Australian Culture and People

Table of Contents


As to culture in the narrow sense – culture as voluntary, often non-economic activity – there are several schools of thought. One maintains that Australia has no real culture outside of second-hand imports from Europe and the USA. Proponents of this view point to the predominance of foreign books, music, and art, and claim that home-grown products are largely derivative.

For years, many Australians suffered from an inferiority complex, called the “cultural cringe”, regarding other countries, particularly European ones, believing that anything from overseas was inherently superior to anything Australian. This was especially true in Australia’s relationship with Britain, but as Australians have travelled more widely, and their country has been exposed to cultural influences from other countries, this has waned. Australians still have a “love-hate” relationship with Britain. Some ridicule the so-called “Old Country” as snobbish, class-obsessed and backward-looking. Others note that there is a large Australian expatriate population in London, including Germaine Greer, Rolf Harris and Clive James, widely known in the UK.

Others seize eagerly on each small point of difference, and brandish relatively small parts of the Australian cultural experience as if these were sufficient to demonstrate that a new and vital culture has emerged in the two centuries since European settlement.

Somewhere in between these two views may be found the great central thread of debate about Australian culture: the perennial attempt to ask and answer the question, “Does Australia ‘have’ a culture, and if so what is it?” The obsessive preoccupation with this question has lasted decades, and shows no sign of fading.

Finally, there is what might be termed a culturally agnostic view, which holds that endlessly debating Australian culture is futile and pointless, and that the important thing is to simply get on with living and creating it. This last viewpoint is expressed in intellectual terms from time to time, but is mostly evident in the practical activities of Australians in a wide range of fields.

Whilst built and strongly influenced by the British, contemporary Australia is a mixture of cultures. This is largely due to strong immigration policies, bringing more than 200,000 new migrants to Australia in the last year. In October 2005 one in four people in Australia were born overseas! With the Government’s increased focus on immigration policy there is no doubt that Australia is set to remain a strong multicultural society. Australia’s multicultural policy promotes acceptance of and respect for cultural diversity, and supports the right of each Australian to maintain and celebrate, within the law, their culture, language or religion.


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Australia has produced a wide variety of popular music. While many musicians and bands (some notable examples include the 1960s successes of The Easybeats and the folk-pop group The Seekers, through the heavy rock of AC/DC, and the slick pop of INXS and more recently Savage Garden) have had considerable international success, there remains some debate over whether Australian popular music really has a distinctive sound. Australia also has a very popular country act, Keith Urban. Perhaps the most striking common feature of Australian music, like many other Australian art forms, is the dry, often self-deprecating humor evident in the lyrics.

Until the late 1960s, many have argued that Australian popular music was largely indistinguishable from imported music: British to begin with, then gradually more and more American in the post-war years. The sudden arrival of the 1960s underground movement into the mainstream in the early 1970s changed Australian music permanently: Skyhooks were far from the first people to write songs in Australia, by Australians, about Australia, but they were the first ones ever to make money doing it. The two best-selling albums ever made (at that time) put Australian music on the map. Within a few years, the novelty had worn off and it became commonplace to hear distinctively Australian lyrics and sometimes sounds side-by-side with the imitators and the imports.

The national expansion of ABC youth radio station Triple J during the 1990s has greatly increased the visibility and availability of home-grown talent to listeners nationwide. Since the mid 1990s a string of successful alternative Australian acts have emerged – artists to achieve both underground (critical) and mainstream (commercial) success include silverchair, Grinspoon, Powderfinger, George and Jet.

Arts and literature

Australia has had a significant school of painting since the early days of European settlement, and Australians with international reputations include Sidney Nolan, Russell Drysdale, and Arthur Boyd—not to mention the prized work of many Aboriginal artists. Writers who have achieved world recognition include Thomas Keneally, Les Murray, Colleen McCullough, Nevil Shute, Morris West, Jill Ker Conway, Booker Prize winner Peter Carey and Nobel Prize winner Patrick White. Noted expatriate writers include Germaine Greer and Clive James, who are sometimes better known in the UK than they are in Australia, and the art critic Robert Hughes.

Traditional “high culture” gains small attention from much of the population, it thrives nevertheless, with excellent galleries (even in surprisingly small towns); a rich tradition in ballet, enlivened by the legacy of Dame Margot Fonteyn and Sir Robert Helpmann; a strong national opera company based in Sydney; and good symphony orchestras in all capital cities—the Melbourne and Sydney symphony orchestras are said to be worthy of comparison with any.


Australians are passionate about sport, and it forms a major part of the country’s culture. Most of Australia’s patriotism is expressed through sport, and thus it is taken quite seriously, especially seen during events such as the olympics and other international events.

Australian Rules Football typifies the uniqueness of the Australian sporting landscape. It is a completely unique game of football, for all body types, that is played in all states and is the most popular sport in the nation. Aussie Rules is the most popular winter sport, yet there are certainly other acknowledged winter sports occurring.

Although Rugby league is not an indigenous Australian game, it the most popular winter sport in New South Wales, Australia’s most populous state. Most of the teams in the NRL are based within Sydney, while many Australian Football League teams are based in Melbourne. Australia has one of the highest standard rugby league competitions in the world. In fact, it would seem that football of almost any code is popular in Australia.

Australians also enjoy other imported sports, such as cricket, netball, rugby league, rugby union, soccer, golf, basketball and tennis.

One must also note that non-mainstream sports in Australia still attract a high standard from Australian teams due the sporting culture. A prime example is field hockey where Australia’s teams are considered amongst the best in the world.

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