Karen Fox has reviewed Melissa Harper and Richard White, eds., Symbols of Australia: Imagining a Nation (Sydney: NewSouth Publishing, 2021).


Symbols of Australia: Imagining a Nation (NewSouth Publishing, 2021) is a marvellous new addition to our knowledge of Australia’s national imaginings. Encompassing 28 chapters on a range of national symbols, plus an informative and thought-provoking introduction by the volume’s editors, Melissa Harper and Richard White, the collection is an updated edition of an earlier work first published in 2010. The new iteration beautifully demonstrates the editors’ contention that ‘[n]ational symbols never stand still’ (p. vii). As well as the addition of two new chapters – on the Great Barrier Reef and the democracy sausage – each existing chapter has been updated to reflect the ‘new accretions and depictions’ around each symbol, and ‘their growing or fading popularity and … shifts in their meaning’ (p. vii).

White and Harper are ideal editors for such a volume, given White’s long engagement with the subject of Australian national identity, including as author of the seminal work Inventing Australia (1981), and Harper’s expertise in Australian cultural history, and in particular the topics of bushwalking, food, and attachment to place – all important elements in Australians’ imaginings of themselves. Their introduction is a learned and lucid entry point to the subject of national symbols, effectively setting the scene for the detailed chapters on individual symbols that follow.

To operate ‘as an effective embodiment of the nation,’ Harper and White assert, a symbol must be ‘distinctive’ and ‘readily recognised’ as well as ‘readily reproducible’ (p. 3). It also – perhaps surprisingly – helps if its meaning is somewhat ‘ambiguous’ or ‘pliable, able to mean different things to different people’ (p. 4). The development of Australia’s national symbols stretches back before Federation, although Harper and White identify the moment of Federation in 1901 – ‘when Australia became a nation-state’ – as ‘[p]erhaps the high point of symbol-making’ (p. 8). The process has continued throughout the twentieth century and into the twenty-first, with the final chapter, Judith Brett’s exploration of the democracy sausage, examining the nation’s newest symbol. The story is not simply one of the creation and embracing of symbols, however. As Harper and White state, symbols ‘fall in and out of fashion’ (p. 10), and may – like the Holden – alter  in meaning, standing for modernity and progress at one moment but drawing their ‘power’ from ‘a patina of nostalgia’ (p. 12) at another.

Moreover, as Harper and White’s introduction makes clear, national symbols are the invention of people, rather than unmediated natural developments, and are used in varying ways in the service of political or commercial ends. The very existence of a number of symbols that are themselves consumer products – such as Vegemite or the Akubra – serves to underline this point. Nor are they immune from criticism, for example on the grounds that they may work to ‘exclude the less powerful – women, children, ethnic minorities – from national imagery’ (p. 19). Yet this too is not so simple a story, for as Harper and White acknowledge, it is not only ‘powerful men’ (p. 20) who create symbols, and all these groups have also engaged with the processes of symbol-making. Through such nuanced interpretations of Australia’s national symbols, which continue throughout the book in a remarkably strong collection of chapters, this book greatly enhances our understanding of these ubiquitous but often under-analysed elements of national life.

Object No. 91/2094, Museum of Applied Arts & Sciences, <https://ma.as/115583>

The chapters are arranged approximately chronologically, beginning with the Southern Cross and moving through a wide range of symbols, including the natural (such as the kangaroo and the gum tree) and the built (Sydney’s Harbour Bridge and Opera House), those drawn from Indigenous Australian cultural heritage (among them the Rainbow Serpent and the boomerang), and both the civic (the flag and the coat of arms) and the commercial (Holden, Vegemite). Necessarily for a book on such visual subject matter, the book is richly illustrated, with 69 colour images in two sections of glossy pages and a number of black-and-white illustrations within the various chapters.

One striking aspect of the book for this reviewer is the extent to which several of the symbols covered are shared, at least to some degree, with New Zealand. While this is perhaps most obvious in the case of that delicious but contested confection, the pavlova – the shared ownership of which is discussed by Michael Symons in his chapter on it – a link with their own nation might also be felt by New Zealanders in relation to such symbols as the Southern Cross, the digger (or, more broadly, the Anzac mythology attached to that figure), and Vegemite, while both the Crown and the flag are also, in their different ways, to some extent shared across the Tasman. These may not all rise to the level of being widely accepted national symbols of New Zealand – as, say, the kiwi or the silver fern – but this aspect of Australian national symbolism nevertheless serves to underline the shared Australasian history and culture of the two nations, which has continued long after New Zealand declined to join the Australian Federation.

Such shared symbolism also highlights the value of comparison and contrast, and of bringing a wider vision to the history of the nation. In their preface the editors briefly draw a comparison with the national symbols of Canada, noting the 2018 publication of a volume on Canadian national symbols (Symbols of Canada, edited by Mike Dawson, Catherine Gidney, and Donald Wright) prompted by the first edition of Symbols of Australia. As Harper and White note, there are fascinating comparisons to be made, given the shared history of settler colonialism and Indigenous dispossession between the two countries. As another nation sharing a similar history as a settler society and former British dominion, not to mention cultural ideals such as egalitarianism, New Zealand is an ideal third comparison deserving the attention of future researchers.

In short, this is a terrific book. Its strengths are many: the diverse range of symbols covered in the easily digestible chapters, the engaging writing by all the authors, the evocative illustrations, and – not least – the light it sheds on the slippery concept of national identity. By considering that evanescent idea through a range of discrete, and often material, symbols, it is possible to observe national identity in motion: developing, changing, being used, and being contested. Symbols of Australia is a fantastic read, both hugely informative and enormously entertaining. It deserves a wide audience, and should find it among both specialists and those who simply enjoy reading history or are interested in the ways Australians have – as the subtitle puts it – imagined the nation.

Karen Fox
Karen Fox

Dr Karen Fox is a senior research fellow in the National Centre of Biography and a research editor for the Australian Dictionary of Biography in the School of History at The Australian National University. A historian of Australia and New Zealand, she has taught Australian and imperial history and biography at the ANU. She is the author of Māori and Aboriginal Women in the Public Eye: Representing Difference, 1950–2000 (ANU E Press, 2011) and Honouring a Nation: A History of Australia’s Honours System (ANU Press, 2021).