Can Someone Explain Australia Day to Me?

It’s time for a little departure from what has been the normal subject of my blog over the last six or seven months.

I am an Australian, from as far back as I can work out, on my father’s side. With the exception of a couple of years in the U.S. in my twenties, I have lived, been educated, worked, paid taxes, married and raised children here; but I never know what to do with Australia Day.

To begin with, what exactly are we celebrating? The date itself relates to the founding of the colony of New South Wales on January 26th, 1788, although the actual proclamation didn’t take place until the 7th of February. It’s probably enough that Captain Phillip landed in Sydney Cove, with a few others, on the date that we now celebrate; the rest of the First Fleet followed in dribs and drabs over the next few days after some complications in Botany Bay.

How odd, that we should celebrate the foundation of a penal colony: The official formation of a village where the refuse of Britain could be safely spewed out on the shore about as far from Old Blighty as was then possible. At best this is melancholic, at worst, tragic, and certainly as worthy of celebration as the death of your favourite pet. As a friend recently commented, “Most countries celebrate the date of their freedom from colonial oppression, but we celebrate going into it.”

The other issue is that this date also signifies the beginning of the almost total demise of the indigenous people of this country – an often-merciless slaughter, most often without just cause.

Yet, “Happy Australia Day”, is the cry.

It is true, we do have a lot to be thankful for. We live in one of the pre-eminent democracies of the world (albeit with a unelected Head of State, Queen Elizabeth, incongruously born into that position); we have freedom of which most countries couldn’t dream, and an exemplary standard of living and level of free education. We’re one of the few democracies that haven’t had a civil war, or a war of independence. Compared to many nations, we’ve managed the whole immigration/multi-cultural thing reasonably well and now are moving quite smoothly into the second and third generations.

Yes, all in all, we have a lot to celebrate, but when I vocalised my ambivalence about Australia Day, a friend asked me if I wasn’t even a little bit proud to be Australian. It made me think and, to be honest, I don’t know whether or not I am proud to be an Australian. Thankful, yes, absolutely, but proud…I don’t think so. Pride can be a dangerous thing.

There are so many nations around the world, some of whom are very close allies, whose citizens are so inculcated with patriotic national pride that it smacks of elitism and borders on racism. “Surely the rest of the world would want to be like us!” Is the almost inherent inference in such an attitude. More than this, one of the chief dangers of such self-belief on a national scale is the desire to make the rest of the world either like them or amenable to them. Such hyper-patriotism also seems to create intolerance of cultures that are unlike theirs, and especially of those that are unwilling to belike theirs. Perhaps because we have been drenched in such culture through our television media for over half a century, we have come to view it as normal or acceptable.

But when I see cars draped in flags and people painting their faces, I find myself at once concerned and ambivalent. I’m concerned because I see the danger inherent in walking too far down this path. For example, I saw a sticker on a car recently, which said, “Australia – Love it or leave it!” The problem really is not just that this is a very ugly, elitist statement – dare I say, red-necked – but also that many people won’t see a problem with it; yet, it is the epitome of intolerance.

But I am also ambivalent because of what I said earlier about the day we celebrate – what it means foundationally with our nation being established as a penal colony, and what that in turn meant for the first inhabitants of our land.

Don’t get me wrong, I do see this country as my land, and I am grateful, thankful and happy to be an Australian; I like the sense of community that seems to be growing in local barbecues and breakfasts around the place on Australia Day. But I don’t like the way our National Apathy lets us slide into things without grappling with the issues associated with them, in this case, genocide and oppression. Perhaps there are those who may consider such an opinion to be a “bleeding-heart view of history,” as if that was something bad. I don’t quite understand why it is bad to be upset about such a tragic history, and to want to do something about it.

It is also quite Australian to be pragmatic and say, “Hey, that was a long time ago, mate. Just grab a beer and get on with it.”

There’s a lot to be said for that approach. In many ways, it gets the job done, but there’s one very big problem: it ignores the wounds, the pain and the sentient truth that has gone into the shaping of our culture in a negative way: the elephant in the room that we have been ignoring for generations. If we understood the disdain that was felt by the British for the colony of New South Wales and the fact that many saw it as worse than a death sentence to be sent here, and if we understood how thousands of indigenous families, fathers, mothers and children were obliterated because they stood in the way, creating an aching chasm in the ethnic psyche of those who were “lucky” enough not to be wiped out – along with their descendants – we may view the celebration of this day a little differently.

While then Prime Minister John Howard was technically correct in saying that we can’t be held responsible for the crimes of our antecedents, what we do have is the ability to grasp the issues involved and do all within our power to make amends.

We need to step away from our polluted, penal heritage and say, as a nation, “That was not acceptable. We are better than that,” and bury January 26th as the ignominious moment in history that it was.

We have had an apology from a Prime Minister to the indigenous people of our land, and I was among those who wept while listening to it. I believe that it began a healing which still needs to be struggled for. I also believe that to step away from the celebration of January 26th as Australia Day would demonstrate something powerful to our indigenous brothers and sisters: That we, as a nation do not consider what happened to their ancestors was right, nor do we in any way, directly or indirectly, sanction it. To determine to celebrate Australia Day on another day would help to illustrate this very strongly.

It is also time that we were free to celebrate our “unity in diversity”. At the moment, we’re not. Sociologists for decades have studied the “cultural cringe” – that national inferiority complex that often rears its ugly head when we, or one of our leaders goes overseas, or when a reporter asks a visiting American celebrity,  as if we needed their validation, “So, what do you think of Australia?”

It’s the chip on our national shoulder that, I believe, emanates from our national beginnings and makes us do the kinds of things we would never do at home, like embellishing our or our country’s achievements, our country’s size, grovelling before Presidents, etc. It is time to break free as a nation, reject our oppressive beginnings and choose another day.

So what day would it be? January 1st has been bandied about – the date of the federation of the Commonwealth of Australia – fairly obvious, I would’ve thought. So much more obvious than January 26th, but the average Aussie wouldn’t like having to telescope Australia Day into New Year’s Day, effectively making one party when you could have two – not very Australian.

I’m all for finding a day in August. In New South Wales we have a dearth of holidays between June and October, so August would break it up nicely. We could just select a day, without having to ask Her Majesty, and boom, there you go.

In our present shape as a federation, we’re a young country; so while we’re young, let’s get it right. Let’s find a day that fits for us to celebrate the great things about our nation, in an Australian way, without adopted affectations; and let’s decide not to commemorate so much of what’s bad about our nation’s beginnings, because that’s what we are doing at the moment, whether we realise it or not.

10 thoughts on “Can Someone Explain Australia Day to Me?

  1. An interesting and thought provoking appraisal, Matt. One that a number of people silently share but feel ‘oppressed’ to voice. It takes the ‘power of one’ as we’ve seen all over the world throughout history for change to take place. How about setting up a petition on change.org 🙂

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  2. I’ve always wondered why people didn’t question ‘tradition’ more. Meaning… why Aussies celebrate their 21st birthday as a HUGE celebration. Okay, so in the US, you can vote at 18 but you can’t drink until 21. Here in Australia, you’re already doing all these things at 18, so what’s the significance of a big party at 21? Is it because they see it on American television, so it’s what you do? Interesting.

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      • I’ve noticed that when I question it, they find me stuck up. I’m not.. I’m only asking why… so now I only question things in my head…

        So, yes, I agree… a lot of wasting of time. 😦

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  3. As a naturalised Aussie, one born in New Zealand, my adopted homeland’s relationship with its indigenous people has always mystified me. Back in the motherland, the Maori, a warrior people, fought war to preserve their land and culture and lost pitifully in the face of the whiteman’s guns. The NZ national day (Feb 6) celebrates the signing of an agreement between the Maori and Pakeha to allow trade and land sale between races, but really actually marks the Maori’s signing away of rights and lands in exchange for being taken advantage of by the whiteman’s law and governance… what a high price to pay for what could have very easily been a lost culture.

    I am however, warmed to have witnessed in my lifetime the Waitangi Tribunal convening a massive hearing of indigenous grievances (particularly re land) and huge amounts of reparation made by our government for the lands lost and damages done. It was a process that took huge steps forward in the kind of acknowledgement that seems to be so lacking on this side of the Tasman.

    I have seen not only the preservation of, but the celebration of Maori culture, language and spirit in the younger generations with Kohanga Reo (language nests i.e. preschools) and later primary and high schools, not to mention all Maori language tv shows (with English subtitles), and later all Maori channels). My little white nephews proudly do the haka, sing in Maori and think nothing of it. The streets of New Zealand show both Maori and English signage and more and more people will greet each other with Kia Ora as well as Hi, or G’Day. More people take care to pronounce Maori in its beauty instead of with English or white inflections which is music to my ears.

    I’ll be honest, I’m actually proud to be a New Zealander. I also love that I have been so embraced by Australia, but it saddens me that my welcome is easier for some Aussies to offer because I’m an immigrant who looks the same as they do.

    NZ’s past is far from perfect, and much of it is still grieved by my Maori brothers and sisters, it’s also true we’re by no means perfect in the present either and there are plenty of people who may or may not admit that aren’t thrilled with what they call the ‘brownification’ of NZ, and that such a feeling exists grieves me still. My heart leaps to hear Maori voices, and as white as I am and as a 6th generation New Zealander, who is more Portuguese than Maori I still consider Maori culture to be also New Zealand culture, and thus it is part mine.

    So I too don’t quite know what to do with Australia Day. I will enjoy the company of my friends and nod and smile my way through a sausage and a beer. And while I do that I will grieve also that my indigenous Australian brothers and sisters see us celebrate their subjugation, and I will quietly fume that we condone, participate in, or instigate talk about finding solutions to ‘the [vomit] Aboriginal problem’ instead of actually honestly facing the problems of the prevailing white cultural system. The problem that basically amounts to fear; fear of appearing small, an ingrained, cultural sensitivity that that, in its own shame can’t accept that being wrong isn’t the worst thing one can be… it is far worse to refuse to acknowledge being wrong and to fail to stand up and do something to make things right.

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    • Thanks Dee for such a beautiful and powerful response. I so wish that we could get it right. I was talking to some friends over dinner last night and this issue – at least politically – smacks of how the Catholic Church is handling the issue of child abuse: denying corporate responsibility, when God would want us to fall on our faces, as one, and say, “this is horrific. How could we have allowed this to happen? Forgive us and our forbears. What can we do to help make things right?”

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