Tuesday, April 05, 2011

Australia's geographical diversity

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.


Greg said...

Very interesting post Jim. Is this a reflection of the deficiency of our education system?

For my part, I have no recollection of learning about my home town (Newcastle) in school other than that Lt John Shortland sailed up the Hunter River in 1797 and discovered coal there. That is it. My own knowledge of the local area is due largely to my own curiosity rather than any formal learning at school. Yet Newcastle is a fascinating town with a story worth telling.

I'm sure that same theme would be repeated elsewhere. That is actually one reason that I have personally been opposed to the national education curriculum. In my view there should be a strong local emphasis on school education in areas such as history, geography and social studies.

It is also hardly surprising therefore that so many people hold "abolish the states" attitudes. They don't perceive any significant regional differences and hence they don't recognise the point for a federal system of government.

Le Loup said...

He is lucky to find anything on Australian Aboriginals. I have searched from a primitive skills & tools point of view & found very little. Early settlement by whites period also lacking info on Aboriginals. Amazing.

Jim Belshaw said...

You know both, you do capture my own feelings.

Starting with LL.

When I was a kid and a boy scout, I was very interested in surviving in the bush. I split matches in half and coated them with wax. I learned about camp fires, cooked damper and johnny cakes, practiced swinging the billy, but was constantly frustrated because I knew nothing about local foods. How could I survive in the bush if I didn't know what was edible?

Things are a bit better today, but there is still an enormous gap.

Greg, you are dead right. If everything is the same, then what's the case for different treatment?

Dermott Banana said...

For my part, I only learnt about the history of Newcastle thanks to a fifth grade teacher at Hamilton South Primary called David Dyball.
He took the class for a walk alongside the railway line in the city, and taught us that was where the waterline of the harbour used to be, but that it filled with ballast from two centuries of coal ships. He took us along what is now the Fernleigh track, and explained local history. And he showed us a street map of Newcastle's inner suburbs and challenged us to consider why there were streets named 'Railway Street' in places like Merewether which was (at that time in 1981) miles from any railway. That was his way of explaining to 11yo kids that the city was not always as it was in 1981 but had evolved to its present state.

Jim Belshaw said...

You had a pretty good teacher, DB. I'm impressed. He sounds like a few of our companion bloggers.

It's a pity that that visitors to Newcastle today can't access that kind of information.