The National Australia Day Council (we have a council for this?) apparently think that we ought to stop everything at midday today and sing the Australian National Anthem.
It’s hard to know where to start, frankly. The satire practically writes itself.
I mean, I love the idea of asking the nation to pause for a minute of silence and then to sing a song that includes the line ‘for those who’ve come across the seas we’ve boundless plains to share’. We should absolutely do that. Actually, I’ve been to quite a few rallies and the like for asylum seekers that have done just that. I’m a little surprised to see Tony Abbott getting in on the idea, but hey, how can this be a bad thing..?
On a more serious note, though, I do have a few concerns about this. I may be wrong, but I strongly suspect that for most Australians, Australia Day is mostly about getting an extra day off in summer to go to the Australian Open, or the beach, or to watch the cricket, or just to have a bit of a bludge. And while I’d say that’s as good a celebration of our nationhood as any, It seems that the National Australia Day Council thinks that we ought to be showing a bit more respect for the day itself. And I think it’s probably true that adding a ritualised performance of the National Anthem will draw our attention back to the day’s origin – which is, of course, a commemoration of the First Fleet’s arrival in Australia on January 26th, 1789.
Now, this is a date that is absolutely worthy of note on a historical level. No matter what your perspective is, it is undeniable that the arrival of the Europeans changed this country irrevocably. But for indigenous Australians, this change was pretty uniformly negative. Genocide, disease, the Stolen Generation, loss of culture and country, loss of languages… it’s ugly stuff, and it’s understandable that the indigenous Australians don’t see the arrival of Europeans in Australia as something to celebrate.
I don’t imagine that making the day even more about Australian history – and white Australian history at that – is going to help.
(In passing, I am also deeply suspicious of anything that makes Australia Day more about exhibiting one’s patriotism in the approved manner, especially in a political climate where many people seem to be very anxious to show that they are the ‘right’ sort of Australians, and to distance themselves from the ‘wrong’ sort.)
Honestly, I’m conflicted about Australia Day in general. I mean, I’m an Aussie born and bred and I will give you back my January long weekend when you prise it from my cold, dead hands, but that’s not really the point. The point, I think, is whether this is really the right date on which to reflect on our heritage. Is the arrival of Europeans in Australia something we should celebrate? And if not, what should we be celebrating?
I have a vested interest in this debate. I’m not just the descendant of Europeans – I’m someone who literally would never have existed if there had been no Europeans in Australia. My father’s family fled extreme poverty in their home country, and my maternal grandmother and her family fled both war and religious persecution in theirs. For those who stayed – well, my father lost several cousins of his generation to malnutrition, and those of my grandmother’s family who didn’t get out were killed by their persecutors.
If there had been no European colonisation of Australia, not only would my parents never have met each other, it’s likely that they and their families would not have survived long enough to have descendants at all.
So I’m actually rather lucky that Australian history fell out the way it did. And I’m very grateful that my parents’ families had somewhere to flee to when they needed to. I have a pretty good life as a result of that. But my good life has, arguably, been at the expense of good Indigenous lives that were never lived, and that is something that makes me uneasy. As it probably should.
I actually missed Kevin Rudd’s apology to the stolen generations. My tram was delayed that morning, and I only caught the last few minutes of it. Alas, I did not miss the ten years of John Howard refusing to apologise. And I did not miss the many, many people opining that it was ridiculous to apologise for something that wasn’t their fault, and that they had not done.
It’s true that we can’t change what our ancestors did. We can’t make it all better. I have, in fact, absolutely no clue what we can do to improve education, health and quality of life for indigenous Australians. (I’d probably start by asking them… and hoping that I didn’t get several thousand mutually incompatible answers…) And I’m not sure how meaningful an apology is in this context.
Then again, we apologise – or at least we say sorry – when someone tells us that they are ill or that they are getting divorced or that their dog has died, even though we are usually not the person who has infected them, broken up their marriage or killed their dog. It’s simply about showing caring.
And I think it is always appropriate to acknowledge where we have benefited from the wrong done by others, even if we did not do this wrong ourselves.
So – yes, I’ve benefited. I’ve benefited from European settlement, just by virtue of the fact that I was able to be born here. And then I’ve benefited some more, because I’m part of the white majority, and so it was always assumed that I would go to school, that I would have good access to healthcare. That if I were unemployed, I could be trusted to spend my benefit money as I chose, rather than having it quarantined for food and necessities only. That if I were accused of a crime, I would be treated fairly and presumed innocent until proven guilty. That if I collapsed on the street, it would be because I was ill, not because I was drunk or on drugs. That if I had children and was struggling, every effort would be made to help keep my family together, rather than having my children removed to a ‘safer’ environment.
It’s not so much that these things make me super lucky – I personally think that everyone ought to be able to have these things presumed – it’s that not having them would make me pretty bloody disadvantaged… and yet this is the sort of rubbish that indigenous Australians get to deal with on a regular basis.
Once again, I’m working out my thoughts on this blog, and I’m not sure where to go from here. I do think that it is right and appropriate to set aside a time each year to reflect on our history, and in particular to listen to indigenous voices. Our past has had some pretty ugly chapters, and I think we need to acknowledge that and remember it, the better not to repeat our mistakes.
I also think that it is right and appropriate to set aside a time each year to celebrate the things that bring us together – that make us a nation. For me, Australia Day has always been about celebrating diversity. I’m not sure if it holds that meaning for others, but if I’m trying to feel patriotic, I tend to look around at the incredibly varied and rich array of nationalities that make up my Australia, and feel proud and lucky to be a part of something that is so much bigger than me.
Can we do those two things on the same day? I’m not sure. My inclination is to say not, but that could just be my innate Aussie hankering for another public holiday.
Is January 26th the best day to do either of these things? Maybe. Or maybe one of them, at least. Maybe it is appropriate to acknowledge our history on this day – good or bad, it is a part of us.
But should we all be stopping at midday today to sing the Australian National Anthem? Honestly? I think not. If we are trying to celebrate our nationhood, we need to do this in a way that includes people rather than excludes them, and celebrating a day that has an incredibly negative meaning for our indigenous Australians is not the way to do this.
Let’s make today a day for remembering history and maybe playing a bit of cricket, and leave our patriotism for another occasion – one that is less divisive, and carries less baggage.
Or, alternatively, we could all have a nice little rally on the steps of the State Library to protest the government’s treatment of refugees. If we’re going to sing our national anthem today, let’s make it mean something. Especially the second verse.
Never in my time writing this blog have I felt so completely unqualified to write about something, which makes you wonder why I write these things, really. But quite seriously, I’ve grown up in urban Australia, and have had very little contact with indigenous Australians. If I’ve got something wrong, or found some way to be incredibly offensive, please let me know in the comments and I’ll do my best to fix it.