Wednesday, January 23, 2013

Oi Oi Oi

January 26, 2013 is the 225th anniversary of the day the First Fleet sailed into Sydney Harbour and raised the Union Jack. It's our national day. Just twenty-five years ago, Rick Price was singing "Celebration of a Nation" for Australia's Bicentennial festivities. Aside from the Sydney Olympics, it was the biggest outpouring of nationalistic pride in our history.

1988 seems like another lifetime ago. Australia Day is officially our national day, yet it's gone from a day of ultimate Australian pride to a mish-mash of speeches, protests, parties and cringe factor. January 26 is the day when the best of Australia is on display, and the worst of Australia is right there beside it. It's a hard day to love.

For Aboriginal Australians, January 26 is observed as Invasion Day, a day of mourning, when their independence, culture and even their existence was threatened. Since 1992, it's become Survival Day, a day when a determined people remember the impact "White Australia" had on those who were here before.

Impact? Let's be honest. The "impact" was murder, rape, theft of land, destruction of sacred sites, introduction of white-fella diseases, booze, guns and the undermining of a culture that is thousands of years old ... Yeah, why would anyone -black, white or lime green - want to celebrate any of that?

And yet, we "celebrate" in a myriad of ways. There are just as many reasons to be proud of what started 225 years ago as there are to be ashamed. Australia has achieved much: formed a democracy, developed successful industries, built a stable first-world economy, supported science, the arts and sport and created a unique - though imperfect - society. Can we celebrate the achievements of a modern Australia on the same day as our Aboriginal citizens are mourning? Should we?

Then there's the way we choose to celebrate: the traditional Australian barbecue, divided down gender lines, with beer, backyard cricket and more beer. Lamingtons and a cup of tea; pavlova and bubbly. Muscle car owners have removed the Christmas reindeer antlers from their cars and replaced them with Aussie flags. In fact, the flag - the one our grandparents, parents, husbands and brothers fought under - appears on everything from beach towels and board shorts to disposable plates, bucket hats, beach balls, eskies and thongs. Classy or poor taste?

But brace yourself, because the Ugly Australian is here too. He's the one wearing the xenophobic T-shirts that screech “go back to where you came from”, and "If you don't like it, leave!". She’s the one who stumbles out of the nightclub at sun-up, holding her sparkly stilettos in one hand and her hair in the other as she vomits a stream of chunky Midori cocktails and four letter works into the gutter. He’s the wag you changed a portable sign outside a Queensland regional airport to read “Fuck Off We’re Full”. [sic]

Last year, the Prime Minister tripped and the media went hog-wild. This year, we have the next step in offensive slogans: "Australia, Est 1788" and the political controversy over the Prime Minister’s pre-selection of Nova Peris-Kneebone for the Northern Territory senate seat.

Of course none of that is the official version of Australia Day, with its formal events, Honours Lists, Citizenship Ceremonies and now Affirmation Ceremonies. There’s also the usual round of editorials and debates about what it means to be Australian, the challenges and benefits of multiculturalism, the customary hat-tip to the original owners of the land and questions about whether it’s appropriate to celebrate the beginning of almost two centuries of genocide.

The answer is – I don’t know. I am 100% Aussie, although my father was born overseas. I don’t need an Affirmation Certificate to prove my allegiance. I feel uncomfortable with Australia Day because no amount of integrating the Aboriginal experience into the events of the day can erase this country’s past, and it’s not something we can all celebrate together.

Other options have been discussed and dismissed – the common response is moving our national day to Anzac Day. I’m even less in favour of that. Our veterans deserve their day, and Anzac Day is it. For many Australians, it’s a day with far more significance than Australia Day. Let’s not dilute the authority of Anzac Day by changing the meaning. The first day of Federation is unsuitable too, as its January 1st – it’s already New Years’ Day. We could consider Sorry Day – February 13, the anniversary of Kevin Rudd’s apology – but that is as divisive as Australia Day, and our national day should be about more than history.

…Which leaves May 9 as our national day, the anniversary of the opening of the first Australian Parliament in Melbourne in 1901. It has historical context and meaning, and as far as I know, doesn’t offend anyone. It’s also pretty dull, unless you’re a history or politics wonk.

I think we need a new day, a new reason to celebrate together as one nation. It’s time to reconsider becoming a republic, and re-examine our national flag. My preference is to be a republic, yet retain our role within the Commonwealth, and to find a new flag, yet retain the Southern Cross. I’d like Australia Day to be a day when we remember where we’ve come from, celebrate what’s great about where we are, and look forward with confidence and unity.

But I’m a sentimental idealist.

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