Australia’s diverse culture and lifestyle reflect its liberal democratic traditions and values, geographic closeness to the Asia–Pacific region and the social and cultural influences of the millions of migrants who have settled in Australia since World War II.
Australia is a product of a unique blend of established traditions and new influences. The country’s original inhabitants, the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, are the custodians of one of the world’s oldest continuing cultural traditions. They have been living in Australia for at least 40 000 years and possibly up to 60 000 years.
The rest of Australia’s people are migrants or descendants of migrants who have arrived in Australia from about 200 countries since Great Britain established the first European settlement at Sydney Cove in 1788. In 1945, Australia’s population was around 7 million people and was mainly Anglo–Celtic. Since then, more than 6.5 million migrants, including 675 000 refugees, have settled in Australia, significantly broadening its social and cultural profile.
Today Australia has a population of more than 21 million people. More than 43 per cent of Australians either were born overseas themselves or have one parent who was born overseas. Australia’s Indigenous population is estimated at 483 000, or 2.3 per cent of the total. Many of the people who have come to Australia since 1945 were motivated by a commitment to family, or a desire to escape poverty, war or persecution. The first waves of migrants and refugees came mostly from Europe. Subsequent waves have come from the Asia–Pacific region, the Middle East and Africa.
Migrants have enriched almost every aspect of Australian life, from business to the arts, from cooking to comedy and from science to sport. They, in turn, have adapted to Australia’s tolerant, informal and broadly egalitarian society.
The defining feature of today’s Australia is not only the cultural diversity of its people, but the extent to which they are united by an overriding and unifying commitment to Australia.
Within the framework of Australia’s laws, all Australians have the right to express their culture and beliefs and to participate freely in Australia’s national life.
At the same time, everyone is expected to uphold the principles and shared values that support Australia’s way of life. These include:
- respect for equal worth, dignity and freedom of the individual
- freedom of speech and association
- freedom of religion and a secular government
- support for parliamentary democracy and the rule of law
- equality under the law
- equality of men and women
- equality of opportunity
- a spirit of egalitarianism that embraces tolerance, mutual respect, and compassion for those in need. Australia also holds firmly to the belief that no one should be disadvantaged on the basis of their country of birth, cultural heritage, language, gender or religious belief.
An egalitarian society
In most practical ways, Australia is an egalitarian society. This does not mean that everyone is the same or that everybody has equal wealth or property. But it does mean that there are no formal or entrenched class distinctions in Australian society, as there are in some other countries. It also means that with hard work and commitment, people without high-level connections or influential patrons can realise their ambitions.
The unemployment rate is relatively low (in December 2007 it was 4.3 per cent) and the gross per capita income is around $39 000. All people are equal under the law in Australia and all Australians have the right to be respected and treated in a fair manner.
A typical Australian?
Given the diverse nature of today’s Australia, some people question whether there is a ‘typical’ Australian. There is, of course, no shortage of popular stereotypes, some of which contradict each other.
For example, some people see Australians as egalitarian, irreverent people with a deep suspicion of authority while others regard them as mostly law-abiding and even conformist. Some people, particularly those living overseas, believe Australians live mainly in country areas, the Australian outback or the bush. In fact, more than 75 per cent of Australians live a cosmopolitan lifestyle in urban centres, mainly in the capital cities along the coast. Others see Australians as people who live in a ‘lucky country’ who love their leisure, particularly sport, both as spectators and as participants. In fact, Australians are among the hardest-working people in the world with some of the longest working hours in the developed world.
Another common perception of Australians is that they are informal, open and direct and say what they mean. They are also seen as people who believe in the principle of giving people a fair go and standing up for their mates, the disadvantaged and the underdog.
Many of these popular images have some truth to them and most Australians conform to at least some of them. But Australians, like people everywhere, cannot be so easily stereotyped. There are ‘typical’ Australians everywhere. But they are not all the same.
All people in Australia are encouraged to learn English, which is the national language and an important unifying element of Australian society. However, languages other than English are also valued. In fact, more than 15 per cent of Australians speak languages other than English at home.
The most commonly spoken languages after English are Italian, Greek, Cantonese, Arabic, Vietnamese and Mandarin. Australians speak more than 200 languages, including Indigenous Australian languages.
While English is Australia’s national language, there are certain words and expressions that have become regarded as uniquely Australian through common usage. Some of them might seem strange to non-Australians.
The use of these colloquial or slang words, often coupled with an Australian sense of humour that is characterised by irony and irreverence, can sometimes cause confusion for international visitors. There are a number of books on Australian colloquialisms and slang, including the Macquarie Book of Slang.
Australia is a predominantly Christian country, with around 64 per cent of all Australians identifying as Christians. However, most other major religious faiths are also practised, reflecting Australia’s culturally diverse society.
Australia’s earliest religions or spiritual beliefs date back to the Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples, who have inhabited Australia for between 40 000 and 60 000 years. Indigenous Australians have their own unique religious traditions and spiritual values.
Australia has no official state religion and people are free to practise any religion they choose, as long as they obey the law. Australians are also free not to have a religion.
Vibrant arts scene
Australia has a vibrant arts scene that reflects both the nation’s Indigenous cultural traditions and its rich mosaic of migrant cultures. All forms of the visual and performing arts have strong followings, including film, art, theatre, dance and music.
According to one survey, almost 13 million or 88 per cent of adult Australians attend at least one cultural event or performance every year. The most popular art form is film, attended by about 70 per cent of the population each year. More than 26 per cent attend a popular music concert; 25 per cent go to an art gallery or museum; 19 per cent see an opera or musical; 18 per cent attend live theatre; 11 per cent attend a dance performance; and 9 per cent attend a classical music concert.
Visual artists have played an important role in shaping and reflecting Australia’s image. They range from Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists to the nationalist painters of the Heidelberg School in Victoria, symbolic surrealists such as Sidney Nolan, Arthur Boyd and Albert Tucker and modern artists reflecting issues confronting contemporary Australia. Other notable Australian artists include John Brack, William Dobell, Russell Drysdale, Margaret Olley, John Olsen, Margaret Preston, Clifton Pugh, Jeffrey Smart, Brett Whiteley and Fred Williams.
Australia has a strong literary tradition, which started with the storytelling of Indigenous Australians and continued with the oral stories of convicts arriving in Australia in the late 18th century. Australia has one Nobel Prize for Literature to its credit, with novelist Patrick White receiving the award in 1973. Other recent Australian novelists whose work has a particularly Australian flavour include Peter Carey, Bryce Courtenay, Kate Grenville, Elizabeth Jolley, Thomas Keneally, Christopher Koch, David Malouf, Colleen McCullough, Christina Stead, Morris West and Tim Winton.
A sporting culture
Australians love their sport, both playing it and watching it.
Australia has often achieved impressive results at the elite level. In the 2004 Athens Olympic Games, Australia ranked fourth overall in the medal tally behind the United States, China and Russia. In the 2006 Football World Cup, Australia reached the final 16. Australia is also ranked the top cricketing nation in the world.
But it’s not just at this top level that Australians enjoy their sport. A recent national survey showed that more than 11 million Australians aged 15 or over participated at least once a week in physical activity for exercise, recreation and sport—a participation rate of almost 70 per cent. The 10 most popular physical activities were walking, aerobics/fitness, swimming, cycling, tennis, golf, running, bushwalking, football (often referred to as soccer in Australia) and netball. Other popular sporting activities include Australian football, rugby, hockey, basketball, baseball, car racing, horse racing, sailing and snow skiing.
The most watched sports in Australia include Australian Rules Football, a uniquely Australian game with roots traceable to early forms of rugby and Gaelic football, rugby league, rugby union and cricket. The Australian Open, held in Melbourne, is one of tennis’s four Grand Slam events. Australia has more than 120 national sporting organisations and thousands of state and local bodies.