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!