Opinion & Commentary
We are many: the futile fight over Australian identity
When Socrates was accused of corrupting the youth of Athens with philosophical questions, he responded that the 'unexamined life is not worth living'.
The annual Australia Day-inspired bout of collective anxiety about who we are suggests Australia's political class has taken this Socratic advice far too literally.
Our national holiday should be a celebration of this country's achievements and the ties that bind the diverse strands of our society together. Yet the end of January all too often sees a ritualistic dragging of the national psyche to the analyst's couch.
Forget about beach, barbecues and beer: our new favourite Australia Day pastime is worrying about what it means to be Australian.
This year, let's give the contemplative introspection a rest. Not only can we be calmly confident about the values we represent, but any attempt to define precisely what it means to be Australian is doomed to fail.
All Australians - from those who take the Citizenship Pledge this Australia Day to those with more than 40,000 years of family history in this land - see some values as non-negotiable.
We all agree that the same laws should apply to everyone and that each Australian should have a hand in making our society's common rules. It is also taken as a given that ambition and ability should be rewarded above privilege and pedigree. Provided no harm is done to others, we equally expect individuals to be left free to live as they see fit.
Taken together, these foundational values flesh out a clear sense of what we stand for: Australians are committed to fair play, opportunity and individual freedom. This pithy account of Australian values belies their philosophical richness.
Our values are in fact a rough and ready combination of John Stuart Mill's liberalism, Thomas Jefferson's democratic spirit, and the anti-authoritarianism and egalitarianism of Henry Lawson's Australia.
Admittedly, the Australian reality does not always live up to this Australian ideal. However, while our society sporadically stumbles and falls short of our values, the ideal of a liberal, democratic and open Australia remains constant.
Some might argue that if we know which political values guide us, then surely we can easily define Australian identity. Just the opposite is true.
Our commitments to fair play, opportunity and individual freedom mean it is impossible to pin down precisely what it means to be Australian.
John Rawls, one of the twentieth century's most influential theorists of liberalism, claimed that diversity always flourishes in free societies. If individuals are not forced to share a particular conception of the good life, then it is inevitable that a wide variety of ways of life will emerge and endure. This is what Rawls called the 'fact of pluralism'.
In light of this, it is hardly surprising that liberal democratic Australia is home to almost as many ways of life as it is citizens. To be sure, the shared political values of fair play, opportunity and individual freedom mentioned earlier unite all Australians.
However, it is precisely because of these common political values that it would be quixotic to try to define Australian identity. We cannot say exactly what it means to be Australian because our shared liberal democratic values give Australians the freedom to be many different things.
Australia Day offers a rare opportunity for our young and rapidly changing democracy to rally around a common ideal: It has the power to introduce new Australians to our liberal democratic creed and remind the rest of us of the values that should guide our national journey.
To squander this opportunity to celebrate Australian values by wallowing in an identity crisis would be a great waste.
Rather than provoking us to ask idle questions about who we are, our national day should reinforce the precious Australian values that give us the freedom to be whoever we want to be.
Benjamin Herscovitch is a policy analyst at The Centre for Independent Studies.