Australians are too modest, our nation is much greater than America

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A strange thing has happened to me over the past couple of years. I fell in love with my country for the first time.

Yeah, I know.

American-style patriotism has always irked me. And yet, there is something about their self-love that I have come to begrudgingly admire. It reflects a confidence we lack.

The greater nation? Anthony Albanese and US President Joe Biden.Credit: Alex Ellinghausen

This Saturday, November 11 marks the 48th anniversary of the Whitlam government dismissal – a moment that brought modern Australia the closest we’ve been to civil war. It’s an event that gives us all cause to reflect on Australian independence and national identity.

My favourite documentary in recent memory is Netflix’s The Race of the Century. It’s about the time in 1983 when we became the first country to defeat the United States in the America’s Cup – a yacht race that’s been running since 1851. It’s a film all Australians should watch – not just because it’s a gripping story, but because it contains a wonderful exposition of how Tall Poppy Syndrome permeates our national identity and collective psyche.

For many supporters of The Voice, the referendum outcome serves as confirmation that we are a meek nation lacking the courage to be great. And I get it. But personally, I’m sick of being negative about Australia.

Here’s the rub: we are already a great nation – much greater than America on many measures.

We consistently rank well above the US in studies comparing quality of life. We have universal healthcare and were the only Western economy to weather the GFC without going into recession.

We were the first country to allow women to stand for parliament and one of the first to pass racial discrimination laws. And we created the best football code in the world bar none (hint: I’m Victorian).

I could go on – and I will.

I’m filled with pride by the fact that ours is a great democracy – much greater than the Americans’. When you look beyond the eye-wateringly embarrassing rhetoric that spews forth from Canberra, you’ll see that the bones of our democracy are rock solid.

Trump supporters rally before the riot at the US Capitol in Washington on January 6, 2021.Credit: AP

While we’ve continually improved our electoral system, the Americans have slipped into complacency. As a result, their congress is irrevocably dominated by two stale, corrupted political parties.

Here in Australia, the door leading to the seat of government remains ajar to the breezes of change. You only need to look to the last federal election, when we voiced our displeasure at the major parties by electing a record number of independents to parliament.

This simply could not happen in America.

In Australia, compulsory voting means political parties can’t simply appeal to the extremes and win government. And an independent electoral commission means corrupt politicians can’t redraw electoral boundaries to maximise their chance of retaining power.

Gough Whitlam looks on quizzically in 1975 as the Governor-General’s Official Secretary, David Smith, announces that Sir John Kerr has dismissed the Whitlam government and installed Malcolm Fraser as caretaker Prime Minister. Credit: National Archives of Australia

Proportional representation in the Senate creates a space for minor parties who act as a check on governments who could otherwise steamroll legislation through parliament. And preferential voting means we can support a minor party without fear that our vote will be wasted.

But I’m not so naive to think our system of government is perfect.

The dismissal of the Whitlam government laid bare a major flaw in our democratic system: that our head of state is a foreigner who retains the power to sack our elected government.

For the past 13 years, I’ve been chipping away, with a small team, at a passion project. The result, How to Capture a Prime Minister, is a documentary film about an untold story from the turbulent aftermath of the Whitlam dismissal. So intense was the unrest that Fraser found himself seeking refuge in the bowels of a theatre in 1976, when a protest at Monash University veered dangerously out of control.

Fraser was arguably the most divisive prime minister in Australian history. Many still haven’t forgiven him for precipitating the downfall of the Whitlam government and for overseeing massive cuts to social welfare programs (ostensibly to curb government spending and control spiralling inflation). But in his twilight years, even Fraser began agitating for us to strike out on our own.

When I interviewed him in 2013, I detected a sadness that has haunted me ever since. I think he saw a greatness in Australia most of us do not, and longed for us to find the self-confidence to disentangle ourselves from America.

In the 1960s and ’70s, Fraser supported us following the Americans into the Vietnam War. Later in life, he learned Australia had been deceived into participating in the conflict. He then watched on as we were hoodwinked into following the US into Iraq and Afghanistan – disastrous wars that caused immense suffering and loss of life.

Not long before he passed away, the former Cold War warrior began calling for Australia to cease being subservient to US imperialism and instead develop an independent foreign policy and military – a message Fraser passionately reiterated in the film. They were prescient words considering the events that have destabilised America since his passing.

As we emerge from one of the most bruising political conflicts in living memory, it’s essential we remind ourselves of what we’ve achieved together – and that most of us have far more in common than the media and many of our politicians would have us believe.

Right now, we’re beset by global instability, huge technological disruption, fierce economic headwinds, and catastrophic natural disasters exacerbated by global warming. The only way we can weather what’s coming is to strive for what Whitlam referred to as “a better, united society” in Australia. Because when we do, greatness happens.

Gary Newman is a Melbourne-based filmmaker, journalist and communications specialist.

How to Capture a Prime Minister screens on November 11 in Melbourne, November 22 in Canberra and November 25 in Sydney.

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