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In political discourse, few terms are quite so vague and elusive, yet so powerfully evocative as is the phrase ‘Australian values’; but what does it actually mean?
Luke Pearson

20 Apr 2017 - 2:03 PM  UPDATED 20 Apr 2017 - 2:29 PM

'Australian Values'. It's a phrase that simultaneously calls for unity, while also promoting exclusion and assimilation.

After the PM mentioned the phrase earlier today, it sent Twitter into a buzz with attempts to either define, counter, or to ridicule the very concept of it and expose the perceived hypocrisy of those promoting it.

Even though many people say there is no way to adequately define or encapsulate what constitutes #AustralianValues, it turns out the Department of Immigration and Border Protection has done just that.

“Australian society values respect for the freedom and dignity of the individual, freedom of religion, commitment to the rule of law, Parliamentary democracy, equality of men and women and a spirit of egalitarianism that embraces mutual respect, tolerance, fair play and compassion for those in need and pursuit of the public good

Australian society values equality of opportunity for individuals, regardless of their race, religion or ethnic background

The English language, as the national language, is an important unifying element of Australian society”

Fair play

Compassion for those in need


Freedom of religion

Equality of opportunity for all

Equality of men and women

A spirit of egalitarianism

Pursuit of the public good

Speaking English

Apart from speaking English - which is by no definition a ‘value’ - none of these seem to be uniquely Australian values or even things that Australia does particularly well. And the fact that this list sits on the Department of Immigration and Border Protection's website should be a fairly strong hint that we are talking more about the price of admission than we are about standards that are applied equally to all those who actually live in Australia.

Apart from speaking English - which is by no definition a ‘value’ - none of these seem to be uniquely Australian values or even things that Australia does particularly well. 

Perhaps ‘Australian aspirations’ would be a closer name for this list than ‘Australian values’, but even that feels pretty generous given Australia’s hardline stances on refugees, Indigenous rights, homelessness, the unemployed, marriage equality, or making rich people and large corporations pay taxes.

Immigration, and border protection. The suggestion that this list does apply to all of us because ‘Australia is a nation of immigrants’ is a difficult pill to swallow, and not just for Indigenous people.

The convenient use of the label ‘immigrants’ to include those whose ancestors came to Australia through a process of settler-colonialism, as well as Indigenous people, is a seemingly well-meaning but completely unrealistic portrayal of Australian history and society.

Immigrants come to an established country expecting to become a part of a new nation, albeit perhaps hoping to also retain some of their own cultural identity and traditions; religion, language, food, celebrations and observations.

Settlers, on the other hand, come to a nation fully expecting to destroy and replace any existing societies and assert their own Sovereignty over the new territory. They do not see any need to assimilate themselves into the existing nation, to learn a new language, adopt new values, or be tolerant of any aspects of the existing society. They do not hope to merely retain some of their own identity and traditions, they fully expect theirs to dominate and eventually totally replace whatever was there before they came. As for those Indigenous peoples who were already there they are expected, for the most part, to become totally subservient under the new Sovereignty, or be eradicated.  

Including Indigenous peoples into the ‘immigrant’ category because it is believed that we too come to this land from somewhere else is made to seem like an inclusive gesture, but it is really made to deny and undermine the existing Sovereignty that was never extinguished when the settler society arrived.   

Also, those who were forced to come here as slaves or ‘indentured servants’ do not neatly fit into immigrant, settler, or Indigenous categories, but were nonetheless forced to participate in the creation of the nation that is now known as Australia.

So, to suggest that ‘Australia is a nation of immigrants’ might be a convenient way of denying the existence of an ongoing settler-colonial nation, but it is built on a fallacy created out of necessity and convenience.

It is also not unique to Australia, other settler colonial nations like the USA and Canada also perpetuate these arguments to justify and perpetuate themselves as being anything other than settler-colonial nations.

None of the values listed in the dot points above as ‘Australian values’ are uniquely Australian, and none are things that Australia is exceptionally good at doing – except perhaps enforcing English as the only acceptable language which, again, isn’t really a ‘value’ as most of us understand the word.

If feels a bit like the idea of being ‘colour blind’ as a counter to racism. Rather than doing the work to address racism it is used to pretend that the work has already been done, and that we can now ignore the realities of racism both in history and in the present which has the effect of perpetuating the racism that exists and denying the experiences of those who face it. Similarly, ‘Australian values’ subverts true calls for equality, opportunity, and justice and replaces them with a rebranded version of the same exclusionist and assimilationist mindset that was behind the White Australia Policy.

Any attempts to contribute to the battle for ‘what are Australian values’, or ‘who is a real Australian’ simply get subverted into the ultimate questions of ‘what are the justifications we are we going to use to keep certain groups of people out of the country’, and ‘what are the conditions we will place on those who make it in to the country’.

That we will continue to allow people from the original settler colonial group is never under question, nor is the reality that we will never hold the original settler group to account on their own ability to live up to these values. Those who attempt to come to Australia from anywhere else though will always be held to a much higher standard of living up to these Australian values, and the future generations of actual immigrants will continue to have their Australianness challenged and scutinised regardless of their attempts to live up to these standards.

Perhaps we would do far better to look to a standard like the UN’s Universal Declaration of Human Rights than we would be to continue to fight over what constitutes Australian values.

It is perhaps not a perfect list either, but at least it aims to create a universal stand of human rights, rather than attempting to perpetuate the idea that certain ‘others’ have less morality, ethics, and values than ‘real Australians’ do and that we should do our best to keep these undesirables out of our country and assimilate all others who enter into accepting and perpetuating the myth that Australia is anything but a settler-colonial nation.  

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