Liberal patriotism – the Australian way

June 28, 2012

28 June 2012

By Tim Soutphommasane

Since patriotism is so often condemned as “a grave moral error” or as “an infantile disease” – not to mention “the last refuge of a scoundrel” – it is only proper to begin with a short defence of why patriotism and nation-building matter to the Left. Why must we countenance the idea of loving our country? And why must it be part of our understanding of citizenship and community? And what is its relationship with nation-building?It is only natural to be wary of patriotism. It can be manipulated to fuel fanatical racism, to support dubious wars in foreign lands, to justify government restrictions of individual liberties. The manner in which the language of patriotism is used across Western liberal democracies suggests there is cause for some concern. National pride and xenophobia frequently appear as bedfellows. Across Europe, populist parties of the far right and extremist street movements have been gaining in strength.

Outside Europe, there are also troubling signs. In my own Australia, since the 2005 Cronulla Beach race riot in Sydney (when a 5000-strong, flag-waving mob attacked Australians of Middle Eastern appearance), members of the Australian public have embraced the national flag and the Southern Cross with unprecedented enthusiasm.

Once a country whose members prided themselves on their laconic character and habit of understatement, Australia has become an emphatically expressive one when it comes to displaying its love of country. Fifteen years ago, when Pauline Hanson draped herself in an Australian flag, most of my countrymen and women cringed.

Today, on occasions such as Australia Day, many young Aussies wear the flag as cape or sarong as a symbol of national pride – often with more than a dose of jingo.

Whatever the risks of perversion, or its appropriation by ugly nationalism, patriotism should be regarded as a foundation of citizenship. While patriotic sentiment may manifest as a vice, it can also be a virtue, a loyalty that motivates citizens to improve their country. Such motivation now exists at a premium. A collective identity, far from being something we can take for granted, is now something that polities have to work harder to cultivate, especially if they require citizens to act in concert and as communities, rather than just as atomised individuals seeking self-enrichment.

The challenge, for those of us on the progressive side of politics, should be to retrieve a liberal patriotism. One that leaves room for reason and reflection. One animated not by a belief in the superiority of one’s country or culture, but by a desire to contribute to the common good. This would be a love of country defined primarily by civic values, though grounded in a national tradition. The kind of patriotism I refer to here isn’t a purely cerebral enthusiasm for liberal values or an intellectual love of a constitution. True, an Australian liberal patriot may well share with a (say) British liberal patriot some philosophical commitments. But there is an important difference between an Australian “fair go” and a British sense of fair play; just as there is between savouring a cold bitter on a sunny beach and sipping a warm ale in a cosy pub.

There is a particular need for patriotic citizenship in a multicultural society, for it can be a powerful instrument for integration. One need’t assume that a love of country serves to exclude cultural diversity from a national story; far from it. There is no one authoritative way to express one’s membership of a community. In any case, pluralism frequently enriches a country (though they may be cases when minority nationalism or separatism may serve to undermine a common identity).

Indeed, for me, what exemplifies the spirit of a liberal patriotism in Australia is the kind of civic solidarity I see on Australia Day at the many citizenship ceremonies now held around the country for naturalising immigrants. This has quietly emerged as a new public ritual on Australia Day. It has become an occasion for Australians to renew their civic bond. Just as happy immigrants pledge their loyalty to Australia and join the nation as citizens, so those Australian citizens who attend as observers offer their own pledge – in an “affirmation” of their membership. Many unfamiliar with such rituals may understandably be sceptical. Yet these ceremonies aren’t done with a stiff, hand-on-heart formality but typically done in a relaxed, authentic spirit befitting the Australian character. While many new citizens come to the ceremony proudly wearing their traditional dress, others do quite the opposite: I remember a few years ago seeing one new citizen from Malaysia attending a ceremony in khaki shirt and shorts, a larrikin tribute to the late Steve Irwin.

Citizenship has, of course, been the defining value of the Australian multicultural experience. Much like Canada, since the 1970s Australia has embraced an official multiculturalism, which in the 1980s crystallised as a citizenship-based approach to integration. Namely, any notion of multiculturalism was in policy terms defined in terms of the rights and responsibilities of citizenship. Immigrants should enjoy a right to express their cultural identity and heritage, but this should be accompanied by a responsibility to adhere to civic values such as a commitment to democracy, individual liberty and equality of the sexes. New arrivals were expected, in time, to become citizens – as opposed to permanent guest workers or mere denizens.

Admittedly, the word multiculturalism has in recent years become something of a toxic term, particularly in Europe. Even many progressive-minded liberals and social democrats believe that it encourages what Amartya Sen termed -plural monoculturalism – that it fosters enclaves or a form of ethnic segregation. The Australian debate hasn’t been immune to the political retreat from multiculturalism, even if there have been recent moves by the current Labor government to reaffirm multicultural policy rather than repudiate it.

There has actually been little cause for repudiating multiculturalism as it has been practised in Australia. In policy terms, at least, there was never any danger that multiculturalism could undermine social cohesion or subvert a unifying Australian national identity. Official multiculturalism has been an emphatic project of nationbuilding.

Consider that 80 percent of all immigrants who arrive in Australia choose to take up citizenship within five years, a rate that is among the highest among OECD countries. Or consider that it is the children of immigrants who dominate the elite ranks of the law and medicine faculties in Australia’s leading universities – a far cry from Oxbridge or the cole Nationale d’Administration. Integration has worked not in spite of multiculturalism but because of it.

Part of the problem has been that multiculturalism has been closely associated with a post-national cosmopolitanism. Only rarely has it been defended as a citizenship policy. But this may just reflect a broader aversion to nation-building narratives in Australia. Some say that this is a product of the triumph of so-called economic rationalism and neoliberalism. The only “big picture” that now exists is the economy; people consider themselves more as consumers than as citizens. It is telling that many Australian politicians on the Labor side today seem to believe that vision merely means having a plan for boosting productivity and raising economic growth.

There are constant appeals to the legacy of “Hawke-Keating” form has become an end in itself. Few pause to ask: Reform for what purpose? And for whom?

It’s not entirely true to say that nation-building has disappeared in Australia. It is more that Australian Labor has failed since 2007 to tell a convincing nation-building story. To be sure, bitter leadership dramas have compromised the party’s public standing. But for all that the Rudd-Gillard governments have achieved – an economy that continues to grow amid a contained global depression; a massive building program for the nation’s schools; the construction of a national broadband network; the creation of a national disability insurance scheme; the establishment of a carbon pricing mechanism – they have failed to put together a compelling narrative. If current polls are any indication, the Labor side of politics has lost, at least for now, its capacity to persuade.

What does all this have to do with patriotism? The short answer is that patriotism and nation-building are the two sides of the same coin. Patriotic citizens will be prepared to contribute to their country’s flourishing, to make sacrifices for the common good.

Nation-building is, in one sense, the programmatic expression of patriotism. But it is also the programmatic expression of political leadership. If leadership involves an act of persuasion between leader and follower, and mobilising resources, then leaders must engage the values and identities of followers. Yet for this to happen, leaders need to be able to tell a story to followers, one with cultural form and not just economic.

There will always, undoubtedly, be a section of social democratic opinion that will be convinced that patriotism is nothing more than chauvinism, and its expression cause for despair. There is an alternative. Rather than treating a love of country as crass nationalism, social democrats should reclaim patriotism – as a sentiment of solidarity and as an instrument of progress.