Seeking welcome while Australian

It’s a time-worn question, but still worth interrogating: what does it mean to be a ‘Real Australian’?

In a follow-up to his ‘Real Australians Say Welcome’ and ‘Real Aussie’ campaigns, artist Peter Drew has started a new project, this time to reflect the voices of First Nations people (previously the causes of refugee rights and multiculturalism were amplified). Thirteen thousand dollars raised in a crowdfunding effort will go toward the costs of printing large posters for the ‘Real Australians Seek Welcome’ campaign, which will then be distributed and pasted all over the country.

Drew’s latest project appears to be a response to the criticism aimed at his previous campaigns, which highlighted the erasure of Aboriginal folk, the traditional owners of this land called ‘Australia’. Indeed, as some of the new posters proclaim, this is Aboriginal land – but when juxtaposed with the slogan ‘Real Australians Seek Welcome’, the cognitive dissonance is unmissable. How does one ‘seek welcome’ in a land that is not theirs to begin with, while simultaneously grappling with questions of what it means to be ‘Australian’?

As William Scates Frances articulated brilliantly last year, this is the kind of ‘soft’ (aka liberal) nationalism that is deep-seated in our society and difficult to address. This nationalism is not of the aggressive flag-waving, Other-bashing strain. It’s seemingly inclusive and non-threatening instead. But this kind of nationalism elides a multitude of problems that go beyond the domination of whiteness in our mainstream and everyday spaces; under its umbrella also exist the neoliberal fallacies of ‘multiculturalism’ and ‘assimilation’. When (new) settlers are gradually subsumed into a grand Australian narrative – through, for instance, the bestowing of citizenship on Invasion Day – who are they grateful to, what are they working towards, who is being left behind? As I pull up my bootstraps to assimilate into a White Australia meritocracy, thousands of First Nations peoples continue to languish in institutionalised discrimination and poverty.

Peter Drew argues that the origins of this country’s multiculturalism are borne as a result of the existence of Aboriginal Australians: ‘250 distinct language groups each with their own customs and culture.’ The latter may be true, but when Europeans descended on the land and violently invaded the homes of these 250 distinct language groups, ‘multiculturalism’ was not the aim. From the White Australia policy and the Chinese Restriction Act to the Dunera affair and anti-Semitism, to anti-Greek, –Indian, –Lebanese and –Italian sentiment, and to the rampant Islamophobia which is burgeoning today, communities of people were – and still are – consistently pitted against one another to advance a common White Australia imaginary.

We may now live in a first-world land of excess, with foods from every corner of the globe celebrated with pride, but we still live in denial about so much of Australia’s history. In a polemic for the Guardian in 2015 about the ‘Real Australians’ campaign, academics Alana Lentin and Omar Bensaidi observed:

This dislocation of the roots of racism – colonialism, slavery, the post-immigration nation-state and its racialised borders – is ahistorical. It works to the detriment of racialised people, like migrants and asylum seekers, for whom the only ‘legitimate’ option is integration into a framework of national identification whose goalposts are constantly shifting: the elusive ‘real Australian’.

Art is sometimes isolated from activism: an aesthetical and conceptual endeavour, which may or may not be rife with political meaning. But it is difficult to extricate the two when issues of identity are raised. If ‘the personal is political’, then artistic impressions of authenticity vis-à-vis falseness must also be interrogated. By invoking the word ‘real’ in these campaigns, we are forced to think of the opposite – ‘fake’ – which echoes the same cries fervent nationalists espouse. And as we place the ‘Real Australian’ in a face-off against the ‘Un-Australian’, this language echoes the rhetoric behind our precious ‘Australian Values’, constantly used by politicians to uphold the Australian state. Is a new migrant ignorant of accepted cultural attitudes ‘fake’? Is a patriotic working-class white Australian who already lives and works with Australians of all stripes in their everyday life ‘fake’? What about someone from one of the 250 language groups – that is, the Indigenous peoples of Australia – Peter Drew admires and seeks to learn from?

In their quest to enhance public tastes, artists should also consider their political responsibilities, especially when they hold a large platform. Fixed narratives and power frequently go hand-in-hand, regardless of how much authority one seeks to relinquish. To centre oneself in a movement that aims to speak for all can be misguided, however well-intentioned its origins might be. When it comes to speaking for marginalised groups, speaking with is better advised. In such cases, impact very often trumps intention.


Cher Tan

Cher Tan is an editor, essayist and critic in Birraranga/Melbourne, via Kaurna Yerta/Adelaide and Singapore. Her work has appeared in The Lifted Brow, The Saturday Paper, Kill Your Darlings, Sydney Review of Books and Runway Journal, among others. She is the reviews editor at Meanjin, an editor at Liminal Magazine and a commissioning editor at the Feminist Writers Festival.

Overland is a not-for-profit magazine with a proud history of supporting writers, and publishing ideas and voices often excluded from other places.

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