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Appearing in the Australian, December 2021

Symbols of Australia: Imagining a Nation
Edited by Melissa Harper and Richard White
NewSouth Publishing, Non-fiction
416 pp, $39

We are a people poised between the desert and the beach. Australia is known, defined and understood by its symbols, although as several of the essays brought together in this book make clear, many of those symbols are the subject of debate and controversy. There are others that reveal our wry, ironic side – and there are a few that are just plain weird. Harper and White, academics who specialise in this sort of thing, have cast a wide net, and Symbols of Australia is as entertaining as it is informative.

One of the most recognisable symbols is the Sydney Harbour Bridge, accepted as definitively Australian even by those who do not live in Sydney. As bridges around the world go it is not particularly large but its beautiful location gives it a special quality and an international profile. The graceful shape has proven to be highly adaptable, and now it is hard to imagine New Year’s Eve without a cascade of fireworks from the ‘coathanger’.

Another structure with a symbolic punch is the Sydney Opera House. The rippled skyline has become a design motif for both the spectacular and the tacky, and it is always high on a tourist’s must-see list. When it was first built it seemed to be an epic waste of money, focused as it was on highbrow culture in a country that usually likes its entertainment to be on the populist side. There is a persistent complaint that the mainstream interior does not match the extraordinary exterior but it has grown into its role, and into the landscape.

The profile of Uluru is another iconic shape, and the Rock is often seen as the symbolic heart of the country. In an environment of heat and dust it has a beauty all its own, and it is difficult to remain unaffected by its majestic presence. But a key issue remains: is it an indigenous symbol or something for all Australians to hold dear? It can, of course, be both. In fact, symbols that have long been a part of indigenous culture, such as the Rainbow Serpent, seem to be making their way into broader Australian culture, which might turn out to be an important step on the road to true reconciliation.

Any Australian who has travelled overseas knows that the kangaroo, at least in romanticised form, is tied to the national image. It is often imagined as a friendly, cuddly creature – mainly by people who have never been near a wild one – and the sheer strangeness of it is a continuing source of global fascination. Many farmers see it as a pest, or sometimes as a resource to be harvested. But even those who have a good reason to dislike the ‘roo accept its symbolic weight.

Something that is a cultural icon but has seldom been accepted outside the national shores is Vegemite. Defined by one of the catchiest jingles ever written (“we’re happy little Vegemites, as bright as bright can be”) it has a place in most kitchen cupboards. It was originally marketed as a health food although its high salt content eventually required a change of message. Nevertheless, Vegemite has straddled the gap between product and symbol, and Australians will probably still be spreading it in a hundred years.

If Vegemite is uniquely Aussie, there are doubts about the origins of another food with a symbolic role, pavlova. The New Zealanders claim to have come up with the idea of a meringue-style pie/cake dish but there is evidence that it developed in several places at roughly the same time. Whatever the back story, Australians have claimed it as a culinary treasure, ignoring that it was named after a ballerina from Russia. And there is a crucial question: what fruit is best on top? The debate continues.

If Australia has a cultural dress code, it is probably topped off by the Akubra hat – even though most people will never actually wear one. Somehow, it does not work very well in big-city environments but it undeniably connects to the wide open spaces. On the political side, it seems that only National Party candidates can make it work; Liberal and Labor leaders always look inauthentic when wearing one.

Another symbol that has led to trouble for politicians is the ‘democracy sausage’ that is a part of Australian elections, as there are unwritten but crucial rules about how it is eaten (from the end!). There is actually an organisation called Democracy Sausage, which provides the locations of fundraisers on Election Day. The organisation’s coat of arms is a kangaroo and an emu, at a barbie.

Our national symbols will surely continue to evolve, and Australians will continue to add to them, argue about them, and make jokes about them. Which is, in the end, exactly as it should be.

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