As we approach Waitangi Day, it's worth considering that New Zealanders are not (contrary to popular belief) uniquely plagued by self-doubt

As an Australian migrant to New Zealand, one thing that still surprises me is the commonly-held belief here that Australians have a self-confident sense of nationhood, while Kiwis are full of angst and self-doubt. Here, for example, is Karl du Fresne:

“You can’t help but notice the all-pervasive Australian sense of self-confidence…. We tend, by contrast, to be a bit of a hang-dog nation”.

This belief goes hand-in-hand with the image of Australians as big, bold and brash – an image that I, as a somewhat shy and retiring person, find it hard to relate to, let alone live up to.

I’m writing this on Australia Day, January 26 – Australia’s national day, celebrated on the anniversary of the arrival of the “First Fleet” at Botany Bay. So, the Australian newspapers must be full of self-congratulatory articles about what a wonderful country Australia is, right? Well, celebratory articles are certainly to be found. The editorial in Rupert Murdoch’s Australian newspaper calls for Australians to be “self-confident, not self-conscious, as we celebrate”. But would they need to say this if there was no question about Australians’ self-confidence?

Also writing in the Australian, several days before Australia Day, Bob Murray predicted “that there will be all the usual complaints about the day, the flag, the national anthem, the Constitution, the head of state and the federal system”. And sure enough, the Australian flag is up for debate again, and an editorial in the Melbourne Age argues that “our national symbols and our politics reflect our confused values”.

Two books published in Australia last year portray an Australia that is far from straightforwardly self-confident about questions of national identity and symbolism. Stuart Ward and James Curran in Unknown Nation: Australia After Empire look at the ways in which, from the 1960s onwards, an Australia that was “stranded in the wake” of a receding British Empire had to cast around for new symbols and rituals with which to represent itself. The efforts to create a sense of Australian national identity were sometimes farcical: witness Prime Minister Bob Menzies’ attempt to have the new decimal currency called the “royal”; the tortuous process by which “Advance Australia Fair” became the national anthem; and the creation of two competing “Australian of the Year” awards.

Symbols of Australia: Uncovering the Stories Behind the Myths (edited by Melissa Harper and Richard White) surveys a range of Australian national symbols, from the flag to the kangaroo, from Vegemite to Uluru (Ayers Rock). The fact that the pavlova is (rather cheekily, from a New Zealand perspective) included in the book is itself an indication that symbols are often contested, between nations as much as within them. The symbols discussed in the book have not been simply accepted without question; as the editors write in the introduction: “National symbols have always been political. There have been debates over the flag, over the relevance of British symbols to Australia, even over whether the wattle or the waratah was the better national flower.”

Not to mention debates over the place of indigenous people and indigenous symbols in the Australian nation’s past, present and future. For many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, 26 January is Invasion Day or Survival Day, a day that represents the start of their dispossession, but also an opportunity to celebrate their survival against the odds. Awkward questions about relations between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians are hard to ignore (however hard former Prime Minister John Howard may have tried) when Australians reflect on their country’s achievements and failings.

In recent years New Zealand has experienced its own debates over questions of symbols and identity. Many of these debates have been centrally concerned with the relationship between Māori and non-Māori: the Māori flag debate, the Whanganui place name debate, as well as the seemingly endless debate about whether or not Waitangi Day should be our national day. Even the foreshore and seabed debate has an important symbolic dimension.

The fact that we have these debates does not distinguish us from other, supposedly more self-confident countries such as Australia. Indeed, the fact that we can, for the most part, debate these issues in a reasonably civil and respectful way may be a sign of maturity, perhaps even of a degree of self-confidence, rather than of debilitating self-doubt.

Despite what I have said above, I have noticed a recent trend towards a more assertive, even jingoistic, flag-waving nationalism in Australia. This is not a trend New Zealand should aspire to follow. Far from being a sign of self-confidence, I suggest that this more aggressive Australian nationalism is a mark of insecurity.

Let’s stop beating ourselves up about New Zealanders’ supposed propensity for self-doubt; perhaps it is even, paradoxically, something to celebrate.

Comments (10)

by Tim Watkin on January 27, 2011
Tim Watkin

Interesting to hear that from an Australian, Ewan. We really do get overly obsessed in this country with how bold, brave and brilliant Australia is.

I think you're bang on. Jingoism isn't confidence, it's wallpapering over cracks. NZ instead has done – and is doing – the hard work of reconciling its histories. For all the fear that we get trapped in hand wringing, for me it's a vtial step to mature nationhood. Grown-ups take responsibility for their actions, and the same goes for countries.

Thanks for the piece.

by Ewan Morris on January 27, 2011
Ewan Morris

Thanks Tim. I do think that flag-waving jingoism is simply the latest manifestation of Australian insecurity. But I also think it's a fairly recent development, and one that is arguably at odds with an Australian tradition of being resistant to people "big noting" or "having tickets on themselves" (ie, being boastful and self-important). When I was growing up, Australian flags were reasonably rare - now when I go back to Australia, I seem to see them everywhere.

by stuart munro on January 27, 2011
stuart munro

Having had an economy in free fall for the last thirty years has done little for kiwi confidence.

And sorry Tim, but, supporting Maori claims to one thing and another is not about us taking responsibility as a nation, it is instead the mass of New Zealanders taking responsibility for the dishonest actions of a politically connected few.

The Sealord deal is an example - the government in an enthusiasm for privatisation, and lets be honest the process by which public property falls into private hands is properly called corruption - the government confiscated all New Zealanders' fishing rights, and gave them to the worst pack of scoundrels in the country, excepting themselves.

Then belatedly, the citizens had to pay to compensate Maori because the confiscation explicity broke the treaty. Cue applause for bipartisanship.

This has been the pattern of Maori land confiscations and other rorts for over a century - the government or local government confiscations that is. But most of these rorts are plainly recorded. We should not be compensating, but restoring land, and dispossessing those who stole it. We are a country with a short and well recorded history, and so we know their names.

by Andin on January 27, 2011

"We should not be compensating, but restoring land, and dispossessing those who stole it."

I think they're dead, tho' one can never be sure........

Is that self doubting enough?

by Chris Webster on January 27, 2011
Chris Webster

Ewan - terrific article -- it partners nicely with the editorial in this week's listener - Advance Australia and has some very good advice for us nu zila's.


from a half-pie aussie

by MikeM on February 02, 2011

I've just experienced an Australia Day in Melbourne. It wasn't merely the huge celebrations and thick crowds of people everywhere waving and wearing Australian flags. It was also that weeks in advance, it'd be very difficult to not know that Australia Day was approaching, thanks to the sheer amount of publicity both through public and private avenues. I didn't see any obvious sign of protests or mentions of "Invasion Day", except for when I went out of my way to look for them (Google helped). I probably missed some, but with the atmosphere it'd have been easy for such protests to have been swamped by the massive amount of positive publicity and people's single-minded obsession with making sure they focused on happy things.  People here are impressively keen to celebrate Australia and its history, I'm just not sure everyone's too clear on what they're celebrating or the lasting implications of the history for some people, or they'd just prefer to sideline anything that might distract from their enjoyment.

Interestingly though, when browsing through the various museums, there was a lot of acknowledgement of Australia's dotty past: abhorrent treatment of aboriginal people, very racist policies against immigrants, even quite recently with techniques such as the Dictation Test to keep out non-whites whenever it suited. These sides were clearly presented at the Museum of Victoria and its subsidiary Immigration Museum, and a few other places I've come across. Both museums get lots of publicity, but it doesn't seem to raise concerns on the surface as much here. I'd be surprised if many people don't simply skip bothering with learning detail about boring stuff like that, or otherwise write off that kind of history as having no place in the present. It's interesting to hear about the books, though. Maybe attitudes here really are starting to slide.

My gut feeling has always been that New Zealand's doing a better job (for some definition of 'better') simply because people in NZ are finally actually acknowledging the problems and talking about them, but I think both countries still have a long way to go.

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