YOUTH VOICE: Reflections on Canberra & Australian Nationalism

Posted on October 25, 2010 by


On Thursday 30th September, Our Voice: Politics Albury-Wodonga chief editor Ben Habib accompanied six students to Canberra on a field trip to learn more about Australian nationalism.  During the day we visited Parliament House and observed question time in the House of Representatives, as well as the Museum of Australian Democracy in Old Parliament House and the Australian War Memorial.  The following passages are their reflections on what they saw.

Canberra field trip participants, L-R: Liam Willoughby, Lisa Tuck, Ben Habib, Jessica Love (on ground) Martin Dickens & Jennifer Ballard.


Reflections on Our Capital

Jennifer Ballard

In reflecting on our trip to Canberra a number of things struck me in relation to nationalism and the building of nations and states.

Firstly, the extent to which architecture can reveal things about a nation and indeed about a state.  The obvious evidence of this was the difference in architecture from the old to new Parliament Houses: the old reflecting a colonial past, when government was a ‘men’s club’ and Great Britain was the motherland.  I recall reading a piece by Robert Manne in which he argued that for Australians at the time of Federation, to be Australian was to be British; the old building as clear evidence of this.  The new building, I think, reflects an Australia that sees itself as taking its place as an independent nation on the world stage, towering above its colonial past, and wanting a centre of government that is both imposing and modern and more universal in its style and appeal.  Personally, I think the building is impressive and I was aware of a sense of national pride when standing on its rooftop looking across the city of Canberra.  It is clear that in the building of cities like Canberra lies a narrative about what Australians at the time of Federation wanted Australia to be and maybe some of its values.  The fact that the capital isn’t in Sydney or Melbourne but rather in the centre of rural NSW possibly reflects the desire to take the focus away from the cities and to the bush, and at the same time to create a clear line of distinction between the State and Commonwealth governments.  It also reflects the ongoing competition between the States, especially Victoria and NSW for supremacy.  But it is also clear that imposing edifices play a role in creating the national narrative.

The outlook along the Avenue of Remembrance to the War Memorial also struck me as significant; a reminder that both buildings represent Australians who have chosen to represent their country.  It is a sobering reminder that the decisions made in one will directly impact on the lives of others in the most real way.  You should not seek to be a Member of Parliament without standing and looking along that avenue and knowing that the lives of Australians are in your hands every day.

Sitting in Parliament, I was inspired by the relative mediocrity of the members.  It is reminder that they are just human, often unimpressive and unexceptional.  The illusion and sometimes inference created by the media is that politicians are somehow different from you and me.  This can lead to not only unreasonable expectations, politicians being pressured into disingenuous behaviour and comments and a level of intense scrutiny from the media that is perhaps unwarranted,  but also to the disengagement of the electorate from the process, as they think that to be involved in politics one needs to be from a ‘special breed’.  The cynic may say that that is indeed the case, but for me seeing ordinary people in the Parliament reminded me that in democracy it is ‘government by the people’ and that there is nothing stopping any of us from engaging in that process, no matter how average we think we are.

Australian War Memorial

The visit to the War Memorial was very disturbing for me.  I was very aware of the sense that it was absolutely through war that Australia saw itself ‘blooded’ and maturing as a nation.  I felt that the museum section really emphasised the ideas of the glory of war, the brilliant feats of battle, the power of killing machines and honour that war brought to Australians.  It was through war that women first managed to scrape a degree of respect for themselves as contributors to society.  Whilst I do not want to belittle in anyway the sacrifice that Australians made in war, I think the museum focuses more heavily on the messages of nationalistic pride and sees war as a positive achievement rather than the tragic waste it is.   There is very little sense that this is about shame and a deterrent about going there again.  For me the message is definitely one that sees the wars we have fought as an integral and positive part of who we are.  The other thing that struck me was the art of war; not the art of making war, but the art made about war.  Through photography, displays, paintings, sculpture, dioramas and audio-visual presentations, and then marketing of books, DVDs’ and souvenirs, war becomes both an inspiration for art and a commodity.   What is it about making human sacrifices in war that is so integral to our sense of being a nation?  Without doubt Bismarck was right! Sadly it seems it is only with ‘iron and blood’ that nations are created.


Ruthlessness and Betrayal

Liam Willoughby

Standing in attention as the sun began to disappear, we watched as the story of a single brave soldier was retold emphasizing the heroism and sacrifice. All the while narrated with a bugle performance of the last post.  The moment it seemed, was touching and inspiring.

And on the other side of the hill how different things were. In attempting to isolate or uncover the mystery surrounding Australian nationalism, (the one that has eluded me thus far!) I noticed a striking unity. Just as we sat in the presence of Gillard, most renown unfortunately not as the first female prime minister, but as the kind of the person you  would not want as your understudy…in fact so short had this turn over been, that one may still hear the echoing cry ‘e tu Gillard!!’ I noticed that there was a connection of betrayal. And then I thought about poor Walt Griffin, getting the shaft on his award winning design for old parliament house, this hill had been built on betrayal.

Have I uncovered some kind of historic legacy of political ruthlessness in this country or has my cynicism finally got the best of me?! I thought back to the war memorial and the soldier, I wondered whether he had ‘the new paradigm’ in mind when he charged to his end. I thought about the endless sacrifice and its undeniable manipulation to facilitate nationalism. I wondered whether one day Rudd would find his name engraved on a wall dedicated to the poor lost political souls, who gave up their political lives for the greater good. And just between the names of Bob Hawke and Pauline Hanson would be the engraved plaque ‘one more unnecessary sacrifice, Kevin Rudd.’ Perhaps one day his story would be told to a crowd of people, accompanied by a bugle, the hero of the hill, heroism in sacrifice, nationalism in betrayal.


My Thoughts on Australian Nationalism

By Galvin Dunlop

During our trip to Canberra on the October 30th, I encountered several forms of nationalism. This short essay will briefly highlight a few of these forms of nationalism that exist in Canberra. During my studies of Nations and States one of the most important themes of nationalism is language, the language that makes a nation and forms a nation.

Language is an important element of nationalism. By appealing to people in a common language and embracing them in what it means to be a member of a particular nation, nationalism will inroot. Nationalistic language was highly visible during the period of 1933 to 1945 in Germany, Hitler continually referred to the notion of the Volk, the people and the notion of a utopian society in which the correct Volk would populate Hitler’s ideal society. Canberra also had distinctly nationalistic language, the first which I noticed was the sign before you enter the Australia’s Capital Territory. This language appealed to my sense of what it means to be Australian. The fact that the area encompassing Canberra is referred to as the ACT, it brought uniqueness to that area.

Once we had entered the ACT we moved on to centre of Canberra. I have previously visited Canberra before and knew that the city unlike other capitals is not built in a block like formation but rather in circles. Ironically, the centre of Canberra is Parliament House. Parliament House was yet another form of nationalism, like all parliaments/institutions of the governing around the world, parliament house must be unique to that nation, the Reichstag, Westminster, the Kremlin, and the White House to name a few. Each place holds key national symbols to that country, for

Old Parliament House

example: a flag, a logo, a national emblem and the name of the nation of course. Until the new Parliament House was built Australia and in some aspects does not have a unique style of nationalism. Old Parliament House shares many British like characteristics of what a British parliamentarian building would look like, and looks out of place in Canberra. In-fact the only Australian element of the Old Parliament House is the Australian and Aboriginal flags flying on the roof.

However, the new Parliament House is unique, its grandness and unique style of architecture are not distinct to a particular corner of the globe. This allows us to relate with this building, if its not distinct to any part of the world then it must be Australian. This simplicity can also be seen inside parliament house, the two houses the upper and lower houses are a direct influence of our historical background which is unquestionably British. Britain refers to the lower house as the “House of Commons” and the upper house as the “House of Lords”. Australia for nationalistic reasons did not name the houses the same, instead we refer to the lower house as the “House of Representatives” and the upper house as the “Senate”.

In conclusion the trip to Canberra was amazing, I had the opportunity to direct establish links with Australian nationalism, while nationalism is not a strong feature of the Australian community it does exist. Past and undoubtedly future Prime Ministers will use language such as ‘mate’ and refer to the notion of ‘mateship’ to create homogeneity among Australians.


Canberra: Hints of a British Past

By Lisa Tuck

House of Representatives in Old Parliament House, showing ceremonial vestiges of the British House of Commons.

Our field trip to Canberra highlighted many aspects of Australian nationalism, including the fact that Australian politics is still heavily vested in its links to the British Empire, at least symbolically, if not literally.

Our visit to Parliament and Old Parliament house gave us a concise overview of the story of Australian democracy and how Australian nationalism has evolved over the years, from federation to the present day.

The Museum of Australian Democracy in Old Parliament House represents 60 years of Australian political life and demonstrates some of the great social, political and cultural changes which have shaped and strengthened Australian nationalism as it is today, such as the removal of the White Australia Policy in 1973 and the 1967 referendum granting indigenous Australians voting and citizenship rights.

The group also paid a visit to the Australian War Memorial which commemorates those who gave their lives defending our country during various overseas conflicts. This memorial is a tribute to those who demonstrated bravery, comradeship, courage, patriotism and loyalty to Australia, and its British head of state, attributes which have now come to be defined as Australian national values.

From what I could gather from my brief visit to the nation’s capital, Canberra is a place of remembrance, reflection, future change and evolution and is the center point for Australian politics and nationalism.


What is the Purpose of Parliamentary Question Time?

By Jessica Love

Question time originated from the Westminster system and is a key part of our democratic process but it’s becoming increasingly pointless. The purpose of question time in the House of Representatives is to allow for the government to convey information to the Opposition and general public and a chance for the Opposition to hold the government accountable by questioning their policies and actions. This happens to a degree but this time allocated is becoming more and more pointless. Instead of being used as a time for seeking information and informing the public it is used as a battle between the government and Opposition as to who embarrass the other more in the presence of the public. The Opposition stresses issues that will embarrass the government, while the government endorses their policies in a favourable way and try to embarrass the Opposition.

Both parties use a variety of techniques to endorse themselves and denigrate the opposing party. They also employ tactics such as raising interjections to delay and giving more time for a minister to answer a hard question. One tactic employed is not to answer the question but instead respond with “I’ll get back to the minister with the answer at a late date”. Questions are also becoming useless and result in no change but instead only serve to attack the opponent.  This all just seems like just a bunch of politicians bickering at each other and fighting for the microphone and deviates from the important role of allowing the opposition to hold the government responsible and ask questions about their policies while exhibiting this to the public. So you have to ask should there be stricter rules for question time so that it serves its purpose better or is it an outdated convention that serves no purpose?


Australian Nationalism: A Mixed Bag

By Martin Dickens

After a recent trip to the nation’s capital, it became apparent that the political institutions and national culture which Australia has cannot be defined as entirely unique. From the presence of British and European furnishings in the Houses of Parliament to the inclusions of Japanese and allied propaganda and artillery in the Australian War Memorial, our country has truly been influenced by many foreign nations. However, regardless of these distinct traits, the overall theme and identifying feature of nationalism for Australia is the open practice of free speech and individual liberty. From the beginnings of Canberra, reflected in the Museum of Australian Democracy to the current Parliament House, the inclusiveness of citizens, media and all governmental representatives in discussing the issues of national concern is evidence that the adoption of many political systems into the current political arrangement has achieved equality and fairness.

Whilst this harmonious view portrays Australia in a light of heightened prosperity and effectiveness, the life of a politician can, at best, be described as turbulent and trying. On first arriving in Canberra, the group had scheduled a meeting with NSW Nationals Senator Fiona Nash. This meeting, however, was brief, as the senator was rushed into the Chamber to provide an address to the other members in the house. Personally, this erratic pace of political life not only provided me with a personal appreciation for the life a politician leads, but furthermore, indicated how our system of politics relies upon decisions being made in brief and often uneducated grounds. The rapid pace of globalisation has definitely influenced our system of governance and in effect, dictates new means of acknowledging and identifying the presence of nationalism in the twenty-first century.



The views in this story are those of the author and not necessarily those of Our Voice: Politics Albury-Wodonga.