The "Thin Dividing Line": Prime Ministers and the Problem of Australian Nationalism, 1972-19961. (1)

By Curran, James | The Australian Journal of Politics and History, December 2002 | Go to article overview

The "Thin Dividing Line": Prime Ministers and the Problem of Australian Nationalism, 1972-19961. (1)


Curran, James, The Australian Journal of Politics and History


"[...] there is a need for nationalism, but you've got to be absolutely astringent in your thinking about this [...] you have always got to be aware of that thin dividing line between a genuine and decent nationalism and an aggressive, jingoistic, sort of `my country right or wrong' nationalism ".

R.J.L. Hawk (2)

From the mid 1960s Australian prime ministers were faced with a crisis of national meaning. One of the most fundamental ideas in Australian cultural and political life, the belief that Australians were part of an "organic" worldwide community of British peoples--united by blood, history, language and tradition--had to be significantly revised at this time. A people who had identified themselves so intensely with the British race, who saw themselves as a bastion of this race in the southern seas, now had to shelve their race consciousness and embrace the notion of being a "multicultural" community. As the old, monolithic British story lost its vitality, these leaders had to make sense of a new era, characterised by a diversity of cultures, especially those of Asia. Since Britishness had given such powerful meaning and cohesion to the people, what would replace it? Bob Hawke's sensitivity to nationalism's "thin dividing line" was indicative of the unease with which, for the most part, the post-1972 prime ministers approached this problem. The scales of twentieth century nationalism had more often tipped over in favour of its negative, aggressive features. The lesson for political leaders was that the need for national unity and social cohesion always had to be counterbalanced with a necessary caution towards the excesses and dangers of classical nationalism. The question in these new times therefore was not only whether Australian prime ministers would substitute the once powerful British story with a distinctively Australian story of their own, but even more whether nationalism itself was viable once the need for an intense social bonding and cultural conformity had passed.

This article examines the different ways in which four of the post-1972 Prime ministers--Gough Whitlam (1972-75), Malcolm Fraser (1975-83), Bob Hawke (1983-91) and Paul Keating (1991-96)--in their speeches and writings attempted to fill the void left by the decline of the British race patriot tradition and define a new concept of Australian "national community". It is intended to show that prime ministerial rhetoric is itself a significant medium through which the general problem of nationalism in Australian intellectual life can be explored and explained. (3) Before this problem can be addressed however, it is necessary to deal firstly with the problem of nationalism itself and secondly the way in which it has been applied to the Australian experience.

Writing in 1965, Hans Kohn argued that "the twentieth century since 1945 has become the first period in history in which the whole of mankind has accepted one and the same political attitude, that of nationalism". (4) It should be remembered therefore that the "world-views" of Whitlam, Fraser, Hawke and Keating were being shaped in an era where nationalism was the key idea or myth connecting the individual to society. But this classical idea of nationalism had had a turbulent past, given its prescription for cultural and racial uniformity, its absolute need to differentiate the unique qualities of a "people" from those of their neighbours and its intrinsic capacity for hostility to and oppression of the outsider. Though no one theory of nations and nationalism has gained general scholarly approval, one point on which most contemporary analyses agree is the fundamental relationship between nationalism and history. (5) This connection is to be found in the myth Of the nation, which tells the story of a people becoming progressively aware of their distinctiveness and of the gradual awakening of a national spirit which will ultimately lead them to their independent "destiny". …

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