why people feel the need to choose between Australia Day and ANZAC Day. Personally I have no leaning to either – especially the way 25/4 has been adopted in recent times and it will be intolerable as the junkets and jingoists cash in next year. Revisionists worried at its fading remembrance 25 years ago but must now be horrified by the attendant industry. It has taken on a ridiculous significance in many “buglers” eyes.
    Public Holidays are gazetted and enjoyed – Boxing Day?! Cup Day!Queenies Ski Day!

  8. Hi PB,
    Nationalism in itself is a hateful business.
    I read a good argument by Jane Caro over the weekend that suggested the notion of being “proud to be Australian” was usually misplaced.
    She argued that one could feel pride in losing weight, in giving up smoking, or in some other choice of action. Those who have actively fled war or persecution could justly declare pride at being Australian, perhaps.
    The rest of us, she reckons, should feel grateful.
    I agree with that.
    Humility is brought under the umbrella of gratefulness.

    I’m with crio on ANZAC Day. I fear that it’s regrettably become a day John Howard -inspired trumped up nationalism. Anything that has Australians waving flags and shouting abuse is best avoided, I think.

    The national character debate is ongoing. With no war of independence nor any treaty of understanding being signed with Terry Nullius, we have no unequivocal date on which to burn our snags together. And that’s alright. We don’t really need one. it may even be seen as a sign of a mature nation-state operating in a global world, for us NOT to have a day of nationalistic fervour.

  9. David, Crio et al,
    I go to the Dawn Service at Kings Park every year. The crowd estimate this year was 50,000. More than Subiaco Oval holds.
    It is as close to a cathedral as I get in a year. 50,000 of all ages and backgrounds shuffling in silently in the pre-dawn dark. Whispers are as much as you hear from the crowd for 2 hours.
    I don’t know where you get trumped up nationalism, waving flags and shouting abuse from. Not the Anzac Day services that I have attended.
    What motivated my piece is precisely gratitude. An overwhelming feeling that I am privileged to live in this country, and that for all its faults I can think of nowhere on the globe that offers it citizens so much.
    Much like Churchill said of democracy – it’s the worst system of government except for all the others. That is my attitude to Australia and its treatment of whatever marginalised group you care to name – we can and should do better – but we are still as good as it gets in the real world.
    And money is rarely a cure for the marginalised people I see in my working day. Love, care, identity, belonging, community, work and opportunity mostly – and money can often be helpful in facilitating them – but not in itself.
    As for the issue of holidays per se. I think ritual and ceremony are an important element of life that we have lost in our consumer modernity. At least some of our holidays should be occasions to reflect on meaning in our lives and our society.
    On Anzac Day I think about my parents and grandparents generation and their sacrifices and life journey – in which war is only a minor part. I can see their personal flaws (much as I see my nation’s and my own) but I am profoundly grateful for the opportunities they built for their ancestors.
    I can’t share your yearning to NOT have special days to celebrate, reflect and be grateful. To paraphrase Chesterton “the trouble with men believing in nothing is that they will believe in anything.”
    Thanks all for responding and stimulating a considered debate. I respect all your views even where I don’t share them.
    Australians have much to be grateful for. Some things to be proud of. And little we should take for granted.

  10. Earl O'Neill says

    Covering a lot there, Peter.
    I’m with you on winning the lottery – being born a white, middle class male in Australia in 1966, it doesn’t get much better than that. I always knew I was lucky and travellling overseas reinforced that. I think about it when I turn on the hot water in the shower. I worry about it when so much public discourse has been reduced to simplistic slogans and personal abuse. We need a civil discourse on everything.
    ‘Days’ don’t mean a lot to me, unless it’s the Kinks song. I’m okay with 26 January, it is, inarguably, the start of modern Australia and everything that has come since. I understand that Aboriginal Australians have a problem with it, but to shift the national day to Anzac or Federation Day would remove that from the public discourse, not a positive move in the long run.

  11. Thanks Peter,
    Well done on your article, I liked it.
    My pov on Aussie Day and ANZAC day is opposite to yours. Whilst AD remains exclusively ours, ANZAC Day is shared with our friends across the ditch. Added to that is the remembrance of all things about war remains something beholden to all folks across the world.
    I reckon we need AD. It allows thoughts such as yours to be prompted and shared. It can be improved over time as we rid ourselves of the nonsense parts promoted by John Howard. We can focus on gratitude and promotion of inclusion and improvement.

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