Another Australia Day

The celebratory bits of Australia Day have a long and varied history. The official celebration on 26 January of the founding of the first of the colonies began in 1818, and was ordained by Governor Macquarie; it was called  ‘Foundation Day’. January 26th is also the date of the arrest of Macquarie’s predecessor, Governor Bligh, in 1808 – an event sometimes called the ‘Rum Rebellion’. Each new colony declared its own foundation day, and it was not until 1935 that the event was celebrated everywhere on that date, and as ‘Australia Day’ – though New South Wales hung on to ‘Foundation Day’ until after the war.

The Australian flag was a product of 1901, and first floated above the Exhibition Building in Melbourne, where the new Federal Parliament was meeting. Awards for the ‘Australian of the Year’ began in 1960, the first recipient being Sir Macfarlane Burnett. The Australia Day honours began in 1975, and were announced on Australia Day, rather than on New Year’s Day, as had been the case with the imperial honours. All these national signifiers now come together on 26 January, which is usually also the date of a cricket Test, this year the last of the ODIs against England, and a beauty. And it is also the day for many citizenship ceremonies.

There can be no doubt that Australia Day has become the most widely celebrated civic occasion in the country, but what exactly it celebrates has never been clear to me. I see it most profoundly at citizenship ceremonies, where the pride and satisfaction of the new citizens is most emotionally evident. But what about those whose roots here run for a hundred  and fifty years, like mine? And what about the indigenous Australians, some of whom see it as ‘Invasion Day’?

Adam Goodes, the new Australian of the Year, had mixed feelings about his award. ‘It’s quite an amazing honour …. [yet he can’t forget] the sadness and mourning and the sorrow of our people, and a culture that has been lost to me through generations’. His summary: ‘We are still here, we’ve got a lot to celebrate about being here, and that we have one of the longest-serving cultures still alive and kicking’. Then he went on: ‘That’s what I love about Australia: we can do things the way we want to do them because that’s the way our country is. No matter what culture you come from, you can come to Australia and practise your religion, you can practise your beliefs, and you shouldn’t be judged.’

Newspoll surveyed Australians in 2009 about their attitudes to Australia and found that nine in ten thought it was important to recognise Australia’s ‘indigenous people and culture’ on this day, and the same proportion thought we should recognise the cultural diversity of the nation as well. So naming Adam Goodes and also former MP and Minister Fred Chaney as Senior Australian, for his work in Reconciliation, should be well received.

What do I think we should be celebrating? Above all, that we have a civil society that has a large inbuilt level of trust, which makes it an easy society in which to live. Second, perhaps,  that we are an industrious and productive society that enables most of us to live full and enjoyable lives. Third, that Australians are now well educated, inventive, creative and compassionate, with high levels of music, art, literature and theatre. And fourth, that a lot of this has happened in the last sixty years, during my working lifetime. That suggests that further progress of this kind is likely over the next sixty years.

Of course, we have our fair share of nay-sayers, pessimists and gloom-and-doomers, and they will rain on any celebratory parade. But as Mr Goodes says, the good thing about our country is that ‘you can practise your beliefs’. One day I’ll discover how pessimists are made, but until then all I can suggest is that they look about them, and consider how far we have come since the end of the Second World War.

Australia is not perfect. It is, like other countries we like to compare ourselves with, a political oligarchy with democratic aspirations. It has criminals, and drunks, and violent people. It has jails, neglected people, corrupt people, dishonest people. There are times when the television news just seems to be a litany of disaster and evil.

But the reality is more reassuring. Most people, most of the time, are able to live the lives they want. There has been no previous period in human history of which you could say that, and the story is as positive in Australia is it is in any other society. I think that’s worth celebrating at least once a year!

Join the discussion 10 Comments

  • whyisitso says:

    I was disgusted at the selection of Goodes as Australian of the Year. His main claim to fame in 2013 was his bullying of a silly little 13-year-old girl for calling him a name. I barracked for a VFL team in my youth and us kids yelled out insulting names to players on the other side all the time – the better the player the more insulting the name. This was in the days before political correctness took hold of our society like a viral disease.

    This girls called him an “ape” because he looked hairy, which is an accurate description. She had no idea of the history of linking black people with primates back in the days when many people did believe that blacks were “sub-human” in an evolutionary sense.

    • Patrickmurrumbateman says:

      Ahh Whyisitso. Looks like a racist, sounds like a racist, too dumb to know what it means.

      • whyisitso says:

        I’m happy to be a racist if to be otherwise means I can’t criticise a non-white person for behaviour I would find abhorrent in anybody else.

      • Mike O'Ceirin says:

        Do you know Whyisitso personally? If not you have neither seen or heard this so called racist. That is a very dumb thing to write.

        Adam Goodes had most likely a white father Graham Goodes and a mother Lisa May who was raised by a white family and wanted for nothing. Almost certainly she also like her son Adam has more white heritage than aboriginal.

        Recognition of the vast benefits the white ancestors in their own families gave them should be given rather than using a warped historical view to promote division from Australian society. The warped views are promoted by post modernist historians who lie about the interaction between white and black. What they do does not help anyone and should be sanctioned.

        Personally we have an adopted now adult aboriginal daughter and aboriginal grand daughter. I have no racist view I want a realistic view and see us all join together as Australians. My heritage is that my mother’s English family came here in the 1850’s and were woodcutter’s. My father’s Irish family came here in the early 1900’s. None of them had any interaction with aboriginals. Who are the descendants of our so called racist past? I suspect we can not find them I am certainly not. Goodes and many who rail on about the dreadful past of white settlement could easily be descendants of those they damn.

    • Margaret says:

      I believe Adam Goodes called out on the the term flung at him and also realised that it was a young girl who used the term – ape – what happened after that was not Adam Goodes responsibility but he was aware that she may suffer consequences disproportionate to her years and didn’t want her to be vilified.
      I think he was justified in doing what he did. And I think the date of Australia Day should not be January 26th – I have every sympathy with those who find the date problematic.

  • dlb says:

    I too have no problems with the idea of Australia Day. Perhaps it would be better if we celebrate it on the anniversary date of our federation?

    • whyisitso says:

      Why is that better?

      • dlb says:

        Well I can understand angst among the aboriginal community whose ancestors were here for 40,000 years before the unexpected arrival of the first fleet.

        I also don’t find the establishment of a jail for petty criminals particularly inspiring. Even though many went on to become upright citizens of the new colony.

        The American’s national day celebrates their independence from Britain. Although we are not completely independent, the federation of the state colonies was a important step in our nation building.

        • whyisitso says:

          Yes many convicts did become upright citizens. 26 January 1788 was the starting date of civilisation for this continent.

  • John Morland says:

    Compared to other original inhabitants in other continents, the Aborigines could have been treated far worst. For example, I don’t see to too many of the original Incas in South America when I was there in 1994, nor did I see any of the original inhabitants in the Canary Islands nor the Aztecs in Central America – all have wiped out by the Spaniards,

    Possibly the Portuguese were the worst in their treatment of the original inhabitants, the slave trade in Western Africa is testament to that – it was barbaric I saw the evidence of this when I was in Senegal and Sierra Leone. I doubt many East Timorese have fond memories of the Portuguese, nor Indonesians of the Dutch (who were a great improvement over the Portuguese).

    The French were not particularly kind either in their treatment of the Kanakas or the Algerians.

    The British were certainly not perfect, but I consider them the best of the European colonists. Yes, the Aborigines were invaded in 1788 but so was the rest of the world’s original inhabitants – it was not called the Age of Exploration for nothing. In fact it was right at the end of the Age of Exploration when the British joined in and by that time the Age of Enlightenment was established in European culture, which improved the treatment of original inhabitants

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