How Anglo is Australia?

This was published under the 2010 to 2015 Conservative and Liberal Democrat coalition government

Speech by HE Paul Madden, British High Commissioner, to the NSW Community Relations Commission, Parramatta, 18 April 2013.

HE Paul Madden

How Anglo is Australia? That’s a good question. But it would also be relevant nowadays to ask how Anglo is Britain. In a globalised world, rich successful countries are attractive magnets and tend to comprise diverse, multicultural populations.

In Britain about 80% of the population describe themselves as White British. Other large groups include Asians (by which in the UK we usually mean people from India, Pakistan and Bangladesh) and Black British with either Caribbean or African ancestry. If you visit any of the big cities, you are even more aware of this rich multicultural mix. In London for example only around 45% of the people are White British. We’ve always been quite a diverse race: my own grandparents were born in three countries between them.

Australia is well known as a land of immigration, with one in four of the population born outside the country. But you may be surprised to know that more than one in eight of Britain’s population was born overseas.

For me, as a Brit, one of the great attractions of Australia is that it has many distinctive national characteristics that make it a unique, fascinating country, but it also has many aspects that I find culturally very familiar.

Australian Uniqueness

So what are the things that make Australia distinctive? I’d identify four broad categories.

First, the unique natural environment of this land. You have plants, animals and landscapes that are found nowhere else on the planet. What other country is instantly identifiable, worldwide, by a single animal image, like the kangaroo. And the nature of Australia’s landmass is that the vast majority of the population live in a few large coastal cities, separated by vast distances of unoccupied space. That impacts on the way people live and interact.

Second, your geographic position. Australia is a long way from its neighbours, and it’s a very long way, literally on the other side of the world, from Europe where the first modern settlers came from. So throughout its history there has always been a tension. On the one hand, Australia has strong political, social and economic links with the economically advanced Western world, of which it forms an important part. And on the other, it has growing ties with its Asian neighbourhood, to which it is increasingly connected by migration, people flows and trade and investment links.

Third, Australia has a unique multi-cultural make-up. That’s a combination of the indigenous peoples and the various waves of migration over the last 200 years, first Anglos and Irish, then Southern Europeans and over the last few decades Asians, people from the middle east and even a few from Africa. Each have brought different contributions to what makes Australia special today.

Finally, the unique Aussie character. Of course it’s hard to claim that 22 million individual citizens have a single character. But I think there is something to the notion of a somewhat distinctive Australian approach to concepts like mateship and a “fair go”, as well as the easy-going “she’ll be right”.

Anglo influences

So, having described some of the unique elements of Australia, let me turn to some of the Anglo influences which persist.

Some history first. In 1901, at the time of Federation, probably 98% of Australians were British. When the ANZACs went off to fight in World War One, they were not going there to fight for a distant colonial power, they were going to fight for a British world community, of which they very much felt part. Over the years since, that British influence has gradually diluted. During WWII, with Britain at full stretch and the last Western ally able to defend itself in Europe, it became clear that it was to America that Australia must turn, to guarantee its security within the Asia Pacific region. Among the generation of baby boomers this then lead to a strong appreciation of the US. After the war, Australia’s growth and infrastructure development was enabled by a strong flow of migrants who came from a much wider range of countries. However, there were still some 1m British migrants between 1945 and 1970, the famous £10 Poms. They included two of my mother’s sisters. With Britain joining the European Union in 1973, which meant a shift away from Australian agricultural exports, many here felt the UK was turning its back on Australia. This stimulated Australia to look more actively to markets in its Asian neighbourhood. This has proved a very useful strategy given the huge growth in Asia over the last few decades.

In the 2011 census Australians were asked to describe their ancestry, and were allowed to list two countries. England came top with 36.1%, Australia was second at 35.4%, whilst Scotland and Ireland were third and fourth with 10.4% and 8.9% respectively. Wales had 0.57%, but I guess that included your Prime Minister so it’s not an insignificant community. So in total that comes to 56% from the British Isles.

And they continue to come. Last year, 25,000 Brits emigrated to Australia. Just a few more came from China, and 29,000 from India – topping the table for the first time. There are more than 1.2m British citizens living in Australia now, that’s more than we have in any other country. And around 400,000 Australians live in the UK. Traditionally it has been a rite of passage for many young Australians to spend a period in their 20s living and working in Britain. Even young Australians who don’t come from British family heritage tell me they find the UK feels pretty familiar when they go there. Every year 1m Australians visit the UK and 600,000 Brits visit Australia.

When I talk about the Anglo aspects of Australia’s history, I would include the Irish influence too. I know that, for quite a significant part of its history, the big divide in Australian politics was between the Brits and the Irish, with the latter Catholic and more typically Labor voting, though that has broken down somewhat now. I don’t want to make light of those differences, given the importance they have assumed at different times in our history. But it seems to me, as someone who has lived most of my working life outside of Europe, that on the global scale the Anglos and Irish have very much more in common culturally than they have as differences. I can say that, having grandparents from both countries.

All that history has left quite a strong physical legacy in Australia. At the top of Macquarie Street, looking proudly down towards Circular Quay is a prominent statue of Queen Victoria. Many of the splendid public buildings in Sydney, Melbourne and other historic cities, still bear the old British coat of arms. It says a lot for Australia’s self confidence and maturity that, though rightly proud of its own symbols and imagery, it has not felt the need to purge every last one of these historic emblems. We see that legacy in place names too, New South Wales, Victoria, Queensland. And every Australian state capital is named after a British person.

Not a physical presence, but still an important one, is the Anglo influence on Australia’s constitution and legal system. Australia is an heir to the long line of legal tradition shared by the common law countries. And that includes the Magna Carta of 1215 which first set limits on the rights of the King, and established the important principle that no-one is above the law. Another constitutional legacy is of course the fact that both Britain and Australia share the same head of state, HM the Queen. I’m not proposing to comment further on that, as I think this is a constitutional matter for the Australian people, on which the British High Commissioner should not express a view.

Australia’s political system is not completely based on the Westminster model. For example its upper house is elected, and it’s a federation of states with significant constitutional powers of their own. But it has many features of the UK system, most notably the fact that the Prime Minister is not elected directly, like a US president, but is the leader of the largest political party in the lower house. The main political parties in the two countries are also very similar to each other and indeed there are strong ties between Australian Liberals and British Conservatives and between the two Labour/Labor parties.

I suppose one lasting Anglo influence is the fact that Australians speak English. There are huge economic advantages to countries whose native tongue is the global language. Look at the billions of dollars Australian universities earn from foreign students, and the ease with which Australian business people can communicate with customers around Asia.

Of course Australian English is a distinctive strain of English, just as American or Irish English are. Some suggest that its origins lie in the London cockney dialect of many of the early convict settlers, tempered by Australia’s sunny climes, and by the various arrivals of new migrant communities over the years.

I would venture to suggest though that Australian English is much closer to British English than to American English, for all the reasons of people flows that I talked about earlier. Of course there are words and phrases that are completely Australian. I used to get Doona and Dunny mixed up – which can lead to some unfortunate misunderstandings. But I think that Brits and Australians have no difficulty understanding the subtle nuances of each other’s language. When President Obama was in Canberra in 2011, he made some jokes about Australian English, for example quoting the phrase to give someone an “earbashing”. But in fact many of the phrases he chose would be pretty familiar to British, and indeed Kiwi and Irish speakers of English, not just Australians.

That ease of language explains why we share such a similar sense of humour. And, of course, since many colloquialisms in language come from sporting references, the fact that Brits and Australians both play cricket and the same football codes (apart from AFL) helps with the cultural familiarity. Although it’s interesting that the biggest sport which Britain gave the world – soccer - has only really flourished in Australia thanks to other migrant communities.

Australia in the Anglosphere

When Tony Abbott spoke at the welcoming ceremony for President Obama he said “Our citizens are not strangers to each other. English-speaking peoples never really are.” Some commentators talk about an “Anglosphere” or grouping of English speaking countries. This comprises essentially America plus the old Commonwealth of Britain, Australia, Canada and New Zealand. There are many close ties between these countries, some of them forged by our alliance in the Second World War. The security and intelligence relationships remain close to this day. Together we have tended to get involved in foreign conflicts like Afghanistan and Iraq.

But the Anglosphere grouping is just one of many sets of relationship in a complex multipolar world. The US has close alliances with Japan and Korea, and is working hard to get a balanced relationship with China. Britain has many formal and informal obligations as a key member of the European Union. Despite all the jokes about our historic rivalry, we actually work incredibly closely with the French, for example recently in Libya. And Australia increasingly looks to its membership of Asian-oriented groupings like the East Asia Summit, and to its bilateral relations with its huge northern neighbour of Indonesia.

All of these groups are important. Key economic partners are no longer necessarily the same as key security partners. This is particularly stark for Australia. But I think for all the members of the so-called Anglo grouping, there is a particular depth of trust in the relationship. And much of that comes from shared values.

At any one time, political parties from the left or right may be in power in our two countries, but whoever is in charge, they seem to be able to carve out warm relations with their opposite numbers, even if they’re from the “other side”, Tony Blair with John Howard, David Cameron with Julia Gillard. And that is because, fundamentally, we share a set of values around democracy, human rights, respect for the law, free markets and personal liberty.

These values are not unique to the Anglo world. They are broadly shared across Europe for example and by many people in many countries. But there are parts of the world where faith groupings or ideologies like communism, tend to a different balance of approach on some of these values. For example, attitudes towards the role of women in some Islamic countries, or to freedom of speech in China.

What happens when these ideologies clash? The years since 2001 have been described as the “9/11 decade”. The terrible terrorist tragedies in New York and Washington shook the world. The global struggle against terrorism led to two major military conflicts in Iraq and Afghanistan with very significant loss of life and casualties.

Some people tried to portray this as a clash between the West and Islam. That is simply not the case. How could it be when many western countries have such large populations of adherents of this great historic faith. In Britain for example we have nearly 3m Muslims, just under 5% of the population. Only a very small proportion have sympathy with the acts of the terrorists, and an even tinier proportion have been prepared to engage in those acts themselves.

But a handful of terrorist can cause a massive, disproportionate impact. I was in London in 2005 at the time of the 7/7 Tube Bombings. I remember the emotions of the day. And I also remember the fear and uncertainty of the days afterwards, as we stoically continued to ride on the public transport system in our millions. It was a difficult time to be a young Asian man riding the underground trains, with fellow passengers trying not to look frightened and suspicious of you.

Since that time a lot of effort has been put into thickening community relations and understanding, with a large measure of success. But there remain some young men, and they are predominantly men, who feel isolated, caught between a restrictive life at home imposed by parents who are first generation migrants, and the liberal chaos of western society in which they go to school and work. A small proportion of these can fall prey to evil influences who seek to turn them into terrorists.

Australia is fortunate to have avoided terrorism in its homeland so far. But you suffered heavy casualties in the Bali bombings, which were a salutary reminder of the need for vigilance. Some Australians are already beginning to talk about the small, but not insignificant, number of Australian nationals currently engaging in jihad in Syria and the consequences when they return to Australia.

Immigration and multiculturalism

As economies slow around the world, many countries, including Britain and Australia are taking a tougher approach to immigration. Here in Australia you see that with the attitudes to asylum seekers arriving by boat and with the debate around 457 visas. Sometimes in the political debate, this can get caught up with discussion about multiculturalism and the immigrants who are already in-country.

As I said at the beginning, countries like Britain and Australia are already diverse, multicultural societies. They attract much benefit from the dynamism of immigrant communities and the ways they enrich our societies not just economically but socially, for example in terms of arts and food. In a world of global trade they also provide useful connections and language skills.

Both countries have introduced multicultural policies which aim to help immigrant communities to integrate, whilst respecting cultural points of difference. But some commentators in the UK have questioned whether aspects of multiculturalism actually risk making it harder to integrate, by emphasising the differences rather than what we have in common. For example, is it better to spend money on providing translation services into a wide variety of languages to assist the delivery of public services like health, or to spend that money on English language teaching, which will help individuals become better able to partake of their rights as citizens. It’s an interesting debate, and I’m not sure that there are any single right answers, as countries and communities strive to find the right balance.

I have the impression that Australia has a pretty robust sense of what it is to be Australian, which means you don’t have many hang-ups in this area. But I’d be interested in your views on that. Perhaps it’s because in a country which has always been based on immigration, there has always been a necessity to actively engage and integrate new arrivals. Perhaps it’s also because you don’t have the colonial baggage which causes some sensitivity in the UK, where much of our immigration has come from former colonies. But of course for both Britain and Australia, it’s important to remember that, fundamentally, people come to live in our countries because they like what they see in them.

So, to conclude. My answer to the question - how Anglo is Australia - would be, still quite a lot. But it’s also diverse and uniquely Australian. And it’s actively engaged both with its neighbours and with a range of partners around the world with whom it shares a number of values. Some of those values may have originally been associated primarily with the Anglo world, but have now come to be much more widely espoused. In short, as a foreigner living here, Australia looks in pretty good shape.

Published 18 April 2013