Australia can live with identity politics – just as it always has

Posted on 09 Jan 2024

By Denis Moriarty

Discrimination eggs

From entrenched antisemitism to stereotypical Irish jokes and ethnic based soccer rivalry, identity politics is far from a new concept in Australia, writes Our Community group managing director Denis Moriarty.

A lot of people seem to dislike identity politics.

Political commentator Peta Credlin, for example, writing under the headline 'West slides into abyss of intellectual decay’, says ‘… the world’s most successful societies were at an inflection point ... would they collapse into self-doubt and succumb to an identity politics that sets group against group on the basis of immutable characteristics?’

Fine, fine, abysses of intellectual decay have been selling like hot cakes since the prophet Jeremiah lashed the clans of Israel for their “wickedness”, but I’m old enough to be entitled to be cranky with the bright young things and to remind people incessantly what things were like in this country in the good old days. You youngsters don’t know what real identity politics look like.

Back then, kids from Catholic schools would get into regular punch-ups with the Prots from the state school, with jeering songs on both sides along the lines of ‘Proddy cats sit on mats / Eating maggots out of rats …’

For Catholics, your religious identity probably determined your politics (Democratic Labour Party), your public service department (not the ones run by the Masons), and your chance of getting into a Liberal Cabinet (low).


If your identity happened to be Jewish, you weren’t going to get into the Melbourne Club, even if you were Sir John Monash and had led the diggers to triumph in WWI. And if you didn’t happen to be an Anzac icon, you weren’t going to get into Australia, either.

Even after the death camps, in 1947, a government memo noted, ‘The Minister desires that in approving of applications for the admission of non-British Europeans preference is, for the present, to be given to non-Jewish cases’ (though, of course, ‘Under no circumstances is the selectee to be given as a reason for rejection that he is of the Jewish faith…’).

Whatever you say about antisemitism today, at least it isn’t official government policy.

If you were black, or of Asian descent, you definitely weren’t going to get into Australia. If the White Australia policy wasn’t identity politics, what conceivably would be?

And within that hue, there was room for the identity politics of stigmatising the Irish (drunk – my dad), the Scotch (mean) and the Welsh (thieves).

I mean, I remember the days when boys parading around in skirts and jewellery was just known as Highland dancing – a bonding exercise to bring together the fiercely opposed identities (not to say blood feuds) of the Campbells and the McDonalds.

"Australia has been unbelievably successful at watering down eternal enmities to unfunny ethnic jokes."

Football clubs in the early years were thinly veiled excuses for punch-ups between Serbs and Croats.

The Loyal Orange Lodge sold books claiming, among other things, that the Catholics had assassinated President Lincoln and that Islam was just a front for the Vatican.

Edna Everage used to point darkly to the sneaky way the Catholics got all the good church sites. We’d taken in the inherited prejudices of just about every European squabble of the past millennium, and they all mattered.

Until they didn’t.

Australia has been unbelievably successful at watering down eternal enmities to unfunny ethnic jokes.

Catholics and Protestants are now united by the threat of empty pews. Serbs and Croats can unite behind the Matildas. People of Irish descent are accepted into the most respectable of homes.

Our Community group managing director Denis Moriarty.

It’s hard not to conclude, really, that the current objections to identity politics aren’t so much to the nature of the politics as to the particular identity that’s being activated. Men not letting women into the club isn’t identity politics, but women pressing to be let in is.

For those who think that way, being part of the old establishment wasn’t an identity, it was the ground against which different identities revealed themselves.

Being an English gentleman wasn’t an identity, it was (or should be) a universal aspiration of all mankind. The English ascendency was Civilisation, and Progress, and Learning, and lots of other important capitalised words, and if anyone was challenging it, that could only be because they were concerned with the interests of their own petty selfish clique and couldn’t see the big picture.

It's a lot easier to see the big picture if you’re on top of the heap, though. Even a level playing field would help give a bit of perspective.

Me, I think Australia can cope perfectly well with this particular abyss. We’ve done it before, and we can do it again.

Even if Proddy cats do sit on mats eating maggots out of rats.

Denis Moriarty is group managing director of, a social enterprise that helps Australia's 600,000 not-for-profits.

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