Changing who we are

Australia’s Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, gave a speech to the Australian parliament last week, largely in response to the security questions raised by the Sydney siege a few months ago, but also in recognition of the lone-gunman attacks in other countries such as Denmark, the trickle of Australian nationals making their way to fight with Islamic State in Syria, and the highly publicised call for attacks on western shopping malls.

A few days before, Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt made a similar address in Copenhagen. But, while Abbott’s speech focused largely on security measures, Thorning-Schmidt included an important additional point: “We have to understand what has hit us, but we must insist on acting as we do. Think and talk like we want to. We are who we are.”

News of the shootings in Copenhagen rolls in on the TV.

The shootings in Copenhagen shocked Denmark.



It’s a tricky one this. How do you balance the need to respond to the current situation with retaining what it is that makes Australia, or Denmark, or anywhere else, the place that it is?

I used to travel to the US quite a lot in the 1990s and 2000s and there’s little doubt in my mind that America is a very different place than it was back then. There is greater suspicion and hostility towards foreigners there now – an assumption that your purpose is nefarious unless you can demonstrate otherwise. Hand in hand with that change in mood has come a build-up of bureaucracy that entwines many and establishes a barrier to wanting to visit the place – my desire to go to the US has never been lower, and yet it was a dream destination for much of my youth.

It’s against this backdrop that I am watching the way Australia chooses to change over the coming years.

In Darwin’s Museum and Art Gallery of the Northern Territory, they have a selection of maritime exhibits. Among them is a boat used by a group of Vietnamese people who battled the southern oceans to make it all the way to Australia during a time of conflict and upheaval in their home country.

The boat is exhibited as a testament to their bravery and a monument to the new lives they began when they arrived in Australia. It’s difficult to imagine such an exhibit being preserved and added today.

A view of the main stand when Iran played Iraq in Canberra.

Iran v Iraq in the Asian Cup quarter final at Canberra Stadium.

Meanwhile, at the Asian Cup recently, I had the privilege of being at the scintillating Iran v Iraq match at Canberra Stadium. In moments when the football wasn’t all-engrossing, I reflected on the fact that many of those in the stadium were new Australians, taken in after fleeing the Iranian revolution or the regime of Saddam Hussein, and it made me smile to think that such turmoiled lives had turned into this — fervent support for their old country in the safety of their new one.

All of this reminded me of a man I once met, who came to Australia in the 1980s and who, upon arrival at immigration, was asked whether he wanted a tourist or a permanent residency visa. He took a moment to think, during which time the customs official said: “Ah look, I’ll just give you a permanent one, then you can decide if you want to stay later.” He stayed, but how Australian was his welcome to the country? I’d like to imagine the customs official was also wearing shorts and beach shoes as he waved people in.

Of course things are different now, and necessarily so. And there’s little doubt that this place has changed already. There are signs of increased bureaucracy, of greater suspicion, of hostility before a welcome — certainly from officialdom — all of which seem at odds with the Australia I fell in love with and with the image Australia seems to want to project of itself to the rest of the world.

America offers a powerful image of how a nation can change fundamentally within a single generation, which brings me back to Helle Thorning-Schmidt’s words again, as they attempt to wrestle with many of the same challenges in Denmark: “We have to understand what has hit us, but we must insist on acting as we do. Think and talk like we want to. We are who we are.”

It’s not often a politician comes out with something that makes ordinary people want them to succeed, but I think she managed it there. Yes, keep us safe, but don’t change who we are in order to do it, otherwise, what has been the price of that success?

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