Dissecting Prime Ministers’ Australia Day speeches

Australia Day and Anzac Day are meant to be opportunities for Prime Ministers to unite and inspire Australians, yet research suggests that their speeches often don’t reflect diversity and can even marginalise certain groups.

New University of Sydney peer-reviewed research reveals that past Prime Ministers’ speeches on national ceremonial days such as Australia Day and Anzac Day do not always reflect the diversity of Australians and have marginalised minority groups.

Published in the Australian Journal of Political Science, the research, by Dr Nicholas Bromfield, Lecturer in the Department of Government and International Relations and Mr Alexander Page, Postdoctoral Research Associate in the Department of Sociology and Social Policy, was based on an analysis of 135 Prime Ministers’ Australia Day and Anzac Day speeches and media releases over a 27-year period (1990-2017).

They used computer software to identify certain variables (class, gender and sexuality, and race and place), as well as the top 25 words of three letters or more. They found that “Prime Ministers often use these national days to share, shape and reproduce their understanding of what and whom is representative of Australian identity and nationalism and simultaneously pursue their own policy agendas.”

“Whilst prime ministers sometimes use inclusive language and affirm Australia’s proud egalitarianism, they often rely on clichéd hetero-masculine, and Anglocentric Australianness, regardless of the individual prime minister or their party affiliation.

“The activism, law and policy reforms that Indigenous peoples, women, migrants and workers have initiated over decades has had little impact on Prime Minister’s representation of these people.”

…any critique of class division or wealth disparity would negate the myth-making of a unified and egalitarian Australian society…

Dr Nicholas Bromfield and Mr Alexander Page

Class

According to their evaluation, Prime Ministers tend to present Australia as ‘classless’.

“The tendency of prime ministers to avoid discussion of class can be explained first by Australia’s culturally embedded tradition of egalitarianism. Secondly, neoliberal economic norms see challenges to market-based policy making as divisive,” the researchers said.

“For example, in 1999, John Howard said: “We believe very deeply that a person’s worth is determined by their character and by the effort they put into being a good citizen, not according to their social class, or their background”.

“In this context, any critique of class division or wealth disparity would negate the myth-making of a unified and egalitarian Australian society, regardless of real class difference.”

Gender and sexuality

Dr Bromfield and Mr Page further found that the speeches, more so on Anzac Day than Australia Day, reinforced traditional gender norms. They did this through subject selection, as well as through binary stereotypes, which privilege ‘masculine’ traits like strength, ambition and independence and diminish ‘feminine’ ones like passivity and fragility.

John Howard, for example, dedicated whole Australia Day addresses to the achievements of Australian male cricketers such as Don Bradman (in 1997), Mark Taylor (in 1999), and Steve Waugh (in 2004) yet only reserved a few sentences for female athlete Cathy Freeman when she won Australian of Year in 1998.

Further, heteronormative depictions of families abounded in the materials studied, while only one LGBTQI-related word was identified – the word ‘gay’ on Australia Day 2015.

…Prime Ministers reflect the relationship with Asia on Australia Day in transactional terms, whilst presenting a warmer and more personal image of Australia’s connection to the Anglosphere

Dr Nicholas Bromfield and Mr Alexander Page

Race and place

“On Australia Day, the Anglosphere and Europe is the category that is most frequently mentioned by both major political parties, followed by the Asia Pacific, then the Middle East,” the researchers said.

“This tendency can be explained by the privileging of the history of white colonialism.

“Moreover, Prime Ministers reflect the relationship with Asia on Australia Day in transactional terms, whilst presenting a warmer and more personal image of Australia’s connection to the Anglosphere.

“For example, in 2016, while Malcolm Turnbull spoke of a cosmopolitan, multicultural and advantageously positioned Australia (“… Australia is so well positioned. Once isolated from the economic powers in Europe and North America, we now share the same hemisphere as the Asian economic giants”), his enthusiasm did little more than highlight the economic advantage of Australia’s proximity to Asia; another example of Prime Ministers framing Asia in transactional terms.”

Additionally, Dr Bromfield and Mr Page’s research suggests that Prime Ministers’ speeches, including Scott Morrison’s, reproduce dominant racial identities through language regarding Indigenous peoples as “our First Australians”, which implies ownership of Indigenous peoples.

About the broader project: The politics of identity and agenda setting on Australia Day and Anzac Day

Dr Bromfield and Mr Page’s research forms part of a larger project that studies Australian national identity as represented by Prime Ministers over time. Dr Bromfield’s recent research has focused broadly upon issues of nationalism and identity in political science, public policy and international relations. Mr Page’s research focuses on Indigenous policy analysis, the sociology of race, and social movements.

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