Fremantle Council has earned itself the support of some, but the ire of many, over its decision to turn its back on the ‘traditional’ Australia Day celebration on January 26th and opt for something they regard as more inclusive.
Opportunistic politicians have jumped on it with alacrity, seeing no doubt a means of demonstrating their wholesome, motherhood-loving, family-friendly, all round decency and you know, normality, in the face of these left-wing ratbag malcontents who hate Australia and want to turn it into some politically correct black armband-wearing state run by Muslims and aborigines.
Claire Moodie of the ABC, reports in her article of 25th January, that ‘far right groups Reclaim Australia and the United Patriots Front are planning to converge on Fremantle on Australia Day to protest against what they called “an act of betrayal against Australia”.’
The response of these groups was predictable. Their love of Strahya is incontestable and their respect for its institutions, such as freedom of speech and freedom of religion are encapsulated with impressive economy by their distinctive rallying cry. (For a copy of their manifesto, visit their website: http://www.shitforbrains.com.aussieaussieaussie.oioioi)
It occurred to me recently that, as a child, growing up in regional Australia some fifty years ago, Australia Day loomed very small, if at all, on my horizon. I don’t remember a holiday or anything of any real significance. It prompted me to resort to a quick consultation with my chum Professor Google and I have learned from the National Australia Day Council website that it was not until 1994 that all states and territories began to celebrate Australia Day consistently as a public holiday on January 26th.
Over the years I’ve heard the term ‘Australian’ or ‘Aussie’ used to describe only those of Anglo-ancestry, born in this country. Those Australians whose ancestors migrated here before ‘Australia’ was invented, or for that matter, before the end of the last Ice Age have, if we ignore the abusive epithets, found their Australian-ness qualified with the prefix ‘Indigenous’ or ‘Original’. I wonder whether some of those so described might find these labels a tad patronising. As for the others with non-Anglo ancestry, the best they could hope for was to be described as New Australians or, for example, Greeks, and then later perhaps, Greek-Australians. They were never quite Australians. And although this ghettoisation was exacerbated by parents sending their kids to ‘Greek School’ on weekends, the alienation was definitely a two-way street, with most of the traffic headed the other way.
When I was a kid, living in Bendigo, before Australia Day had become a thing, I was at school with a beautiful girl, whose name I still recall. (I had a bit of a crush, if you must know.) Along with many of her fellow Bendigonians, her ancestors had emigrated from China at the time of the Gold Rush in the 1850s, almost a century before my parents arrived from the UK. I was an Australian however, and she was Chinese.
Even within that majority subset of home-grown Anglos, there was, and in some minds still is, a hierarchy based on the arrival date of one’s ancestors. Given that my parents didn’t get here until 1948, I wasn’t quite the real deal. My parents were Pommies. (My dad was a Scot, so you can imagine how he felt about that description.) The problem with that timescale of ascending virtue is that Aborigines complicated the maths. Old was better than new, but too old was not too good. Pre-1788, oh dear, what was to be done with them? Apart from poisoning them, shooting them, raping them, giving them measles and taking away their children, that is. The answer was to come up with an arithmetic sleight-of-hand, a sort of Goldilocksian timescale that determined what was too old, what was too new and what was ‘just right’.
I don’t have a problem with the British. This nation was founded by them and our institutions of Common Law, Presumption of Innocence, Parliamentary Democracy, the Right to Assemble, Freedom of Speech, FREEDOM OF RELIGION, are all good reasons to be grateful that it was the British and not somebody else. And whilst it’s true that some of these rights have spawned others such as: the Right to Dress Like an Idiot, the Right to Wear a Man-Bun, the Right for a Young Woman to Get a Tattoo, the Right for Teenagers to be a Pain in the Arse and most heinous of all, the Right to Barrack for Carlton FC, these appalling corollaries of freedom have to be endured as part of the price we pay and I don’t think the British can be held solely to account for the Man-Bun. I have great admiration for the British, but that said, I don’t want them on our flag, or as our head of state and I don’t think it’s appropriate to commemorate the day they barged in and commenced to take the land off the original inhabitants.
It’s little wonder that some of the descendants of those first (I mean really first) arrivals might feel a bit miffed about the way things have turned out. They may not have been living high off the hog, but they were here and they weren’t doing too badly, then we turned up and things went downhill fast. So I don’t think you can be surprised if some of our fellow Australians want to call January 26th Invasion Day. My own view is that, in persisting to celebrate this day, we add insult to injury. It is an affront to the descendants of the unfortunate people whom we abused and dispossessed. Having done all that, it might be a bit much to expect them to dance a jig and sing ‘Oh Happy Day!’
Some time back, while visiting a friend in a Melbourne hospital, I encountered something that, living in a small town, I had never seen before. A short, squat woman – I presume it was a woman – came walking towards me. I’m guessing she was middle-aged or elderly but I have no idea what she looked like because she was dressed in a burkha. She looked like a black potato bag on legs. It didn’t bother me. I didn’t expect her to explode or suddenly produce an AK-47, but it struck me as odd. I told my kids after, that I thought it was weird. They howled me down as a throwback, although to be fair, they didn’t denounce me as racist. But I stick to my point. I think it is weird, just as I think it would be weird if you wanted to walk through the main street of town with a hessian bag over your head or dressed as Ronald Macdonald. I don’t have a problem if you want to do that, but I reserve my right to think it’s weird. What I don’t have the right to do is abuse, vilify or threaten you for that, nor seek to humiliate you for it, nor do I have the right to insist that you cease and desist. (Although I do have the right to insist that nobody make you wear that hessian bag against your will.) There should be no law against people looking ridiculous, which is good news for any sixty-year old man who dyes his hair. And no, the fact that your girlfriend is younger than your daughter does not justify you dyeing your hair or make you any less ridiculous, it just means that you’re rich. And no, rich doesn’t make you any less ridiculous either. Exhibit A: Donald Trump. But I digress.
My point is that the lady in the burkha has every right to dress and act however she likes while feeling every bit as Australian as the rest of us. All she has to do is obey our laws. She, I’m guessing, is a relatively recent arrival to our country, and like many of the descendants of our very first arrivals, I suspect 26th January has no positive emotional resonance with her.
If we’re looking for a real Australia Day, one to celebrate for all Australians, old and new, why not Federation Day, the day when the separate colonies came together to form a nation, based on the all those aforementioned freedoms, even if they did lead, inevitably, to the rise of the Man-Bun.
‘But oh Dad!’ my kids whine, ‘Federation Day is New Year’s Day. We’ll lose a Public Holiday.’
Tears of pride well in my ageing eyes. My offspring may not wrap themselves in the flag and chant meaningless jingoistic drivel, but when it comes to their worship of the Public Holiday, they are dinky-di.
It’s true, the founders might have been a bit more thoughtful and given us a day later in the year when public holidays are a bit thin on the ground. Perhaps they could have stipulated that the day be memorialised as the first Monday of July, for example, thus enshrining a long weekend, something, I think you’ll agree, we can never have enough of. But the founders decided to greet the new century with their new nation. Poets and other people with too much time on their hands might search for some sort of moving symbolism in that choice of date, but I’m with my kids here. I think they were a pack of selfish bastards who gave no consideration to the leisure requirements of the generations to follow.
So, 1st January is a date we’re stuck with. It’s not an easy assignment, but as I like to say, ‘when Life encourages your neighbour’s dog to take a dump on your nature strip, see if it’s possible to make a high-grade alcohol out of it, but get your neighbour to do a taste test before you try it yourself’.
My plan is this: we double up on the first of January, just like we did with Christmas Day. No I’m not suggesting a scaled-down version of New Year’s Day for the servants, because frankly, they get enough consideration as it is. What I had in mind was that we observe both days together over two days. I mean, nobody actually celebrates New Year’s Day anyway. Many Australians are sleeping off a New Year’s Eve hangover so an extra day to recover might be a nice low-key way to ease them into the year, free from all the chest-beating and shallow jingoism. The solution may not be ideal and could have a hint of dog poo in its bouquet, but if we hold our noses and drink it really fast, it might just prove the tonic. Or at least keep us going until we have our very own Republic Day.
If those who call themselves patriots took the trouble to learn something of the nation’s history, they might be prepared to settle on a more appropriate date for celebration. But that is unlikely. They seem determined to inflict their own notion of Australian-ness on the rest of us, reminding me of Samuel Johnson’s famous words: ‘patriotism is the last refuge of the scoundrel’.
As far as I’m concerned anyone who wants to live in this country, love this country, obey its laws, and respect the rights of others to live without harassment, abuse or ridicule has the right to call themselves an Australian, without any qualifying prefix. And I believe that a new Australia Day, commemorating January 1st 1901, a date that heralded the birth of a new nation, is one with the power to unite Australians every bit as much as the one we have now, threatens to divide them.