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Issue #1918      June 8, 2020

TV Review

Miriam Margolyes Almost Australian

Miriam Margolyes describes herself in the series as a “78-year-old Jewish lesbian” going on a journey to immerse herself into the Australian nation. The entire series explores the contradictions of the Australian nation. It looks at how the nation was built, what it is founded on, and what it promises.

Miriam found her eyes seriously widened visiting First Nations people, pictured here with Elder MK Turner. (Photo: Rebecca Hill)

Although Miriam has lived in Australia for 40 years, she only became a citizen in 2013. She and her partner live in what Miriam describes as a “silly little bubble” in the NSW countryside, which she fell in love while filming Babe. She admits that her idea of Australia was built on dreams and illusions that may not be true and so she wants to find the truth – starting with the Australian dream.

Home Ownership

The Australian dream, as Miriam saw it, was home ownership. Australian home ownership is very attractive to British immigrants with nature at your doorstep (a beach, the bush, etc.), a large backyard and a big property to raise a family on. She talks about advertisements she had seen that tried to sell this version of the Australian dream to British people. Even in Australia, I remember as a child watching the cricket and seeing a funny advertisement that compared playing cricket in Australian backyards to British backyards (which, of course, explained why Australia had the better national team).

The home ownership segment in Miriam’s series shows two contrasting ideas of “home” in Australia: one is a $10 million marble-floored mansion in Sydney, and the other is a motorhome. The marble-floored mansion represents a dream very similar to the American dream – a rags to riches story for first-generation immigrants. The motorhome represents Australia’s growing poverty, for a population that is driven by one of the fastest growing homeless demographics: women over the age of fifty-five. On the one hand, you have a “hard work pays off” narrative, and on the other, you have a narrative of women retiring with fifty per cent of the superannuation men retire with.

Stolen Land

In this episode, Miriam also meets up with Lidia Thorpe. Lidia Thorpe is a well-known Indigenous activist in Melbourne of Gunai-Gunditjmara heritage (Gunai-kurnai country is Gippsland in the east of Victoria and Gunditjmara Country is to the south-west). Lidia throws a bit of a curveball to Miriam when she tells her that she doesn’t identify as Australian. Instead, the Australian national identity has been thrust upon her and her people. This segment is important because Lidia explains how the Australian dream has been possible because of the genocide of thousands and thousands of Indigenous people.

Earlier in the episode, Miriam discusses a handbook she downloads called How to Settle and Succeed in Australia. Settling and succeeding was the Australian dream 200 years ago. Miriam quotes the handbook: “it’s the possibility of making a fortune that drives the immigrant.” I am not convinced, however, that the current Australian dream is so different than the “settling and succeeding” dream. Like America, another British settler colony, many different nations find our country appealing because there is a chance that you could walk away with a $10 million home. But how does a country become the land of opportunity?

Contradictions

The contradiction of land is never properly discussed in the episode. Genocide is mentioned, but it is portrayed as if it is a thing of the past. In Stalin’s theory of the nation, “common territory” is one of five criteria of what constitutes a nation. But while the Australian nation exists, its common territory is based on stolen land. As Aileen Moreten-Robinson explains in her essay, “The House that Jack Built: Britishness and White Possession,” that since Australian sovereignty is based on the myth of terra nullius, and that land is inexplicably tied to nation, then the Australian nation is built on values that were required to “dispossess Indigenous people of their lands.” The values she discusses are values associated with the conquering of the difficult Australian landscape that substituted the real violence of the Frontier Wars.

The relationship between the Australian nation and the land we possess is explored when Miriam meets with a struggling family in Trundle. Trundle is a town in western NSW that has been struggling with drought for the past three years. The people in the town are clearly facing adversity with financial struggles, mental health issues, and the “miserable” landscape. It’s suggested that the people in Trundle are experiencing some form of denialism. Many people, including the young sons on the farm, express the generational trauma that underpins the Australian farmer. Drought has been a constant hurdle for those wanting to build wealth off the land. Although Miriam cites climate change as a potential reason Trundle is suffering from the drought, there is no acknowledgement of water and land mismanagement.

With the import of British culture, there was also the import of British agricultural practices that involve land clearing and pastoralism. These agricultural practices are in contradiction with the ecology of the landscape. For example, an important plant that was cleared, and continues to be cleared in northwest Victoria and southwest NSW is the mallee. The mallee has an important ecological function of storing water in its massive lignotuber trunk (underground trunk). In Australian explorer Ernest Giles’ journal, Australia Twice Traversed: The Romance of Exploration, he describes the importance of the mallee:

“The eucalypts of the mallee species thrive in deserts and droughts, but contain water in their roots which only the native inhabitants of the country can discover. A white man would die of thirst while digging and fooling around trying to get the water [...] but it is an aboriginal art at any time or place to find it.”

Instead of admitting that British agricultural practices are destructive, Australians describe the land as difficult, and the red, dusty country is incorporated into our national identity. While drowning in debt, farmers in Trundle hang onto hope that the tide will turn, because their father got through the drought, and their father’s father got through the drought and so on.

Liberalism

The thing that stood out to me the most with Miriam’s search for the Australian dream were the liberal undertones. The “brutality and greed” that Miriam saw in Australia was in response to liberal ethics and opportunities. When Miriam asked people what they thought the Australian dream was, a lot of people responded with “freedom.” Yet many people also spoke about the constraints of life in Australia in between mortgages, work, and financial responsibilities.

The final person Miriam talked to was a young man from Afghanistan who arrived by boat and was in the final year of his temporary protection visa. The viewer was positioned to feel sorry for the man because he was born in a terrible place and finally found freedom in Australia (even though this freedom is temporary because of Australia’s racist immigration policy). There was no exploration of how Afghanistan was destroyed by US imperialism, from the destruction of the Saur Revolution by the US-backed Mujahideen to the ongoing War on Afghanistan. Miriam seemed only let down that Australia’s tolerance was a myth and not that we helped create the refugees we exclude from our nation.

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