Australia Day

Controversy on Australia Day. Picture: ON FILE

By Maria Millers

Once again it’s that time of the year when public discussion erupts on whether we should hold our day of national celebration on that vexed date: January 26th or move it to another date.

Australians, above all, love a holiday and more so if it should fall on a Monday or a Friday, giving them that hallowed of all institutions, The Long Weekend. And particularly one in January that stretches that summer holiday vibe even longer.

Undoubtedly, most Australians are looking forward to next weekend, but not necessarily with the fervour that accompanies national celebrations elsewhere.

And coming after a spell of winter like weather, the fact that Friday is Australia Day, appears to be of secondary concern to a growing number of people.

More likely it is a chance to catch up with all those outstanding chores, to start getting the kids ready for school or to relax on a beach (weather

permitting) or watch the tennis or cricket.

And while we are becoming, in a way, less attached to January 26, for many indigenous Australians this has always been a difficult and traumatic day: Many regard this as Invasion Day, a day of mourning.

Many countries around the world do observe a national day. National days are special events that celebrate national identity and bring its citizens together as a nation, usually around some event of significance in its history.

But while the US, for instance on the 4th July, celebrates its independence from Britain, Australia celebrates the founding of a British penal colony.

And a brutal one at that.

Some would agree with Professor Bronwyn Carlson, an expert in indigenous affairs at Macquarie University: ‘This day does not reflect a day that is worthy of celebration even for those on board the First Fleet who were either British military or prisoners of the Crown’

For national holidays to be successful there must be agreement among citizens on what we are celebrating and whether the chosen date is the appropriate one Regrettably, some politicians instead of leading a national debate about an alternate date persist in making comments that don’t necessarily reflect a growing public sentiment.

The unedifying outrage against supermarkets and Woolworth in particular by Peter Dutton is almost ludicrous.

The fact that they will not be stocking Australia Day themed merchandise must surely mean there is little demand for it and maybe we are just not a flag waving nation, especially a flag made in China.

Tellingly, the management at K Mart made the point that even if the date of Australia Day was changed they would still not be stocking such merchandise.

Moreover though the concept dates from July 15th 1915 as a war fund raiser for the Red Cross and was adopted on different days in different states, it was only in 1994 that January 26th was agreed on. Many Local Councils across the country have shifted citizenship ceremonies to other dates and even more significantly a growing numbers of employers are honouring workers’ requests to not take a holiday on Australia Day and allowing them an alternate day off.

It seems that the date has evolved and undoubtedly can evolve more.

And, moreover, should we not look at other less divisive dates. For instance, the day that the colonies became the Commonwealth of Australia on 1 January,1901 or the sitting of the first Parliament in Melbourne on 9 May, 1901. And another date worthy of considering is 13 February, 2008, Prime Minister Kevin Rudd’s Apology to the Stolen Generations for the injustices and mistreatment of the past.

Recent polls have shown an overall decline in those supporting the retention of January 26th as Australia Day, but most significant is the decline in support among the young.

Today Australia is a very different country, slowly but surely facing up to its geographic reality.

Immigration has brought changes to the population and significant and growing numbers of Australians have ancestry from Europe, Asia, The Middle East and other regions.

While Australia has a lot to be proud of it has also avoided facing up to the wrongs of the past.

There has been a reluctance to face up to these wrongs in a ‘a conspiracy of silence’ or as anthropologist William Stanner put it: a cult of forgetfulness.

And it’s not just about the treatment and attitudes to our Indigenous First Nation people but also to recent treatment of vulnerable refugees.

The often inhumane treatment of refugees on Manus and other detention centres was brought to our attention by Behrouz Boochani’s harrowing but lyrical account of his years of illegal detention-in No Friend but the Mountains: I take a few deep breaths, trying to breathe some dignity back into my spirit.”

he wrote

Indigenous poets, in particular, have played a crucial role in expressing the complex emotions surrounding Australia Day. Their poetry often explores themes of identity, cultural resilience, and the impact of colonization on their communities.

For most indigenous Australians the date is a reminder of what led to the destruction of their way of life, their culture and their natural environment. As the late Oodgeroo Nunnacal expressed the losses felt:

We are the shadow-ghosts creeping back as the camp fires burn low.

We are nature and the past, all the old ways

Gone now and scattered.

The scrubs are gone, the hunting and the laughter.

The eagle is gone, the emu and the kangaroo are gone from this place.

The bora ring is gone.

The corroboree is gone.

And we are going.

For many of us Dorothea MacKellar’s patriotic poem, My Country, written out of homesickness while travelling in Europe still resonates, even though many prefer visiting overseas destinations to their own backyard. Mackellar’s poem paints Australia and Australians in an extremely positive light.

The verse below is not the usually quoted one but captures the extremities of our climate.

Core of my heart, my country!

Her pitiless blue sky,

When sick at heart, around us,

We see the cattle die –

But then the grey clouds gather,

And we can bless again

The drumming of an army,

The steady, soaking rain.

On the other hand, AD Hop in his poem Australia insinuates the spiritual poverty of Australia-

And her five cities, like five teeming sores,

Each drains her: a vast parasite robber-state

Where second hand Europeans pullulate

Timidly on the edge of alien shores.

Indigenous poet Jack Davis writes forcibly about what he believes to be the ‘true’ meaning of what people have done to the country with exploitation of natural resources and indiscriminate land use.

You have turned our land into a desolate place.

We stumble along with a half-white mind.

Where are we?

What are we?

Not a recognized race…

There is desert ahead and desert behind.

There is however a growing awareness that this fragile continent needs to be cared for and that the past has to be acknowledged and owned. So whatever date we eventually settle as our national day we should not ignore the less than proud moments of our history and rather than flag waving and jingoistic utterances we could look at the bountiful land we are all lucky enough to share and call home, and celebrate it in all its contradictory beauty.