The Anglosphere mythscape in Australian prime ministers’ speeches

The Anglosphere mythscape in Australian prime ministers’ speeches

How Australia’s national identity is or should be constituted has been at the centre of ongoing ‘cultural wars’ that are simultaneously social and political and, as yet, without resolution. Political leaders have been leading figures in these debates, combining retrospectives of Australia’s history with visions of its future to construct a resonant (yet ideological) national identity. Though such constructions are hotly contested today, they are not new.

Indeed, in the post-Second World War environment, successive prime ministers sought to forge an independently Australian identity distinct from, yet related to, the historic bonds of the British Commonwealth and other English-speaking democracies of the world. Evident in Australian prime ministers’ speeches are efforts to construct that national identity by speaking of traditions, histories, ‘truths’ and ideas: what here is referred to as a ‘mythscape.’ 

National identity is understood by many scholars to be a phenomenon constructed through discourse and ‘mythmaking,’ processes elaborated upon by theorists including Vucetic (2011), Bell (2003), and Bottici & Kühner (2012). Political mythmaking is a process of strategic elaboration upon or ‘work on’ a narrative by a political actor to serve a political purpose. This takes place within a mythscape through which actors contribute to mythologized narrativesVucetic (2011) specifies mutually nonexclusive framing typologies used by such narrators in speaker-audience interactions, including claims of identity-based appropriateness, comparisons and motivational typologies. These framing styles are a key tool of engagement in the mythscape and facilitate the reconstruction of a myth in conflict with the national or political narrative.

This investigation gathered a qualitative analysis of prime ministerial speeches ranging from those of Robert Menzies through to Robert Hawke (approx. 1939-1991), using mythscapes as its exploratory framework to reveal the trajectory of efforts to forge Australian national identity. Prime ministers hold an agenda-setting power to define debates and limit their possible solutions. Further, their narratives can reflect contemporary society but also reinterpret old truths and myths. Analysis of these speeches reveal a distinct trajectory in Australian identity myth: initially in respect of an identity formed around British heritage and the English-speaking peoples, then subsequently as a distinct, independent Australian identity. Framing typologies were adopted to justify foreign policy decisions and reconstruct the Australian identity to fit its political narrative better. This was evident in three evolving stages of mythmaking.

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The first stage of mythmaking saw a turn from Commonwealth-focused to Asia Pacific-centred foreign policy. Evident here was a change from the humble ‘dominion’ status of Menzies- and Curtin-era Australia to that of an autonomous nation. Under Malcolm Fraser, the framing typologies of historical analogy comparisons and claims of appropriateness by the Menzies and Curtin governments were rejected to challenge the mythologised historical bond of the democracies. Instead, Fraser affirmed mutual exclusivity between economic and ideological interests by reframing the Australian loyalty to Britain as exclusively ideological, as ‘… the ideology of regimes is not irrelevant but it cannot be the guiding principle of our policy.’ Fraser continued, not unlike Menzies and Curtin, to support the superior ‘common philosophical commitments’ of the English-speaking democracies, yet simultaneously constructed an independent foreign policy and joined the ASEAN community.

Analysis of these speeches reveal a distinct trajectory in Australian identity myth: initially in respect of an identity formed around British heritage and the English-speaking peoples, then subsequently as a distinct, independent Australian identity.

In the second stage, we see the reconstruction of the Australian as the multicultural immigrant. The Australian identity as exclusively English-speaking and of British descent conflicted with the liberal progressive narrative of the English-speaking democracies with illiberal realities such as the White Australia Policy. Resolving this required a reconstruction of the Australian identity as multicultural. Furthermore, the anti-apartheid movement and the influx of Asian migration from the late 1960s deepened the existing economic appeal of pro-Asian foreign policy. Robert Hawke’s strongly anti-racist, pro-Asia policy sought to neutralize the cultural and linguistic differences between Australians of British and non-British heritage. By romanticizing historical and contemporary analogies of immigration struggles and successes, Hawke mythologized the hard-working, multicultural immigrant as the quintessential Australian.

In the third stage, we see the deepening of the superiority given to the ‘democratic project.’ The pervasiveness of the superior ‘democratic project’ in Australia’s pro-Asia, anti-racist political narrative further conflicted the multicultural Australian identity with the historically British and English-speaking claim to the liberal democratic recordBy ‘giving primacy to the United Nations,’ Gough Whitlam framed the democratic project as a global, multicultural agenda, such that ‘Australia is internationalist by necessity and by choice.’ Similarly, Fraser spokedirectly against the mythologized ‘bonds that once united the Commonwealth… tightly knit, homogenous and essentially British,’ and framed the diversity of the Commonwealth as its strength. The democratic project was reframed as multicultural yet its superiority remained. Moreover, Hawke framed the Australian identity as only possible through ‘[voluntary] citizenship as a symbol of commitment to Australia’ which ‘followed [the] enlightened and decent path into the future.’ The exclusivity of the Australian identity was now only available to those who would embrace this superiority.

On 26 August 1975 Prime Minister Gough Whitlam handed a leasehold title to land at Daguragu (Wattie Creek) to Vincent Lingiari, representative of the Gurindji people. By A.K.HANNA / CC BY-SA

By the end of this period into the late 1970s, Australian identity was presented as mostly  autonomous in terms of foreign policy yet still betrothed to the ideological superiority of the ‘Commonwealth’s reputation as an organization  with concern for human decency.’ The qualitative analysis of prime ministers’ speeches indicates the employment of framing typologies in mythmaking to justify foreign policy decisions and reconstruct the Australian identity. Pervasive throughout is an ideological superiority which required the alteration of the

Australian identity myth to harmonise the Australia’s liberal narrative, the British democratic project, and Australia’s economically incentivised foreign policy strategy.

Read another great blog in this series: Britain’s European Trajectory: What’s beyond the Five Eyes? By Hager Ben Jaffel

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