Every year, January 26th rolls around, and the same things happen. The TV is full of pictures of gleaming barbeques and barbeque tongs. Shop windows advertise Australia flag bikinis and sequined Australia flag aprons. Some Australians have a massive identity crisis and debate each other passionately, while others hunker down and wait for the whole carry-on to pass over like a cyclone, and still others are just excited to get pissed and have a barbeque.
I wanted to write a blog post about how we should change the date of Australia Day, because it is hard for Indigenous Australians to celebrate a day that represents the invasion and subsequent 228 years of oppression continuous to this day. But I’m a lily-white Australian of Anglo ancestry; apart from one great-grandfather, I don’t know when my ancestors came here because it was so long ago. I didn’t want to write on behalf of people whose experiences I can never fully understand.
But then I realised that I would like to change the date of Australia Day because I personally find it hard to celebrate. I find it hard to be proud to be an Australian on Australia Day.
This is partly because of the date. The 26th is not a date that represents the unification of the nation. Indigenous people of Australia are part of modern Australian society today, but on 26th January 1788, Indigenous people were an invaded people with no place in the incoming culture. And most of them didn’t know about they were being invaded at that time, because the frontier wars happened across the country in waves at different times. Indigenous Australians did not have full citizen rights until 1967. So to make any date prior to that the national day is necessarily excluding Indigenous people.
The problem is, I want to be proud to be Australian. I want to celebrate this country on a date that represents the achievements of the nation. I am proud of this country. I like that we have government-subsidised university education. I appreciate our generous social security safety net, even though the way that it is run is completely paternalistic. I am proud of my country for bringing issues of domestic violence and gender inequality to the national conversation in the last few years. I appreciate that in Australia we can mercilessly mock our politicians and no-one is going to lock us up for it.
See, even in that last paragraph, there are so many contradictions. University is subsidised, but it’s not free, and the structural barriers to going to university are insurmountable for many. Centrelink payments are withheld in punitive ways. Domestic violence and gender inequality is a huge problem in our culture. And our country seems to be run by a bunch of underqualified, over-entitled white dudes who can’t see past the end of their election cycle, and who are cruelly using vulnerable people seeking asylum as political football.
This leads me to my second problem with celebrating Australia Day. There seems to be no room for contradictions and ambivalence. We have just one way to celebrate: throw an Australian flag over your shoulders and a hunk of lamb on the barbie, drink a slab of VB, shout about how great your country is, and shout over anyone who seems to dissent. Any other way of marking the day is viewed with suspicion, so if that’s not your style, you might as well call it invasion day and sit back and wait for the backlash to roll in.
I want to celebrate Australia in a clear-eyed manner. I want to be able to look at what we’re doing well, what we can do better, whom we can better include, and ways in which we can be silent in order to better hear the voices that have been lost in the rabble. That’s how I’d like to celebrate Australia Day proudly. The 26th of January is a significant day, certainly, that needs to be marked. But let’s allow mixed feelings to be associated with that day, and let’s include hurt, shame and grief as acceptable feelings towards the day. For a day to celebrate the formation of a nation, I nominate the day we become a republic.