Monday 26 January 2009 approached, arrived and departed this year with the usual accompaniments:
~ lots of joyous celebration, but including some distastefully aggressive jingoism;
~ plenty of flag-waving and flag-wearing, face- and body-painting, and other outward shows of national pride;
~ the customary speeches, particularly at citizenship ceremonies and other public activities;
~ equally customary, it seems, denunciations of overt patriotism as ‘undignified’, ‘bogan’, ‘yahooish’, or, much worse, ‘American’, and even ‘unAustralian’, by the usual claque of the clever, the credentialled, the whiners, the wowsers, who’d love to be Person-Commissars in the Vegan Entities Democratic Gaian Republic of Whatever-they’ll-call-it.
~ editorials, commentaries, letter-writing and blog-posting inspired or repelled by the Day and its events; plus – and what would the Day be without –
~ the now routine ‘conversations’, about whether we should have the Day on this date, or even on any date.
There is somewhat of a consensus that the Day has, well, its anomalies, or its difficulties, or is inappropriate for a variety of reasons:
~ it’s a NSW thing, it is their Foundation Day, and the five other States have their own such days, and it is not, therefore, a ‘national’ Day;
~ nor is it ‘national’ in terms of celebrating or commemorating a national event, as Anzac Day most definitely, and, indeed, definitively, is;
~ given that, as this year’s Australian of the Year claimed, it recalls the day the world of indigenous culture “came crashing down”, it is divisive rather than unifying.
“It is a NSW thing” is a neat turning on its head ex-PM Keating’s (in)famous remark that “Maaate, if you live in Australia, and don’t live in Sydney, you’re only camping out”.
More seriously, everything has to start somewhere, and our ‘thing’ started, very briefly, on the shores of Botany Bay, before moving much more permanently to Port Jackson. All over the US, Americans celebrate their Fourth of July, commemorating their 1776 Declaration of Independence for the “Thirteen Colonies of British North America”, even though there are now 37 more States, including two hived off from those original 13.
There doesn’t seem to be any sense in replicating our historic rail-gauge confusion in our celebration of the nation.
And a corollary: if 26 Jan 1788 is just a NSW thing, then only (the descendants of) the Eora, Dharug and Awakabal peoples can claim it as ‘Invasion Day’ (end-paper map, The Oxford Companion to Australian History, eds Davison, Hirst and Macintyre, 2001).
As for changing from a State-based to a ‘national’ event: which?
Any such event would have to be after Federation, whenever you date that. Taffy Morgan, of Brisbane, suggested, in a letter to The Australian Tuesday 27 January, a commemoration of 9 July 1900, because that was when the Commonwealth of Australia Constitution Act was ratified; however, our resident and more apoplectic Anglophobes would likely suffer heart attacks at that idea, especially as ‘ratified’ here means – and here you lot might like to sit down – given the Royal Assent.
Others suggest January 1st, as Stan Marks, of Caulfield, Vic, suggested in the same paper: “On January 1, 1901, Australia became a federation, one nation. Surely, logically, this is the real Australia Day?”
Nice one, Stan, but swamping the national Day with New Year’s Day? And all those hangovers from the lead-up and aftermath to New Year’s Eve fireworks?
Other events, for various reasons, don’t fit:
~ “it cannot be Anzac Day, since that day belongs to those who fought and died in wars, from the Sudan to Vietnam [sic]. The dawn service and the march should not be subsumed into any alternative celebration”. Well put, (ex NSW Premier) Bob Carr, in an article on January 26 encompassing the achievements and tragedies of our history –
~ another suggestion is the Battle for Australia Day^, commemorating in particular the Kokoda campaigns in mid-1942, when, as is often claimed, ‘war came to Australian soil for the first time’.
Three problems: (i) indigenous Australians contend that ‘war came to Australian soil’ in 1788; (ii) inter-clan warfare was endemic up to and beyond 1788; and (iii) the then TPNG was ‘Australian’ only in the sense that it was ours under colonial administration or a League of Nations mandate.
~ then there’s the suggestion from, among many, Andrew Woodhouse, President of the Australian Heritage Institute (Potts Point, NSW), also in a letter in The Australian of 27 January, that “Australia Day should be moved to May 27, the day we first recognised Aboriginal equal citizenship rights with constitutional change in 1967”.
Which leads fittingly to the now ritual, and, one suspects, often tokenistic intoning of the ‘Invasion Day’ mantra; one does not disagree lightly in this matter with Ronald Dale Barassi, arguably at 70 Australia’s greatest living footballer, and recent hero in enduring a bashing for helping a woman fend off attacks by a gang of men, but it seems that saying something negative about Australia Day is what’s now expected of the illuminati and the cognoscenti, ideologically-approved bien pensants and celebs hunting a headline.
Nothing written here is intended to dismiss, or diss, the well-documented sufferings of the First Peoples of these lands, both on the Australian mainland and here in Tasmania.
However, it is an existential fact of history that most national days have their downsides. For Americans, both Fourth of July and Thanksgiving involve the dark stain of what Luther Standing Bear, of the Sioux Nation, is said to have observed: “They made us many promises, more than I can remember, but they never kept but one: they promised to take our land and they took it”, as well as that of slavery and segregation.
France’s Bastille Day celebrations remember an event which led directly to the deaths of millions from 14 July 1789, through the Terror of 1793-94, to the mass slaughter of the Napoleonic Wars, including the million deaths in the retreat from Moscow, and ending with Waterloo. Should they?
China’s two national days have similar problems. The Double Tenth, observed in Taiwan and among many Overseas Chinese, remembers the start of the Wuchang Uprising of October 10, 1911 which led to the collapse of the Qing (Manchu) Dynasty in China and establishment of the Republic of China on January 1, 1912; however, the subsequent history of this republic is marred by claims of corruption, warlordism, feeble resistenace to Japanese aggression, a lost civil war and the retreat to the island of Taiwan, with ostracism from the UN its most recent difficulty.
October 1 is the national day of the People’s Republic of China, celebrating the 1949 proclamation of the People’s Republic which has, as well as its outstanding recent achievements – if only, for example, we could get some of their railways engineers to rebuild our networks – a half-century history of dictatorship, one-party rule, repression and mass murder (including tens of thousands of deaths-as-by-products in the failed and farcical backyard furnaces experiment), not forgetting that current cause celebre Tibet.
Because whatever day is chosen will offend someone, and in today’s climate of outraged entitlement, offence is taken very easily, so perhaps ex-Premier Carr has it right:
“We should approach Australia Day to understand, celebrate, commemorate and, yes, mourn, our nation’s history in its entirety”.
Adding to the complexity of this matter is SMH columnist Gerard Henderson’s pointing out rather cheekily that “many indigenous Australians have ancestors who were both invaders and the invaded”, and nowhere is that more obvious from the historical record than here in Tasmania, with Shayne Breen in The Companion to Tasmanian History (ed. Alison Alexander, 2005) opening the entry on ‘Aboriginal Islanders’ with this sentence: “Many contemporary Tasmanian Aborigines are descended from a community of Aboriginal women and European sealers”.
Henderson also reckons that “Mick Dodson sees his Australian of the Year award as an opportunity for continuing his advocacy of reconciliation. The increasingly patriotic vibes which are now part of Australia Day should give support to such an agenda. . . . Successful reconciliation is most likely to be advanced by latching on to the inclusive patriotism of Australia Day rather than by moving the date away from January 26. The focus of reconciliation should be on improving the plight of Aborigines along the lines of those who are more interested in practical outcomes than theoretical rights.”
Of course, none of the above would appease the more extreme of the Australia-is-illegitimate mob, that Caucasians, and presumably all other immigrants no matter from where, have no intrinsic right to be here.
A couple of rejoinders to that nonsense: (i) the UN says we’re legit, and that’s what counts internationally (Aussie cheer squads for Hamas take note); (ii) haven’t noticed squads of Australian illegits conspicuously heading back to where their ancestors came from, which, in many cases, would require bi-location.
^ The Governor-General issued a proclamation on 19 June 2008 to declare the first Wednesday in September each year as Battle for Australia Day in recognition of the service and sacrifice of all those who served in defence of Australia in 1942 and 1943.