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The derivative country?

Nick Bryant | 14:01 UK time, Monday, 24 January 2011

With the national day fast approaching, I've been enjoying the debate on ABC local radio about which country Australia most closely resembles. I have never lived in a country where the conversation about national identity is so lively, anguished and continual, and the very fact that this kind of question is asked at all speaks volumes in itself. More than 100 years after federation, one would have thought that the answer "Australia is like Australia" should have sufficed. Indeed, the seemingly immutable notion that Australia is inherently and slavishly derivative seems to be why the question remains unresolved.

The debate has been led by the ABC presenter and author Richard Glover, who suggested that Australia most closely resembles Italy when it comes to food - Spaghetti Bolognaise is apparently now the most popular dish here - Britain when it comes to sport, politics and high-end literature, and America when it comes to film and some other aspects of popular culture.

Curiously, many of his listeners cited Canada, because it is a resource-rich country with sentimental ties and monarchical links with Britain that has become richly and successfully multi-cultural over the past few decades.

As for America? A few people mentioned Ricky Gervais' edgy performance at the Golden Globes movie awards ceremony in Hollywood, and the fact that it caused such upset in the States and so much merriment in Britain and Australia, as incontrovertible proof of the Pacific-sized gulf that still separates Aussies and Americans.

Had one asked the question 60 years ago, when Australia was so unimaginatively mono-cultural, the question could have been answered with a single word: Britain. But successive waves of post-war immigration have made Australia so culturally rich and diverse that generalisations are becoming increasingly difficult.

Still, let's go ahead and make some.

When it comes to national institutions, Australia obviously most closely resembles Britain, from its parliament (don't be fooled by the House of Representatives and the Senate, Canberra takes its cues from Westminster) to its armed services, from its courts to its prisons. The political culture also has heavy British overtones, from the vaudeville of Question Time to the stenographers of Hansard. But I would suggest it is also becoming more Mediterranean, as Italian-, Greek- and Lebanese-Australians gain greater prominence, especially at the state level. There has long been a strong Celtic influence, too.

I would tend to agree that high-end literary types continue to look to Britain, as well, although there's much more pride in home-grown voices like Tim Winton, Steve Toltz, Murray Bail and Christos Tsiolkas.

ABC's national broadcaster, again, is influenced most by the British, and puts to air a surprising amount of BBC programming. However, the commercial networks are the home to a glut of American shows, and their style of fast-paced news and current affairs, presented by correspondents with near perfect teeth, is also mid-Pacific.

With its mix of broadsheets and tabloids, the newspaper culture could be described as British. But with Rupert Murdoch exercising so much influence in both countries, it could be argued that both are faithfully Australian, or even Murdochian.

Cinema is mainly American, right, although the big hit of the moment is Anglo-Australian, The King's Speech.

The food culture is a wondrous mélange of Italian, Thai, Chinese, Vietnamese, Indian, British and all manner of other culinary influences. For all that, my personal favourite is modern Australian, which is often a fusion of all them. The fact that Australia has such good coffee is down to the Italian influence.

Sport is predominantly British, what with cricket and the rugby codes. But Aussie Rules is obviously indigenous, and the popularity of soccer owes more to immigrants from southern Europe than the Brits. Basketball has never really taken off here, and neither has baseball, even though Melbourne up until recently held the record for the most highly-attended game (an exhibition match at the 1956 Olympics). The popularity of swimming is distinctly Australian. Nowhere else in the world does the sport have such a popular following, which kind of makes sense given that 80% of the population lives within 50km of the sea.

For all that, there is also a long list of things that are emphatically Australian: the beach culture, the sense of humour, the dialect, the indigenous culture, modern architecture, the wine (which is excellent), the beer (which is not) and the preoccupation with lifestyle (although here there are echoes of southern California).

I suppose many would agree with the person who called into the ABC saying that Australia has cherry-picked the best and weeded out the worst. Others would argue that that Australia's imaginary national harvester has not worked anywhere near as effectively, still less its national filterer. That said, I dare it is with that upbeat assessment of their own country that many people here will be celebrating Australia Day. They will not be worrying too much about which country Australia most closely resembles, but instead performing their usual genuflections in front of the national altar: their trusty backyard barbies.

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  • 1. At 2:29pm on 24 Jan 2011, Cassandra wrote:

    I think Australia is like Australia and the media and chattering classes need to get over their navel gazing about national identity.

    There are so many other issues they could be thinking about. And in dealing with those issues (Aborigines, Republic, overseas investment, relations with east Asia etc.) they would be making a more meaningful contribution to the development of Australia's distinctive identity.

    I was in Australia for Australia Day in 1988 (the Bi-Centenary) and the ABC were interviewing people all over the country about what the day meant to them. A chap working in the Pilbara driving trucks was asked "So what does Australia Day 1988 mean to you". His answer "Triple time".


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  • 2. At 4:34pm on 24 Jan 2011, Whitfordsbeach wrote:

    Oh Nick,
    You've put the cat amounst the pidgeons again. You must be doing it on purpose by now. By daring to suggest that Australia bears any resemblance to Britain at all you WILL be blasted by the 'chip on shoulder brigade'. I have for some time regarded the Canadian likeness as interesting - and of course as far as I can see non threatening to anybody's predjudices. Oh course the best answer is the one that most Australians will give you, Australia is like ....... Australia.

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  • 3. At 5:02pm on 24 Jan 2011, Bren54 wrote:

    I have to agree with Cassandra at #1.

    The "anguish over identity" only exists because sections of the commentariat have declared it to be so.

    Most Australians just get on with being Australian.

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  • 4. At 6:25pm on 24 Jan 2011, Cassandra wrote:

    I don't see why acknowledging some influence from Britain/Wales/Ireland and Scotland should offend the Australians.

    My mother says I have a nose like my great grandfather - doesn't mean I share every other physical attribute. And I certainly hope I have managed to develop my own personality shaped by all manner of other influences.

    The UK has always been a country made up of many influences - picts, celts, vikings, romans, angles, saxons, normans, eastern european jews, indians, pakistanis, bangladeshis etc. etc. The English national dish is probably now some form of curry and we got tea from the Indians.

    It is probably also true that the Australians have had an influence on Britain. Look at the King's Speech. And for that matter the media here over the last month has been full of Aussies (even if many are expats) Kylie, Peter Andre, Elle, Julian Assange, Geoffrey Robertson, Rolf Harris, Nicole Kidman etc. I think the Tory Party have even hired Crosby and Textor to run their anti AV referendum campaign.

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  • 5. At 6:28pm on 24 Jan 2011, oioioi2 wrote:

    Nick, the biggest participatory sport in this country is surfing and other beach related activities, I know it doesn't sound very colonial but its true.

    Regarding australia day, isn't it about time the date and symbolism of this day was changed to represent ALL australians particularly those whose ancestral links with this country extends way beyond invasion days.
    We also need our own national (not colonial) symbols, which 99% of the planets countries already have and a balanced immigration program before we can describe ourselves as being nothing more than 'basically' a loyal anglo enclave lost in the asia pacific.

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  • 6. At 7:14pm on 24 Jan 2011, Floyd wrote:

    A not unreasonable blog, albeit, as usual, very Sydney-centric. The bit about celebrating Australia Day with barbecues annoyed me. Most people don't celebrate Australia Day - that's why there are advertising campaigns trying to make us feel guilty for just having a day off. That's how it's been for most of my life and I don't think there's anything wrong with being apathetic about Australia Day. It's not like it celebrates independence, or winning a war or anything; it's just when the Europeans showed up (and as such, isn't too popular with the people who were already here when they did). Recent attempts to make this day more popular, like Howard's coinage of the phrase 'un-Australian', are more American in character.

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  • 7. At 9:21pm on 24 Jan 2011, VpinOz wrote:

    Ffloyd: where are you on Australia Day? Here in Sydney it's huge from the harbour, the beaches and around most homes. It's a fun day to celebrate Australia and being Australian.

    I agree about the media and the navel gazing. Most Australians will tell you we're not like any other country - is Britain like Europe, the US or India? Silly talk.

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  • 8. At 11:56pm on 24 Jan 2011, Michael wrote:

    With regard to Australia being more like Britain at sport I have to disagree.

    The sport played here is certainly mostly the same played in the UK, AFL notwithstanding, but the approach to how it is played is much more American. The I've played in the UK, the US and here and the Aussies tend towards the 'victory at all costs' American-esque approach over the British 'it's about the taking part' approach.

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  • 9. At 00:35am on 25 Jan 2011, LucyJ wrote:

    Austraila's unique not only for its landscape and people, but for its wildlife...which is wholly Austrailian...

    I am an American, yes, but that's what I think of first when I think of Austraila- the kangeroos, the deadly snakes like the Taipei(?), the crocs, the koala bears, jellyfish, ruthless spiders and scorpions, ect...

    I think you would have to be tough to live in Austraila, as it has some of the deadliest snakes and animals in the world...

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  • 10. At 00:42am on 25 Jan 2011, Cassandra wrote:

    LucyJ - we in the UK think you must be tough to live in America with all those guns.

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  • 11. At 00:53am on 25 Jan 2011, Floyd wrote:

    VpinOz, I'm in Melbourne, where I've lived for about half a century. All that time I can remember small celebrations and lame attempts by the government of the day to get us to really give two hoots about the day. Last year's effort was particularly obnoxious - a clipboard carrying nurk harangues some bloke who's just having a sleep in for not having a barbecue to celebrate all the great things about Australia. There's a sleight of hand there - implying that if you don't get excited about a particular day, you don't love the country. I do love this country, although I don't think it's anyone else's business if I don't, but don't see that I have to prove it by getting excited about a public holiday that has never been a really big deal. To me, the increased flag waving and the coinage 'un-Australian' are signs of our increasing Americanisation.
    If all of Sydney goes all out for Australia day and everyone there has a happy barbecue, good for them! They obviously don't need any advertising campaigns.

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  • 12. At 01:02am on 25 Jan 2011, Michael wrote:

    "I do love this country, although I don't think it's anyone else's business if I don't, but don't see that I have to prove it by getting excited about a public holiday that has never been a really big deal."

    Now THAT'S an Australian viewpoint ;)

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  • 13. At 02:08am on 25 Jan 2011, StickJackal wrote:

    It is obvious. The country that Australia is most like is New Zealand.

    The Aussies copied the Kiwi flag, as well as pavlova, female suffrage, labour rights, economic rationalism, indigeneous reconciliation, derugulation etc. In fact most important policy decisions in Australia over the last 100 years have been taken 5 to 20 years after they have first been tried in NZ. They are even now trying a female PM after watching the Kiwis try it twice.

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  • 14. At 02:33am on 25 Jan 2011, paul wrote:

    These posts miss the point entirely. A sophisticated indigenous culture, that has been partly eradicated over the past 200 years, existed in this land for almost 50,000 years. British colonials were the original
    ' fringe dwellers' - with guns and associated paraphernalia that they called civilization. In the meantime indigenous people looked on at the strange,wondrous and at times terrifying spectacle that unfolded before them. Later, the colonials morphed into 'Australians', and still the indigenous inhabitants looked on, the last vestiges of a doomed civilization. And so to Australia Day 2011. A day like Christmas/Easter/the execrable ANZAC Day et al which have been imposed on a people that had enduring and relevant religious, social and philosophical traditions spanning dozens of millennia. The story of 'Australia' has yet to be told.

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  • 15. At 02:39am on 25 Jan 2011, Nikki wrote:

    Surely its time Australians got over comparing themselves and their country to others, and get on with the business of being Australian. I say this as a migrant to this country, and after 20 years I still scratch my head when the issue comes up. I can only think that it comes from insecurity, 'young country syndrome' or the much mentioned 'cultural cringe' that supposedly vanished from these shores 30 years ago. At the end of the day whatever the rationale is, I don't care. I have a day off tomorrow and I still get paid....as the locals would say 'you beauty', edited to add, the 't' turns into a 'b'.

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  • 16. At 03:07am on 25 Jan 2011, Lamington wrote:

    I would like to point out that whilst the Italian influence was great in getting the broader public interested and enthused about coffee, good coffee in the 21st century has very little to do with Italy.

    If you have ever been to Pellegrini's; an institution which endorses darkly roasted Italian coffee (Vittoria aka Al Pacino likes in his cappuccino) which would have been bulk roasted 6+ months prior to use VS 65 Degrees, which roasts on demand/on-site and encompasses coffee all over the world.

    Whilst taste is subjective and a different issue entirely, I would suggest currently Australian coffee is an evolution of American or even Canadian style, where it simulates the ideals of Starbucks without the mass production and lack of QC.

    In closing may I just finish off by saying Australians are very fortunate to be the custodians/champions of the flat white.

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  • 17. At 03:16am on 25 Jan 2011, Mark wrote:

    @ Floyd #6 - How in any way shape or form is the blog "Sydney centric" ? seriously mate I read it twice if anything there is more actual references to VIC or VIC related subjects.
    @ Paul # 14 It's 2011 the population of Australia is some 20 odd million the vast majority of those are non indigenous,what has happened to the indigenous population is a travesty indeed but what has happened can't be undone and we all must now live together as best we can as Australians - ingigenous, colonial or new. The indigenous communities world wide need as much assistance as we can give to maintain their cultural heritage and language, not just for their benefit but for that of all of us.

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  • 18. At 04:37am on 25 Jan 2011, VpinOz wrote:

    Floyd - just enjoy the day, don't bother waving a flag.

    LucyJ - not only guns but bears and alligators!

    Stickjackal - dream on.. and we were really jealous of you with that sweet female PM you had.

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  • 19. At 06:55am on 25 Jan 2011, Euloroo wrote:

    Australian houmour has more in common with northern england than southern england. with Parky giving the Australia Day speech in Sydney tomorrow, he is currently being widely quoted as saying aussies are yorkshiremen with a tan. in general though, Victoria is more euro-centric and NSW is more american, just like their premier. but through all this autralia votes a welshwomen as their leader. They deserve all they going to get...

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  • 20. At 09:48am on 25 Jan 2011, scotth1 wrote:

    The idea of looking and thinking about national identity is still important to Australia, as our national identity is a dynamic, organic and evolving idea. This is why we *can* engage in some occasional intellectual navel gazing, and there is nothing wrong or elitist about that, it is open to all and sundry to join in the fun and to remind ourselves what is important to us.

    As who and what we are is a slow moving target, we do need to think about what makes up our identity, to see if where we think we are going is in fact where we are going; otherwise as a population we would be drifting in a sea of options, choices, ideas and other peoples ideas of who we are.
    So by engaging in the discussion, ideas spread, values are reinforced and our collective compass is checked, this doesn't mean anyone has to be forced to be more Australian, or that there is ongoing conscious decision to live to some marketing idea of what is Australian; invoking Gallipoli or some beach culture stereotype, but like when you're driving long distances it is occasionally a good idea to check the map on the way.

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  • 21. At 09:51am on 25 Jan 2011, Evan wrote:

    Historically speaking, Australian culture stems from the British. During the second world war, we had a huge influx of Americans and they brought their culture with them. As the world got smaller, American culture crept naturally to the rest of world and Australia, among many other countries, adopted or absorbed aspects of this and rejected others.

    Regardless, any country can be compared to any other country. As an Australian living long term in the UK, I think I can honestly say that the debate of what country Australia is most like, I'd only ever heard when I'd moved here. For a country that is part of the (now utterly defunct and pointless) Commonwealth, has fought two world wars alongside Britain from the beginning, stems from the mother country itself and is a huge nation, oddly, people from the UK know very little about Australia.

    I think more to the point, the debate should be about the differences between Australia and any given country.

    Here's a start:
    Euloroo #19 - the difference between Australia and the UK is that Australians, including Julia Gillard, regard themselves as Australians regardless of where they emigrated from. Where as in Britian, people insist on claiming they're from the place they emigrated from. I think it says a lot about the differences between our two cultures. Australians feel like they belong, The British don't.

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  • 22. At 10:10am on 25 Jan 2011, gorgoni wrote:

    "The fact that Australia has such good coffee is down to the Italian influence."

    Beg to differ - that's down to the New Zealand influence too.

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  • 23. At 10:51am on 25 Jan 2011, oioioi2 wrote:

    ah yes the kiwi influence, I wonder where NZ economy would be if they weren't getting such a free ride out of australia, its just lucky you guys are also an anglo enclave otherwise our anglophille politicians wouldn't be giving you all work visa's.

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  • 24. At 11:37am on 25 Jan 2011, Whitfordsbeach wrote:

    23. At 10:51am on 25 Jan 2011, oioioi2 wrote:
    ah yes the kiwi influence, I wonder where NZ economy would be if they weren't getting such a free ride out of australia, its just lucky you guys are also an anglo enclave otherwise our anglophille politicians wouldn't be giving you all work visa's.

    Although a very good proprtion of Kiwis here in WA are non-Anglo. And I might add work very hard - and seem happy to have the opportunity to earn some AUDs.

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  • 25. At 11:39am on 25 Jan 2011, Caerphillybigcheese wrote:

    Despite the obvious geographical scale similarities and british style of government etc I dont think Australia and Canada are very much alike at all. Australia is actually very localised in terms of its identity and "country australia" is overwhelmingly anglo. The states are so far apart that if your in Sydney or Adelaide then whats going on in Perth or Cairns really has no particular bearing on your life any more so than what is happening in London or Tokyo. Lets be frank your average Aussie doesn't really give too much of a stuff about whats happening outside of their home state/city/suburb...

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  • 26. At 1:39pm on 25 Jan 2011, TrayRacer wrote:

    Isn't it interesting other countries are used as a benchmark, rather than Australia being the benchmark, eg "Coffee in Australa is like Italian coffee" as opposed to "Coffee in Italy is like Australian" Does this mean:
    a) Australians are insecure about themselves and by using other countries as a yardstick, aspire to them?
    b) Australia is such a mix of that it doesn't excel at many things worth comparing against?
    c) The rest of the world doesn't know/care about Australia?

    Of course, there are a few exceptions to the rule: Sport (ok, perhaps not in the last year or so), Beaches, Britian's proposal of "The Australia style immigration points system", Britian's proposed AV/Preferential voting model

    To be honest however, I agree with other posters that: Australian identity is unique..... just like everybody else

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  • 27. At 2:59pm on 25 Jan 2011, Bajan1 wrote:

    I live in Barbados, I have travelled all over the world and the only place I would live other than here is Australia by choice. I have visted Australia on 4 occasions and the lifestyle and way of living are very similar. We even have an Australia Day Party here tomorrow to celebrate with all the Aussies who have choosen Barbados as their home.

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  • 28. At 3:35pm on 25 Jan 2011, BOIVIN wrote:

    I am French. I have been in UK, in USA, and others places, and in Australia.
    Australia is a mix of mediterraean and anglo saxon way of life. the only thing this country needs now : to be really independant because this country already found its own identity in economic, politic, social network,etc
    why do you need to have this kind of question ?
    and as Iam french they also have in Australia very good wines!!

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  • 29. At 8:24pm on 25 Jan 2011, Rdbz wrote:

    A federal political model binding together previously autonomous states; a written constitution largely designed to set out and delineate the powers of those states and those of the federation respectively; a Senate founded on the principles of state representation; endless debates about "states' rights". Yes that's very...British?

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  • 30. At 9:40pm on 25 Jan 2011, Bruce C wrote:

    As an Australian who has spent many years outside the country I would agree with Nick that Australia is fundamentally British in most ways - but I would add the rider that it is still in essence colonial in outlook. It didn’t seem so when lived in Australia but when viewed externally Australia does not take itself seriously. Australia is without any viable global plan for where it sits and how it will survive in the world over the decades to come. There is a deep assumption in the populace that we are part of some sort of "western" club and that is enough to get us through the huge challenges if the next century - which is actually just a variant of the colonial mindset. So Australia actually resembles Britain and Australia ca 1900 - only the fashions have really changed.

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  • 31. At 9:40pm on 25 Jan 2011, Malkava wrote:

    With all due respect, it sounds to me as if it is Britain that is suffering from an identity crisis than the other way around. Just reading the article, nearly every paragraph has a mention of Britain somewhere. While it certainly helped shape its identity, it is certainly not Australia's defining characteristic as a nation.

    Quite honestly, I'm not convinced that Australia is a, "...country where the conversation about national identity is so lively, anguished and continual." Don't know about others, but the Aussies I've met haven't had that issue. They seem pretty content with being, you know -- Australian.

    Now I have nothing against Britain mind you (the pervasive undertone of anti-Americanism from the media I could do without however), but come on. You're beginning to grasp at straws here, and I don't think asserting Britain as the number one influence in Australia is the fast track to improving relations. It comes off as more patronizing than anything.

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  • 32. At 10:53pm on 25 Jan 2011, ProudPeacock wrote:

    No. 22 gorgoni

    How right you are. Life would not be the same without a flat white from the NZ named coffee establishment in Edinburgh. As to all the Kiwis working in Australia it just proves how much Australia needs them.

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  • 33. At 00:16am on 26 Jan 2011, Shadyman wrote:

    I agree with those who say most Aussie's see themselves as Australian. It's only really in the media that you see all this comparison/rivalry nonsense. I'm from Italian heritage on one side and although I acknowledge it, I certainly don't feel Italian or the need to refer to myself as 'Italian-Australian' or whatever. I'm just an Aussie who has an English and Italian mixed background. Who cares?

    I also don't really do anything on Australia Day when it falls mid-week. It's just another day off work. When it falls on a Friday or Monday though, it's a long weekend! Unfortunately not this year though. I'm spending today in air-conditioned comfort with a Simpsons marathon.

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  • 34. At 00:46am on 26 Jan 2011, Treaclebeak wrote:

    All countries' cultures are derivative,even China's,so what's the big deal.What would Australia be without its derived British institutions? The difference between Oz and Europe is that most Europeans' cultural borrowings have a long history. eg.I've used many words of French origin here, as 'BOIVIN' could confirm, and where did the French get those words from?

    So the term general term 'derivative' country really doesn't have any meaning.

    However, there's a specific problem in the derivative nature of our TV. I'd agree that there's far too much US and UK product on our TV,so much so, that I suspect that some Australians think that they live in America.

    I don't celebrate Australia Day,because January 26th 1788 has really nothing to do with the Australian nation.
    I'd happily celebrate 'Republic Day',although at my age, I'm afraid my end will occur before the monarchy's.

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  • 35. At 01:36am on 26 Jan 2011, Bill wrote:

    What debate Nick?

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  • 36. At 04:45am on 26 Jan 2011, Diana wrote:

    I think the debate about what it is to be an Australian is very important. After all we live in a country that has experienced huge changes over the last fifty years.
    We are no longer a predominantly British community but a very diverse multicultural society, all Australian need to acknowledge the place of indigenous culture and society after it was nearly wiped out after white settlement (an event that we 'celebrate on Australia Day'), and we need to look at how we represent ourselves to the world. That means we need to have a debate about whether we still want to have a head of state who is not Australian and lives on the other side of the world and if we want a representation of another country on our flag (ie the Union Jack).
    I am not writing this because I have a chip on my shoulder but because my first allegiance is to my country- Australia- not to the country of my ancestors-England. And it is important that I contribute to the debate of what it means to be an Australian so these questions can be answered.

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  • 37. At 5:55pm on 26 Jan 2011, bike_framed wrote:

    Leaving aside the obvious answer that Australia most closely resembles Australia, which other country most closely resembles Australia? The answer is Canada:

    - large land mass
    - small population clustered along the edge
    - resources/exports are a huge part of the economy
    - a population largely of British heritage but changing due to recent immigration from elsewhere
    - institutions based on British model
    - culturally in many ways like the British but different
    - culturally in many ways like Americans but different
    - similar history/issues with respect to indigenous inhabitants
    - and, tellingly, Canadians would ask themselves this same question...

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  • 38. At 5:57pm on 26 Jan 2011, bike_framed wrote:

    @EalingWelsh - the reason you state for Australia and Canada not being very much alike is one of the ways they are. In fact I would go so far as to say ...the provinces are so far apart that if your in Winnipeg or Toronto then what's going on in Vancouver or Halifax really has no particular bearing on your life any more so than what is happening in London or Washington.

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  • 39. At 9:45pm on 26 Jan 2011, Treaclebeak wrote:

    LucyJ,

    After crocodiles, the most dangerous animal in Australia is the Arboreal Drop Bear, a much larger carnivorous relative of the Koala.Its favorite prey is blonde European backpackers,fortunately there's no shortage of civic-minded young Australian men who volunteer their services to protect these vulnerable young women, 24/7, if necessary.

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  • 40. At 11:04pm on 26 Jan 2011, Clive wrote:

    AUSTRALIAN identity???

    I am from Wales. Have visited Oz several times. It's Australia! Multicultural, non-racist, even sport is played there sometimes :-)

    Lovely place. Don't like spiders, snakes, mossies or crocs but like the people.

    Thank you for being Oz.

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