MH370 and the coolabah tree

To be Australian is to travel: our compulsion to travel and our purported generosity to travellers from across the world represent fundamental building blocks of the Australian national ethos. Both our modern foundation story and the native traditions of the first Australians mark us out collectively as people who are culturally displaced; people who have been compelled (or whose ancestors have been compelled) to transition, whether by force or by choice. Our national songs still reflect this even if our current hard-nosed approach to immigration and asylum seekers do not:

…for those who’ve come across the seas, we’ve boundless plains to share…

…we are one, but we are many and from all the lands on earth we come…

…but no matter how far or how wide I roam, I still call Australia home…

Viewed through this prism, Banjo Patterson’s “jolly swagman” myth is quickly demystified: he was of course Australia’s first ever backpacker!

Our relationship to travel and travellers is a condition that brings us pain as well as joy. Tim Minchin’s wonderful modern Australian Christmas Carol White Wine in the Sun is a hymn to family time together and the pain that we feel when our loved ones are on the other side of the world. The political reality of the Abbott Government’s “stop the boats” rhetoric stings many of us, in part, because it so violently contradicts our national identity – or at least – the national identity we celebrate in our songs and our history. There is a profound conflict between our mythology and the reality here: these are values that are supposed to really mean something; they are supposed to be unique to us.

This relationship also infects our political consciousness in other ways, for example, on the question of QANTAS being Australia’s “national carrier” and therefore deserving of special treatment. QANTAS is one of the world’ s oldest airlines, the brand that generations have relied upon and trusted to carry them around Australia and abroad, and a living symbol of our unquenchable national love for travel. That flying kangaroo, bolstered by decades of cunningly parochial advertising, represents more than just another company now, even if in practical terms it is just another logo. There is an emotional attachment there that has been hardwired into us through our own individual trips to the Gold Coast with friends, or to Bali, or through visiting relatives in Asia, Europe or still further afield.

It is this sort of sensibility on travel that arguably makes Australians more empathetic than most when disasters such as that which appears to have befallen flight MH370 materialise. Many of us either instinctively or through experience can relate to how it feels to be suspended in a glorified metallic can above a dark ocean, worlds away from friends and loved ones, with your life in the hands of pilots, sight unseen. Most of us can feel what it would be like if a disaster happened to us on a flight: because we have ourselves almost been there, whether in reality or in our fertile imaginations. There is a reason why Australians don’t mind an episode of Air Crash Investigations: it pushes our buttons. The tabloid media may have tried its best in the last few days to focus on the six unfortunate Australians who were aboard MH370, but such is our identification with “the traveller” that we are emotionally capable of feeling the pain of the other 233 souls on board just as keenly. The sense that “it could have been us” cuts right through, past nationality, race, colour or creed.

If to be Australian is to travel, in some fleeting moments at least, to travel is to be Australian.

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