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It says everything about the state of 21st-century Australia that it is gloriously difficult to distil into a single image an idea of what an Australian is like. The country today would be unrecognisable to Australians who can remember when the universally deployed avatar of its population was a gnarled bushman with insect-deflecting corks swinging from his hat.

Australia’s essential dichotomy is that it is both a big, imposing country and a small, remote island. Its recent decades have seen a series of choices, political and cultural, to embrace the former definition, and destiny. The five Australians you’ll meet over the ensuing pages are, of course, unrepresentative of all their compatriots. It is a fool’s errand attempting to define a people but especially so when the people concerned are as unimpressed by lofty pronouncements as Australians tend to be. But all of our subjects possess traits that, while not unique to Australia, are perhaps unusually valued by Australians: an unfussy, practical approach to what they do and a belief that what works is pretty likely to be what’s right.

01 – Waleed Aly

Broadcaster

Candid and astute, Waleed Aly is an Australian Muslim whose clear-eyed grasp of the issues has cut through the media noise.

Waleed Aly, 37, is a difficult-to-miss fixture of the Australian media landscape. Though best known as co-host of Channel Ten’s current-affairs show The Project, Aly also writes fortnightly columns for The Age and the Sydney Morning Herald, and hosts programmes each week on ABC radio.

Aly became a global sensation in late 2015 when a monologue he delivered on The Project in response to the Paris attacks went viral. It was partly the message itself – a cool dissection of Isis’s strategy – but also the medium: a Muslim broadcaster with a dry, wry Australian accent.

But Aly is cautious of being cast as a spokesman for all 476,000 of his fellow Australian Muslims. “Mainstream media almost insists that Muslims must understand themselves entirely through the issue of terrorism. The minute a Muslim doesn’t do that it’s like the public conversation goes into anaphylactic shock: ‘What do you mean there are other things to talk about?’”

Aly says there is “a slow but appreciable flowering” of a specifically Australian strain of Islam, noting an emerging class in Australian culture of Muslim writers, comedians and athletes.

“It’s easier [to be Muslim] here. I’m happy to be an Australian rather than a European Muslim.”

02 – Justin Hemmes

Hospitality head

Merivale boss Justin Hemmes has cultivated a host of venues for Sydney’s bon viveurs to eat, drink and be merry.

Sydney is a city of foodies who are treated to a new restaurant opening virtually every week. And there is one restaurant group that really puts this city on the global map for F&B: Merivale.

Justin Hemmes’s company owns more than 60 restaurants, bars and pubs, as well as a hotel in the city. But what sets these premises apart is not that they share a common concept or aesthetic (the opposite is true: Merivale restaurants all look and feel completely different to one another). The atmosphere will likely be relaxed, the decor very well done and the service top-drawer – also, the room will likely be heaving.

The business was started by his parents, John and Merivale, who opened The House of Merivale and Mr John, a clothing boutique in Sydney about 60 years ago. “Mum and Dad formed a fantastic partnership,” says Justin, now CEO of the Merivale Group. “Their business made people feel good.”

Having inherited his parents’ work ethic, in the early 1990s Justin joined the business. He began to steer Merivale in the direction of hospitality. “One of the most important elements is ensuring that a venue is timeless,” says Justin. “We want to create spaces where people feel great.”

03 – David Pearce

Firefighter

Braving the elements with a team of courageous volunteers, David Pearce is the embodiment of the humble bush hero.

Few people get closer to the ferocious roar of a bush fire than Commander David Pearce of the South Australian Country Fire Service (CFS). Leading aerial water-bombing missions in some of the world’s worst flying conditions, his brigade faces off with Mother Nature’s less compromising side. “It’s hot, visibility can be non-existent and the turbulence is continuous,” he says.

Pearce joined the CFS at the age of 16. He is now responsible for 180 volunteers, 30 aircrew and a fleet of 17 aircraft. He has fought some of the state’s worst fires, including Ash Wednesday II in 1983, which claimed 75 lives. Being the driest state in the driest continent on Earth, the one constant for South Australian firefighters is summers of extreme fire danger. “The environment we work in is so dynamic that there is no standard rule that applies, a slight shift in wind speed or humidity could change everything,” he says.

Pearce typifies the head-down, on-with-the-job character of the rural firefighter. Part of the reason it is so collegiate is because all CFS firefighters are volunteers. “Australia could not afford to pay for the service that is provided by volunteers every year,” says Pearce. “The idea of helping out your mate is ingrained in the Australian psyche; we have one of the world’s best volunteering cultures.”

04 – Pat O'Shane

Barrister

A pioneer in her field, Pat O’Shane has dedicated her life to the law and balancing the scales of justice for Aboriginal people.

Growing up the daughter of an Irish-Australian father and Aboriginal mother in Queensland in the 1940s and 1950s, Pat O’Shane experienced her share of racism. Fortunately her father was a boxer. “My father taught me to box,” she says. “And my mother used to say: ‘I’m not going to fight for you, you have to do it yourself.’”

Eventually O’Shane learnt to fight with her words. She was the first indigenous Australian to graduate from law school and the first to become a barrister. In 1981 she was chosen to lead the New South Wales Ministry of Aboriginal Affairs, becoming the first indigenous person to head a government ministry. Five years later she was appointed the first Aboriginal magistrate, a job she held for nearly 20 years before her retirement in 2013 at the age of 72.

O’Shane devoted her career to improving the lives of the Aboriginal community. When she discovered that Aboriginal people employed in the state government were on casual contracts, she threatened to stage a sit-in outside the premier’s office unless the situation was rectified; it worked. “We now have hundreds [of Aboriginal employees] in government departments employed on the same basis as other people.”

But the fight is not over. “You don’t change the system in a day or a week or a year: you change it in a lifetime.”

05 – Hugh White

Defence and foreign-policy analyst

Keenly aware of how shifting geopolitics impact Australia’s standing, Hugh White is a well-schooled and refreshing part of the defence debate.

Hugh White isn’t interested in easy answers. Ask him about, say, Australian foreign policy in 2016 and his response will delve not only into the history of the country but also the history of China, the UK and the US. “We need to think very carefully about what all that means for the kind of defence force we have,” he says.

It’s that kind of expansive thinking that has established White as one of Australia’s leading defence analysts; the 62-year-old has been shaping the country’s conversation about its place in the world for decades. A columnist for The Sydney Morning Herald and The Age, White also writes about foreign policy for a wider audience. And unlike pundits who choose sound bites over sense, he’s been one of the few commentators to reflect on the implications of shifting geopolitics.

It’s refreshing and, many would say, needed. As the political class has grappled with changing leadership in Australia, many debates have fallen by the wayside. Amid anxiety over being caught between China, Australia’s biggest trading partner, and the US, Australia’s most important ally, politicians have adopted a mantra: we don’t have to choose. Denial doesn’t sit well with White. “I think we have to start thinking of alternatives,” he says. “We need to maximise our independent strategic weight.”

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