Australia Day: Is the 26th of January really the best we can do?


The cycle of news and current affairs has always been interestingly peculiar to me – what ‘news’ becomes big news on a particular day, and the processes determining why an event is subjectively more valued than an objectively more significant event is something I find fascinating. I get it – media is a market; media sources compete with other sources for the attention of audiences to increase their reach and advertising appeal to stay alive in one of the world’s most competitive media environments (per capita). And I get it – most people take absolutely no interest in complex problems or challenging ideas. A squirrel riding a donkey is way more interesting than a detailed analysis of taxation policy. I’m a cynic and a skeptic. Nevertheless, occasionally even I’m surprised by just how narrowly focused and deliberately blinkered news audiences are to bigger issues.

One of the big stories this week is how Woolworths, in providing free ‘Australia Day’ promotional memorabilia, had to recall a hat that left the state of Tasmania of the map of Australia. I like a good joke about Tasmania as much as the next person, and I can understand why every Tasmanian and their dog (all six of them), might be a little grated about the oversight of Australia’s forgotten state. But surely, surely, there are much bigger questions this country has to ask itself and answer about Australia day – what it means, its past and its future.

The true irony of this outcry is that there are much larger omissions in our Australia Day celebrations than merely forgetting Tasmania on a map – and that is the way we deliberately forget our history.

Here comes the anti-Australia rant. You don’t like Australia? Go somewhere else!

No, I don’t think I will. I have never understood this idea that to love a country means you must uncritically accept every facet of some supreme grand narrative which whitewashes history in a Disneyfied story dominated by success. Why can’t a country have faults? Why can’t Australia have a dark history? Are you afraid that accepting certain things happen will irrevocably alter the way you feel about the country you had the geographical good fortune to be born in? Fear of the unknown is rarely a good excuse to be deliberately ignorant. I love this country, and I want it to be the best it can be. However, as long as we choose to believe a simplified narrative that tries to portray Australian history as little more than a dandy progression of accomplishment and roguish colonial charm, we will never really fulfil our truly grand potential.

I refuse to accept this parochial, jingoistic version of our history comprising of a couple of ships, something about a fight over some rum before a gold rush and a weird thing called a stockade. I won’t accept that Ned Kelly was a good guy, and I won’t pretend that the White Australia Policy was an embryonic Parliament formalising in law the understanding that we all shouldn’t wear white after Labour Day. The ANZAC campaign was an unmitigated disaster (to be fair, not of our making), and the antics of its contemporary remembrance are cause for national embarrassment. The Don may be god but that does not excuse our treatment of indigenous Australians.

But what does all this have to do with the outcry about Woolworths leaving Tasmania off a free hat?

Simple. It is a symbol of the wider sanitisation of our history.  We get all worked up about leaving Tasmania off a hat, yet very few people question whether Australia Day is truly a national holiday. The tragic irony is that the settlers almost completely wiped out the indigenous inhabitants of Tasmania. First nations that had existed on the island for almost 35,000 years and yet today all we have left are a few disparate groups with no living languages and cultures which have had most of the shared stories and histories destroyed. A process by and large replicated across the entire continent. Ever the social-Darwinists, we considered their extinction a fait accompli and relegated them to impoverished insignificance whilst putting in place measures (such as the forced resettlement of children) to facilitate this inevitable oblivion at the cold end of an evolutionary cul-de-sac. We restricted their civil rights, and it was not until 1965 that an indigenous Australian could vote in every state. The culmination of these atrocities today sees Indigenous Australians as having some of the worst health and socio-economic indicators on the planet. It remains an ongoing embarrassment to Australia’s standing on human rights all over the world.

We celebrate our nation for all on January 26, but how is the landing of the First Fleet, the arrival of Anglo-Australians, the appropriate historical landmark for ‘all Australians’? It privileges a very distorted and narrow interpretation of what ‘Australia’ is and who are ‘Australian’. We talk about wanting a reconciled and multicultural country, and for us all to enjoy the ‘Australian’ way of life. Yet that requires quite a lot of people to swallow and keep inside a number of very real grievances about how they, their families and their ancestors, have been treated in this country. We ask Indigenous people to ignore a destruction of culture on a scale some label a genocide, we ask Chinese people to forgive the horrific racism they have been received with since the gold rush of the 1870s. We ask German-Australians to forget that we interned them in World War 1, we ask Japanese-Australians to forget that we interned them in World War 2. We ask the Greeks and the Italians to forgive the blatant racism with which we received them in the 1950’s and 60’s. We say it is for the wider good of what is ‘Australian’ and that we must put everything aside to assume the Australian identity.

Yet come January 26th, we host a national holiday commemorating the arrival of the British. We wave a flag with the Union Jack emblazoned upon it. We publically eviscerate anyone who dares question or criticise our history or culture, to the point of racially vilifying Australians of the Year who dare express anything other than undying adoration of our country. The outrage at Adam Goodes and his comments that, for him, Australia Day is ‘invasion day’ is a perfect example of this (see my article on that here) In what way was it not an invasion? People arriving and occupying the lands of others have been an invasion every other time it has happened in human history – why are we suddenly the exception?

The sad reality is that Australia Day is an Anglo holiday. Just because the vast majority of Australians of Anglo-origin choose to not observe it as having racist connotations does not magically render the criticism obsolete. The deliberate ignorance of its meaning serves as a clear reminder of just how much the Anglo perspective is privileged in our identity and constructed history. In reality, it has no meaning beyond the fact that it celebrates the beginning of British settlement. It marks the declaration of the Colony of New South Wales; not the Commonwealth of Australia. Australia was not even the term they used for the continent, it was known as ‘New Holland’ until at least 1804 when Matthew Flinders began to refer to it as Australia. January 26 1788 was nothing more than the continuance of British identity in a new colony – there was no concept of nation or identity distinct of Britain, its rule was British and its governors were British until the appointment of Sir John Northcott in, wait for it, 1946. There is nothing remotely ‘Australian’ about January 26th and the arrival of the First Fleet – it predates every concept of what it is to be Australian – even the term itself.

For indigenous people, the arrival of eleven tall ships through Sydney Heads on January 26th 1788 signifies the beginning of the end for 250 First Nations on this continent. Very few things make me angrier than someone nonchalantly saying that Aboriginal people should get over it and put the past behind them to unify as Australians, when they won’t do so much as agree that the anniversary of invasion may not be the appropriate date to celebrate this apparently wider Australian identity. We can’t ask others give up the past when we hold such marginalising dates as fundamental to our national psyche.

When you tie it all together, the reality is that the beginning of a prison colony is a pretty underwhelming genesis for a national holiday. Ignoring the fact that it privileges a very Anglo version of Australian identity and history, it really lacks the emotional and ideational power to bring a country of diverse backgrounds and histories together as one collective in the 21st century. Other nations don’t always have national holidays for the exact reason that there is no clear date that has the persuasive authority to draw together its many social and cultural strands – England is a great example of this.

National holidays should be truly transcendent ideas. Independence Day in the United States celebrates an achievement in the progress of humankind almost unprecedented in human history. It might have been a document and idea of Anglo creation, but its reach crossed all boundaries of colour. More than half the members of the United Nations have a founding document that can be called a declaration of independence. When Martin Luther King stood before the Lincoln Memorial and delivered his “I have a Dream” speech in 1963, the very symbol of the American Civil Rights Movement, he invoked the very words of his nation’s independence to symbolise the rise of the oppressed. Consider how profound a document must be when, almost two centuries after its inception, its preamble (“We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal”) is summoned to be the force for change after such a brutal history of slavery and segregation. Yet our national holiday commemorates 11 ships entering a harbour to start a prison colony.

So the U.S. Declaration is the standard to be allowed to have a national holiday? That’s a little impractical.

I understand that very few countries can claim a national holiday of such historical magnitude – France being the obvious exception, so I am not saying there is a particular historical standard to be met for a country to have a national holiday on a particular date commemorating an event. However, the least we could do is not have such a national holiday on a date that is flat out offensive to our First Nation people. The least we could do is have a national holiday on a date that doesn’t inherently ignore the contributions of non-Anglo Australians. Sparing that, could we at least have a date that actually has something to do with Australia?

Can you imagine how indignant an Indigenous person at the Bicentenary celebrations in 1988 must have felt? Watching a replication of the First Fleet’s arrival into Sydney harbour, the very symbol of the destruction of their people, whilst white people wave flags one quarter Union Jack and no part indigenous in their face? In a city named after the then British Home Secretary, Lord Sydney. Then people try to say it is a day completely unencumbered of historical bias and prejudice. If Australia Day is a non-Anglo holiday, then why did the anniversary of the First Fleet’s arrival take precedence in 1988? We weren’t celebrating the start of Australia, just like today we are celebrating the colony of New South Wales.

This Australia Day, try and spare some time to think about what you want in a national holiday, and whether or not January 26th communicates this. Try to put yourself in the place of those whose ancestral or personal history might be different to your own, and understand why they might find a date commemorating the arrival of 11 British ships does not evoke the sense of national pride and belonging that it might for others. There has to be a better date for this celebration. Australia deserves better, our people deserve better.

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Fascinated by philosophy and history, this blog is an outlet for my frustrations of living in a world seemingly dominated by accepted ignorance on one side, and entangled in the intellectual atrophy of post-modernity on the other.

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