Tuesday, January 26, 2010

Australians All Let Us Rejoice?

So, it's Australia Day today. Happy national day, everyone. 

Once upon a time, this used to be my favourite day of the year - absolutely without question. Back when I used to row competitively, my mates and I would spend the 26th January down at the boat shed by the Swan River. We'd pull a couple of ratty old couches out onto the river bank, set up a barbeque and a stereo, and listen to the Hottest 100 while cracking a few beers. We'd play cricket. Kick the football. Chuck a frisbee around. When it got too hot, we'd go for a dip in the river. After sunset, we'd move out to the shed's launch ramp and watch the fireworks over the city, a couple of kilometres upstream. One memorable year we filled the bottom of an old rowing 8 with ice, and (no doubt in contravention of almost every maritime safety regulation in the world) converted it into a 40 foot long, row-able, floating esky (with about an inch and a half of freeboard, but that's okay...) and headed out into the bay for several very pleasant hours.

Yep. Fun. Relaxed and fun.

These days, though, I've gotta confess that I've got mixed feelings about Australia Day. It might well be just me but it feels, well, different, somehow.

One of the things I loved about our days by the river was that it was a celebration of everything I really love about living in this country - mateship, being outdoors, enjoying the utterly beautiful environment we've been gifted with, but at the same time it was somehow understated. Australian, if you like.

Not so much, any more.

Even aside from the ABC accidentally leaking the results of the hottest 100 (not that this matters to me nowadays. In recent years I've become more of  a radio national listener. Yes, I'm old and boring. And I have utterly no idea who Mumford and Sons are.) it feels like Australia Day has become, in recent years, more and more ... unsubtle. More overtly nationalistic.

It's no longer enough to just get out and quietly have a day off work - nowadays it seems like you can't turn around without seeing some hotted up bogan-mobile with ten little plastic Australian flags (made in China) hanging off it. There'll be guys at the beaches and at the Big Day Out wrapped in the flag, as though they have something to prove. Some idiot will tell a news crew that "If you don't love it, then leave". It's all a bit jingoistic. Worse, it's all a bit too unthinking.

I dunno. Perhaps I'm just becoming old and curmudgeonly. Very likely I'm looking back at the 'good old days' of my youth through rose-coloured glasses. And don't get me wrong - I'm a big fan of this country. Love it to bits. I just don't feel like I have to prove it to anyone.

And there are things we need to think about: Indigenous health, terrorism and our response to it, global warming, the ongoing racism present in so many parts of our society, whaling and our role in the Antarctic, our place in South East Asia, our water useage - these are big issues that are going to shape both the cultural and physical landscape of this country for our children and generations to come and to my mind, Australia Day should be the day where, as well as celebrating our country, we call it in to focus - we talk about the country we want to live in, and the ways we might achieve that. 

To my mind, an unquestioning celebration of anything isn't a celebration worth having. Let's celebrate our past achievements, sure. But let's also use the opportunity to map out our future ones.

The 26th of January celebrates the day when the first fleet sailed into Sydney Harbour and dropped anchor, just off the beach where today the Sydney Opera House holds court across the water. It celebrates the birth of a modern nation, an inventive nation, a resilient and tough and brave and beautiful nation.

But let's not forget that it also celebrates the invasion. The introduction of European diseases to the Aboriginal people. The introduction of the firearm and the use of power to dominate the disenfranchised. It celebrates the introduction of European models of land use - clear felling and large scale grazing - into a landscape just not suited to it. It celebrates the beginning of erosion, salinity, the slow decline of the barrier reef, the damming of rivers, the draining of the Murray.

Australia Day is not just a celebration, but is a day of duality, and always has been. We need to remember that.

Because it is a lucky country, and we are young and free, and the moment we forget the costs of that achievement, that's when we start to become less than we might be.


  1. Not old and curmudgeonly, Anthony, but someone prepared to look at the day as it has become and what it really is. The polarisation of our country. The fireworks by the river have been marred by drunken violence to the point where all alcohol has been banned and tonight police will arrest not only the bogans but families enjoying a glass of wine. Not that you need alcohol to celebrate but everyone has been warned that none will be spared (except those in the corporate boxes, so hypocisy rules). And as for the flags on cars - don't get me started, You are right, it's jingosim, not patriotism and in this political climate it's very worrying.

  2. I went school uniform shopping on the weekend and was astounded by all the Australian flag bikinis and singlets and boxers in the front door of K-Mart. I'm with you. Chucking a sickie on a Monday before Australia Day is Australian. Flag waving and jingoism, not so much.

    Is it the kids who have grown up Howard do you think? Is it an emulation of Yankee culture? Or is it something else, something deeper and more sinister?

  3. Thanks for your comments Penni and Judi.

    I really don't know. I think it's tempting (for a leftie like me, at least) to blame Howard and the culture of fear that he established during his prime ministership - certainly those are the years when the changes seemed to occur. But that also seems just a little too simple and reductionist.

    I also suspect that there are other forces at play, here; Greater interconnectedness of (all sorts of) ideas through technology, global fear in the aftermath of 9/11, and the influence of powerful commercial and media forces. All sort these and probably a dozen other forces coming together to create some sort of confluence of ideas.

    It's odd, though. I should say that I don't actually have any issue whatsoever with people expressing their love for their country - it's just the 'My country right or wrong' attitude that seems to be a little prevalent at the moment which has me worried.

    That said, I'm typing this out on my patio, drinking a beer, enjoying the night chorus and the scent of mozzie coil and citronella. It's a perfectly still evening, and the Canberra bush is coming to life around me. It's good to be Australian.



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