“The Australian dream,” Grant said. “We sing of it and we recite it in verse; ‘Australians all let us rejoice for we are young and free’ – Stan Grant, Racism and the Australian Dream.
Today will be my third year in a row abroad for Australia Day. My understanding of the holiday has developed a great deal in the past few years, but there is nothing quite like having to spend Australia Day abroad (and explain what it means to you to be an Australian and the reasons why we ‘celebrate’ Australia Day on the 26th of January).
For many Aussies, January 26 will be marked by beers, barbecues and Australian flag bikinis and other flag themed merchandise; this is basically the go to description that many Aussie expats give of our day. The Triple J Hottest 100 will blare from house parties around the country and pubs will swell with punters out to celebrate a rare Tuesday off work.
Australia Day, 26 January, is the anniversary of the arrival of the First Fleet of 11 convict ships from Great Britain, and the raising of the Union Jack at Sydney Cove by its commander Captain Arthur Phillip, in 1788 (you can read a comprehensive history of the evolution of Australia Day here: http://www.australiaday.org.au/australia-day/history).
Although the additional of Australia Day is a fairly recent one in the sense of time that there has been a celebration in the form of a holiday, there is a really dark past that is hidden in Australia’s history and I think that it is really important to acknowledge this. Over the past few years I have tried to reflect on this day what it actually means to be an Australian.
The irony is that other nations don’t have the same identity crisis. The French have Bastille Day, the Americans celebrate Thanksgiving and Independence Day, and the English, based on the Diamond Jubilee for Queen Elizabeth II, have no problem working out who they are or what defines them as a nation.
For much of the 19th century, an Australian identity was formed by fusing Convict history, events like the Eureka Rebellion and Aboriginal culture to create a kind of bush identity that was different from the British identity and in opposition to it. For example, the song Waltzing Matilda built its patriotic credentials by using Aboriginal words like coolibah, jumbuck and billabong as it described a story of a man who stole a sheep but killed himself rather than be caught.
When the British identity was eroded in the 1970s and 1980s, it left generations of Australians of British descent with a hostile attitude towards the Australian identity but without a British identity to promote in its place, or at least moderate the anti-Australian prejudice with some cultural respect. The identity that has filled the void has been largely based upon creating derogatory caricatures of Australians but without seeing themselves as part of their derogatory caricatures. Examples of the identity at work include Anglo commentator Catherine Deveny, who said in 2010:
“An Australian Flag in your front yard tells everyone you’re only a couple of Bundy and Cokes away from lynching a wog, slope or Arab.” https://twitter.com/catherinedeveny/status/12874575391
What people need to understand is that Australia Day is not a celebration for every Australian. It marks the day Aboriginal people first saw the tall ships enter their waters. Many people in the Indigenous community call it Survival Day; others call it Invasion Day. The 26th of January also commemorates the day some of the poorest and most desperate citizens of Great Britain were dumped on the shore of a land halfway across the world to undertake years of cruel labour as punishment for stealing loaves of bread.
White Australians donned flags as well as slogans like “we grew here, you flew here” in a show of hostility against Middle Eastern migrant communities. That the reinforcement of “pride” has become a national norm ten years after the Cronulla riots (read more here: http://www.abc.net.au/news/2015-12-11/locals-reflect-on-the-cronulla-riots-ten-years-later/7018836) is incredibly disturbing. That groups such as Reclaim Australia and the United Patriots’ Front are now deemed so acceptable by our country that they are framed as “ordinary Australians” is, frankly, terrifying.
The opportunity to commemorate the day we come to the table, as equals, and negotiate the way this country moves forward, would indeed make me proud of this country and our ability to work toward a better future. Until then, to be honest, I much prefer the idea of Invasion Day remaining a day of Indigenous protest and the assertion of sovereignty.
The answer is also not for white Australia to include more Aboriginal people in Australia Day events. It’s not to get more Aboriginal people to sing the National Anthem in public. It’s not to include a welcome to country ceremony before ignoring what this ceremony means. It’s not to misappropriate our iconography as a way of selling your meat. Doing all this merely erases the history of the place that we have grown to call home and assimilates identities people are trying to hold onto.
I have always been optimistic that in a country which prides itself on the notion of a “fair go for all”, all that I mention is not an impossible dream. I think we owe it to the future generations. Until some hard conversations are held and people start listening, it will unfortunately remain something I am unlikely to witness in my lifetime, although I really hope that I do.
So I pull this ‘Australia Day’ post together from my small and cold bedroom in the roof of a UK terrace house. I try to explain to my friends and colleagues the complexities of what it means to be an Australian; how I navigate my own identity and the kind of Australia that I want for my future. I will share some Tim Tams and make some Vegemite scrolls for my friends, tell them stories about Australia Days that I have celebrated in the past and all of the amazing things about the beautiful country that I left behind, but I will also try to tell them a story of the complexities of why Australia Day to me isn’t just as clean cut as having a BBQ and listening to Triple J.
I can’t say exactly what it means to me to be an Australian, but I know that I want something to change because more people need to understand the complexities of our culture and our history; it’s not just all BBQs and beers like you might think. Despite this, I am really proud to be an Australian. I’m proud of my Italian migrant heritage, have the utmost respect for my family and the people who have sacrificed to make our country the wonderful place it is. There is still a long way to go. There are still many important conversations that we need to have.
Half of my family moved to Australia thanks to a government policy which called for skilled migrants. From 1945 to 1975 the booming country’s population almost doubled. So, that was why we came, but the story of what life was like once my family was in Australia is still unclear.
Now I have lived abroad myself, I have a greater understanding of what it must have been like for my grandparents to migrate to a country; a small snippet of understanding, because I speak the language here and assimilated quite well.
What better explanation of multiculturalism can I ask for? I might not be able to label the kind of Australian I am, but really, how many of us can? We’re all different. We come from a different background, but yet we can all identify as being Australian.
This year, I am spending another Australia Day abroad.
I hope that I have highlighted to all the readers of this blog just some of the complicated issues of what it means to be an Australian and the depth and murkiness of our ‘culture’ and history. I hope that it has shed a bit of light onto the struggle that people had faced, leaving behind their cultural identities to adopt another. While I understand there are complexities to my cultural identity, it’s not as clear cut as people once believed, I do miss being home. Australia really is the most amazing place in the world. I challenge any Australian person abroad right now to watch this and not get homesick.
(Please also enjoy an Australia Day poem I wrote, plus some extra important reading and a link to the Horrorshow track ‘Own Backyard’ that speaks so many truths and is a great track).
Australia Day – Jessica Turner
Australians, us, a continental voice
Ostensible with time and loose intent
convinced we’re chosen and have the choice
to learn the world from West to orient.
Are sitting here with wine or beer to drink
to where we’ve been or plan to go;
indeed behind the affability to think
which of our travels our CV should show.
Were we aware, we’d congregate to hear
the magpies chortle in a gentle mock
and kookaburras laughing bush to rear
in realising laughter as a shock.
Look up above; imagine blue and sky
With clouds like larrikins out wagging school passing by
Look down at the ground; imagine green, grass, sticks and wood;
Beneath the eucalyptus of endless childhood.
So far from home for all of us I say
Drink to the Australia of ourselves;
remember our pasts and think optimistically of our futures
wherever we find ourselves reflecting about our country today.
Every January 26 I’m torn between wanting to celebrate and hang my head in shame; there’s gotta be a better way – Own Backyard – Horrorshow
Watch Stan Grant’s speech on racism and the Australian dream here:
Acknowledging how Indigenous Australians are still left behind this Australia Day