Assumptions about our identity are often based on our past rather than a consideration of who we are becoming. Sometimes our emerging identity is underpinned by some moral ambiguity as we are becoming more diverse and fragmented in our thinking and values. This is because Australia’s emerging identity is based on the influence of different cultures, different attitudes and different approaches. This diversity of influences creates a cultural environment in Australia that is lively, energised, innovative and outward looking.

The Beginning

Australia has an important heritage from its indigenous people, which plays a defining role in the cultural landscape. Australia’s first inhabitants, the Aboriginal people, are believed to have migrated from some unknown point in Asia to Australia between 50,000 and 60,000 years ago.

While Captain James Cook is credited with Australia’s European discovery in 1770 it is our Aboriginal heritage that is becoming more significant. The first European settlement of Australia was in January 1788, when the First Fleet sailed into Botany Bay under the command of Captain Arthur Phillip. Transportation of convicts to the eastern colonies was abolished in 1852 and to the western colonies in 1868. In the mid–1830s only around six per cent of the convict population were ‘locked up’, the majority working for free settlers and the authorities around the nation. Even so, convicts were often subject to cruelties such as leg-irons and the lash. Places like Port Arthur or Norfolk Island were well known for this. Convicts sometimes shared deplorable conditions. One convict described the working as:

‘We have to work from 14–18 hours a day, sometimes up to our knees in cold water, ’til we are ready to sink with fatigue… The inhuman driver struck one, John Smith, with a heavy thong.’

The transportation of convicts to Australia ended at a time when the colonies’ population stood at around one million.

Who were the convicts?

While the vast majority of the convicts to Australia were English and Welsh (70%), Irish (24%) or Scottish (5%), the convict population had a multicultural flavour. Some convicts had been sent from various British outposts such as India and Canada. There were also Maoris from New Zealand, Chinese from Hong Kong and slaves from the Caribbean.

Aboriginal Influence

The convict label may have dominated in the past but today we are more likely to be challenged about our acceptance of Aboriginal issues. We readily admit to our Aboriginal heritage and we are even happy to use elders and traditional dances as ceremonial openings to many major events on our calendar. But, how much do we really understand about our Aboriginal past? Recently, AFL footballer Adam Goodes has made a stand against discrimination through his experience with being publicly booed during his matches. In a recent article written by Stan Grant posted in The Guardian he states that to “Adam’s ears, the ears of so many Indigenous people, these boos are of a howl of humiliation. A howl that echoes across two centuries of invasion, dispossession and suffering.”


Acceptance also needs to extend to refugees who are struggling to find a place in the world. Australia is a country of immigrants, so accepting refugees should be part of the national culture. Immigrants can make our country stronger by increasing the population e.g. new people can bring new talents to the labour force and make our culture richer. The Happiest Refugee written by Anh Do gives us a clear view on what life was like being a refugee. Anh Do’s family left Vietnam looking for improved living conditions and for better opportunities. The boat the Do family travelled on was 9ft in size and carried 40 refugees, all heading for Australia and hoping for a better life. Anh Do’s family seized the opportunity and decided to work hard to give back to Australia.

A Better Australia

Recent research undertaken for SBS, looked for answers to how Australians think it may be in another 20 years. Evidence from the Census for the past two decades reveals some basic information that may help us understand where we are heading. Australians are ageing; we are more culturally diverse; we live in smaller family units or alone; we are less religious; and we consume more ‘stuff’ per head.

Those surveyed agreed that the main changes that have happened are those that have made us more multicultural and more materialistic. Over half of those asked believe that 20 years ago, Australians were easygoing, friendly and outgoing, trustworthy, unpretentious and “tough”. But today, less than half believe that these descriptions are accurate.

They do believe, though, that we’ve become more social – moving out from a concentration on family – and slightly more open-minded, intelligent and creative, though hugely more materialistic. We are also more accepting and more willing to take risks and welcome others to our shore.

The next generation, we believe, will continue to experience a multicultural society, though we are very divided on what we think of this. While a significant group sees an improved quality of life (37%), almost as significant a group sees the future as leaving them worse off (28%). The SBS research reveals two groups of values: people worry about racism in Australia and Australia’s harsh polices on asylum seekers. Perhaps its time for our Government to listen to the views of society and work towards a making a better Australia?

The fact that Australia is becoming more diverse suggests the future looks good. Australian culture is as broad and varied as the country’s landscape. There are many positive experiences and aspects to being a multicultural country we can enjoy a fusion of flavours and a diverse choice, which can be thanked to multiculturalism. Understanding different perspectives of humans helps to unite under; common values, respect, family, kindness and safety, which enrich our culture. We need to challenge the ambiguity and show Australia is a unique and diverse country in every way.

By Grace S


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