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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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