Australian Identity, Leadership and Political Language
Australian identity stories have been a key feature of campaign language since Federation, a defining discursive theme of election appeals through which political leaders have sought to articulate shared experience and collective values. Political iterations of these identity stories are not definitive reflections of the nation's true essence. Rather, they give citizens options from which to create both individual and collective notions of belonging. These political narratives do not provide the sole inspiration for identity formation. They are part of, and compete with, other elements of the ‘media culture’ that, Douglas Kellner (1995, 1) has argued, helps ‘produce the fabric of everyday life’ and provides ‘the materials out of which people forge their very identities’. They must also engage and align with, reconceptualize or challenge a wide range of lived experiences and the myriad other social and cultural cues for what it means to be, and to feel, Australian. Why might an Australian who has never personally visited the Great Barrier Reef, Uluru or the Sydney Opera House recognize images of them as home? Why might someone living in the suburbs of Melbourne feel a stronger connection to the experiences of those in Perth than in Auckland? While the boundaries of the political nation- state provide some insight, they are not the whole answer. There is a much more powerful process of definition and identity formation underway, in which the need to belong, and to be both part and proud of a distinctive community, operates as a fundamental element of the human experience.
This process of identity formation is a fundamental aspect of why election campaigns capture public attention and call on citizens to engage and respond, and it plays out in the narratives that political leaders tell about themselves, voters and the nation. Stephen Coleman (2015, 168– 69), in his argument for conceptualizing elections as ‘storytelling contests’, highlights that:
Democracies need periods of political performance in which stories are told about who we are, what we think we deserve, who we think politicians are, and who we think they think we are. Elections are storytelling contests in which the demos comes to be represented by identifying with competing and contested narratives about itself.