Living Books – Living People; Talking Country – Talking Home

Talking Country, Shepparton Library

An informal, thought provoking evening of talks was sponsored by Shepparton Interfaith Network as part of the Emerge on the Goulburn Festival, 2013.

Participating in Living Books, Living People, Talking Country, Talking Home were speakers from Australia, Hong Kong, Malaysia, USA, and Sri Lanka. After a welcome to country, guest speakers settled into share narratives of their journey to Australia and their experience of settlement. Representing Shepparton Interfaith Network was Dr. Frank Purcell, President.

The following is the talk prepared by Dr Frank Purcell:

Our Emerging Australian Identity.

I was in my final years at a Catholic primary school in Melbourne during the early years of the Second World War when I first began asking myself, “Who am I?” The question was triggered by a talk given us by the Principal, an Australian Nun. At that time Ireland had decided to remain neutral in the war, but there were serious concerns that Great Britain would invade Ireland to get access to its Atlantic seaports. This would improve the chances of a safer passage for supply ships coming from America with food and military supplies needed for Britain to continue its struggle against the Third Reich. My family and those of nearly all the other kids in that school were of Irish Catholic background. During that dispute between Britain and Ireland the school principal, an Australian born nun, talked with us about our obligations as Australians should Britain invade Ireland. She simply made the point that our first loyalty and allegiance must be to Australia because we are Australians.

I found that easy enough to accept because my family on both my mother’s and father’s sides had been in Australia since the first half of the 19th century. On my father’s side, all sides of the family were Irish who came to Australia in the early 1840s. On my mother’s side all members of the family were here by the early 1850s with only my grandfather’s father being an English Protestant.

Sydney Road, North Coburg

100 years on from their arrival in Australia, the Irish element in the Australian Purcells had weakened compared with other elements of our identity. I knew I was Australian and Catholic, and I vaguely knew that my parents’ grandparents came mostly from Ireland, but it wasn’t something that was a strong element in my identity. The fact that my father was a tram driver, a member of the Tramways Union who voted ALP and played for Collingwood as a young man these were all elements and allegiances which I was proud to accept as part of my identity. I had no sense of being Irish but the nun knew that sometimes those elements can be reawakened and cause immense divisions in a community. When a country is under threat from another country, nationalism becomes the dominant allegiance in our identity and our head teacher quietly pointed out to us that our first allegiance must be to Australia and Britain in the event of a war with Ireland .

So, today I want to talk about the many elements which go to make up our identity, and the evolving nature of the underlying shared elements which hold us together as a community.

From 1996 for about six years I lectured in Political Science at La Trobe here in Shepparton. After the Twin Towers and the Bali bombings and then the Tampa incident, I decided it might be helpful to do some study on the process which we all go through as migrants with different religious, cultural and nationalistic backgrounds when we arrive in Australia. I compared the Catholic and Muslim experiences.


The first thing I did was sit down and write out my answer to the question “Who am I?’ I found myself writing down that I am an Australian Catholic. This implies that the strongest element in my identity is my Catholicism, but of the Australian variety. Many would probably write Catholic Australian, accepting that their Australianness was more important than their Catholicism. I also noted that I am married to a Catholic wife and children, our family being part of two extended Catholic family networks, one working class, the other small business people. I also noted that I was an ALP member and a Collingwood supporter.

When I thought about it I found that the strongest element in my identity was my Catholicism. My study supervisor couldn’t believe it because religion isn’t cool in many sections of the university world. All he was signalling however, was that religion was not a major element in his identity. Yet, we were both Australians, both of Catholic background, but with different personal identities. Yet we also shared something which made us feel unthreatened by the other in spite of religious, political or class distinctions.

So we are all different, yet we do share a number of elements or allegiances which make us a diverse but also a mostly cohesive society. It is important to recognise the shared values which hold us together as a community.

What is it then that holds us together?

What is it then that holds us together? Religion can be a strong binding force, but It doesn’t always work. Minority religious groups find themselves suffering discrimination. Sometimes a common language is seen as the basis of unity among people but in Yugoslavia it failed to prevent a war between Croats, Serbs and Bosnians.

What then are the crucial elements or values which unite us and make us Australians? They can be summed up in two key words: Reciprocity and Tolerance. In practice this mean freedom of religion, freedom of speech, gender equality, equality before the law, and acceptance of a democratic form of government in which our leaders are accountable for their decisions.

A newly arrived migrant may proudly identify him or herself as Australian, but it takes time for such an identity to develop. The process begins with the migrants experiencing culture shock. Rules of modesty, relationships between children and parents, between husbands and wives can be so different from those in a migrant’s homeland. In that state of culture shock, as most of them come from countries with a strong religious dimension to the culture of their home countries, they tend to turn to their religious identity for security and reassurance. You can see that in the way newly arrived migrants gravitate towards churches and mosques when they come here.

Italian Social Club Shepparton

I lived in Italy for a number of years and noted that men were not especially involved in church-going on a regular basis. Yet when I first came to Shepparton and began attending Mass at St. Mel’s the church was crowded with Italian men. It gave them a sense of continuity, of belonging, until they came to accept that the host society was not a threat to key elements in their identity. As they felt a sense of being accepted, they not only shared their own cultural practices such as farming techniques, food recipes and wine as a dinner drink, but offered models of family life and the riches of Italian artistic traditions that came to be admired and respected. There were problems of course.

A small minority adopted mafia-style business practices, but the general Italian population was seen to be law abiding, accepting of the values on which Australia has built the social cohesion and harmony which unites us without requiring the abandonment of the diversity which so enriched Australia in the 20th century and continues to do so today.

So the first question for many will be whether their religious and cultural identity is under threat in this new country. The evidence seems to be that migrants to Australia find the religious freedom as understood here to be liberating and no direct threat to their beliefs. The government doesn’t tell them how they must behave as Muslims. They are free to be religious or not, or religious in the way they want to be, without the state imposing its version of their religion.

The special Shepparton experience which migrants talk about is that of experiencing smiles and the general friendliness of the host community in this area. Migrants, who are Muslim, Hindu or Buddhist, discover that most of their religious and cultural traditions are not under direct threat from Australian society. They are free to practise their religion or to abandon it. They are free to speak their own language at home and this is not just tolerated but positively encouraged by public funding of migrant language classes as happens in Shepparton. Migrants also take up the opportunity to learn English through the publicly funded classes available to them at TAFE.

It is especially when the host community makes it clear to the migrant that he or she is wanted and now belongs to the wider community that the identity of the new migrants begins to evolve. And strangely, so does the identity of those who are members of the host community. Both begin to accept cultural values and practices which they see to be no threat but rather an enrichment of their own tradition.

Tolerance and Reciprocity

This is not to say that all cultural and religious practices are acceptable: any which are in conflict with the shared values on which Australia has built its social cohesion and harmony have to be modified. I suppose the most obvious cultural practice which causes concern within the host society is female genital mutilation. But Australia being Australia, has sought to modify that practice by education rather than by imposing the criminal penalties which do exist. The host society recognises the difficulties for peoples with such a cultural tradition. However, as such a practice affronts some of the key values which underpin Australian social cohesion, it is an issue which has to be addressed. A short term tolerance of such a practice in the hope that the evolving identity of such migrants will result in an abandonment of this practice is how we have come to operate in Australia.

Basically we have come to build our social cohesion and harmony on the values of reciprocity and tolerance. The key principle is reciprocity. Do unto others as you would have them do to you. Migrants have to accept that they too have to respect the values on which the host community has built the diversity which has so enriched Australian society. If migrants recognise that Australian society is no direct threat to their religious or cultural traditions, they will feel comfortable in belonging, in becoming Australian.

All of us too have to recognise the danger which arises if either migrants or host community members sense that the key elements in their identity are under threat. Language policies, or religious and cultural practices which challenge or contradict the basic values on which Australia has built its cohesion, are a threat and a source of serious division in a society. But debate and discussion of these differences may result in a gradual evolution in the thinking across the whole community. That is why, in my opinion, Australia has won recognition as being a relatively successful diverse but cohesive society.

Living Books, Living People, Talking Country, Talking Home

Speakers at Living Books, Living People, Talking Country, Talking Home


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