Non-fiction review – Symbols of Australia

Symbols of Australia
Melissa Harper and Richard White (eds.)
UNSW Press

Symbols of Australia Symbols of Australia is a fascinating read, with a total of thirty writers dissecting and analysing the symbols of Australia, from the Opera House to the Coat of Arms, to the Pavlova Cooee and all in-between, everything’s up for grabs.

Symbols of Australia is much more than a brief history of Australian symbols; it’s a study of the symbols from a cultural studies perspective. The myriad meanings and contestations of the symbols are discussed as well as historical origins. Perhaps the best example of this is the chapter on The Southern Cross by Jane Taylor. She charts its existence from a constellation seen from Europe 2000 years ago, the topic of poems and mystical associations, to its material manifestation in the Eureka stockade. She then moves onto the present day and its embodiment as a symbol claimed by diverse and oppositional groups such as the Australian Communist Party, various unions, rednecks and the racist National Action. (Strangely she didn’t discuss its use by the BLF, probably the most well-known organisation to use it in the present day.)

Not all the symbols written about are as well known as the Southern Cross. Others, such as The Shark, are not symbols that readily come to mind, although Helen Tiffin makes a strong case for their inclusion. She traverses the symbol of the shark from a creature of fear amongst early settlers to an iconographic representation of the Australian – especially male – casual attitude to danger, which has been used to great effect in the selling of Australia.

Dennis Altman offers up a fascinating political interrogation of the stamp. He charts the stamp as a representation of Australian value and meaning to another victim of economic rationalism whereby stamps are developed more to satisfy collectors than as a repository of Australian values.

Altman manages to let loose a few sly digs at Australia’s sports obsession and insular perspective in his discussion and includes some interesting facts about stamps. I didn’t know that Australian colonies were among the first in the world to issue stamps, or that WA only included an image of The Queen in 1901, fifty years after all other colonies had well and truly cemented The Queen as their favoured image.

Marilyn Lake and Penny Russell tackle Miss Australia – not, as I first thought, the beauty pageant, but the representation of women in Australia and the gendered embodiment of the nation. Especially interesting was the idea that in the early days Australia wanted to be male, but was seen as female by bigger powers, but has now had a sex change from female to male. This is a dense but fascinating read, and like most of the contributions is well researched and argued.

Richard White tackles Cooee as a national symbol and enlightened me as to the history and uses of a word seldom uttered in modern Australia. I knew it was Indigenous in origin but was unaware that Indigenous people were using it throughout most of Australia when Whiteman first arrived on the shores.

White takes us on a journey and paints a picture of Australians hollering cooee when lost in London fog and moves into the reinvention of cooee as a non-Indigenous term by the Bulletin, a magazine which prided itself on its whiteness. White also claims that ‘Aussie, Aussie, Aussie, Oi, Oi Oi’ serves much the same purpose as cooee did; that of national signifier. Personally I prefer Cooee to ‘Aussie, Aussie, Aussie Oi, Oi, Oi’, which to me sounds like a skinhead war cry.

The most peculiar incarnation of cooee was created by Maude Wordsworth James, who registered it as a trademark and made cooee brand jewellery, china and pottery. Her most ambitious idea was for every house to have a cooee corner, complete with ‘a clock that bizarrely featured a mechanical Blackfellow with Boomerang in his hand who emerged to cooee the hour and half hour.’

Symbols of Australia is a fascinating book, beautifully presented with colour pictures of posters, musical scores, statues and other artefacts from all eras of Australian history. As a history teacher, I think it’s a brilliant resource for the teaching of Australian History. None of the chapters are especially long, although the language and concepts of the text places it as a resource best suited to senior school, rather than middle school.

For anyone interested in the contestations and multiple meanings of what it means to be Australian and the role symbols have played in this debate, Symbols of Australia is well worth a read.

Rohan Wightman

Rohan Wightman is a Darwin-based writer & teacher. He’s been shortlisted for the NT literary awards four times, including this year. He has been published in Going Down Swinging and has been shortlisted in a few other writing comps and won a few less well-known comps. He started writing when he was young but really hit his stride when writing for Squat It, the magazine of the Squatters Union of Victoria, in the late 80s. He has piles of manuscripts but no publisher. His under construction website is

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  1. Thanks for the interesting review Rohan. I cooee my students into class from their lunch break (they’re adults) and had not a clue where the tradition came from (though it always evokes the bush). Also fascinating about the power/gender imagery of female/male Australia.

  2. Hi Clare, that sounds sweet, cooeeing your students into class. The book’s full of quirky information like the history of cooee.

  3. Hello Rohan Wightman: This is a bit late – 8 or more years late, but – enjoyed your review of Symbols of Australia. Found it since I am the recipient of Symbols of Canada, published Nov.2018 – and inspired by one of the Symbols of Australia writers and editors, Richard White. The Canadian book is provocative and demanding in its selection and commentaries on the chosen symbols – some national treasures re-examined and re-evaluated, some obscure, and some contemporary icons held to scrutiny. Note that in 2010 you were in Darwin. Was there Nov. 2017 getting a book I started working on nearly 30 years ago to the peoples living (some no longer living or not living there any more) in Newcastle Waters – Marlinja and Elliott – Kulumindini, for them to see and comment on. Hope to be back in May 2019 to get the published version to them, and to anyone else who is interest in Crossed Tracks on Ngurra Mala: Ownership and Dispossession, Requests and Reslience at the Centre of the Northern Territory. Would be interested in meeting up with you and finding out more about your work, should you still be in Darwin. Cheers, jackie Wolfe

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