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Understanding the Australian Character

Christopher Pyne (now Australia’s Federal Education Minister) said: ‘Anzac Day is critical to understanding the nature of the Australian character and the history of our nation. They’re all making light of this. It’s a hilarious joke. But it’s not a hilarious joke. If Australians don’t understand the central nature of Anzac Day, they cannot understand Australia today. They can make as many Anzac biscuits as they like.’[1] involving themselves in their national history would do well to avoid restructuring it.  An extreme example being that of Hitler’s restructure of the history of the Germanic states to the myths of a pure (superior) Aryan people.

The Anzac tradition in Australia, celebrated yearly around the country, is the single major national celebration in the Australian calendar. It is a significant reminder of the sacrifice by the small populations of Australia and New Zealand; in Australia most of whom were recently arrived British immigrants. ‘The census of 1911 revealed that 96 per cent of the population were British; in the ten years before the war, about 400,000 had arrived in Australia from the United Kingdom.’[2]

I have some trouble reconciling the Education Minister’s comment, that ‘understanding the nature of the Australian character’ one must know the Anzac history. A history of newly arrived migrants to Australia fighting an ill-conceived battle and dying for a ‘homeland’ they have recently left. Is that what he means – or perhaps he is thinking of a mythical event – the Anzac myth we have created – as being central to understanding the Australian character.

As education minister he would do well to study the Australian character over the last couple of hundred years in the well documented and excellent body of literature that explores the changing identity of the Australian character. A few books such as Henry Lawson’s collections of short stories, Patrick White’s great novels, especially The Tree of Man and Henry Handel Richardson’s The Fortunes of Richard Mahony. He could learn from recent well-regarded writers such as Tim Winton, Peter Carey and perhaps read the newly published The Book Thief by Marcus Zusak.

Early writers from the nineteenth century express the tone of early settlement. The greater sophistication of the early twentieth century is recorded with authors from that time, whilst more recent writers illustrate a more cosmopolitan view of Australians. During the second half of the twentieth century Australians have developed the reputation of being great overseas travellers, while many Australians have at least one parent born overseas.

A more realistic approach to the nature of the Australian character needs to take into account the value and beauty of all the cultures which have formed it – Anzac biscuits notwithstanding.

[1] Monthly Online published in The Monthly, June 2013, No. 90 “How Christopher Pyne puts up with himself” by Erik Jensen see 

[2] Commonwealth Year Book, no 12, 1901-18, 104. Commonwealth /Bureau of Census and Statistics, Shipping and Overseas Migration 1909,100-1. Quoted in LL Robson Australia and the Great War. 1974 p 1.


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