Richard di Natale, the Federal Greens leader, has managed to capture the holiday news, or at least the Australian politics section of it, with an almost daily cry to find another date for Australia Day, January 26th being apparently offensive to some Aboriginal people, because it signals the ‘invasion’ of their country. Since the Day remembers Governor Phillips’s planting of the flag close to Circular Quay and only the local Aboriginal people were there to observe, I think there is a good deal of specious talk in all this. Moreover, it is entirely unclear what Australia’s Aboriginal people think about the issue. A few have described it publicly as an irrelevance.
I’ve written quite recently about the insistent demand to change the date, and won’t go over that ground again. But I will add to my musings two thoughts that have flowed from recent discussions. The first is the changing nature of the Australian population. The second is the assertion on my part that there is a great deal to celebrate on January 26th, even if most Australians see it just as another public holiday. The two thoughts are connected.
The current population of our country is edging closer to 25 million. The Aboriginal group comes to around 700,000, most of whom live in cities, and are absorbed into the mainstream of Australian life. More than 20,000 Aboriginal students have graduated from our universities, and a further 15,000 are currently enrolled. The long-term outlook for our Aboriginal people is even more absorption, or ‘assimilation’. At the same time the Australian population they are being assimilated into is continuing to change. It is not the Anglo-Celtic 7 million I can remember from my boyhood, divided by religion and Irishness, but a much larger and ethnically more diverse society.
There are more Chinese in Australia than there are Aboriginal people, and their number can only be expected to grow steadily. The Indian proportion, now about 2.9 per cent, will also grow steadily. Anglo-Celts, broadly defined, are not more than 60 per cent of the whole. The rest are from everywhere, and there are bits of the world’s cultures all around us, a mosque not far from where I live, a Sikh temple and a highly successful Greek social club a few minutes’ drive. Less than half of all Australians today have both parents born in Australia, and a third had both parents born overseas. Australia’s population might be around 40 million in 2050. The debate about Australia Day has to be set in our present and future context. What happened in 1788 is of little interest to most Australians, and I would guess least of all to new arrivals. Historians might puzzle, but that I think is the situation. Calling the arrival of the first fleet an ‘invasion’ is pretty silly, given that Phillip had few soldiers with him, and did his best to placate the Sydney Aborigines he encountered.
There is a good reason for thinking of now and later, rather than of what happened more than two hundred years ago. Australia is a most desired society for many in the rest of the world. Australians have high average incomes compared to most human societies, and our country leads the world (on one measure) in political freedom, is second in the Human Development Index and third in economic freedom. Life expectancy here is the fourth highest in the world. The prospect of a decent life for self and children, given hard work, with little interference either from the state or from the community, another given, makes ‘Australia’ a highly valued target for immigrants.
I have been to several citizenship ceremonies, and the pride and happiness of those who have become citizens are plain to see. Those born here, however, take it all for granted. There is an argument for insisting that all native-born Australians go through a similar ceremony when they turn 18, so that there is at least one moment when they are asked to reflect on their new rights and responsibilities, and where these duties came from. For the new arrivals, as well as for the new citizens, the education of their children is another great plus: the parents value it highly, while publicly-funded schools are available everywhere. When I was in higher education, the proportion of undergraduates who were children of migrants was much higher than the proportion of students whose parents were Australian-born. I would guess that the disparity is still much the same.
Now to my second thought, which is why I value Australia Day. One of my acquaintances has said moodily that Australia Day ‘marks the end of the Stone Age’ in the continent, while another puts a less dour spin on it by referring to ‘the arrival of civilisation’. The virtuous may find those terms offensive, but there is something to them. The Aboriginal people found horses most useful and became skilled at their handling and use, as they did quickly all the other material assets of the English — guns, axes, knives, flour, alcohol — and later on, the four-wheel drive and the smart phone. The Stone Age culture was abandoned as soon as a better alternative was available. Yes, some of its cultural accompaniments linger on, and some are made much of. But no one chooses to live that way now.
The Australia we celebrate on Australia Day was not acquired at the supermarket or ordered online. It is the result of more than two hundred years of hard work by millions of people, guided by what they understood and practised of the English tradition. Every generation built on the work of those that came before, and on every Australia Day we might spare a moment to celebrate those who came before and whose work, of all kinds, allowed us to live in one of the best countries in the world. My generation, whose work covered the second half of the twentieth century, was conscious of the achievements and problems faced by my parent’s generation, whose working life ran from about 1920 to 1970. We didn’t have to deal with a great war or an economic depression; they did.
What do I mean by ‘the English tradition’? First, the rule of law, which is why some English settlers were hung for having killed Aborigines, why billionaire Alan Bond went to jail, and why certain members of Parliament found that they were not in fact entitled to be members of Parliament.
Second, a rough egalitarianism, brought from the British Isles, has meant that after a time it is agreed in any local community that one man (now, one person) is as good as another, as demonstrated in their behavior. The early settlers from abroad were mostly from the working class, whether from England or Ireland, and were not impressed with notions of aristocracy. Over time, egalitarianism led to a strong sense of government as the voice of the people. Australia possesses an electoral democracy that is well understood by its citizens, is not corrupt, is managed by civil servants at arm’s length from the party in power, and generally produces the right outcome (in terms of votes to seats). I wouldn’t be telling other countries that they should use our system, but it has been going for a long time here, and it works.
Third, we have free speech and free press, without which it is hard to have any kind of democracy. There are some restrictions on both free speech and a free press, but in comparison to other countries, we do pretty well. Put all these elements together, and you have a modern representative democracy that works well and provides an excellent environment for its people to pursue their own lives. It is highly creative both in cultural terms and in technology. It is peaceful. It is generous to those who have experienced catastrophe, and it possesses a strong voluntary spirit. That’s what I celebrate.
Does that mean we should sit back and just enjoy things, as though there is nothing left to do? Of course not. There are problems of greater and less moment everywhere. But we deal with them, perhaps not as quickly as some would like. But we deal with them. Sometimes we go too far, as with ‘climate change’, the NBN and the NDIS. But in time our system sorts out the excesses, and then we find we have new problems to deal with On January 26th, raise a glass to those who helped to make this country what it is today, to the benefit of everyone, including our Aboriginal people.