Discursive Australia: Refugees, Australianness, and the Australian public sphere

Document Type

Journal Article




Faculty of Education and Arts


School of Communications and Arts / Centre for Research in Entertainment, Arts,Technology, Education and Communications




Mummery, J., & Rodan, D. (2007). Discursive Australia: Refugees, Australianness, and the Australian public sphere. Continuum: Journal of Media & Cultural Studies, 21(3), 347-360. Available here


The discussion within Australia of events of the last five years, such as 9/11, the Bali Bombing, the Tampa and the Children Overboard affair, the Cronulla Riots, as well as the numbers of refugees approaching Australian shores, has typically fallen into a binarized form with public discourses coalescing around calls for either ‘protectivism’ or ‘humanitarianism’ (Mummery & Rodan, 2003). This discursive framework has in turn instantiated an ongoing debate concerning the issue of what it means to be Australian, and who is or should be included or excluded from this national identity, questions which have been particularly contentious in recent years. This project, however, aims to unpack and analyse just one manifestation of this debate, that carried out in letters to the editor published between 22 January and 28 February 2002 in both The Australian (Australia’s national daily broadsheet) and The West Australian (Western Australia’s daily broadsheet). The period chosen for this analysis is important for several reasons. First, given that it encompasses the Woomera Detention Centre hunger strikes, an examination of letters written during this period clearly shows the mixture of responses many Australians feel towards Australia’s policies with regard to the detaining and processing of refugees and the issue of their eventual release into the Australian community. More specifically, we suggest that these letters have foregrounded—and perhaps even ratified—clearly binarized attitudes as to what being Australian—or indeed being un-Australian—does and should mean. Finally, we consider some of the broader implications of this debate, suggesting that this kind of binarized framing of it would seem to easily promote divisiveness and wedge politics, where communities are divided into seemingly heterogeneous sections. Such an outcome, however, has a tendency of closing debate down in favour of name-calling and other vilification. Given this, we suggest reframing the dichotomy of contrasting identities as set out in the letters, in terms of the more nuanced relations made possible through the concept of what we call, following Chantal Mouffe and Stuart Hall, ‘articulation’. Such a move could have long-lasting implications for how we understand our communities and social life.




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