A few weeks ago, while debating the merits of Vance Joy’s ‘Riptide’ as number one on Triple J’s Hottest 100 this year, a friend related a story to me. She was walking home when the song was announced, and all she could hear from the houses around her were different gatherings singing along in unison to Vance Joy’s ukulele. It was a shared experience, where singing the song or bemoaning its win was a source of unique Australian pride.
I experienced a similar pride recently on National Wattle Day, watching all the MPs file into the House of Representatives chamber with their sprigs of wattle. Wattle to me is the most iconic of Australian flowers, and not just because I was one of the hundreds of Australian children who dressed up as wattle blossoms for their end-of-year ballet concerts. It’s also the most revolutionary of Australian flowers. Where would the Shearer’s Strike of 1891, critical to the founding of the ALP, have been without Lawson calling for blood to ‘stain the wattle’? Yet despite a long history of celebration, wattle was only made Australia’s official floral emblem in 1988 and National Wattle Day an official celebration in 1992.
1992 was the year of another moment of modern Australian pride: the Mabo decision, legally recognising indigenous title to Australian land before white settlement. For many Australians, the passing of the Native Title Act in 1993 and further efforts to recognise the land rights of indigenous Australians have gone some way to easing the pain felt by our indigenous communities on Australia Day. They’ve given Australia Day a chance to take on a new progressive meaning.
What the Mabo decision, National Wattle Day and the Triple J Hottest 100 show is that the nature of national pride is changing, and it’s changing to reflect our egalitarian, multicultural society. Yes, Australians will still look to the beach, barbeques and Bradman and feel a tug on the patriotic heartstrings. But there are new sources of national pride from which people draw upon when considering what it means to be Australian.
And there’s a distinct thread of progressivism running through these symbols. The promotion of indigenous land rights under the Native Title Act was a lasting legacy of the Keating Government, building on the introduction of the Land Rights Bill by Whitlam. Keating also formalised National Wattle Day, a holiday first celebrated under the Fisher Labour Government in 1910. While Flume, Vance Joy and Matt Corby’s ties to the progressive movement are a little less explicit, the importance of the ABC, SBS and Triple J to the Australian identity is a cause championed loudest by progressives. If the Tony Abbott’s cuts to the ABC and SBS are good for nothing else (and they’re not), they are good for that.
It is clear that the nature of Australian patriotism is changing, to reflect the egalitarian, multicultural society that we are. Progressives, however, are still reluctant to make the patriotism debate their own, perhaps fearing the militaristic overtones that patriotism can sometimes imply. But to assume that patriotism is all Gallipoli glory is ultimately misguided. Wattle, Triple J and Mabo are small parts of a larger picture of an Australian patriotism: one that is less Dulce et Decorum Est and more dim sum and the Divinyls. For progressive achievement to be given the recognition it deserves in our national story, we must not abandon our place in debates over patriotism.
It’s an argument put most eloquently by Tim Soutphommasane in his book Reclaiming Patriotism, in which he concludes:
‘Progressives should never have surrendered all talk about national identity to conservatives, and they must not repeat their mistake. It is time for progressives to reclaim patriotism.’
As current debates over national security use and abuse patriotism as a cover for extreme conservative views and dangerously divisive politics, it’s never been more important for progressives to define the debate on what it means to be Australian. We must challenge conservatives whenever they try to own the debate on patriotism, from discussions of our military history to framing the Triple J Hottest 100 as part of our national story. Let’s enter these debates and make sure Australians don’t forget the progressive element of national pride.