Unlike the Fourth Of July in America and other celebrations of nationhood around the world, Australia Day seems very much a manufactured event. Take away the PR campaign that usually precedes, the various Government sponsored activities on the day, the fireworks, the citizenship ceremonies, the Australian Of The Year awards and Sam Kekovich flogging lamb chops and it could pass largely unrecognised, like any other run of the mill public holiday.
Over the past 80 odd years there have been a number of attempts at establishing a national day in which we celebrate our history and the social and cultural values that supposedly bind us together. We’ve had Anniversary Day, ANA Day and Foundation Day but it wasn’t until 1994 that Australia Day on January 26 became a nationwide public holiday.
Needless to say the date, marking the invasion of the British, has always attracted controversy, especially from the Indigenous community. It’s also a common misbelief amongst many Australians that the date marks the landing of Captain Cook in Australia. In reality it was the day when the first load of predominantly petty crooks shipped to Australia between then and 1868 set foot in Port Jackson. The ships carrying these assorted scoundrels, pick pockets, fraudsters and bread thieves had actually arrived in Botany Bay, between January 18-20 but somehow we opted for Australia Day on January 26.
Not only does the choice of this date show a total disregard for First Nations People, it also indicates modern Australia’s lack of both interest and connection with our early history. This apparent apathy and indifference for our historical roots, combined with a general ignorance, can be viewed as both good and bad. The negative is a failure to recognise the dreadful impact the white colonial masters had on the indigenous population. The positive, and this relates more to our sense of nationalism, is that unlike our American cousins the bulk of Australians have little interest or even symbolic connection with our colonial past. Overt jingoism surfaces now and then but on the whole our displays of patriotism are reserved and low key.
The recent attack on the Capitol building in Washington was a mindblowing example of what happens when nationalism, patriotism, conspiratorial urgings and an undying belief in the Second Amendment erupt in a lynch mob of fury and insanity. Fortunately in Australia we have no great reverence for our founding fathers, no almost religious belief in the constitution and no real deification of the Australian flag.
Sure the current flag, with its lingering Union Jack, gets a workout now and then – at sporting events, as an advertising logo, on Australia Day and other commemorative occasions but is nowhere near as omnipresent or revered as the Stars & Stripes. There’s a continuing debate about changing it and when right wing politicians or hoons at the Big Day Out use it to drape themselves in a display of nationalism, there is a general revulsion.
In recent years the official organisers of Australia Day have been keen to promote diversity and this year the TV campaign even acknowledges the ‘rawness’ of the day for many Indigenous Australians. It’s a move in the right direction, one that may eventually see the ditching of January 26. Historically we officially became a nation on Jan 1, 1901 when the British Parliament legislated for the six Australian colonies to collectively govern in their own right as the Commonwealth of Australia.
If we need a symbolic connection to set the date, surely this would be more appropriate and a fitting way to start each New Year. We could even save on the pyrotechnics bill by having a combined NYE/Australia Day fireworks at midnight. Admittedly a certain section of the population would be celebrating their national identity with a hangover but what could more sobering than a plate of vegemite sandwiches, a sausage sizzle and a big slice of pavlova.
When the 750 odd convicts poured off the ships in Port Jackson back in 1788 many of them were riddled with gonorrhoea and syphilis, as were a number of the accompanying crew and soldiers. In retrospect what we really could be celebrating on January 26 is the arrival of the clap in Australia, not to mention a whole bunch of other nasty diseases.
At a time when we judiciously screen anybody entering the country and health is our number one priority, it seems odd that we celebrate a day when the ‘itch’ and the ‘pox’ invaded our otherwise pristine shores. Time to move on!