This time of year, and Australia Day in particular, offer a chance to reflect on where our beloved nation has come from, and where we are going. Regardless of date, it is an opportunity to consider the totality of the three major forces that shaped modern Australia.
We are a great society because of what have been described as our three inheritances – our rich original indigenous culture, the institutions of democracy imported from Europe, and our tremendous migrant success story – which we continue to witness and celebrate.
These three things all shaped the character of our people and made us great.
The debate about which date to celebrate Australia comes around at this time every year. Labor does not propose changing the date, though I have some sympathy with those who are unhappy with the current date. But I do believe – and demographics tell us - that a date change at some point is inevitable. It is really a debate in search of an attractive alternative date. The important thing is that we retain a day – and a public holiday - to celebrate the three strands of our national inheritance.
I have spent a lot of time recently thinking about a different English-speaking Western democracy – the USA, and the similarities and differences between our two nations. I have been fascinated by the recent events in US politics and the dawn of the Biden presidency.
When I first visited the United States 20 years ago (and on return trips) I was bowled over by the diversity of its geographical beauty, the vitality of its great cities, and the universal sense of patriotism and national pride.
As Australians we are not an overtly patriotic people in the American model. Instead we have a sincere but quiet love of country. Our egalitarianism, larrikin cynicism and lack of deference to authority informs our view that we can do things as well as the inhabitants of any other nation.
For all America’s appeal as a vibrant relatively experimental new democracy, through Australian eyes it is hard not to see some shortcomings.
COVID has made it clearer than ever that one of the major difference between our two countries is the great Australian safety net – alongside working Australians, this has been the true hero of our pandemic response.
In America, the New Deal of FDR and the Great Society of LBJ were fractured by tectonic shifts in the economy - globalisation, trade liberalisation, offshoring and digital disruption. These have made some very rich and many very poor. Into this fray stepped Donald Trump who was able to cultivate his own following. When Trump won – who I had already criticised as unfit for office, I was surprised but I understood how he could win. The two most important things to have happened in recent months are that Biden triumphed and that Georgia showed the capacity of those who fight for fairer outcomes to prevail.
Each time I have returned to Australia from the US I have been more impressed with the Australian safety net – a legacy of past Labor Governments. The job remains to make Australia stronger by Increasing job security, improving wages, and Implementing the next increases to superannuation. But that does not mean we turn our back on Australia’s exceptionalism. It is time to regroup and reaffirm our core beliefs. The safety net works in good times and in bad but what it is really there for is times of trouble.
Our pandemic response was built on the sacrifices and character of the Australian people. They have closed their small businesses, drawn down their long service leave, and withdrawn over $40b of their own super. They should be thanked by their Government – not have their safety net of superannuation, work conditions, and social security attacked. Labor remains committed to defending the safety net as a distinctly Australian icon and we fill fight hard to be able to do so from the Government benches.
When I think about our national character I always come back to Australian poet, Adam Lindsay Gordon: “Life is mostly froth and bubble. Two things stand like stone. Kindness in another’s trouble. Courage in your own.” The courage of a people make a nation resilient, principled and great.
And that’s where our migrant story comes in. Often our new Australians do not think themselves particularly courageous. But I do. They have left foreign shores, left behind towns and villages, and friends and family to come halfway across the world and build new lives here. They have shown a willingness to endure short-term discomfort for long-term progress. Many left behind familiar languages and cultures for the wide unknown – an audacious leap of faith.
Our migrants will take their courage and let it build great lives in this country, great families and great communities. This is how the migrant experience has always been in Australia. This country will reward their courage and they in turn will enrich this nation and shape its future.
Bill Shorten is the Member for Maribyrnong, Shadow NDIS and Government Services Minister, and former-Labor leader. This is based on an address given on Australia Day.
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