Teams have opponents

"Teams have opponents. Communities have friends." That was the message on the billboard of the Ainslie Church of Christ this month.

Members of its community were trying to send a message to the Prime Minister. They are worried that his oft-repeated use of the phrase "Team Australia" pulls people apart rather than brings them together.

Tony Abbott used the phrase late last year when announcing plans to scoop up metadata as part of the war on terror. He used it again in May when talking about the importance of integrating asylum seekers into the rest of the country. "What we have always said since coming to office back in September of 2013 is that we expect people to be part of Team Australia," he said.

Race Discrimination Commissioner Tim Soutphommasane​ is worried about the term, warning that manufactured integration can "do more to divide than unite".

But what does the term mean?

Keysar Trad, founder of the Islamic Friendship Association of Australia, says it's a reasonable way to describe the expectation that migrants join the national "team", especially when it comes to combating the threat of violent radicalism. "The Prime Minister has to use language that even the lowest common denominator can understand," he tells me. Trad reckons it's similar to the language used by Australia's controversial mufti Sheikh Taj El-Din Hilaly​ between 1988 to 2007. Trad would know. He was Hilaly's interpreter and spokesman. "Sheikh Hilaly, while critical of then prime minister John Howard, used to say: Australia; love it or leave it," he says.

Others were less charitable. "Team Australia is a foil to justify the actions of a government that has broken more promises than most in living memory," said one. "It makes my stomach turn," said another. "Australia is bigger than any one team. The national cricket team has 19 players. We're more diverse than that. The term's just silly."

The problem with the two-word slogan is that reality can never match it. National identity is fluid and dynamic. It is not fixed.

The groups that gathered under the banner Reclaim Australia a fortnight ago make the point. Media reports suggest they were something of a multicultural mix, united, ironically, in their opposition to multiculturalism.

The booing of Adam Goodes makes the point in another way. Was he being taunted because he doesn't fit into so-called Team Australia, or because he is a "real Australian"?

Abbott has never really been asked to explain what he means by Team Australia. Instead journalists have adopted the term themselves. During a press conference this year about foreign investment a reporter asked: "To use the phrase Team Australia, how do you make sure foreign investors continue to play for Team Australia?" It's become a phrase used without understanding.

How better to wrap yourself in the flag? If we don't understand what Abbott means when uses the term, how can we be against it? Much like Howard before him, he literally surrounds himself with flags and takes every opportunity to be seen with men and women in uniform. It's both innocuous and assertive. Certainly stiff.

At times it's like a code for intolerance. While staying away from the Reclaim rallies himself, Abbott didn't stop one of his own MPs from attending. They rallies have fed the view that Australia was under attack and in need of fortifying.

Have you stepped into a souvenir store recently? There's not much complexity. Aboriginals are invariably desert dwellers. Surfers are male and the babes on the beach are fair and well endowed. There's nothing about domestic violence. Nothing on poverty in pockets of our cities and no images of open cut coal mines. Senior women are invisible. There's no one in Islamic dress. Difference is subordinated to a bigger story, the story of what is called "national culture".

It's Team Australia. It shrinks the bigger, complex and exhilarating Australia. It paints us in one dimension. Noise about national identity is turned up as a kind of coercion.

Prime ministers have a responsibility to present complexity. If they don't, who will? The media? There are important stories to be told about who we are and who we are becoming, and the man at the top isn't helping.

First published in The Canberra Times, July 30, 2015

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