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The Future of Australian Values

Monday, 1 May 2017  | Stephen Chavura

Anzac as secular religion

Paul Tillich, the mid-20th century German-American theologian, famously described the essence of religion as that which gives our lives ultimate meaning. The upshot of this is that someone can be totally uncommitted to any institutional religion, even atheistic, but still be deeply religious in Tillich’s sense of the term. In other words, someone can be deeply secular and yet deeply religious.

Anzac is Australia’s religion; Australia’s expression of ultimate meaning. This should not be entirely surprising, for the origins of Anzac Day lie deep in Anglican ritual, courtesy of Canon David Garland, Anglican clergyman and ‘architect of Anzac Day’. Anzac Day gets hundreds of thousands of us out of bed before dawn to corporately observe. It is a day of great solemnity and fellowship. It is a day that only the brave or foolish dare speak against, and those who do are condemned as the blasphemers they are.

Things were not always this way. Those old enough will recall that, for two to three decades, Anzac Day was declining in its hold on the popular mind. As the years passed after WWII, and with Australia’s role in the Vietnam War never being glorified, Anzac Day seemed increasingly irrelevant and lost much of its sacred aura. As historian A.G.L. Shaw wrote in 1962:

The annual Anzac Day reign of terror by returned soldiers is moderating as the hell-raisers dwindle, as wars become less noble, heroic and praiseworthy, and as the younger generation becomes more and more puritanical about drunkenness and disorder.[1]

Not much of an endorsement by Shaw or, by his account, Australians! Marches were poorly attended from the 1960s up to the 1980s. Indeed, the past is a foreign country.

Nowadays, to slur the Anzac heritage is national heresy – hence the countless calls for Yassmin Abdel-Magied to be sacked from the publicly funded ABC, and many on Facebook, Twitter and blog sites calling for her to be deported back to where she came from (Khartoum). Anzac has become the value of values in Australia.

How did this happen and why are we so preoccupied with Australian values?

Values and identity

The question of values is inseparable from the question of identity. Who are we? Once upon a time this was an easy question to answer: we are British, a part of ‘Greater Britain’, and proudly so. Thus our values included an appreciation for the monarchy first and foremost, and then all sorts of notions of the rights and virtues of the English race: Protestantism, sturdy independence, rule of law, representative government, stoicism etc. This found its greatest and final embodiment in Sir Robert Menzies (1894-1978).

This sense of Britishness slowly declined owing to at least three changing trends following WWII. First, the British Empire was dismantled, and England’s global prestige and importance – political, cultural, and economic – steadily declined throughout the Cold War. The glory had departed. Second, American culture saturated Australians, especially from the 1950s onwards. Third, with the slow dismantling of the White Australia Policy, the British inflexion of Australia’s identity was diluted. Australia’s British identity was mocked in the 1960s by the likes of Donald Horne and Oz Magazine, and declared dead and buried by cultural ‘progressives’ from the mid-1970s.

The only problem was that many Australians still felt otherwise. At the very least, just because many Australians were feeling less British did not mean that they were feeling more cosmopolitan.

This progressive cosmopolitanism was embodied in Prime Minister Paul Keating (1991-96), but he failed to inspire a huge sector of Australians with it; Australians like Pauline Hanson who rejected multiculturalism, globalisation and pretty much everything that Keating and the ‘elites’ stood for. In their first Federal election in 1998, One Nation scored 8.43% in the Lower House and 8.99% or 1,000,000 votes for the Senate, beating all minor parties in both houses. This was despite all significant parties making preference deals against them. Keating’s successor, John Howard (1996-2007), learned the lesson by bringing the Liberal Party further to the right to regain lost supporters. Labor also, albeit reluctantly, realised the political necessity of tough border security. It worked. One Nation went into the wilderness for twenty years and Howard stayed in power for eleven years.

The 1980s – an economic boom period – saw a revival in nationalism, buoyed along with the America’s Cup win (1983), a host of Australian musical artists becoming huge in the US from the mid-1970s (AC/DC, LRB, The Bee Gees, Olivia Newton John, Men at Work, The Divinyls, INXS), and the success of Ozploitation films like Mad Max (1979) and then Crocodile Dundee (1986). Tellingly, Gallipoli (1981) was a box-office smash in Australia. This nationalism was crowned by the 1988 Bicentenary celebrations of and continued into the 1990s when Anzac Day reestablished itself as a sacred day. As I write, Anzac Day is now part of our current Australian values citizenship test.

Yet despite Anzac and its tropes now being central to Australian identity, we still seem to be floundering in our attempt to identify values that we all recognise. This is not an easy task in a culturally diverse and individualistic society. Perhaps the simple fact is that we have become so divided ethno-culturally and morally that the project of identifying universally held values is simply hopeless. This strikes me as very plausible.

As Menzies’ world of British identity, virtues and values sank, did Anzac Day become the only buoyant object left in sight?

An institutional approach to Australian values

It is easy to become cynical about Australian values: ‘mateship’ and ‘a fair go’ strike many as simply vague and trite. Many think that any talk of Australian values is really talk of white male Australian values. Also, to be frank, an examination of Australian society might suggest that these are not really our values at all, as opposed to rampant individualism, tribalism and consumption.

I suggest that we should begin not with values as abstract concepts – mateship, a fair go etc. – but with the objective realm of institutions. What are the institutions that have done the most to secure Australia’s peace and prosperity? This is just another way of asking what are Australia’s most valuable institutions. The list will surely include our parliamentary and civic democracy, the rule of law, our long-evolved economic system, our industrial relations system and our welfare system.

The next question is what kinds of citizens does it take to keep such institutions healthy? That is, what virtues must Australian citizens possess to ensure that the institutions that provide such a desirable lifestyle for us all persist uncorrupted? Finally, what are the conditions that will ensure that these civic virtues are developed and sustained? Menzies thought about this all his life. He warned Australians in 1945:

The more absorbed the people become in technical and material living, the more they have neglected their social responsibilities, and the more, unhappily, they have neglected the problems of popular self-government. It is well to remember that for years, the greatest danger to democracy has been, not so much a danger from without, as a danger from within.[2]

Menzies’ fear was that the demands of a modern economy would turn us into mere consumers with little time for relationships and little time or interest in civic and community engagement. In other words, affluence would strip us of virtue or ‘spirit’, as Menzies called it.

The future of the Australian values debate is difficult to predict. But one thing seems pretty certain (to me, at least): the debate will be pushed along by problems arising from cultural divisions, and probably by terrorist attacks, here and abroad. The most recent debate sparked by Prime Minister Malcolm Turnbull’s decision to strengthen the citizenship tests is basically a response to Islam in Australia, and not just Islamic terrorism. This means that the values debate will continually be accused of being merely a surrogate for racism and an attempt to impose ‘whiteness’ on migrants and Indigenous Australians.

I think the above charge is simplistic and unfair, but until we anchor our discussion of values in institutions that have proven their objective worth, and identify the virtues needed to keep those institutions healthy, the charge of arbitrariness will be difficult to counter.

The task of the church

The church has proven itself to be a valuable institution in Australian society, yet it has lost its moral authority and is considered at best quaint and at worst a vestige of an oppressive past. If Christianity was decried as irrational by the more irreligious Enlightenment thinkers of the 18th and 19th centuries, its present-day critics decry it as both bigoted and a mental health risk for people, especially children, who are exposed to its teachings, particularly those on gender and identity. The Australian values debate will influence immigration and citizenship laws, but it will also be used to drive Christianity out of schools, the health professions and other public institutions. The regressive teachings of Islamism will be imputed also to the church by secularists and activists seeking to cleanse public – and then private? – institutions of any vestiges of traditional notions of gender identity and sexual ethics. The same-sex marriage debate has shades of that - Christian teaching on sexuality routinely declared harmful and suicide-inducing. Witness also the Safe Schools program.

Thus the task of the church over the next two generations is to do everything it can to prove itself a valuable institution again. The big questions are: What are the new social needs that have arisen that the state is struggling to meet? How can the church step in?

This calls for creative thinking. What are the pressing needs of individuals and families in the modern economy and culture? Examples of community outreach include church day-care centres, church gyms, English language classes for migrants, car-pool services, flexible church opening hours and more home churches, local church markets and the sorts of charitable work that churches have traditionally carried out. Red Frogs is a stunning example of creative Christian cultural engagement that has seared itself on the minds of thousands of young Australians who have never entered a church building.

The values debate will unfold as a conflict between nationalism, multiculturalism (Islam), identity revisionism and Christian traditionalism. The church must continue to think creatively of ways to be a blessing to local communities with the goal of changing lives through preaching and living out the gospel. My hope is that Australians will start to re-appreciate their long-standing institutions, and that the church will manage to re-establish itself as the central institution in Australian communities. Then, if there should ever be another debate on Australian values, when the question of what people must value to keep the church vibrant in the community arises, the answer will be clear to all. The answer is Jesus.

Stephen Chavura is Senior Research Associate in the Department of Modern History, Politics, and International Relations at Macquarie University, and a Lecturer at Campion College and the Lachlan Macquarie Institute.

[1] A.G.L. Shaw, ‘The Old Tradition’, in Peter Coleman (ed.), Australian Civilization (Melbourne, Canberra, Sydney: F.W. Cheshire, 1962), 12-25.

[2] ‘Speech by the Hon. R. G. Menzies on Education’, from the Parliamentary Debates, 26 July 1945, Robert Menzies Papers [NLA 4936], Box 253, Folder 15, 4616.


john yates
May 2, 2017, 7:37AM
"Then, if there should ever be another debate on Australian values, when the question of what people must value to keep the church vibrant in the community arises, the answer will be clear to all. The answer is Jesus."

Such an important conclusion, so foundational, but so often missed. Thanks, Stephen.
Remy Chadwick
May 3, 2017, 3:19PM
Great article, very balanced and insightful.

'Thus the task of the church over the next two generations is to do everything it can to prove itself a valuable institution again.'

Like other millenials, I am suspicious of the dominance of 'white male Australian values' in our country's institutions. Churches would be more palatable communities for those who are cynical if they behaved less like institutions that are more concerned with their own reputation than the needs of people, and delivered more of the actions you suggest at the end of the piece. The church doesn't need to prove anything to anyone, it can let the fruit speak for itself.

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