Are we ashamed of Australian culture?


February 17, 2013 – 11:59 pm

Alecia Simmonds

Alecia Simmonds



Summer is drawing to a close. And as the last of our international visitors do the annual skip back from a sunburnt South to a pearly-skied North, we can finally breathe in the calm, put on a cuppa… and bitch.

Not about the guests, but about peoples’ reactions to the guests. That simpering, servile bleat on the part of too many Australians that goes something like: ‘Oh! You’re living in Eurrope! How MARVELLOUS! Vacuous Partner and I were just recently there. In fact, we like to go every year to get our dose of culture.’ Variations on this loathsome theme can include: ‘Oh, you must just LOVE the cheeses in Frawnce. It’s so difficult in Australia to get decent fromage’. Or they may add in a cheeky ‘n’est-ce pas’ to the most banal observations: “It’s hot, n’est-ce pas?’ or ‘I’m a tosser, n’est-ce pas?’

It may seem odd to complain about colonial cringes in the aftermath of patriotic Australia Day booziness, but elite self-loathing is impervious to time. On a perfect summer day they could be sitting on a crystalline beach wishing that they were holed up in an apartment that resembles a telephone booth on a bleak muddy island in the northern hemisphere.

When people complain about Australia relative to New York, London or Paris what they want to say is: ‘I AM SOCIALLY SUPERIOR TO MY COUNTRYFOLK.’ But blurting out a comment like this is socially unacceptable. It can create social awkwardness and may sometimes lead to depression. So people find other ways to advertise their bourgeois status. One of the most time-honoured means of doing this here is to measure Australia against a mythical Old World and find it grievously lacking. If Europe is the natural homeland of philosophy, culture and art then Australia is a place of brash materialism and vulgar stupidity. If Europe has a long and complex history populated by Great Men with Great Ideas then Australia’s history is a story of fly-pestered philistines stuck on a desert island.

By identifying themselves with the Old World, these people assert a kind of social power through cultural distinction. They may not have as much money as ‘cashed up bogans’ but they know a language and a set of codes that guarantees their entry into a cultural elite whose ranks they guard with sneering pomposity. Rather than taking Australian creativity on its own terms they place it in an imagined hierarchy of nations and declare it bankrupt for the simple fact that it’s Australian.

I would understand this if we were still living under Menzies or Howard. If we were 19th Century ladies flung to a convict dumping heap on the other side of the earth then of course Europe would look sophisticated by comparison. But we’re not. We’re a country with a breathtaking line-up of artistic events this year (Anish Kapoor and Francis Bacon to name but two) restaurants that would make any Parisian die of pleasure, universities with world-leading Professors and a fantastic history of feminist activism, democratic reform and workers’ rights. We were the first country in the world to give women the right to vote and to be elected to Parliament on a national basis. We also invented the idea of the eight-hour day. Not to be sniffed at even by those who sniff!

Europe is just not that great either. I mean, if Europe was so terribly thoughtful then why would 17% of people in Holland or 15% in Denmark vote for the far right? Why were Parisian streets recently flooded by an estimated 800,000 people protesting AGAINST gay and lesbian marriage and adoption rights? Sure, Italians make good buffalo mozzarella. But how did they continue to elect Berlusconi for all those years? And have you seen European comedies? Not. Very. Funny. At. All.

If the colonial cringe was limited to irritating people at dinner parties then we could just engage in fierce eye-rolling. But it has much more serious consequences. It results in an over-valuing of anything that comes from Europe or America and an undervaluing of anything home-grown. Take the decision by the Liberal Queensland Premier last year to slash arts funding by 12 million, at the same time as establishing a 3 million dollar ‘superstar fund’. What this means is that local talent is starved while superstars from overseas are nourished. Or take the University of Western Sydney’s decision last year to only advertise for new academic posts internationally. No-one in Australia knew they were hiring. And good luck advancing in the legal profession without a Masters from Oxbridge.

I’m all for us being an outward-looking, cosmopolitan society that draws talent from around the globe. But it shouldn’t be at the expense of people here. And it shouldn’t mean a slavish adoption of all things European or American. Why is speaking French or Italian any better than speaking Walpiri or Indonesian? Why do we lament not being able to find a good croissant outside of France but say nothing of the difficulties of finding tagine outside of Morocco?

The sun set on European Empires years ago. We need to stop the cringing, end the sycophantism and soak up the sunshine right here.