Speech delivered at the Australia Day 2014 School Assembly
Dr Bruce Addison, Dean of Curriculum & Scholarship
National days are very important. Humans are tribal — there is no escaping this. The concept of nation provides us with a home, a shared identity, as well as a sense of pride. Over time, nations develop a set of characteristics both realistic and the stuff of legend. If I was to give a traditional Australia Day address, I would probably mention BBQs, beaches, bikinis and now even budgie smugglers! Mention would also be made of mateship, larrikinism, the Australian ‘payout’, as well as our dry ironic humour. Our athletes, too, would feature prominently — as they should. All of these things are very important to our ‘Australianness’ but there is so much more to celebrate.
I have recently returned from a wonderful trip to Turkey and Anzac Cove. It would have been easy to focus on the Anzac story for this address — perhaps I could do this on Anzac Day. The losses and what occurred almost 100 years ago is the stuff of legend. Today, I am going to take a different tack. It is timely at the start of a new academic year to focus on ideas.
Australia does not do enough to celebrate our unique concept of nationhood. Traditionally, our nationalism has been shrouded under our much-loved stereotypes — those I mentioned earlier. Australia did not become a nation through war and bloody conflict. Australia became a nation after a series of meetings. We debated ourselves into nationhood! This in itself is remarkable. Since 1901 we have been a federation of states under the rule of law. This has provided us with over 100 years of peace and stability. How many other nations across the globe can lay claim to this? Our Australian democracy should be the envy of the world — perhaps it is.
The major stain on our society was and always will be the treatment of our aboriginal people. Some terrible things happened! Countless lives were lost. Without making excuses, such behavior was a disturbing product of its time. Yes it was wrong — very wrong! Yes we should feel guilt, but we should not make the mistake of judging this tragedy through a contemporary lens — this would be historical folly. The reasons for this were complex, just as the solutions to the contemporary problems faced by our indigenous Australians will be complex. We must be creative thinkers, tolerant thinkers, empathetic thinkers and wise thinkers if we are to right past wrongs. This is the type of thinking we want you to develop during your time at this School.
To our aboriginal people, the 26th of January is an anniversary of innocence lost. It has only been in recent years that we have begun to understand the sophistication of pre-colonial aboriginal society. They were wonderful custodians of this land. Environmentalists before their time, understanding how to manage this harsh environment! They had a deeply developed concept of the spiritual, something that was not readily apparent to European eyes. A good friend of mine, an academic theologian, commented to me recently that they, our indigenous people, understood metaphor — how to articulate a concept of the mystical through myth or story. Their traditional stories are just wonderful. Some might argue that this type of advanced thinking is something western society is only re-discovering.
Creative thinking is the stuff of our Australianness. Such thinking has created a society that is tolerant, hopefully fair and, in some respects, a model for other democracies. What are some of these ideas? A few that spring to mind are immigration, the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme and the National Disability Insurance Scheme.
Immigration has been very important to our nation building. We are a country of immigrants. Without immigration our economic and social development would not have progressed as quickly. Some might even go as far to suggest that immigration forms the core of our national DNA. People immigrate here and bring their skills, culture and, thankfully, their cuisine. Imagine Australia without Thai, Vietnamese, Chinese, Greek or Italian takeaways and restaurants. Many of the staff here will remember the ‘old’ days — the land of meat and soggy three veg. All of this has enriched our culture and has diversified and developed our concept of nation. Given this, we must be mindful that our contemporary asylum seeker debates are thoughtful, flexible, tolerant and humane. We have been a destination and a home for others since the eighteenth century. We have a continent for a nation. We have obligations not only to ourselves but also to the rest of the world.
Another idea worth celebrating is the Pharmaceutical Benefits Scheme. This sounds boring, dull and dry but it is something that has underscored our concept of fairness. All Australians have access to reasonably priced medication. In other countries only the rich have access to what may well be life-saving treatment.
The recently legislated National Disability Insurance Scheme is another example of this. It was remarkable that this reform had bi-partisan support across such a fractious political divide. It is an example of the way in which we cater for the vulnerable. Such policies highlight our intellectual creativity as well as our concept of decency. They are not cost-free and, in fact, cost a lot of money. As a nation we have often invested huge sums of money — especially when the social benefit outweighs the cost.
We have much to celebrate. We are a people of bold, creative and often trail-blazing ideas.
Happy Australia Day! Yes we are all Crocodile Dundees, bronzed Anzacs, budding Cathy Freemans, bushmen, life savers, mates and the rest of it. This is all very important. As you start the new academic year, celebrate ideas, read and engage with concepts that challenge you and, above all, always acknowledge that this is the best country in the world.