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What is Australian culture?

Photograph of men playing pool in an arcade in Melbourne.‘The country’s foodways were among the most vivid illustration of a new cosmopolitan sensibility’ Men playing pool next door to the Thy Thy Restaurant, Victoria St Richmond, in 1988. Photograph: Elizabeth Gilliam/State Library of Victoria

Another ambiguous measure of the new cosmopolitanism was the change in Australians’ drinking habits. The development of the wine industry had long been treated as a mark of civilisational sophistication, a habit that continued into the 1980s. Between 1980 and 1987, per capita consumption increased from 17.3 litres to 21.3 litres, while there was a spectacular growth of exports from 1986, stimulated by the low dollar – they tripled in volume between 1986 and 1988. On the eastern seaboard of the United States, the arrival of good-quality bottled wine presented a new and unfamiliar image of a country known mainly through the recent success of Crocodile Dundee; Walkabout Creek seemed an unlikely place to find a nice glass of chardonnay. In Australia, cheap cask wine accounted for almost two-thirds of table wine sold, and white wine was four times as popular as red, but tastes were becoming drier as Chardonnay came to replace Riesling as the most favoured drop. Wine cooler – a mixture of wine and fruit juice – enjoyed popularity especially among young women for whom it was a sweet, cheap road to oblivion. Boutique or pub-brewed beers provided a means of combining cosmopolitan sophistication, contempt for Alan Bond and John Elliott, and the love of drink still most commonly associated with the old Australia.

The cosmopolitan identity of the inner city needed a bête noire.

‘They had come to accept their own bodies and were thoroughly at ease in enjoying themselves.’The cosmopolitan identity of the inner city needed a bête noire, and in Sydney, a city with well-differentiated regions of affluence and poverty, this position was occupied by “westies – who are dags because they wear jeans on the beach and always bring an esky”. The term “bogan”, emerging in the mid-1980s, lacked a specific regional flavour, but it too provided a way to talk about class differences as a matter of cultural style rather than material deprivation – in a society that still nurtured the idea that anyone prepared to “have a go” would do nicely. Without cosmopolitanism, there could have been no bogan or westie, for these identities took their meaning from their relationship with one another. To be cosmopolitan was to hold a licence for commentary on the taste of those seen to lack cultural savoir faire. Yet popular culture continued to celebrate lifestyles and identities that maintained some distance from the new cosmopolitanism. Two of the most spectacularly successful Australian cultural products of the era drew on older identities supposedly being swept away by the advent of urbanity.

When a new television soap opera Neighbours began its career in 1985, TV Week declared it “our own Coronation Street”, in a reference to the long-running British soap. Neighbours, however, was from the outset quite different, being filmed not in a proletarian street but the middle-class Melbourne suburb of Vermont, the fictional Ramsay Street, Erinsborough. The new cosmopolitans who hung around hip precincts such as Brunswick Street in Melbourne and Oxford Street in Sydney might have thought of suburbia as daggy, but Neighbours was a quiet celebration of the Australian suburb at a time when it remained the setting for most people’s lives. Yet Ramsay Street was also a long way from most Australians’ experiences of suburban life, having more in common with a village. Erinsborough was not a dormitory suburb in which the tired commuter sought refuge after a busy day in the office, but an intimate community where people lived, loved and (occasionally) laboured without seeming to need very much that the rest of the world had to offer. Suburbia, as depicted in Neighbours, was a place of community, social drama and, above all, nice-looking young people with tanned skin and perfect teeth.

‘They had come to accept their own bodies and were thoroughly at ease in enjoying themselves.’ Photograph: Phillip Rogers/State Library of Victoria

Neighbours presented an image of Australia somewhat out of time. It was white, even Anglo, in an era when most Australian governments promoted the virtues of a multicultural citizenry. A British-based Aboriginal poet and filmmaker, Rikki Shields, argued that the introduction of an Aboriginal character into the show would do much to advance the cause of his people “because then everyone could see that we are Australian too”. Yet “it is quite unthinkable that the ravaged countenance of an Australian black could suddenly pop up on Neighbours”, judged Germaine Greer, possibly indulging in a bit of stereotyping of her own. “If a gang of Aborigines were to camp on one of those manicured lawns, and pass around the flagon, the good neighbourliness would evaporate long before anyone actually relieved himself in the shrubbery.” Neighbours certainly projected a nostalgic view of Australia, one largely unaffected by the migrations of the 1940s to 1960s, let alone those from Asia since the 1970s. “How many wogs are there in Neighbours?” asked the actor Arky Michael: the answer was very few.

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