Being Australian 9 — true patriots all

Last Sunday, preferring the documentary on ABC about the South Pacific, I missed all but the tail end of an episode of Faces of America on SBS. I was waiting for Immigration Nation.

It looked as if it had been interesting, but what especially struck me was that quite a bit of the conversation I saw was about patriotism. Then today on the post linked above Kevin from Louisiana made reference to the Patriot Act and it struck me that no Australian politician on either side of politics would call such an Act a Patriot Act. John Howard’s government did pass laws with some similar effect but we called them anti-terrorism acts.

Why is this so? We do seem to be suspicious of patriotism, perhaps reflecting Dr Johnson: “”Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel.” Interesting to see this from his Dictionary too:

In the first (1755) and fourth (1773) editions of his Dictionary, Johnson defines “patriot” as “One whose ruling passion is the love of his country.” In the fourth edition, Johnson adds: “It is sometimes used for a factious disturber of the government.”

Or perhaps we have taken to heart George Barrington’s irony:

From distant climes, o’er wide-spread seas we come,
Though not with much eclat, or beat of drum,
True patriots all, for it be understood,
We left our country for our country’s good:
No private views disgraced our generous zeal,
What urged our travels was our country’s weal:
And none will doubt that our emigration
Had prov’d most useful to the British Nation.

Even if George didn’t write that.

Though the Australian historical record indicates Barrington became a model citizen, his name is associated with one other dubious colonial legend: he was long thought to have written (and spoken) the prologue to the inaugural production of the first Australian theatre in 1796.

From distant climes o’er wide-spread seas we come,/Though not with much éclat or beat of drum,/True patriots all; for be it understood,/We left our country for our country’s own good.

It wasn’t until over a century later that Sydney bibliophile Alfred Lee discovered the lines been plagiarised from a poem written by Englishman Henry Carter, who’d never even visited Australia. Carter, who died in 1806, was described in his obituary as “a gentleman of considerable literary attainments and great benevolence”; it seems the myth of Barrington’s authorship arose when a publisher appended Carter’s poem to an edition of the equally falsely attributed History of New South Wales.

Which just goes to show the truth of the famous saying attributed to Mark Twain: “A lie will go round the world while truth is pulling its boots on.”

But here’s a Patriot Act I rather like. I see one of my ex-students among the signatories.


Dawn comes to this country like to no other place on Earth. In the soil of the land she learns her colours. The dusty fire of her passion scorches the skin of our skies and reveals the deep blue flesh above. Those are the real colours of this country, the colours of its dawn.

I’m Australian and I don’t believe in a white Australia. Colours of this sort don’t matter—after an hour out in this sun we’re all just shades of brown.

I’m Australian. I love this island continent, and I respect every person on it, because they’re part of it.

I’m Australian, and I know the spirit of this country is not represented in the spite and malice of a misled few.

I’m Australian, and I believe in freedom of speech. The freedom to say anything. Because I believe we can judge for ourselves.

I’m Australian, and I share the lands of the Koori and the Murri, the Nunga and the Noongar, the Anangu and the Yolngu. On a dirt track, on a highway, on a street corner, when I look around and realise that this is Aboriginal land, the place grows rich and hushed with meaning.

I’m Australian—not because I believe in this country’s past, and not because I don’t—I’m Australian because I believe in our future. We’re young, and I reckon we’re the future of the world.

You know what it means to be Australian? Step outside on a seething January night and listen. One cicada, it’s just making a racket. But in multitudes, with some pitching high, some pitching low, some hesitating, some droning on and on and on—that’s the song of the land. That’s the song of love, and it takes a chorus to sing it.

Sing it with me.

See also Reclaiming patriotism: nation-building for Australian progressives by Tim Soutphommasane (2009).

Now that is a book I want to read.