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Essay

Retro-assimilation

NOSTALGIA FOR AN assimilated nation haunts public debate on national identity and nationhood, as well as related issues of race, ethnicity, indigenous rights and immigration. Commentators on both sides of Australian politics deny that the Prime Minister is turning the pages of government back to the assimilation policies of the 1950s. They are right, of course. We celebrate cultural diversity and acknowledge indigenous rights, cultures and histories. Yet, although the word "assimilation" is rarely mentioned, there is more than a hint of its essence in official pronouncements on national values, citizenship and the practical integration of Aboriginal communities. The paradox of public denial of assimilation and hidden allegiance to its tenets can be explained as "retro-assimilation".

From this perspective, current visions of the nation can be seen as yet another example of nostalgia and clever marketing. Retro-assimilation mixes 1950s dreams of an assimilated nation with current ideas of nationhood using today's spin to create a new vision based on shared values, visions and agreements. Like other retro products, it uncritically exploits the surface of the past without regard for original meanings and significance. Retroassimilation has strong appeal in today's climate of social turmoil, transformation and global threats; we are irresistibly drawn to its retroscapes, and nostalgic memories of safer and simpler times.

As we respond to the rosy glow of this past, few recognise in the scenes of happy Australian families, responsible citizens and the bogeymen of war, terrorism and alien "isms" the deliberate tactics of government campaigns. Like all quality retro products, retro-assimilation has a time-tested lineage. This dates back to the 1950s when the Menzies government avidly promoted the vision of an assimilated nation of Australian families living the "Australian Way of Life". Many senior conservative politicians grew up surrounded by these images, and fifty years later some remain in their thrall. In a world of retro-assimilation, the past is a grab bag of clichés used to sell the present. Nostalgic memories peddle solutions for current issues or camouflage unpalatable political agendas. While this may be ethical for designers and marketers, it makes for dodgy politics. Our national history deserves to be respected as more than a marketing ploy for the use of later generations. The retro past never really happened.

 

PEELING BACK THE layers of retro clichés to find the "real" 1950s is a difficult task. The popular view – also espoused by retro-marketers – is of a golden time of prosperity when each family had a comfortable income, a car and a house in the suburbs filled with all the trappings of modern living. This dovetails with memories of a "decade of normality" wedged between the violence of the 1940s and the political protests of the 1960s – a time of stability, conservatism, peace, circumscribed gender roles, restrained sexuality and a conservative mass media. Some commentators – like Richard Bessel and Dirk Schumann in their book Life After Death (Cambridge University Press, 2003) – argue that this was a "strange" normality: shockwaves from the war forced a "desperate flight into normalcy" and determination "to move on and not look back".[i] Many people sought security and stability in the family, popularised in imagery around the world at the time. Others see the decade as a social and psychological turning point,[ii] a pivotal period of global upheaval and dramatic change that transformed the world and determined the shape of events for the remainder of the century.

For poet W.H. Auden, the 1950s was the "age of anxiety". Below its shiny veneer of complacency and conformity lay the velvety darkness of anxiety and fear. The decade was a peculiar mix of contrasts – of rapid change and conformity and exhilaration and fear – that resonates with today's turmoil and transformation. The United Nations and the blockbuster exhibition "Family of Man" – which toured the world in the 1950s, with a comforting message of universal brotherhood and equality – promoted the ideal of an international family of nations, but the political and economic realities were different.

That decade had unprecedented global migration, extraordinary economic development, undreamt of prosperity, and a new world of consumerism and advertising and political spin. Despite the creation of the United Nations, with its promise of world peace, reports escalated of new theatres of war, political terrorism in decolonising nations and racial conflict in the wake of the emerging civil rights movement. Overshadowing everything else was the spectre of a world split by the competition between capitalism and communism and the terror of atomic global annihilation through their competing will to power. Fanned by US doctrine at home and abroad, this created a scenario of fear and delusion, and the Janus-faced paranoia about enemies at home and abroad.

Today we grapple with the black dog of depression, but the personal devil in the 1950s was anxiety. The drugs of choice today are Prozac and Zoloft, but back then the "miracle cure for anxiety" was Miltown (meprobamate) – a tranquilliser known popularly as the "happy pill" or "emotional aspirin". Within a year of its launch in 1955, one in twenty Americans was prescribed Miltown, over a billion tablets had been sold and the monthly production of fifty tons could not keep up with market demand. The drug was widely prescribed for mothers to bolster their role of maintaining peace and stability within the haven of the family. Miltown became the panacea for the anxieties of American life, its calming effects helping to prop up the increasingly precarious vision of a nation of happy families.[iii]

In Australia, mothers relied on the analgesic properties of the aspirin, phenacetin and caffeine contained in Bex and Vincent's Powders to get them through the day. These products could be purchased across the counter at any corner store, and their widespread use gave rise to the iconic 1950s housewives' remedy of "a cup of tea, a Bex and a good lie down". According to Hugh Mackay, the anxiety of the times penetrated the heart of the Australian family to shape the nihilistic view of the Baby Boomer generation: eat, drink and be merry because, with the press of a button, the world could be annihilated.[iv]

Australia, like many other nations, was in a state of high anxiety as our leaders struggled to carve out a respectable place in the new world order as boundaries of empires, nations and alliances of power were redrawn. During the Cold War, we followed our new ally the United States, joining its war in Korea and exhibiting extreme hostility towards communists at home and abroad. As we renegotiated ties with Britain, we even volunteered territory to test twelve British nuclear bombs between 1952 and 1956.

Yet our leaders seriously misjudged world opinion when they took a conservative stand on colonialism and race in international debates, and Australia was condemned by near neighbours in Asia and Africa. We resented the loss of white dominance in the Commonwealth and then sulked when we were excluded from the Bandung Conference of twenty-nine non-aligned Asian, African and Middle Eastern nations in 1955, billed as the "first intercontinental meeting of coloured people in the history of mankind".[v] We tried to keep our race-based immigration policies and discriminatory treatment of indigenous people hidden from world scrutiny, but were criticised in the UN and the world media led by communist Russia and China and new nations in Africa and Asia. The criticisms were couched in race terms, but UN debates also addressed the rights of indigenous peoples and at one point threatened the sovereignty of settler colonies like Australia. Instead, the International Labor Organisation passed the 1957 Indigenous and Tribal Populations Convention, which advocated assimilation of indigenous people into nation states as citizens with full rights of citizenship, while retaining some traditional rights to land and culture.

These pressures and anxieties pushed Australia towards a form of democracy that would satisfy new global expectations of modern nationhood. The vision of an assimilated Australia reflected the international discourse of equality and anti-racism, promised a shield from criticism and kept the nation abreast of international responsibilities. This vision also gave hope to an increasingly jittery and anxious public, who saw in it realisation of some of the principles they had fought for during the war. Nonetheless, the "white nation" status quo continued, and existing patterns of cultural, political and economic dominance and Australian sovereignty went largely unchallenged.

 

OF COURSE, ASSIMILATION brought change. The entry of one and a half million immigrants between 1947 and 1961 – two-thirds of them from Europe – and the government's attack on racial segregation inevitably altered demographic, social and cultural landscapes. While the pressure to assimilate rested heavily on Aboriginal people and immigrants, successful assimilation depended on more enlightened attitudes and behaviours at home. The federal government embarked on a campaign of nation-building directed at Australian audiences, but with an eye to convincing critics overseas of its commitment to change. In developing the campaign, the government drew on the successful use of propaganda to forge national unity during the war years and new US techniques of nation-building, which used the tools of mass persuasion – public opinion polls, advertising and public relations – to "beef up" the nation through optimistic messages of material progress and assurances of citizens' security from threats from within and without.

The campaigns were mired in government rules and red tape, and the resulting pamphlets and films looked dull and uninteresting compared with the sensational reports on Aborigines and migrants in popular magazines such as PIX and Australasian Post. Campaign materials were produced inhouse through the Australian National Information Bureau and the Australian Government Film Unit, survivors of the carve-up of the government's powerful wartime propaganda machine. The Department of Immigration had is own publicity section, and worked collaboratively with these two agencies. Aboriginal campaign materials were the product of often-fraught negotiations between the federal Departments of the Interior, Territories and External Affairs and state Departments of Aboriginal Affairs.

The official campaign presented images of the family and "the Australian way of life". This is a notoriously slippery concept: aspirational and mutable, loosely defined in terms of an outdoor lifestyle, the nuclear family, home ownership, suburban living, mateship and a fair go for all. The campaign film The Way We Live, pitched "the Australian way of life" to aspiring migrants through images of suburban housing, leisure, work, consumer goods, and services such as transport, health, education, financial assistance, cultural institutions and social organisations. Designed to counter images of "bush and billabongs", the film focused on urban living and Australia's growth potential.

If "the Australian way of life" expressed the style of the nation, the suburban middle-class family was its heart. This was both the goal of an assimilated nation and the vehicle to achieve it – central to the processes of nationhood. This ideal was represented in the government pamphlet An Everyday Australian, which showed a young suburban family: their brick home and its garden setting, modern furnishings and appliances, the family car, the husband leaving for work in the city, the wife at her housework, and the family enjoying the weekend cleaning the car and picnicking with friends. Without any distinction of class, race or ethnicity, this unit – male bread winner and dependent spouse and children – was the focus of domestic life, work, education, security, personal happiness and citizenship around the nation. The dream was embraced by many Australian couples who married young and quickly started families of two to three children, then set about buying their own homes.

Considerable effort was devoted to promoting the immigration program to Australians, and to attracting immigrants and informing overseas agencies such as the International Refugee Organisation. Just as Arthur Calwell promised, when introducing the program in 1947, that "our population shall remain predominantly British", so the campaign reassured Australians that immigrants would be British or readily assimilable Europeans and there would be no competition for jobs and housing or lowering of living standards and working conditions. In short, "the Australian way of life" would be maintained.

The campaign assured Australians that immigration would benefit the nation by providing much-needed labour for postwar reconstruction, industrial development and resource exploitation, and that national defence would be improved by building up the population in the north with migrant families. Results from opinion polls, introduced to Australia from the United States during the war, showed considerable bipartisan support for the immigration program – as long as national standards of economic development, employment, and law and order were maintained, and migrants were not too visible.

As Rowena MacDonald demonstrated in her 1996 exhibition at the Australian Archives Gallery in Canberra,Selling a Dream: Promoting Australia to Postwar Migrants, the campaign used images of family life, the beach and boundless prosperity to lure migrants to Australia. On arrival, migrants were handed pamphlets that outlined the benefits of Australian citizenship and, for migrants from Europe, the special qualifying conditions for "naturalisation" – five years' residency, the renouncing of allegiance to their home nation and the ability to speak English. Australian governments placed great importance on naturalisation, seeing it as proof of successful assimilation and a marker of migrant loyalty and commitment. But, despite government efforts, many migrants remained ambivalent and in 1957 only 32 per cent of those eligible had opted for Australian citizenship.

Most of the campaign was directed at convincing Australian audiences. They were targeted in the film No Strangers Here (1950) based on a 1945 American film, The Cummington Story, which depicted the experiences of a refugee family in a typical Australian town and proffered the advice: "These are ordinary people like ourselves ... you saw how a friendly helping hand helped them settle in all the faster" so "the newcomer need never feel a stranger". During the Commonwealth Jubilee Year in 1951, the Jubilee Train criss-crossed Victoria and South Australia distributing 15,000 copies of the pamphlet Why Migration is Vital for Australia. Four years later, Australia celebrated the arrival of its millionth postwar migrant, an attractive young British housewife. However, such a reassuring symbol of Australian immigration was not a matter of chance: the young woman had been chosen carefully by the Chief Migration Officer in London according to criteria drawn up by the Department of Immigration in Australia.[vi]

The centrepiece of the campaign was the prestigious annual Citizenship Convention, which was attended by up to four hundred prominent political and community leaders. The conventions were a public demonstration of consensus about immigration and its core doctrine of assimilation. At the launching ceremony in 1950, Prime Minister Sir Robert Menzies proclaimed that "a man, woman or child who comes here to settle is either not accepted and is therefore not admitted, or he or she becomes an Australian – a member of this community, a member of our nationality, a member of our brotherhood, and in the best sense of the word, a member of our family".[vii] The gatherings were also a channel for information and a rallying place for citizen support. Migrants played only a minor role at the conventions prior to the 1960s, but were invited each year to stage cultural performances once discussions had closed. In the Convention's 1961 tableau We the People, immigrants were woven into its narrative of the nation, which progressed by stages from the first settlers to the gold rushes, Federation, the two world wars, pioneers of aviation, sport stars, and finally migrant contributions to Australian development. Aboriginal people were not mentioned at all.[viii]

The Good Neighbour Council also played a key role in the campaign through its national network of 300 local branches and 10,000 volunteer workers – the majority of them middle-class white Australians. The branches sponsored naturalisation ceremonies, film evenings and public lectures, and provided an example of good citizenship to their fellow Australians by offering practical assistance to migrant families that was well meant but often patronising.

 

CONSIDERABLY LESS TIME and money was spent promoting Aboriginal assimilation. There was no funding to set up a national infrastructure of prominent community leaders and local citizens; the federal government demurred on the grounds that Aboriginal affairs was a state responsibility and the states cried poor. Of course, the Aboriginal population, estimated in 1950 at 80,000 – 1 per cent of the national total[ix] – was tiny compared with the numbers of migrants, but there were important international sensitivities to be considered. Changing entrenched racism to facilitate assimilation was a huge challenge. This Aboriginal assimilation campaign was the first of its kind in Australia, and the only concerted effort before the reconciliation movement of the 1990s. Campaign materials included pamphlets and films with the telling titlesOur Aborigines, Assimilation of Our Aborigines, End of the Walkabout, Fringe Dwellers, The Skills of Our Aborigines, One People and Aborigines and You. The government also endorsed in 1955 the celebration of an annual National Aborigines Day, and two years later appointed a group of senior Protestant church officials to head up the first National Aborigines Day Observance Committee.

Hundreds of thousands of pamphlets were distributed overseas and in Australia. In 1959, some 80,000 copies of Fringe Dwellers were sent out, and between 1961 and 1963, around 135,000 copies of Our Aborigines were distributed to government departments, church organisations, schools and universities, businesses, trade unions and community groups around Australia. The pamphlets presented an optimistic narrative of assimilation that began with an account of traditional Aboriginal life, then moved to the beneficial influence of government policy and legislation for dispossessed communities, and came to rest with images – surprising for the times – of Aboriginal suburban citizens and families participating in a new, modern Australia. The message was that, with a helping hand from other Australians, Aboriginal assimilation was possible.

The pamphlets also explained the steps being undertaken to extend full citizenship rights to Aboriginal people and highlighted the significance of Aboriginal children in achieving the goals of assimilation. In Fringe Dwellers, two-thirds of the images were of children with captions that reinforced the message that "the programme of assimilation throughout Australia concentrates particularly on children. For many of them and in due course, for their children, hopes of assimilation are high."[x] Rather than the government's dull lectures, it was probably the dramatic reports of civil rights protest in the United States and Aboriginal activism at home that drove popular support for Aboriginal citizenship which culminated in the 1967 federal referendum when 91 per cent of the electorate voted yes – the highest ever recorded for a referendum in Australia – and endorsed the repeal of the race-based clauses of the Constitution.

Ironically, the pamphlets were riddled with the same paradigms and language of race that they set out to erase. This is hardly surprising after years of forced segregation, countless myths and misinformation about Aboriginal people and widespread blindness to the depth of racism in Australia. This language made the pamphlets comfortable and familiar for local audiences, and community interest ensured they were put to good use. The pamphlet Fringe Dwellers, issued in 1959, was added to the University of Queensland's library collection; it was displayed in the Glenray Technical College's "aborigine room"; at Bingara in New South Wales, the local newsagent put twenty-five copies in his shop window; and the NSW Department of Railways' bus tour to Taree distributed them to passengers who later attended an Aboriginal corroboree. The Kogarah Presbyterian Church in Sydney included the pamphlets in a course on assimilation for teenagers, along with a display of photos, leaflets, artworks, artefacts and school books from Ernabella Mission and screenings of slides and such films as Men of the Mulgas, Children of the Musgraves, Namatjira the Painter and End of the Walkabout. The senior class at Ulverstone High School in Tasmania wrote essays that focused on the new facts they had learned and overlooked the message of assimilation: Aboriginal people were the original owners of the continent; white settlement had driven them into remote arid lands and fringe camps; they lived in terrible conditions, suffered from poor health and died young; and they were generally worse off than black people in the USA, Britain and Africa, despite Australia being a rich country and signatory to the UN Declaration of Human Rights.[xi]

 

READERS OVERSEAS PICKED up on the racialist content, paradigms and language. At the United Nations in 1959, Soviet President Nikita Khrushchev used an image of an Aboriginal camp in Fringe Dwellers to attack Australia. The Chinese press quoted directly from the same pamphlet to describe how Aboriginal people were removed from their homelands to make way for economic development and dumped on wastelands where they survived "only on the fringe of hope and often on the fringe of despair". The photograph of an Aboriginal camp in One People in 1961 prompted criticism of Australia in the Moscow newspaper New Times, which was published in eight languages. Then, in 1963, Moscow accused British colonists in Australia of the near total annihilation of the Aboriginal people. In 1961, Australia's Department of External Affairs ruled that One People was "thoroughly unsuitable for overseas readers", as it was riddled with inaccuracies, contradictions, stereotypes, negative impressions and poor editing, and failed to adequately answer questions raised overseas concerning Aboriginal legal and political rights.[xii]

Materials to promote assimilation to Aboriginal people were produced by the relevant state government agencies, since Aboriginal affairs was by law their responsibility. Compared to the rather benign tone of the information booklets distributed to migrants, these materials were aggressively didactic, patronising and racist. Dawn magazine, launched by the NSW Aboriginal Welfare Board in 1952, relentlessly pushed the message of Aboriginal assimilation from its cover image of an Aboriginal Stone Age man juxtaposed against a modern city, through to the text and images of its feature pages and editorials. By 1965 Dawn had a circulation of 15,000, but by this stage Aboriginal readers were finding their own uses for the magazine – identifying lost relatives in its pages of photographs, writing letters critical of the government that were sometimes published and, in the case of future activists and writers like Kevin Gilbert, honing their writing skills in the pages for young Aboriginal writers.

Materials produced by the Department of Native Welfare in Western Australia were riddled with racist and patronising assumptions that demonstrated just how out of touch their creators were with Aboriginal opinion. The instructional primer Citizens (1964) contained cartoon drawings depicting Aboriginal families in conventional suburban homes and participating as citizens by voting, having a drink in a hotel, and seeking police assistance in upholding their rights. Dubbed the ''How to drink" booklet by government officials,Citizens was used to launch the campaign to introduce drinking rights in the south of the state in 1964. Departmental training films seriously under-estimated the visual literacy skills of Aboriginal audiences accustomed to watching television and commercial feature films. One short film included a cartoon segment where stick figures carrying flagons of wine tumbled out of cars into a suburban house that suddenly exploded while a prim voice warned: "Loud parties will cause trouble." The several films about domestic work and infant care simply ignored Aboriginal women's accumulated knowledge and skills. The films Good Food Good Health and A House in Town produced in 1969 for the department's Home-maker Service aggressively instructed Aboriginal viewers in the routines of suburban domestic life and roles of the nuclear family.

The government's optimistic message of assimilation also appeared in the popular press, sometimes in articles by "Special correspondents" written in distinctively government styles. However, there were other stories that contradicted the official line by depicting the hardships and even the impossibility of assimilation. During the 1950s, the popular PIX magazine published some surprising articles about migrant and Aboriginal experiences in between its titillating pictures of bikini-clad girls and quirky human-interest stories.

The hard work and sacrifices of migrants were recounted through stories of families living in self-built garages on suburban lots while husbands and wives worked long hours at mind-numbing factory and industrial jobs to make ends meet. A moving article in 1957 described the tragic plight of casualties of migrant assimilation – "vagrant migrants ... a lost race of despondent, neurotic misfits" who had "gambled their lives in a new world and lost. Maladjusted, beset by language problems, burdened by horrible memories that they just can't forget."[xiii] Even the self-congratulatory stories of Australia as a haven from the horrors of war and communist life and the patronising accounts of Australians trying migrant coffee and foods differed from government publications in acknowledging the memories and cultures that migrants brought with them.

PIX also carried a range of stories that drew attention to the place of Aboriginal people in a modern Australia. There were the idiosyncratic weekly cartoons created by Eric Joliffe that depicted Aboriginal people as primitive desert dwellers who made surprisingly modern – and therefore humorous – comments about topical events such as the drudgery of housework, the H-bomb, domestic disputes and the vanity of women. Traditional Aboriginal life was represented in stories of exotic savagery from a distant Stone Age past, and was sometimes linked through outmoded explanations of racial and cultural decline to Aboriginal fringe camps of the 1950s. There were also stories of outstanding Aboriginal people, notably the artist Albert Namatjira, whose declining fortunes were recounted, like the intertwined lives of the star-struck lovers in the movie Jedda, within the familiar narrative framework of the tragic life of people forced to live between two cultures – a narrative that was profoundly pessimistic about the possibility of assimilation.

These stories of migrant and Aboriginal people were filtered through the lens of mainstream journalism, but there were alternative newspapers and publications where their voices spoke more directly to readers. Ethnic-language newspapers could be seen as countering the goals of assimilation or providing a passage into a new assimilated way of life. They were usually business-oriented, containing useful information on ethnic-owned services and ethnic professionals for new arrivals and the growing ethnic communities.

The pros and cons of Aboriginal assimilation were discussed in a plethora of small pamphlets published by churches, mission societies, student groups and Aboriginal political organisations. The Coolbaroo Club, a Perth-based Aboriginal political and cultural organisation, published Coolbaroo News (later Westralian Aborigine), a broadsheet that showed Aboriginal people participating as modern citizens selectively negotiating their way through the challenges of assimilation. The Federal Council of the Aboriginal Advancement (later the Federal Council for the Advancement of Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islanders) supported a program of Aboriginal rights while it attacked assimilation policy. In 1963, Council Secretary Stan Davey published a pamphlet entitled Genesis or Genocide? The Aboriginal Assimilation Policy, which criticised the policy for endeavouring to destroy Aboriginal identity and for failing to achieve equal legal status for Aboriginal people or to meet international standards. He challenged readers who condemned "elimination by extermination" in Nazi Germany and communist Russia, asking whether they thought this should be "condoned in Australia because of a different method of achieving the (same) objective".[xiv]

Assimilation was a seductive solution to the threat posed by global challenge to "white Australia". While the imagery and rhetoric of assimilation created the impression of a new nation of equal citizens, the mechanics of assimilation reinforced the inequalities of the status quo. The marketing of assimilation through the powerful images of Australian life and Australian families distracted the public from the fact that there was no level playing field, only players who always won and those who rarely could. Confronted by our own global fears and anxieties, we remain susceptible to the repackaging of this phoney dream as a solution to today's dilemmas. But where will this leave us? If nations who do not know their history are destined to repeat the past, what happens to those who pin their hopes to the retro-marketing of a phoney dream? ♦

[i] Bessell, R. and Schumann, D., Life After Death: Approaches to a Cultural and Social History of Europe During the 1940s and 50s, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 2003, pp. 2-3.

[ii] Bessell and Schumann, Life After Death, p. 7

[iii] Metzl, J.M., Prozac on the Couch: Prescribing Gender in the Era of Wonder Drugs, North Carolina, Duke University Press, Durham, 2003, p. 73.

[iv] Mackay, Hugh, Generations: Baby Boomers, Their Parents and Their Children, Pan Macmillan, Melbourne, 1997, p. 61.

[v] Historic summit, commemoration by Asian-African leaders in Bandung, 26 April 2005, Wikinews.

[vi] Murphy, John, Imagining the Fifties: Private Sentiment and Political Culture in Menzies' Australia, UNSW Press, Sydney, 2000, pp. 151-52.

[vii] Vlahonasiou, Thelma 1983, Annual Citizenship Conventions 1950-1963, unpublished Master of Education thesis, University of Melbourne, p. 1.

[viii] Vlahonasiou, Annual Citizenship Conventions, p. 352.

[ix] Broome, Richard, Aboriginal Australians' Black Response to White Dominance 1788-1980, George Allen & Unwin, Sydney, 1982, p. 174.

[x] Fringe Dwellers, 1959, p. 29.

[xi] National Archives of Australia, Canberra, A452 1957/2672.

[xii] National Archives of Australia, Canberra, A1838 557/2 Part 1; A1838 557/2 Part 4.

[xiii] PIX 11 April 1957, p. 11.

[xiv] Cited in Haebich, Anna, Broken Circles: Fragmenting Aboriginal Families 1800-2000, Fremantle Arts Centre Press, Fremantle, 2000, pp. 436-37.


From Griffith Review Edition 15: Divided Nation © Copyright Griffith University & the author.

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