With the demise of the ABC’s 7.45am news bulletin due to cost cutting, Australians of a certain age can chalk up yet another lost cultural icon.
In recent years the demise of Holden, cracker night and countless suburban milk bars have, for some, been markers of a changing nation – and that’s before even contemplating Paul Hogan’s return to his natural cragginess.
And in a world reassessing cultural touchstones, along with the legacy of Indigenous dispossession and disadvantage, Australia is not alone in trying to figure out a new, more inclusive way forward.
But with that comes the risk of a retreat to the past that overvalues nostalgia and stifling progress, particularly given most of the things that were once thought of value were themselves imports.
Professor of History at Australian National University Canberra Frank Bongiorno says people often feel a sense of loss when things disappear from their lives, especially familiar things associated with childhood.
“The sense of the small and local being overwhelmed by the large and global is especially strong in recent decades,” Professor Bongiorno told The New Daily.
“But it’s sometimes worth returning to the origins of those things we are nostalgic about to get some perspective. Milk bars were an American export to Australia, as was the Holden in most respects, being made by General Motors. Guy Fawkes Night was part of the English Protestant Imperial heritage.”
Professor Bongiorno says the move away from rituals like cracker night to celebrating Halloween US-style just highlights the nation’s move away from Britain and the Protestant-Catholic sectarian division.
He believes new rituals will develop, particular as Australia moves to further define its own place in the world.
“Certainly, rituals matter, but they also change over time and people devise new rituals that, within a short time, are being declared ‘traditional’,” he says.
Australia Day is a good example. January 26 [was] barely noticed half a century ago but now defended as if the day has deep roots in the culture.”
With the Palace letters release this week prompting renewed debate about Australian constitutional arrangements, Professor Bongiorno says strong debate about our institutions will always be a good thing.
“We often mistake debate and disagreement for the absence of a coherent sense of self. I think this is a mistake,” he says.
“The very existence of debate and disagreement tells us something about who we are – a democracy which is imperfect but nonetheless real … there is nothing wrong in a democracy with people arguing over national days, ceremonies, rituals, anniversaries, and the like.
“It’s a sign that democracy is still alive.”
With competing visions of a way forward it is tempting to view Australia’s debate over big issues like a republic or monarchy in the same way motorsport enthusiasts once squabbled over their allegiance to Ford or Holden – both imported icons now lost, but still seen as intrinsically Australian.
Local car manufacturing all but disappeared overnight with the withdrawal of government subsidies but is now a value driver as Australians of a certain age buy up older style muscle cars from the 1970s.
Industry analysts suggest that while the market is cyclical, the higher prices – including over $2 million for a rare Ford GTHO Phase IV in 2018 – are indicative of cashed up older buyers looking for vehicles that remind them of simpler times.
And while cruising in your V8 coupe is not an option in the age of coronavirus, the charitable response to the summer bushfires suggested Australians still retain strong community values – despite all that goodwill appearing to evaporate when toilet paper supplies ran low as the pandemic hit.
Asked how Australians define themselves now, Professor Bongiorno says we remain the product of unresolved histories.
“We are a settler society in which the meaning and significance of the arrival of Europeans is understood by many Indigenous people as the harbinger of oppression rather than a glorious founding moment …
“We are no longer British but the British heritage remains strong in our language, institutions and culture. We are influenced by the United States yet there are important areas in which we reject American ways, such as in the role of government, health-care and gun ownership.
“Indigenous people participate more fully in the political and civic life of the nation, but taken overall remain disadvantaged and marginalised,” he adds.
“We are multicultural, yet uneasiness remains about whether we are sufficiently cohesive. We are Asian geographically and most of our immigrants now come from that continent, yet many worry about what that might mean in a world where China grows ever stronger.
“Our selfhood is, in some ways, the sum of these complicated parts. The whole, it should be said, mainly works, even if works to the greater advantage of some than others – as it does.”
In the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement, there’s been a renewed focus here on the Indigenous experience and nostalgia for past popular culture has highlighted how unwillingly slow we are to change.
Way back in 2009, iconic Australian TV show Hey Hey It’s Saturday was forced into an on-air apology when US entertainer Harry Connick junior took offence while judging the ‘Red Faces’ talent segment featuring a Michael Jackson impression.
Yet, more than a decade later, the debate about ‘blackface’ is again playing out – this time over the ABC’s Jonah from Tonga, which was commissioned by the National Broadcaster in 2014 and until recently playing on its streaming service.
It’s a reminder that Australians have often liked to pick and choose the bits we like about globalisation, while enjoying a nostalgic bubble.
With Indigenous Australia offering its own unique iconography, Professor Bongiorno believes Australians are increasingly embracing the country’s history, dating back thousands of years.
“I think there is much greater awareness and understanding of Indigenous cultures among settler Australians now then even 10 years ago,” he says.
And the idea of Australia as a place with a history stretching back over 60,000 years – the idea of deep time – rather than beginning in 1770 or 1788, is increasingly accepted.
“The embrace … needs to be cautious and invited by Indigenous people, as it can quickly become appropriation. But Indigenous people have usually shown great generosity in sharing many aspects of their culture with settler Australians.”
It could well be the unifying national icons Australians long for have actually been here the whole time.