Proud of What?
This week, the media have again ignited debate about Australia Day: Should we celebrate it? When should we celebrate it? How should we celebrate it? There are many deeply invested parties in this discussion and any time there are suggestions about modifications to the current Australia Day celebrations, the offending party is treated as if they are a heretic. There is public outcry and it reveals levels of insensitivity of which I, as an Australian, am very ashamed.
The parties who want to maintain the status quo are usually the members of our society who oppose any kind of change or critical examination of our actions and beliefs. They dismiss the concept of Invasion Day because it doesn’t offend them and explain, inarticulately, that we should all just ‘move on’ if we want equality. These are the people who don’t want to be deprived of their day off work, a sausage sizzle and a beer. The fact that this is what ‘being Australian’ means to them is one issue, but another is that they defend their right to celebrate in this way on this particular date. If the day is simply about patriotic sentiment, why can they not exhibit this on March 2nd? Or November 23rd? The reason they cling to the date that marks the beginning of colonialism could be because they are proud of their colonial roots. It could be because they use that particular date to reflect upon how the English, their ancestors, were such an inhumane society that they saw fit to transport the convicts they imprisoned (who happened to be the poor and most often ill members of said society) to a foreign country in such poor conditions that many men died on the ship or in their prison, New South Wales.
In actual fact, the resistance to change is a manifestation of another great Australian tradition: racism. To say that the celebration of what it means to be Australian must occur on the day that Anglo-Saxons first trod the soil implies that this is when our history began and that being Australian is to the exclusion of anything before, or indeed after, this. It is not enough, apparently, to have taken the land from its Indigenous inhabitants but we must also perpetuate this myth of discovery of this country – a cultural narrative that has been quashed by the court of the highest legal standing in Australia in cases like Wik and Mabo. Of course, the inconvenience of moving the date of their Triple J Hottest 100 beach parties is of equal measure to the grief and pain caused to the Indigenous population’s experience of remembering the atrocities and cultural genocide, of which their people have been victims, starting on this day with the invasion of their land.
If, in fact, all these objectors want to celebrate is the pride they feel for their country, I have a suggestion: show respect to your fellow Australians; the place and its customs aren’t the only aspect of our nation that should evoke pride in its citizens, we should also be proud of the ways in which we support and co-operate with one another to redress past wrongs and create harmonious futures. Above all, our country is about its people, not its beaches and lamb chops.
Before I face the usual wrath in response to the suggestion we make any changes to this sacred day, let me save you the trouble. If you object to the idea that it is inappropriate to celebrate on a day of mourning for our nation’s first people because its not your ‘fault’ and you ‘aren’t responsible’, let me clarify that these sentiments are irrelevant. It doesn’t matter whether you are personally responsible for the harm. As a member of the Australian community who profits from the generosity and resources of this country, you are bound to help ease the suffering of many who do not. It isn’t because of your individual decisions that Indigenous Australians have lower life expectancies and higher education participation, and yet, if you are to spout national pride, you have a moral duty to be part of the solution to these inequalities in our society. By the same token, if acknowledging their grief by reconsidering the date of our national day is a step towards reconciliation, you have an obligation to support that movement.
The issue runs deeper than this, though; it is about the emptiness of our current modes of celebration. We include citizenship ceremonies and awards for leaders in our communities but, other than this, there are few meaningful celebrations of our national identity. We need to use it as a day for reflection, as a day on which we create positive memories and unifying tributes to all the different facets of our identity. The diversity that exists within our country is a significant aspect of its identity and, yet, it has been absent from the true meaning of the day. We’ve turned to migrants in our moments of need, such as when we needed workers for the Snowy Hydro Scheme after World War II but we assume and expect them to assimilate to the dominant culture, language and ideas which, although technically ‘unique’ to Australia, are so largely because of their conservatism and intolerance. Unfortunately, Australia Day becomes a way in which those who are marginalised by the dominant are reminded of their differences and how these have historically manifested.
The need for a day celebrating the aspects of our nation that are great does not need to be at the expense and to the exclusion of other groups in our country. When we celebrate, we should do so in a manner that gives us something to be proud of as a nation.
Parkour teaches Literature and Language to high school students and writes fervently in her spare time. She loves a good story and a passionate argument. She currently lives in the country and longs for the buzz of the city.