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Myths and nation building

Kostas Karamarkos explores the attitudes of Australians on key notions of their national myth, notions of a 'fair go' and 'mateship' and notions that reflect social progress

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Rupert Murdoch, founder and owner of the national daily The Australian. Photo: ERA/Andrew Gambert.

23 July 2014

The supreme political and intellectual warrior of the ruling elites of this country, the Rupert Murdoch founded and owned national daily The Australian turned 50 this week. Whether you agree or disagree with the newspaper and its partisan and interventionist role in the life of the nation, the fact remains that on a daily basis, over the past 50 years, The Australian has left and continues to leave its mark on every aspect of life on this continent.

Part of the 50th anniversary initiatives were, amongst others, a poll published in the newspaper, trying to fathom the attitudes of Australians about key notions of their national myth, notions such as a fair go and mateship and notions that reflect social progress, for example, attitudes towards same sex marriage.

"An optimistic lot, facing the future with confidence," was how the newspaper interpreted the results of its own poll and perhaps of its own desired perception of the country and its possible future.

What did the finding of the Newspoll indicate? They have reinforced key concepts of the national myth, or the "Aussie ethos", as the newspaper calls it. Seven out of ten respondents agree that Australia really is a place where people get a fair go. More than seven out of ten respondents agree that this country is a place where people live by the concept of mateship. Nine out of ten of those asked declare themselves to be proud Australians and at the same time an equal number of people think that Australia is one of the best or the best country in the world to live in, without any racism (87 per cent believe this). Nine out of ten residents of this country are optimists, while at the same time eight out of ten describe Australians as being whingers. Almost all believe that Australians are friendly people, that is 99 per cent, and 98 per cent accept the notion that our compatriots are easy going. Also, 56 per cent think that Australia is a better country today than it was 50 years ago, whilst only four out of ten respondents support the country becoming a republic, or doing more in order to confront climate change. Furthermore, 85 per cent are confident they will get high quality health care if they fall seriously ill, 68 per cent supported same sex marriage, and 70 per cent supported the retention or the increase of the numbers of migrants the country accepts. Finally, half of those surveyed believe the out-of-work receive adequate financial support or that governments are doing enough to 'close the gap' between indigenous and other Australians.

Narratives with elements of national exceptionalism, or dominated by positive national myths like the findings of the poll in The Australian, can be found in almost all corners of the world, since they serve the purpose of acting as agents of social cohesion and nation building.

As I have written in the past, thinkers such as Benedict Anderson have argued that nations are in many ways constructed, imagined communities. Communities that are not based on a daily face-to-face interaction between their members, but on a perception of belonging to the same wider group of people, defined by common experiences and expectations, by common values, by a common land and culture and by a common language. On a personal level, this sense of belonging to something bigger than your neighbourhood or small town, this wider affinity and connection to others, is mental, that is, 'imagined'.

In the interconnected 21st century, as former BBC Australian correspondent Nick Bryant argues, one of many who make this point, Australia, a global trend setter nowadays in many ways, no longer needs key outdated 'negative' concepts that put the country in the periphery of the world, in order to describe and identify herself. Concepts such as 'the tyranny of distance', the 'land down under' or 'cultural cringe'.

However, if the country is to keep going and if it is to redefine itself in this millennium, as a still young, energetic, ever expanding and ever changing and moving forwards nation, then it needs all the positive attributes, all the positive myths of its national character that it can gather. It needs all of its positive myths, myths transformed but omnipresent, if it is to successfully plan its present and future course. It needs a common language and a common narrative throughout time. It needs to build on its strengths, real or 'imagined'. It needs a pat on the back, like the poll of the national daily of the ruling elites of the country, The Australian.

The new vernacular needed in order to tell the story of the ever changing and ever remaining 'lucky' country and its people cannot be the result of parthenogenesis. It must have some constants well rooted in the Australian past, and in the Australian ethos. The collective positive national myths of mateship, of a fair go, or of friendliness for example, in an increasingly unequal society, in an increasingly alienated, individualistic, private and suburban Australia can still act as a glue for this nation.

And this is what The Australian poll found this week.

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