Eureka! Has Australia found its 'defining moment'?

Dec. 3 is the 150th anniversary of Eureka Day. For some Australians, it's their Boston Tea Party.

Comedian Jerry Seinfeld inadvertently touched a nerve regarding Australian identity when he said, "I love your flag - Britain at night," during his visit here in 2000. That the quip was made by an American whose country had long ago cast off British authority - something Australians still haven't fully done - made it even more biting.

Australia's flag - the British Union Jack in the corner of a field of dark blue, surrounded by six stars - is indeed a lingering reminder of the country's status as a former British colony. For this reason, some groups here are looking for alternatives, including a flag that will be widely waved Friday as Australia commemorates one of its historic holidays.

In addition to its colonial legacy, much of Australian history is centered around tales of explorers mapping the country or finding new water routes. More often than not, they failed and even died in the process. These stories, though tragic, don't paint a grand picture of conquering heroes and charismatic leaders. There were no wars of independence or commemoration of civil conflicts that the country can rally around once a year.

But starting Friday, a fresh effort will be undertaken to change all that.

Dec. 3 marks the 150th anniversary of what's now called Eureka Day, when the 40th Military Regiment launched an attack in 1854 against a ragtag group of goldminers in Victoria who had been protesting against the authorities for raising the price of gold-mining licenses. Twenty-two miners died and six troopers were injured. For some Australians, this is as close as it gets to a defining moment.

Now, four up-and-coming authors are urging Australia to adopt a national holiday and new flag based on what was known as the Eureka Stockade. The four twentysomethings - MacGregor Duncan, Andrew Leigh, David Madden, and Peter Tynan - hatched their idea for a new nationalism while at Harvard University. "Eureka was primarily a struggle for democratic rights against arbitrary colonial rule which ultimately won for the miners political representation on the gold fields and eventually the franchise within the colony of Victoria," they write in their book, published this year.

The authors say that the incident has similarities to the Boston Tea Party and is the day when Australian democracy was born. They advocate that instead of commemorating Jan. 26, 1788, when Captain James Cook landed on Sydney Cove to establish the first settlement as the official national day (which the Aborigines refer to as "Invasion Day"), people should celebrate Eureka Day.

The Eureka flag, which will be flown as part of celebrations, is a blue flag with a white cross emblazoned with five stars representing the Southern Cross constellation.

The Australian identity has always been more of a mishmash of characteristics than an overarching ethic. In the 1950s, nationalist writer Russell Ward immortalized the Australian male in a book called "The Australian Legend." He is "ever willing to have a go at anything, but willing to be content with a task done in a way that is near enough," Mr. Ward wrote. "He swears hard and consistently, gambles heartily, and often and drinks deeply on occasion. He is usually taciturn rather than talkative, he believes that Jack is not only as good as his master but, at least in principle, probably a good deal better."

This image was realized in Paul Hogan's Crocodile Dundee films.

It's no different when it comes to the Australian female. "I remember growing up hearing stories of an outback mother protecting her children from the deadly black snake which was in the house on the dirt floor - this is an enduring image to show that there was no time for airs and graces or formalities in a hostile landscape.... That is our history ... and our identity," says Eric Savage, a third- generation Australian whose ancestors came from England.

Clive Hamilton, the director of the Australian Institute at the Australian National University argues that grand themes are not necessary for forming identity.

"Australians shy away from any vocal displays of patriotism which they would immediately brand as suspect, but that does not mean we don't have strong feelings about who we are. Whenever one Australian meets another in a foreign country there is a natural bond between them - we know who we are," he says.

According to Mr. Hamilton, identity was formed in World War I, when Australians for the first time fought overseas together with their New Zealand brothers. "We were egalitarian, wary of authority, irreverent, and imbued with an ethic of mateship - this was our unique nature," he says.

These days, Australian identity may be molded more by a growing kinship with the US than any historical connection with the British Empire. While polls show that Australians are wary of the US's cultural imperialism, the two countries are becoming increasingly integrated.

"I was heavily criticized when I said that Australia was like the 51st state of the United States, but the fact is that this country is no longer separated from the US by its mere geography. The communication revolution has taken care of that," says Greg Hywood, a participant in the American-Australian Leadership Dialogue, an annual meeting of officials and businessmen from both countries.

"We are more of an American outpost than a British branch office now. And we are not unhappy about it and should not be afraid. It's a new world."

John Ricard, an honorary fellow at Monash University in Melbourne who taught Australian cultural history at Harvard University in the 1990s, says that fear of US domination began with Hollywood, but now is based on economics.

"There is definitely a concern going back to the 1920s, when talking movies came about, that we would all start speaking like Americans," he says. "Now when we talk about fears of domination arising from globalization, we are really sharing these fears with many other parts of the world and we are hardly unique."

So, is it likely that national symbols are about to change any time soon? Australians have shown reluctance to do so in the recent past. In a 1999 referendum, Australians rejected 55 percent to 45 percent a plan for becoming a republic.

Change won't happen until the queen dies, says Harold Scruby, head of Ausflag, an organization searching for the "correct" flag that has received 50,000 submissions of designs for a new national banner. "Let's face it, she's been a good queen to us, but I'm not sure we will want to carry on with Charles. Then Australia might become a republic, and if that happens, we will change the flag."

Clive Hamilton puts it more bluntly. "I don't think we are at a time in history where we are looking for new symbols. Our preoccupation is with our mercurial circumstances - our mortgages and our backyards," he says.

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