What Does it Mean to be Australian?

Our history is an interwoven tapestry of cultures and languages, rituals and song, love and struggle, stories and dreamings. To be Australian is as rich as the bright red soil of the outback, and as flowing as the rivers that etch through our great land. So why then is celebrating our identity as Australians, at times, contentious. Why does a day that is set aside for celebration seem to divide our nation so drastically?

I grew up, as a Salvation Army Officer’s kid, without any real place I called home. Between the moving every 3 years max, and the 3 countries my parents were appointed to, I never really felt any deep connection to any one place. Yet, as an adult I find myself wandering the streets of Melbourne, getting my feet dirty in Darwin, and sitting on the beaches of South Australia, beginning to recognise a calling of place and people. It’s as if ‘Australia’ and the spirits of the land are speaking and I am finally ready to listen to the stories and whisperings that have made our nation what it is today.  ‘As novelist Richard Flanagan says, “We – our histories, our souls – are… in a process of constant decomposition and reinvention.” This is becoming; this is what we do, humans. We are on a never-ending journey towards each other. We are strangers and then we are family.’[1]

Australian author, proud Wiradjuri and Kamilaroi man, and journalist, Stan Grant wrote the book  Australia Day in which he addresses the “uncomfortableness of Australia Day” and it got me thinking about what this country, and the day we celebrate it’s “nation-ness” really mean. What I came to realise however is that there is no one answer; instead there is a collection of stories, perspectives, and ideals which depend on who you are, where you came from, and what you have been told. As Grant says ‘Australia is the name we give this place, but what is in a name? Nothing really… and yet everything. People have died for this place we name Australia. This is what we have built, all of us, and it is precious. It exists in us. We carry it in our stories. That’s what matters: story. A nation is nothing if not story: memories and history.’[2]

Many people, Aboriginal and non-Aboriginal, have started questioning the date we celebrate Australia and whether 26 January is really the best day. As we get ready for January 26, we wanted to bring you just some of these stories. In this short series we will be asking people of different cultural backgrounds a set of questions about what being Australian means to them. It is our hope that from this, and your own learning and questionings this month, that we may add to the conversations we are having as a country, and together we may begin to sit in the uncomfortable and truly hear each other.

This is the Great Southland: but it is only as great as we, the people who call it home, show it to be.

Captain Alexis McKeand is a Policy & Social Justice Adviser for The Salvation Army Australia, and a Chaplain in the Royal Australian Air Force

*The views and opinions expressed in this article are those of the authors and do not necessarily reflect the official policy or position of The Salvation Army


[1] Grant, S 2019, Australia Day, pg. 3

[2] Grant, S 2019, Australia Day, pg. 4

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