The culture of Australia is essentially a Western culture influenced by the unique geography of the Australian continent, the diverse input of Aboriginal, Torres Strait Islander and other Oceanian people, the British colonisation of Australia that began in 1788, and the various waves of multi-ethnic migration that followed.Evidence of a significant Anglo-Celtic heritage includes the predominance of the English language, the existence of a democratic system of government drawing upon the British traditions of Westminster Government, Parliamentarianism and constitutional monarchy, American constitutionalist and federalist traditions, Christianity as the dominant religion, and the popularity of sports originating in (or influenced by) the British Isles. Australian culture has diverged significantly since British settlement.
Aboriginal people are believed to have arrived as early as 60,000 years ago, and evidence of Aboriginal art in Australia dates back at least 30,000 years. Several states and territories had their origins as penal colonies, with the first British convicts arriving at Sydney Cove in 1788. Stories of outlaws like the bushranger Ned Kelly have endured in Australian music, cinema and literature. The Australian gold rushes from the 1850s brought wealth as well as new social tensions to Australia, including the miners’ Eureka Stockade rebellion. The colonies established elected parliaments and rights for workers and women before most other Western nations.
Federation in 1901 evidenced a growing sense of national identity that had developed over the latter half of the 19th century, as seen in the works of the Heidelberg School painters and writers like Banjo Paterson, Henry Lawson and Dorothea Mackellar. The World Wars profoundly altered Australia’s sense of identity, with World War I introducing the ANZAC legend, and World War II seeing a reorientation from Britain to the United States as the nation’s foremost major ally. After the second war, 6.5 million migrants from 200 nations brought immense new diversity, and Australians grew increasingly aware of their proximity to Asia. Over time, the diverse food, lifestyle and cultural practices of immigrants have been absorbed into mainstream Australian culture.
Egalitarianism, informality and an irreverent sense of humour have been common themes of cultural commentary, exemplified by the works of C. J. Dennis, Barry Humphries and Paul Hogan. Fascination with the outback has persisted in the arts in Australia.
Major cities host internationally renowned cultural institutions as the Sydney Opera House and the National Gallery of Australia. Australia has contributed many artists to music and film internationally, from hard rock’s AC/DC to opera’s Nellie Melba and Joan Sutherland, as well as Hollywood actors Geoffrey Rush, Nicole Kidman and Errol Flynn, and designer Catherine Martin. Australians also participate in a wide variety of sports, including Australian rules football and a vibrant surf culture.
Development of Australian culture
The oldest surviving cultural traditions in Australia—and some of the oldest surviving cultural traditions on earth—are those of Australia’s Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander peoples. Their ancestors have inhabited Australia for between 40,000 and 60,000 years, living a hunter-gatherer lifestyle. In 2006, the Indigenous population was estimated at 517,000 people, or 2.5 per cent of the total population. Most Aboriginal Australians have a belief system based on the Dreaming, or Dreamtime, which refers both to a time when ancestral spirits created land and culture, and to the knowledge and practices that define individual and community responsibilities and identity. Conflict and reconciliation between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians has been a source of much art and literature in Australia, and ancient Aboriginal artistic styles and iconic inventions such as the boomerang, the didgeridoo and Indigenous Australian music have become symbols of modern Australia.
When the Australian colonies federated on 1 January 1901, an official competition for a design for an Australian flag was held. The design that was adopted contains the Union Flag in the left corner, symbolising Australia’s historical links to the United Kingdom, the stars of the Southern Cross on the right half of the flag indicating Australia’s geographical location, and the seven-pointed Federation Star in the bottom left representing the six states and the territories of Australia. Other official flags include the Australian Aboriginal Flag, the Torres Strait Islander Flag and the flags of the individual states and territories.
Although Australia has no official language, it is largely monolingual with English being the de facto national language. Australian English is a major variety of the language which is immediately distinguishable from British, American, and other national dialects by virtue of its unique accents, pronunciations, idioms and vocabulary, although its spelling more closely reflects British versions rather than American. According to the 2011 census, English is the only language spoken in the home for around 80% of the population. The next most common languages spoken at home are Mandarin (1.7%), Italian (1.5%), and Arabic (1.4%); almost all migrants speak some English. Australia has a sign language known as Auslan, which in 2004 was the main language of about 6,500 deaf people.
Comedy is an important part of the Australian identity. The “Australian sense of humour” is often characterised as dry, irreverent and ironic, exemplified by the works of performing artists like Barry Humphries and Paul Hogan.
The convicts of the early colonial period helped establish anti-authoritarianism as a hallmark of Australian comedy. Influential in the establishment of stoic, dry wit as a characteristic of Australian humour were the bush balladeers of the 19th century, including Henry Lawson, author of “The Loaded Dog”. His contemporary, Banjo Paterson, contributed a number of classic comic poems including The Man from Ironbark and The Geebung Polo Club. CJ Dennis wrote humour in the Australian vernacular – notably in The Songs of a Sentimental Bloke. The Dad and Dave series about a farming family was an enduring hit of the early 20th century. The World War I ANZAC troops were said to often display irreverence in their relations with superior officers and dark humour in the face of battle.
The arts in Australia—film, music, painting, theatre, dance and crafts—have achieved international recognition. While much of Australia’s cultural output has traditionally tended to fit with general trends and styles in Western arts, the arts as practiced by indigenous Australians represent a unique Australian cultural tradition, and Australia’s landscape and history have contributed to some unique variations in the styles inherited by Australia’s various migrant communities.
As the convict era passed—captured most famously in Marcus Clarke’s For the Term of His Natural Life (1874), a seminal work of Tasmanian Gothic—the bush and Australian daily life assumed primacy as subjects. Charles Harpur, Henry Kendall and Adam Lindsay Gordon won fame in the mid-19th century for their lyric nature poems and patriotic verse. Gordon drew on Australian colloquy and idiom; Clarke assessed his work as “the beginnings of a national school of Australian poetry”. First published in serial form in 1882, Rolf Boldrewood’s Robbery Under Arms is regarded as the classic bushranging novel.
The ceremonial dances of Indigenous Australians recount stories of the Dreamtime and have been performed for thousands of years. European traditions came to Australia with the First Fleet in 1788, with the first production being performed in 1789 by convicts. In 1988, the year of Australia’s bicentenary, the circumstances of the foundations of Australian theatre were recounted in Timberlake Wertenbaker’s play Our Country’s Good.
Australian Convict Sites (comprising a collection of separate sites around Australia, including Hyde Park Barracks in Sydney, Port Arthur in Tasmania, and Fremantle Prison in Western Australia); the Sydney Opera House; and the Royal Exhibition Building in Melbourne. Contemporary Australian architecture includes a number of other iconic structures, including the Harbour Bridge in Sydney and Parliament House, Canberra. Significant architects who have worked in Australia include Governor Lachlan Macquarie’s colonial architect, Francis Greenway; the ecclesiastical architect William Wardell; the designer of Canberra’s layout, Walter Burley Griffin; the modernist Harry Seidler; and Jørn Utzon, designer of the Sydney Opera House. The National Trust of Australia is a non-governmental organisation charged with protecting Australia’s built heritage.
Aboriginal rock art is the oldest continuous art tradition in the world, dating as far back as 60,000 years. From the Bradshaw and Wondjina imagery in the Kimberley to the Sydney rock engravings, it is spread across hundreds of thousands of sites, making Australia the richest continent in terms of prehistoric art. 19th century Indigenous activist William Barak painted ceremonial scenes, such as corroborees. The Hermannsburg School, led by Albert Namatjira, received national fame in the 1950s for their desert watercolours.
Australia’s first dedicated film studio, the Limelight Department, was created by The Salvation Army in Melbourne in 1898, and is believed to be the world’s first. The world’s first feature-length film was the 1906 Australian production The Story of the Kelly Gang. Tales of bushranging, gold mining, convict life and the colonial frontier dominated the silent film era of Australian cinema. Filmmakers such as Raymond Longford and W. J. Lincoln based many of their productions on Australian novels, plays, and even paintings. An enduring classic is Longford and Lottie Lyell’s 1919 film The Sentimental Bloke, adapted from the 1915 poems by C. J. Dennis. After such early successes, Australian cinema suffered from the rise of hollywood.
Music is an integral part of Aboriginal culture. The most famous feature of their music is the didgeridoo. This wooden instrument, used amongst the Aboriginal tribes of northern Australia, makes a distinctive droning sound and it has been adopted by a wide variety of non-Aboriginal performers.
Aboriginal musicians have turned their hand to Western popular musical forms, often to considerable commercial success. Pioneers include Lionel Rose and Jimmy Little, while notable contemporary examples include Archie Roach, Kev Carmody, the Warumpi Band, Troy Cassar-Daley and Yothu Yindi. Geoffrey Gurrumul Yunupingu (formerly of Yothu Yindi) has attained international success singing contemporary music in English and in the language of the Yolngu. Christine Anu is a successful Torres Strait Islander singer. Amongst young Australian aborigines, African-American and Aboriginal hip hop music and clothing is popular.
The Deadly Awards are an annual celebration of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander achievement in music, sport, entertainment and community.
Australia has no official state religion and the Australian Constitution prohibits the Commonwealth government from establishing a church or interfering with the freedom of religion. According to the 2011 Australian Census, 61.1% of Australians were listed as Christian. Historically, this proportion has been higher and a growing proportion of the population define themselves as irreligious, with 22.3% of Australians declaring “no religion” on the census. There are also growing communities of various other religions. From the early decades after federation, people from diverse religious backgrounds have held public office. The first Jewish Governor General, Isaac Isaacs, was selected by the first Catholic prime minister, James Scullin, in the 1930s. In recent times, some prime ministers have identified as religious, others as non-religious.
Contemporary Australian cuisine combines British and indigenous origins with Mediterranean and Asian influences. Australia’s abundant natural resources allow access to a large variety of quality meats, and to barbecue beef or lamb in the open air is considered a cherished national tradition. The great majority of Australians live close to the sea and Australian seafood restaurants have been listed among the world’s best.
Clothing and apparel
Australia has no official designated national dress, but iconic local styles include bushwear and surfwear. The country’s best-known fashion event is Australian Fashion Week, a twice yearly industry gathering showcasing seasonal collections from Australian and Asia Pacific Designers. Top Australian models include Elle Macpherson, Miranda Kerr and Jennifer Hawkins (Miss Universe 2004).
Many Australians are passionate about sport, and it forms a major part of the country’s culture in terms of spectating and participation. Cricket is popular in the summer, and football codes are popular in the winter. It is generally agreed that cricket enjoys the most popularity in all parts of the country. Australian traditions such as grand finals and footy tipping are shared amongst the codes.
Australia’s successes in events such as the Olympic Games, Commonwealth Games, World Cup competitions in cricket, rugby union, rugby league, field hockey, netball, and major tournaments in tennis, golf, surfing, and other sports are a source of pride for many Australians. Sportspeople such as Donald Bradman, Dawn Fraser, and Cathy Freeman remain in the nation’s cultural memory and are accorded high civilian honours and public status.
Cricket is Australia’s most popular summer sport and has been played since colonial times. It is followed in all states and territories, unlike the football codes which vary in popularity between regions.
Horse racing has had a prominent place in Australian culture since the colonial era, with the first spectator sports event in Australia being Lachlan Macquarie’s race meeting at Hyde Park, Sydney, in 1810.First run in 1861, the Melbourne Cup is known as “the race that stops a nation” for the enthusiasm with which Australians tune in for the annual race, and is said to encapsulate the country’s twin obsessions of sport and gambling.
Australian stories and legends have a cultural significance independent of their empirical truth or falsehood. This can be seen in the national obsession with the almost mythological portrayal of bushranger Ned Kelly as a mixture of the underdog and Robin Hood.
Militarily, Australians have served in numerous overseas wars, ranging from World War I through to recent regional security missions, such as East Timor, Iraq and Afghanistan. Australian war culture generally consists of sombre reflection and commemoration, focussing on noble sacrifice rather than glory. An annual national holiday, Anzac Day, exists for this purpose. The Australian experience of defeat in the Gallipoli Campaign, the first iconic moment in modern Australia’s involvement in war, is viewed by Australians with both pride for the fighting of the soldiers, and bitterness for the perceived negligence on the part of British commanders. The incidences of bravery and determination displayed during the campaign for Gallipoli, as well as the mutual respect for their Turkish adversaries led by Kemal Atatürk, are seen as part of the ANZAC spirit. During the First World War, Australian soldiers were considered to be remarkably determined, united and hard-working. Many Australians knew how to ride and shoot prior to enlistment, making them talented recruits, but they were also infamous for their lax attitude towards formal parade ground discipline, a notoriety that the Australian soldiers revelled in. From this the notion of the larrikin Digger emerged, an important part of contemporary Australian identity.
Attitudes, beliefs and stereotypes
The phrase “the lucky country”, coined by Donald Horne, is a reference to Australia’s weather, lifestyle, and history. Ironically, Horne was using the term to criticise the complacency of Australian society in the early 1960s.
“Mateship”, or loyal fraternity is the code of conduct, particularly between men, although more recently also between men and women, stressing equality and friendship.The value of mateship is sourced in the difficulty of subduing the land. Unlike other cultures based on a nurturing landscape that they seek to protect from others, Australian settlers experienced great hardship and had to support each other in order to survive. The battle against the elements led to the nickname of a member of Australia’s working class being the “Aussie battler”.