Opinion: By what measure is an Australian?

Monday January 26 2015, 3:00pm

IN AN ideal world, the old joke goes, you would have French cuisine, Italian romance, British humour and German administration. But pity help you if you get British cuisine, German romance, French humour and Italian administration.

The joke was brought to mind by Australia Day. Are there such things as national characteristics? Or is such talk dangerous stereotyping at worse or harmless, illogical twaddle at best?

The danger of stereotyping is the unfairness of assuming that all members of a group have a bad characteristic based on the experience of a few members of that group.

As far as formal logic goes it is illogical. The statement “Many Australians I have met are lazy, so all Australians are lazy” is not logical.

So when you apply formal logical categories of all, none and some, the idea of national characteristics is illogical.

But when you apply informal logic – likelihoods and probabilities – the idea of national characteristics makes a lot of sense. It can help us know ourselves better and improve ourselves.

It can also explain why national character changes over time.

The case of British cuisine is apposite. Before the mid-1990s British pub food comprised mostly inedible bangers and mash. Then along came Jamie Oliver, Nigella Lawson and air freight and now Britain has splendid cuisine.

In the 1970s the co-operative Japanese workforce created an economic miracle while Australia was strike-prone and recession ridden. Not so now.

The tall outdoor Aussie of the early 20th century is now a shorter city dweller.

A lot of this stuff can be measured. You can make comparisons over time and with other countries.

Characteristics like hard-working, strike-prone, productive, efficient, well-nourished, criminal, god-fearing and over-weight, for example, are fairly easily measured using statistical sampling.

Computers have helped, indeed enabled, such measurements. Even more ephemeral things like the “fair go” can be measured to some extent with statistics on access to justice, inequality of wealth and income and comparisons with other nations’ performance on openness of government, for example.

Generosity can be measured by tax-return claims for charitable gifts. Figures on attendance and participation at sporting and arts events will give an indication of the cultural state of the nation. Are we watching more sport and playing less, for example.

The Australian Bureau of Statistics had a project to measure things like this called Mapping Australia’s Progress. Its aim was to find out if life is getting better in Australia by going beyond measuring mere economic performance.

Tragically, the project fell foul of the Abbott Government’s budget cuts.

Such measurements are not totally reliable, of course. People misreport and the statistics can fall prey to sampling error.

But they do allow us to draw conclusions about what is probable or highly likely. They will allow us to challenge some of the statements Australian leaders make about us.

This Australia Day we will no doubt hear a lot about the compassionate, generous, tolerant society that believes in the fair go. But how compassionate and tolerant compared to the past and compared to the compassion and tolerance in other societies?

Will we be smugly celebrating a past mythology?

And come 25 April we will hear a lot about the courage, sacrifice and mateship that forged a nation as we commemorate (I hope not celebrate) the 100 th anniversary of the landing at Gallipoli by the Anzacs (under the British flag).

Having better measurements of national characteristics may enable us to have a better picture of ourselves and to counter what historian Geoffrey Serle called Anzackery.

The Federal Government is to spend $300 million next year (what Budget crisis) on Anzackery.

Perhaps that is a measurement of how Australia has become more jingoistic over the past few decades.

You do not get wholesome national characteristics by mere assertion, propaganda and celebration. They need to be tested.

Don’t get me wrong, generosity, compassion, the fair go and courage are wholesome characteristics and worth celebrating.

I have often said that if you are born in Australia or get to become an Australian citizen you have won the lottery of life. But let’s not assume it will go on forever without a bit of effort and frank self-assessment.