What is Australia Day for?

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.

Join the discussion 41 Comments

  • whyisitso says:

    Australia day has changed enormously over the past decade. Today we are being trained to detest our culture and our people by those who perceive themselves to be morally superior to the bogans the rest of us are. Stan Grant, a man with some aboriginal descendents, and a very successful man, recently delivered a speech that vilified everyone else in this country as “racists”. It went “viral” on social media, whatever that means.

    • Aert Driessen says:

      I agree and now add more bad news. Now that the awards have been presented, why should we give anything, let alone an Australian of the Year award to a retired general (with all its privileges and pensions) for doing his job? As head of army, surely it was his duty to fight discrimination in all its forms. This is nothing more than a big endorsement for political correctness. My gong goes to the two lads who provided a laundry service to the homeless. Very disappointed and worried. Same goes for the trans-gender lady. Much as I admire her for her personal courage, surely her motivation was self respect and not community service.

  • PeterE says:

    Yes, this is well said. Equality, a fair go, kindness in another’s trouble and courage in your own, these values we aspire to. Looking around the world, we can regard ourselves with pride, even as we acknowledge the need for further effort.
    And yet what a lot of whingers Australia day brings out of the woodwork. What a load of […] rich, powerful Stan Grant has tipped over us, without any sense that few, if any, of those alive today bear any responsibility whatsoever for the wrongs of the past (such as they were and please give details so that those actually responsible can be held to account). If people go to prison, could it be because they have committed a crime? Then there is ‘the red bandanna man,’ spouting on about the need for an Australian Head of State without acknowledging that the Governor-General is exactly that and, of course, without any details of the type of republic he wants – Weimar, Soviet, African or South American Socialist – exactly what does he want? As whyisitso says, our children are being trained to detest our culture. Stand up against the bullies, I say, and re-affirm our country, flag, system of government and our sense of right and wrong.

    • Aert Driessen says:

      Thanks PeterE, your sentiments echo mine. Furthermore, while I voted for a republic some years ago in Howard’s reign, I am not sure about the next referendum. I now doubt that our current politicians have the wherewithal to lead a republic. How many prime ministers in how many years? About 5 PMs in 10 years? Whatever the numbers, all it says to me is that the current crop of pollies are more interested in serving themselves at the expense of the country. We had someone with glimpses of leadership albeit a bit clumsy, but he was snuffed out by a self-serving egotist.

      • Alan Gould says:

        I’ve remained a Constitutional Monarchist for two reasons.
        The first is that I have always observed The Commonwealth to be one of the most extraordinary supra-national allegiances in the history of humanity, where a sense of difference-within-kinship was shared by a diversity of ethnicities, faiths, geographical conditions and so on, a family that successfully evolved from an imperial idea to a bond where there is no loss of National independence at the same time there is good will and practical assistance(Zimbawe’s Civil War).
        The second reason is that I observe the Monarchy to have been the constant in the evolution of constitutional government from absolutism to present democracy, and this benign presence seems to be true of other monarchies around the world where change has a stable process (Scandinavia) or where it has been restored after turbulence (Spain).
        My prediction for an Australian Republic when it comes is that a presently independent country will secrete away an independence that has character and meaning in favour of orthodoxies and shamefacing. We like to tell everyone how we are rather insufficient specimens but we’ll all come good when we achieve….blah blah (Republic, Bill Of Rights, Sorry Day,).
        I see the push toward a Republic as an expression of Australian embarrassment before other nations rather than based on any actual sense of oppression. We have always been rather too conscious of how others might assess our sophistication, whether in Paris, New York, London. Is this shamefacing a relic of our convict dormitories, I wonder. Certainly robust independent-mindedness tends to reside in the bush more than the metropolis.

  • Alan Gould says:

    I’ve no quarrel with the above and certainly the Stan Grant remarks are a disgrace of gloss, dishonesty and error. As one who will clock up 50 Australian years in a month or two, it is the ‘fair go’ that first impressed me, continues to do so, and my sense of Australia is that our best contribution to the Enlightenment aspirations of Liberté, Fraternité, égalité, is egalitarianism.
    I suspect the present complacency in successfully communicating to the young the particular character of Australian experience, whether in Literature, visual arts, music, or Architecture is part of a widespread problem in high culture generally, namely that we have entered an age of collossal distractability, the screen – TV, computer – being two miscreants in this – but also a danger in the nature of tolerance itself. Why shouldn’t some scrawl or caterwaul be given dignified places in the achievements of high art? Democracy does good taste badly because tolerance will always distract with its pleas for the bad – by which I mean the ill-made, poorly imagined, charlatan, lazy, exhibitionist etc.
    A further problem with democracy is the guarding of all those good things that come with clear authority. Take the idea of rigour in education. How sustain this in circumstances of free choice where discipline is uncomfortable or inconvenient to a majority.

    • Alan Gould says:

      To clinch my last paragraph, I had meant to say that I would fear that mediocrity of thought and craft might be things that actually spring from our virtues. It is one thing to see mediocrity in our midst, but I reckon I identify an aspiration toward it, made up of a complex of Australian attitudinal mix that embraces ‘tall poppies’, ‘big notin” ‘up ‘imself’, and a very ready capacity for deference that gets disguised by the famous Oz irreverence. I think we should watch our power to delude ourselves, our reflex to want smallness, our habit of squandering valuable achievement because we do not trust ourselves to say ‘This has value because….and this has no value because…’

  • margaret says:

    But, just what IS Australia Day for? I don’t care for it much… why celebrate on this particular date if another date could be inclusive of first nations. Why no mention of indigenous Australians at ALL? Why write them out of Australia Day? They are still here. I can relate to everything you wrote Don but your glaring and purposeful omission cancels agreement because I find your pov exclusive.

    • donaitkin says:


      There are 700,000 indigenous Australians, the great majority of whom are living around us in cities, with jobs, kids at school,cars, homes and all the rest of it. Yes there are some in remote settlements where all the media fuss is. But I am talking about the diverse multi-ethnic Australia that includes indigenous Australians. I am not, repeat not, making them different. They are part of ‘us’.

      If that’s not clear enough, try again, and I will too.

      • margaret says:

        The Australian of the Year said during his speech of thanks (the media has transformed the nominees into competitors and so David Morrison was the ‘winner’), that we celebrate European settlement. Australia Day. End of story.

        • Don Aitkin says:

          Of course we celebrate European settlement, though (I think) without anyone’s raising a glass to it at the barbecue. That’s long past. That is the powerful event that formed our society.Yes, the indigenous people were pushed aside. Yes, it was not a good thing for them. But the great majority are now part of ‘us’, and I cannot see any other likely outcome. Can you? Of course ‘us’ does not include everyone. It can’t. It doesn’t include a lot of those in prison. It doesn’t include those Muslims who are supporting ISIS. In past days it would not have include those Communists who wanted a revolution here. What is your alternative?

          • margaret says:

            My alternative is – don’t try to bring Australians together on the date that Governor Philip started a prison at Sydney Cove. Australia Day wasn’t actually gazetted (?) until the 1930’s.

          • dlb says:

            As well as the anniversary upsetting some aboriginals, I don’t think the beginnings of a penal colony is a particularly auspicious event.
            I would feel happier if Australia Day was changed to the anniversary of Federation, whatever date that is?
            If and when we become a republic then that date could also be a new date for Australia Day.

          • David says:

            “It doesn’t include a lot of those in prison.”

            That’s an odd thing to say given European settlement was to establish a prison.

        • dasher says:

          Margaret. I think the sooner we can stop obsessing about what happened over 200 years ago the better. Are we saying that had the British not arrived that our indigenous people would be able to continue living their very primitive ways for ever? of course not. I look forward to day when indigenous people are not encouraged to be victims (for any number of reasons) and take their place as proud aborigines in the broader society. We have enormous goodwill towards this outcome but it always seems to get stuck in a mire of political correctness and false narratives. We patronise our indigenous people and wonder why they never seem develop the self esteem that comes with personal pride and self sufficiency. Sorry but the aboriginal leaders and many whites parading their virtue are the problem.

          • Aert Driessen says:

            I think that the aborigines should thank England for taking possession of this land. Had they not done so then the French might have done it and that experience would surely have shown them just how fortunate they now are.

    • David says:

      I agree with Margaret. There is no logic for the 26th of January. We obtained our political independence on the 1st of January 1901, so that date is more relevant. Personally I would opt for Wattle day, which is the 1st of September. The wattle is our national flower. And every one likes flowers.


      • dasher says:

        David, no logic for 26 January?……..at least you are consistent

        • David says:

          NZ has a holiday for Treaty of Waitangi and the US and Canada have their Thanks Giving holidays. These holidays embody some element of reconciliation and inclusiveness with the indigenous populations of these countries. Australia has nothing comparable. We should change that.

          • Don Aitkin says:

            Heaven protect me from nit-picking, but Thanksgiving is a Christian harvest festival, transplanted to the New World. The fact that Indians celebrated the first one, at the conclusion of the first successful harvest (in which, again, a native was important, in showing the new arrivals how to grown maize) and supplied food for it doesn’t seem to me to ’embody some element of reconciliation’. It was not long after that the fighting began. And the reasons were the same as in Australia: fundamentally different ideas as to the purpose and value of land.

            The Treaty of Waitangi ended a real war, so it does indeed embody the end of a past and the beginning of a better future — reconciliation, if you will. There is no equivalent here for obvious reasons.

            I have no objection to the selection of a different day for the celebration of Australia Day. I just don’t think it will make any difference to the core issues, which will slowly fade over the next few decades. It took 150 years for people to be proud of having convict ancestors. It may take 250 for people to say casually, and with pride, that they have Aboriginal ancestors.

          • JimboR says:

            “It may take 250 for people to say casually, and with pride, that they have Aboriginal ancestors.”

            And when they do, I guess they’ll just need to toughen up against rebukes from the likes of Bolt and yourself Don.

            Bolt: ”This self-identification as Aboriginal strikes me as self-obsessed, and driven more by politics than by any racial reality,”

            Aitkin: “He looks about as Aboriginal as I do, and his constant references to his ‘ancestors’ makes me scratch my head.”

            How did that lawsuit go Don? I hope you guys came to an amicable agreement.


      • margaret says:

        Yes, a day for every Australian that celebrates the beauty of a native plant that heralds springtime – sounds good to me.

  • Alan Gould says:

    The compelling book to read on that first settlement is Inga Clendinnen’s ‘Dancing With Strangers’, With fastidious care and wonderful intelligence, she reconstructs the interface between European and Indigene at Sydney Cove in those first few years of settlement. What emerges (as I recall the book) is not malice, but wrong-footing, good will on both sides with exasperations. I’m a fan of Inga’s writing, because she can turn historical things that are prone to gloss into events of fine human necessity. I commend the book.

  • Bryan Roberts says:

    Australia Day recalls a defining moment in the history of this country. Changing the date won’t make it go away.

    ANZAC day celebrates a massacre. You want a ‘happy’ date for that, too?

  • David says:

    “Heaven protect me from nit-picking, but Thanksgiving is a Christian harvest festival, transplanted to the New World. The fact that Indians celebrated the first one, at the conclusion of the first successful harvest (in which, again, a native was important, in showing the new arrivals how to grown maize) and supplied food for it doesn’t seem to me to ’embody some element of reconciliation’. It was not long after that the fighting began. And the reasons were the same as in Australia: fundamentally different ideas as to the purpose and value of land….”

    Its hardly the point. Thanksgiving is a myth that, in part, celebrates a nice interaction between European settlers and Native Americans. The Easter bunny does not lay chocolate eggs. But that does not negate the relevance of Easter.

  • margaret says:

    We recently left the city life for a coastal country town that has won an award for the world’s most livable community. On Australia Day the local Lions Club conducted a ceremony on Fiddler’s Green. It began with a free sausage sizzle followed by the flag ceremony and the local band playing advance Australia fair. Then came the keynote speech from a local author followed by a melancholy rendition of I still call Australia home by the band. That song spoke volumes after this speech. I’d like to email it to you but I don’t have your email address.

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