Note to readers: This post appeared as a column in the Armidale Express on 23 March 2011. I am repeating the columns here with a lag because the Express columns are not on line. You can see all the columns by clicking here for 2009, here for 2010, here for 2011.
In a comment on one of my posts in June 2007, an American set out this challenge.
“Hi, I'm an American. I was surfing the Internet, trying to learn something about Australia's diverse regions from a cultural perspective as opposed to a merely geographical one. All I turned up was information on Aborigines. Where's the Australian Paul Bunyan? Where's the Johnny Appleseed? Where are the pictures of Eskimos contrasted with lumberjacks, miners, farmers and fishermen? You are right. I almost had to conclude that Australia has no regional flavor at all. (Search for "regional flavor" and you will turn up many websites on wine, but none that pay more than lip service to culture.)”
Now this challenge actually hurt. Surely Australia wasn’t as bland as all that?
In fact, Australia does have significant local and regional cultural variations. We are just very bad at recognising them.
Australia has a strong and vibrant core culture that acts as a centre piece for all the different groups making up modern Australia. We fight about elements of this culture, but no one really doubts that it exists.
Advertising agencies are one of the best signs because they focus on those things that will help them sell product. Some may not like the Australia thus presented, but we can all recognise it.
As part of our culture, Australians think of themselves first as Australians. We then go one stage further. We assume that the way we think is just that, simply Australian.
Well, it is and isn’t. Then they assume that the way they think is in fact simply Australian. In reality it's not, for all areas have their own unique style.
Some differences we can recognise. One is Australia's changing ethnic mix.
Australia is still a land of migrants, with each new group adding something to the melting pot. In the beginning, each group stands out because of its different features, adding variety to the visible pattern of Australian life. Then, with time, they have an impact on the core culture itself.
If we take Sydney as an example, different parts of the city have different ethnic and cultural mixes. Leichhardt is Italian, Chinatown is Chinese.
Sydney deliberately tries to play on these differences as part of the city’s presentation of itself as a cosmopolitan city. Local government, too, tries to take advantage of difference.
Melbourne, by contrast, has re-badged itself as a quintessentially European city. Sydney emphasises diversity, Melbourne a unifying theme.
Meantime, Queensland and the Queensland Government sell the story that Queenslanders are somehow different in ways of thinking from the rest of Australia.
We saw this during the floods when the premier and others directly appealed to what they saw as the unique features of Queenslanders. Queenslanders were expected to respond in a certain way because they were Queenslanders.
While some differences are apparent, others are more subtle.
In NSW differing patterns of chain migration - Irish Catholics in the south, Scots Presbyterians in the north - in the early days of European settlement created different social and voting patterns that survive to this day.
Newcastle is traditionally Labor and Union. However, Newcastle was settled by English migrants drawn to the mines and factories. Newcastle has a north English tradition that is very different from the strong Irish and Roman Catholic tradition that held elsewhere in the unions and party.
On the Tablelands, the growth of squatting and the pastoral dynasties created social structures and patterns of life that were completely different from those holding in either the farming or mining communities.
These types of differences fascinate me.
The way Australian history has been taught over the years acts to conceal local or regional variation. We just don’t see it, and consequently we are very bad at either selling it or building on it.
The 2007 criticism of my blogging colleague reflects this. To his outsider’s eye, Australian diversity is purely geographic.
I think that’s a pity.