Saturday, November 8, 2014

The national image of Australia from 1945 to 1965 as depicted by Robert Menzies’ speech on The Forgotten People and Sir Frederic Eggleston’s The Australian Way of Life.

At the end of World War 2 and into the mid 1960’s, Australia was undergoing a national identity change and concurrently developing different images.  This essay will discuss two of the different new images of Australia by analysing two documents from that time period: Robert Menzies’ speech on ‘The Forgotten People’ and Sir Frederic Eggleston’s ‘The Australian Way of Life’.  The national images of a consumerist/middle-class nation as shown by Menzies and of a threatened nation talked about by Eggleston shall be discussed in the context of these and other supporting documents.  Events both current to and in the recent past of this time will be mentioned to give further context, relevance and support to the discussion.

The first image of Australia that will be discussed is that of a consumer and ‘middle-class’ nation.  The global economy was recovering from the depression of the 1930’s as well as the drain that the Second World War had put on the nations.  Due to the fact that most of the men went to fight in the war, more women started entering the workforce, and the result was a new sense of pride and of financial independence for them.  According to Macintyre, (as cited in Study Guide AUS 11, 2009, p. 26), between 1947 and 1961 the number of married women in the workforce increased fourfold.  The newfound income that the women had did not go unnoticed by businesses.  Women were placed squarely in the “role of housewives and mothers and consumers of domestic labour-saving devices” (Study Guide AUS 11, 2009, p. 26).  This is part of the consumerism and middle-class Australia image that was being formed through politicians, journalists, and advertising companies.  The bush legend of the turn of the century was being replaced by a view that suburbanization, being a ‘home-maker’, and household possessions were a necessary part of the Australian way of life. 

Robert Menzies talked in 1942 about ‘The Forgotten People’, or the middle class of Australia.  Regarding the middle class citizens and in relation to consumerism, he said “The material home represents the concrete expression of the habits of frugality and saving for a home of our own” (MacLeod in Documents AUS 11, 2009, p. 139).   Further to this, Menzies said that the middle class of Australia is the country’s backbone.  This stems from a comment that he made earlier in his speech; “I do not believe that the real life of this nation is to be found either in great luxury hotels… or in the officialdom of organized masses.  It is to be found in the homes of people who are nameless and unadvertised… The home is the foundation of sanity and sobriety… its health determines the health of society as a whole…” (MacLeod in Documents AUS 11, 2009, p. 138-139).  The question of why Menzies makes this statement in talking about middle class Australia becomes apparent in the next two statements that he made in his speech: “Your advanced socialist may rage against private property even while he acquires it…” and “National patriotism, in other words, inevitably springs from the instinct to defend and preserve our own homes.” (MacLeod in Documents AUS 11, 2009, p. 139).  With these two statements, Menzies both makes it clear that middle class Australia is prospering and developing a protective sense of the suburban homes that it only a few decades earlier shunned with the bush legend, and that Australia is also a nation that is under threat and needs to defend itself.

The nation under threat is the next image that is prevalent during this time in Australia.  Sir Frederic Eggleston stated that “Australians firmly believe that their way of life is unique, and they are fanatically determined to protect it.” (Heinemann in Documents AUS 11, 2009, p. 14).  This is not just a threat of invasion or war, as was the case with the Asian Peril, but of loss of identity through immigration of non-whites and non-Europeans and the influence of Communism.  White cited W. V. Aughterson’s Taking Stock when discussing the defence of the Australian way of life; “our way of life in Australia is a miracle for this kind of world, and … the danger lies in thinking of it as ‘natural’ and likely to endure without a passionate determination on our part to preserve and defend it.” (Readings AUS 11, 2009, p. 159). 

The end of World War II saw the onset of the Cold War and a shift in the way that the West viewed the Communist Bloc and racial purity.  “In that Cold War context, Australia was becoming an important bulwark of ‘freedom’.  Australia’s racial identity became less important than its alliance with the United States in the Cold War.” (White in Readings AUS 11, 2009, p. 158-159).  With the Cold War outlook on communism and the Nazi regime fresh in the world’s mind, Australia’s already existent racism towards non-whites and non-Europeans, in the form of The White Australia Policy and the scheme initiated by Minister Arthur Calwell to bring British ex-service personnel and their families to Australia (Study Guide AUS 11, 2009, p. 27), had to be altered, albeit only slightly.  According to the Study Guide, as it became increasingly clear that attracting sufficient British migrants was simply not possible, the definition of who would be suitable and adaptable to an Australian lifestyle was necessarily broadened to include southern, eastern and central Europeans (Study Guide AUS11, 2009, p. 27).  As Sir Eggleston put it, “…[Australians] are therefore determined to prevent these norms from being broken down by the admission in large numbers of unassimilable elements.”  (Heinemann in Documents AUS 11, 2009, p. 14). 

Even though those migrants that were allowed to enter Australia had met the approval of the strict immigration policies, not everyone was happy with them.  The newly admitted immigrants were expected to assimilate into Australian culture and bring nothing of their own with them (Study Guide AUS11, 2009, p. 27-28).  In 1957 John O’Grady wrote to immigrants in his novel saying, “There are far too many New Australians in this country who are still mentally living in their homelands, who mix with people of their own nationality, and try to retain their own language and customs… cut it out.  There is no better way of life in the world than that of the Australian.”  (White in Readings AUS 11, 2009, p. 160). 

In conclusion, these two newly formed images of Australia, while different to each other, are both accurate and valid perceptions of the Australian identity at the time.  The image of a consumerist middle-class Australia was reinforced by the advertising agencies of the time by linking consumption to being a good wife or mother or home-maker, and thus a good Australian; because Australia wanted to be seen as modern, prosperous and stable (Study Guide AUS11, 2009, p. 30).  At the same time, the defensive, almost paranoid view that the Australian way of life and culture was in jeopardy by migrants and communism was in full force.  “…[T]he notion of ‘the Australian way of life’ served the interests of conservative political and social forces… it ‘not only denied the possibility that the cultural traditions of migrants might enrich Australian life, but also denied the existence of different “ways of life” among Australians themselves’” (Study Guide AUS11, 2009, p. 29).  These two images of Australia combined helped make Australia the country that it is today.

Reference List

Documents AUS 11 2009, ‘Australian Studies: Images of Australia 1A’, School of Humanities, Griffith University, Brisbane.

Readings AUS 11 2009, ‘Australian Studies: Images of Australia 1A’, School of Humanities, Griffith University, Brisbane

Study Guide AUS 11 2009, ‘Australian Studies: Images of Australia 1A’, School of Humanities, Griffith University, Brisbane.

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