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The Australian character

Nick Bryant | 02:47 UK time, Sunday, 22 February 2009

What did Australia learn about itself in its collective response to the Victorian wildfires?

In the aftermath of the attacks of 9/11, Americans discovered they were far more vulnerable than the government had led them to believe, and that the world's most hi-tech intelligence apparatus could not prevent, or even disrupt, a determinedly low-tech plot.

In the aftermath of the death of Diana, Britons discovered that their upper lips were no longer quite so stiff and they could exhibit publicly an emotional range that had seldom, if ever, been witnessed on such an immense scale.

When grief at the death of Diana turned to anger at the Royal Family's seemingly ambivalent response, they also discovered they had become a lot less deferential towards authority in general, and the monarchy in particular.

Have Australians seen in themselves something that's equally unexpected or in any way comparable?

I'm not talking here about the lessons that will be drawn from the disaster, whether they apply to forest management, fire response strategies or new building techniques and regulations.

I'm asking whether we have witnessed something in the Australian national character, if it is possible to speak of such a thing, which we have not seen before.

Clearly, we have observed an extraordinary depth of emotion and a willingness to display that emotion publicly. But that's hardly revelatory.

As a kid, I well remember watching Bob Hawke break down on television, while my first assignment in Australia was to cover the funeral of Steve Irwin, where the most grizzled of his fellow "Crocodile Hunters" were reduced to tears.

Australians have given with extraordinary generosity to the various disaster appeals, but, again, that should hardly have come as any great surprise.

The World Bank found in 2006 that Australia was the fourth most generous country in the world in its charitable giving, after the US, the UK and Canada.

Australians have been reminded that they live on the planet's driest continent, and that there's a persuasive body of scientific evidence which suggests that the conditions which lead to wildfires are going to become more prevalent. But again, the term "reminder" seems more applicable than "revelation".

We have heard victims of the fires speak with great resilience and stoicism about rebuilding their homes and communities, but that reinforces what we already knew.

After all, wildfires, and the myriad challenges of making a life in what at times can be the most inhospitable of environments, have always been part of the Australian experience. Sometimes, as in the 1890s, awful fires coincided with years of great economic uncertainty, presenting yet further challenges.

To my mind, this disaster has been reinforcing. That's to say, it has brought to the fore traits of the Australian character that we have long known existed.

Australia has drawn on strengths that it already knew it had in abundance - traits that are by no means uniquely Australian, but quintessentially Australian nonetheless.

Courage, compassion and resilience, according to Prime Minister Kevin Rudd, who, at the service in Melbourne's Rod Laver Arena, came up with a neat summation: "We have drawn deep on our ancient values and given them fresh voice in our modern age. Values of courage, values of compassion, values of steely resilience.

"These are Australian values, values also of our deepest common humanity. For on Black Saturday, what we saw at work was the worst of nature yet the best of humanity."


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