As Australia Day approached I kept getting new messages about what it was about. One was that it would cause the largest number of claimed ‘sickies’ every recorded by Australian employers on Monday, because the holiday fell on Tuesday. Another was that I would show myself as a true Australian by having a barbecue in the backyard, having bought the right tools from a hardware store. Another said I should be eating lamb on Australia Day. Yet another, from Adam Gilchrist, a former Australian of the Year, was that I could do almost anything (I think), as long as I stopped to think about what it meant to be an Australian.
I do think about that matter quite a lot, and wrote about it, in the context of Anzac day, three years ago. Let’s start with the issue of having such a day at all. It is a tribal festivity, one where we remember that we are part of a tribe. I’m not much into tribal stuff myself, and can’t stand the ‘Aussie, Aussie, Aussie, oi, oi, oi!’ chant. But every nation, so far as I know, has such a celebration. It is a time where we see (and say) that we are distinctive. We are ‘us’. In our case, being a large island continent (not forgetting Tasmania) makes that sense perhaps sharper than might be the case elsewhere. Perhaps not. Maybe one’s sense of national identity is sharper if there are foreigners on several borders, as with Switzerland.
Australia Day is a time of celebration. What are we celebrating? Two distinct though inter-connected matters. The first is the reality of contemporary Australia, a rich, safe, well-connected, stable, aspirant democracy that has few problems in comparison to most other nations. Lots of people want to come here, and indeed our population grows steadily as we admit each year about as many immigrants as the net increase of native births over native deaths.
It is not that we lack problems. Australian society could be improved in many diverse ways. But here we need to recognise that intending and actual immigrants see our country as enormously better than where they are coming from. They are prepared to work hard and build a place for themselves, learn the new language, and shape the future of their children who, they hope, will become successful in their chosen walk of life. People have been doing this for two hundred years, since the colony of New South Wales began to open its doors to free settlers.
Our ancestors and ourselves have built a nation to be proud of, and on a day like Australia Day we can take pride in our achievements and those of our parents, grandparents and so on. Yes, there’s been some luck in it. Australia proved not to have an inland river system like that of the USA, but did have a lot of useful land, and underneath that land were useful minerals. We are still exploiting them, and will go on doing that for a long time to come. Australia was dealt some handy cards. And we are a hard-working lot ourselves.
But at the same time we need to remember that we are not the only country that has done well in the last sixty or so years. Canada has, and so has New Zealand. So have many countries in Europe. So has the USA. All the developed OECD countries have had an excellent half-century or so economically. So we are not special in that sense. Nonetheless, looking back as I can, easily, to what it was like in the early 1950s, Australians have done a great job in building a good society. We started late, in some respects.
We celebrate a second thing as well: our values. They also make us distinctive. It is a good deal harder to specify our values, however, than it is to specify our achievements. At the bottom, I think, is a sense of the need for fairness to others, which is connected to the notion that people are much the same and should be valued more or less equally. I think that is still alive and well. It helps to underpin social cohesion and a strong preparedness to trust others, and it makes life a whole lot easier than would be the case were we suspicious of others. In time, people from other lands, other cultures and other languages become accepted if they too seem to adhere to this maxim. I have confidence that in time this will apply to people from Islamic cultures too.
No less powerful is the notion that government is a form of ‘us’, not a distant and powerful elite who can do what they want. When one of them protests a bit too much about how important he (or now, she) and his/her plans are, you will hear the cry of ‘Get off yourself!’ And we do take the ballot box seriously. Governments rise, and they fall too. We may seem relaxed about it, but we are not fools, and we expect our governments and their leaders to perform. Moreover, this has been the case in Federal politics now for 115 years, and in State politics for a half century longer. It is part of our culture, and a strong ‘value’.
The third important value is a belief that in a decent society, like ours, people should be able to make their own decisions, and do what they want to, subject to the rule of law and to an acceptance that one’s own freedom cannot infringe the freedoms of others. Freedom, or liberty, is really important, even if we are a regulated society, because we understand that the rules and regulations are laid down by Parliament, and that they can be reversed if enough of us want that to happen.
There are other values that I like, but not everyone does. One of them is that women are every bit as important as men, and that women are never the possessions of fathers, brothers or husbands. They are individuals too. Another is the place of religion. I would want to say that Australia is a secular society, and that we are free both to adopt a religion or to ignore them all. Not everyone agrees with that, either.
Incidentally, there is an ‘Australian values statement’. Most of us don’t know about it, and don’t have to deal with it. But an intending citizen does, and I’ve been present at citizenship ceremonies and seen the real feeling that new citizens have about what they have gone through. What I’ve written above fits comfortably into the official document, but that only goes to show that these values are widely recognised within our society.
What we celebrate is important, and should be talked about much more often than on Australia Day. In how many barbecues, with people eating lamb, will there be discussions like this one? Not many, I would guess, but an optimist would say that the values are deep enough inside for it not to matter. I hope so, because I am an optimist.