Post-Colonial Boredom: The Myth Of Australian Sameness

Could Australian Federalism Represent The Real Diversity Of Our Physical And Cultural Landscapes?

by John Milfull

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In a special number of AJPH (Vol 50 No., 1, March 2004) I edited papers from a Sydney conference which had tried to inject ideas from the lively European debate on regionalism and federalism into the comatose body of Australian federation (the centenary was almost fatal). In this paper I would like to attack the common objection that Australians are “all the same”, which seems to me blatantly untrue, even on the geographic level, and suggest the need for a strategy to overcome the post-colonial / imperial boredom of Australian politics.

“Boredom”, wrote Baudelaire, “is pain spread out over time”. In Australian politics, it is spread out over a lot of space as well. In a recent essay on the future of federalism, Roger Wilkins, Head of the NSW Cabinet Office, contrasts Australia with North America:

The most important feature of North America that both [Tim] Flannery and Tocqueville describe is diversity, pluralism. For Flannery there is a type of ecological diversity in North America that is not to be found in vast areas of Australia – despite the interesting contrasts of differences between the tropics and the temperate zones.1 In terms of human society, there is too a diversity and heterogeneity in North America that, I would contend, does not really have a parallel in Australia.

One of the most interesting features of Australian federalism has to do with the homogeneity of its component parts. There really are no essential differences between the way the average Western Australian and the average New South Welshman see their worlds. Their interests, skills, language, economic and social prospects and expectations are more or less the same. If federal systems are pre-eminently seen as ways of accommodating diversity within unity – then the puzzle is in Australia – what diversity?2

The combination is interesting: a vast desert of a continent, relieved only by a few “interesting” climatic contrasts, is settled on its outer rim by a scattering of average New South Welshmen and West Australians [“Europeans”] with no essential differences, not even the odd climate-induced divergence from the Anglo norm. This “sameness” is obviously a late consequence of the struggle which united convicts and military, English, Irish and Scots in the “imposition of settlement” on an inhospitable environment “by an authoritarian military system of government”.3 This “marriage of convenience” excludes the Kooris and the Chinese, who were visibly other and subject to the “if it moves, shoot it” response.

An oddly old-fashioned vision – it reminds me strongly of A.D.Hope’s poem “Australia , with its bleak view of the Australian landscape and its “monotonous tribes from Cairns to Perth”, its “second hand Europeans pullulat[ing]/ Timidly on the edge of alien shores”4 – a kind of spiritual terra nullius , a vacuum abhorred by [“European”] man and nature alike. Apart from its obvious unsuitability for attracting tourists – ironically, many can scarcely wait to hop into their 4WDs and head for the Red Centre – it is not a vision of Australia, or Australian society, I share. It is not so much the sameness of the landscape that struck settlers as its difference from what they were used to, its “strangeness”. And even its so-called emptiness, real or imaginary, was ambivalent, as Hope seems to have realised – it could well be filled by something new and startling. Echoing Hesse and Eliot, he hopes that Zarathustras will emerge from the desert, that:

Such savage and scarlet as no green hills dare
Springs in that waste, some spirit which escapes
The learned doubt, the chatter of cultured apes
Which is called civilization over there. [Oxbridge?]

I am relieved that we got Queen Priscilla instead, we had quite enough savage messiahs in the twentieth century.

On the social level, the claim that Australians’ “interests, skills, language, economic and social prospects and expectations are more or less the same” seems an absurd anachronism in one of the most diverse societies in the world, and I question whether it was ever really true. I should like to see an Identikit image of an “average” New South Welshman or woman. Both Hope and Wilkins would simply assume that the average is Angloid, the bastard offspring of the settlement project. I prescribe some regular travel on the Sydney Buses and a bit more attention to minority Australian histories.

Yet the sense of an “emptiness” at the heart of Australia, and especially of Australian politics, seems real enough, and generates a specific kind of post-colonial or post-imperial boredom. While there is no doubt that Australia exhibits a dominant “Anglo” culture, Anglo-Australians have been “de-ethnicised”. Within a self-styled multicultural society, only non-Anglo-Australians are “ethnic” and represent a [problematic] “cultural variability”, while “Anglo-Australians” remain “the major signifier of Australian nationality” and “cultural unity”. As Norman Saadi Nikro writes in a recent dissertation,

As long as Anglo-Australian forms of identification are not regarded as particular ethnic cultures, then their peculiarities will remain abstract generalisations dominating the Australian cultural and historical landscape.5

These “abstract generalisations” stand in marked opposition to the actual history and diversity of Anglo-Australian communities and are the key to “structures of power that have much to do with the maintenance of binary oppositions that measure cultural diversity from the standpoint of cultural unity defined by a(n) (in)visible Anglo-Australianness”.6 In the last analysis, they are a relict of the ideology of Empire which corresponds neither to present geopolitical nor social realities, and condemn Anglo-Australians to an unfortunate mix of arrogance and cringe to mask their eroded post-imperial identities, while presenting the ever-increasing non-Anglo contingent with a troubling vacuum at the centre of “cultural diversity”. It is, after all, a parental ideology which has survived the departure of the parent and an unimagined reconstitution of the family. The ambiguities of independence without decolonisation are extraordinary; the parent lingers on in the negative, ghost-like image of its own absence which is at the same time our continuing Anglo presence . We are both colonised and colonisers.

Imperial “sameness”, the binding force of the imperial upon the colonisers, proved only a temporary diversion from the problems of internal colonisation within Britain itself. As Krishan Kumar writes:

All subjects of the Empire might be designated ‘British”, but that paradoxically served only to emphasise the distance separating the British of Great Britain, the colonisers and carriers of “the white man’s burden”, from all the other British of the British Empire. The imperial connection promoted the sense not just of difference but of superiority, even of uniqueness. For the British people must be most powerfully and peculiarly endowed if so small an island could become the ruler of the greatest empire since Rome.

There was one other consequence of the imperial contribution to Britishness. The Empire drew more closely together the different ethnic groups inhabiting Britain, English, Welsh, Scottish, Irish. They were joined in common governance of the far-flung empire. They were also united, one might say, by their equal share in the plunder of empire…

Britishness was undermined by the end of the empire and by Britain ‘s decline as a world power. Lacking the stimulus and the bracing influence of a world role, Britishness capitulated in the face of an assertion of Scottish, Welsh and Irish nationalism. England, the core nation, stood exposed, no longer protected by a surrounding carapace of Britishness.7

These days, “Britishness” is as problematic a construct as Australianness, a kind of troubling black hole of identity. This is one of the many reasons why the relics of monarchy play an essentially negative role in our search for a genuine autonomy and independence.

The two most obvious manifestations of this unresolved post-imperial heritage are:

  1. the inability to transform the diversity of Australian society from a problem into a resource, to move from a policy of “tolerating” difference to “recognising” it and developing genuinely participatory structures, and
  2. the extraordinary difficulty Australian foreign policy has faced in projecting an Australian position which is at once adult and autonomous and free of the delusions of Empire. We are left with a mixture of insecurity and over-compensatory arrogance towards the “lesser breeds without the law” which quotes the condescensions of imperialism without the power base that gave rise to them.

The current attempts in Britain and Australia to regain a sense of imperial power by “piggybacking” on George W. Bush’s incoherent empire are dangerously delusional, and will end in much grief. Just as Britain will ultimately be forced to abandon its grand illusion of “pulling the strings” in Washington DC and “leading” Europe, and learn to be a partner among partners, Australia will have to come to terms with the reality of a minor power whose only real hope of “influence” in the international scene of the future can stem from its successful development of an innovative, culturally diverse and productive society at home, which may serve as a bridge between Europe (in the broadest sense) and Asia.

In the remainder of this brief paper I should like to present a number of theses for discussion in which I have tried to translate some insights from overseas debates into an Australian context:

  1. We should begin by demolishing the myth of Australian homogeneity. This is not merely a matter of analysing the enormous social, cultural and economic differences between and within ethnic groups, but extends to affirming the importance of regional differences (including those between New South Welshmen and West Australians, or, for that matter, between Melbourne and Sydney!) and between urban and rural communities.
  2. The “assimilationist” ideology of post-war immigration policy has been replaced by an official multiculturalism, but the pressure to conform to an unwritten codex of Australian behaviour is as strong as ever. The most depressing manifestation of this pressure is the support Philip Ruddock’s Austrofascistic immigration policies have enjoyed from “community groups” protecting the acceptance as “honorary Australians” for which they struggled so long.
  3. The emphasis should be on defining unrealised aspirations and interests, and attempting to devise methods of representing these interests. In the most extreme case of discrimination, that of the Kooris, I have felt for many years that some form of direct representation through an aboriginal state is the only adequate remedy, given that their situation as the direct victims of colonisation remains the outward and visible sign of our own failure to emancipate ourselves from its heritage.
  4. The issue of representation of other major ethnic groups has been fudged by dividing it between the tokenism of ethnic / community councils, which degrade genuine disagreement to “ethnic” difficulties, and the public claim that the mainstream is open to all. In practice, the so-called Westminster system, with its carefully preserved fossils of British “behaviour” and the attendant party structures, and the other great mainstreamers, cricket and football, transform “ethnic” recruits into imitation Anglos through a demeaning and strenuous process in which they must leave their difference in the cloakroom. Significantly, in the more libertarian area of cultural policy, it has long been clear that real innovation stems above all from the productive integration of such differences.
  5. A system of multi-level governance, which retains state governments but upgrades and extends local government into a form of regional government should seek to reverse the current trend to centralisation and uniformity in favour of a polycentric competition for the best and most innovative policies in all areas of social and cultural life. Curiously, in a society which constantly lauds competition and free enterprise, we are faced with a constant campaign to (re-)centralise and an exponential growth in regulation and compulsory compliance.
  6. The current wave of “negative globalisation” (Zygmunt Baumann) will result in an even more universal boredom if it is not countered by a revival of communal life at the local level. In line with Michael Keating’s recent comments on the European Constitutional Treaty, I would argue that general issues of citizenship, about which there is often widespread agreement, should not be confused with the need for local and multiple identities which generate and maintain the colour, vitality and “at homeness” that we need for a properly balanced and creative society.
  7. To affirm the right to difference, and the political and social consequences that flow from that affirmation, is not to argue for a kind of static multi-cultural apartheid, which allocates better or worse furnished Bantustans to those officially identified as “ethnic”, but to affirm that successful integration demands participation, that societies should recognise their diversity not as a difficulty to be tolerated, accommodated, or “bred out” over time, but as a vital resource in the development of a rich and vibrant political and social culture. “Cultural preservation” can all too easily be manipulated by those in power as an excuse for excluding the “culturally threatened” from the main game, pretending to protect them from the “shock of the new” by denying them participation in its construction. Typically, it is precisely those who experience the tension between new and old as both insiders and outsiders that give it its most creative expression – the so-called “dominant”, de-ethnicised cultures, built on long processes of internal and external colonisation, often seem powerless to provide either the identification or the perspectives their constituents so obviously need and demand.
  8. Devolution, regional autonomy and the encouragement of group identities is not just an obviously essential management strategy, it is a pre-condition for the survival of humanity in the process of global, Pacific and European integration. And integration is surely both necessary and inevitable; the point is to ensure its quality and success. I hope that Australia may play eventually play its part in a dialogue on the New Federalism without which, I suspect, none of our countries will succeed in retaining some sense of humanity and social justice amid the challenges that lie ahead. Our current inability to recognise and accept our internal differences and turn them into a major resource for external cooperation is a sad relic of an imperial past, and must be overcome.


John Milfull is a Professor in European Studies,University of New South Wales



1. [Tim] Flannery, The Eternal Frontier [Melbourne 2001- note by Wilkins]

2. Roger Wilkins, “Federalism: Distance and Devolution”, AJPH Vol. 50 No. 1 (Special Issue), The Same but Different : Representing Diversity , ed. John Milfull, March 2004, p. 96.

3. ibid.


A Nation of trees, drab green and desolate grey
In the field uniform of modern wars,
Darkens her hills, those endless, outstretched paws
Of Sphinx demolished or stone lion worn away.

They call her a young country, but they lie:
She is the last of lands, the emptiest,
A woman beyond her change of life, a breast
Still tender but within the womb is dry.

Without songs, architecture, history:
The emotions and superstitions of younger lands,
Her rivers of water drown among inland sands,
The river of her immense stupidity

Floods her monotonous tribes from Cairns to Perth.
In them at last the ultimate men arrive
Whose boast is not: “we live” but “we survive”,
A type who will inhabit the dying earth.

And her five cities, like five teeming sores,
Each drains her: a vast parasite robber-state
Where second hand Europeans pullulate
Timidly on the edge of alien shores.

Yet there are some like me turn gladly home
From the lush jungle of modern thought, to find
The Arabian desert of the human mind,
Hoping, if still from the deserts the prophets come,

Such savage and scarlet as no green hills dare
Springs in that waste, some spirit which escapes
The learned doubt, the chatter of cultured apes
Which is called civilization over there.

from A. D. Hope, Collected Poems 1930-1970, Angus and Robertson, Sydney 1972

5. Norman Saadi Nikro, Shifting Margins, Imaginary Journeys: Writing Migrant Experience, Ph.D. thesis, University of New South Wales 1997, p. 234.

6. ibid.

7. Krishan Kumar, “‘Britishness and ‘Englishness’: what prospect for a European identity in Britain today?”, in British Studies Now, anthology issues 1-5, The British Council 1995, p. 88, 93.

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