As we approach Waitangi Day, it's worth considering that New Zealanders are not (contrary to popular belief) uniquely plagued by self-doubt
As an Australian migrant to New Zealand, one thing that still surprises me is the commonly-held belief here that Australians have a self-confident sense of nationhood, while Kiwis are full of angst and self-doubt. Here, for example, is Karl du Fresne:
“You can’t help but notice the all-pervasive Australian sense of self-confidence…. We tend, by contrast, to be a bit of a hang-dog nation”.
This belief goes hand-in-hand with the image of Australians as big, bold and brash – an image that I, as a somewhat shy and retiring person, find it hard to relate to, let alone live up to.
I’m writing this on Australia Day, January 26 – Australia’s national day, celebrated on the anniversary of the arrival of the “First Fleet” at Botany Bay. So, the Australian newspapers must be full of self-congratulatory articles about what a wonderful country Australia is, right? Well, celebratory articles are certainly to be found. The editorial in Rupert Murdoch’s Australian newspaper calls for Australians to be “self-confident, not self-conscious, as we celebrate”. But would they need to say this if there was no question about Australians’ self-confidence?
Also writing in the Australian, several days before Australia Day, Bob Murray predicted “that there will be all the usual complaints about the day, the flag, the national anthem, the Constitution, the head of state and the federal system”. And sure enough, the Australian flag is up for debate again, and an editorial in the Melbourne Age argues that “our national symbols and our politics reflect our confused values”.
Two books published in Australia last year portray an Australia that is far from straightforwardly self-confident about questions of national identity and symbolism. Stuart Ward and James Curran in Unknown Nation: Australia After Empire look at the ways in which, from the 1960s onwards, an Australia that was “stranded in the wake” of a receding British Empire had to cast around for new symbols and rituals with which to represent itself. The efforts to create a sense of Australian national identity were sometimes farcical: witness Prime Minister Bob Menzies’ attempt to have the new decimal currency called the “royal”; the tortuous process by which “Advance Australia Fair” became the national anthem; and the creation of two competing “Australian of the Year” awards.
Symbols of Australia: Uncovering the Stories Behind the Myths (edited by Melissa Harper and Richard White) surveys a range of Australian national symbols, from the flag to the kangaroo, from Vegemite to Uluru (Ayers Rock). The fact that the pavlova is (rather cheekily, from a New Zealand perspective) included in the book is itself an indication that symbols are often contested, between nations as much as within them. The symbols discussed in the book have not been simply accepted without question; as the editors write in the introduction: “National symbols have always been political. There have been debates over the flag, over the relevance of British symbols to Australia, even over whether the wattle or the waratah was the better national flower.”
Not to mention debates over the place of indigenous people and indigenous symbols in the Australian nation’s past, present and future. For many Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander people, 26 January is Invasion Day or Survival Day, a day that represents the start of their dispossession, but also an opportunity to celebrate their survival against the odds. Awkward questions about relations between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians are hard to ignore (however hard former Prime Minister John Howard may have tried) when Australians reflect on their country’s achievements and failings.
In recent years New Zealand has experienced its own debates over questions of symbols and identity. Many of these debates have been centrally concerned with the relationship between Māori and non-Māori: the Māori flag debate, the Whanganui place name debate, as well as the seemingly endless debate about whether or not Waitangi Day should be our national day. Even the foreshore and seabed debate has an important symbolic dimension.
The fact that we have these debates does not distinguish us from other, supposedly more self-confident countries such as Australia. Indeed, the fact that we can, for the most part, debate these issues in a reasonably civil and respectful way may be a sign of maturity, perhaps even of a degree of self-confidence, rather than of debilitating self-doubt.
Despite what I have said above, I have noticed a recent trend towards a more assertive, even jingoistic, flag-waving nationalism in Australia. This is not a trend New Zealand should aspire to follow. Far from being a sign of self-confidence, I suggest that this more aggressive Australian nationalism is a mark of insecurity.
Let’s stop beating ourselves up about New Zealanders’ supposed propensity for self-doubt; perhaps it is even, paradoxically, something to celebrate.