Jonathan Biggins’s play, ‘Australia Day’, set in a country town about preparations for the day, and about what happens on the day itself, is a splendid piece of contemporary comic theatre. It reminded me of David Williamson’s ‘Don’s Party’ in its easy and funny portrayal of contemporary issues and positions. The serious underside of the comic interplay is also there, in the present case the fact that two of the characters have a history of having to care for seriously disabled children, and that jockeying for power is with us everywhere.
Having grown up in a country town I was able to recognise the characters with ease and pleasure. The mayor on his way to federal politics if he survives the pre-selection, the splendid CWA stalwart, the dogsbody who is in everything and keeps the place running, the aggressive and foul-mouthed builder with massive chips on his shoulder — they are almost old friends. The newbie green woman councillor and the Australian-born Vietnamese teacher are unfamiliar, as they are in Biggins’s imaginary town, but we know about them from elsewhere, and can imagine how they find it hard to fit in.
Part of the expectation the audience develops is for the arrival of the Australia Day ambassador, who is going to conduct the citizenship ceremony. He fails to arrive. The mayor has to do it, and that happens offstage. So let me jump now to those ceremonies, one of which we attended recently. We were there to hear the school choir which (as the play tells us) has become a part of the proceedings. And they were good, too.
But it was the ceremony itself that absorbed us. There were a hundred or so there to receive their citizenship certificates — singles, couples and whole families. Many had friends there to witness the event, so that the room was crowded, and not everyone had a seat. An official from the Department conducted the ceremony, and told us all what would happen. (This was not Australia Day, so there was no ambassador.) Up came the new citizens, to be named, congratulated and awarded their certificates.
Very quickly we realised that this was no bureaucratic exchange. The new citizens, wherever they came from — Africa, South America, Asia, the UK, New Zealand — were enormously excited. Some had tears, some hugged each other or their friends. The air of accomplishment, of happiness, of a new start, filled the room. All of us were affected by it, and we began to congratulate those who were near us as they returned to their seats.
At the end the official suggested that those of us who were native-born might like to reaffirm their own commitment to our country, and it was easy to do so. We left the ceremony feeling that, after all, Australia was not a bad place, and that it was worth being one of its citizen.
And that is the other side of the awful bind we are in over the boat people. I don’t know whether or not any of those we saw had arrived that way. What was so heart-warming was the determination the new citizens showed to be a part of Australian society in its best sense. This was a great moment for them: they would work hard, and save hard and build a new life for their families. They were grateful to be here.
And so many of us just take it for granted, are bored with our politics, cynical about others’ motives, full of complaints about everything and everyone. It doesn’t have to be that way, and the citizenship ceremony that we attended was a fine reminder that there is what I have called ‘the Australian Project’ — the building of a better society under the Southern Cross, which somehow offers a better life to everyone but also cares for its less fortunate. The project is very old, and keeps being derailed.
I would like to see the train put back on the tracks, though that does not seem an immediate priority for today’s politicos. The citizenship ceremony gave me some hope.