Is Australia Day an outdated embarrassment … or an important part of our identity?

Is Australia Day about more than wrapping yourself in the flag and singing the national anthem? Photo: Pixabay/Marsel Elia.

We reflect on the divisive issue of Australia Day – with the Sentinel‘s Travis de Jonk and Richie Black presenting cases for and against.

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Australia Day is an important piece of our puzzle

By TRAVIS DE JONK

Call me a nanna if you want, but one of my favourite pastimes is doing jigsaw puzzles. I particularly enjoy getting together with friends and solving them as a team. 

An incredible sense of joy and accomplishment comes from piecing a complete picture together from unique shards so numerous and abstract, it’s hard to imagine they fit together or share any connection at all.  

There’s a sense of shared effort and collaboration, knowing everyone is working together with common values and goals. Periodically, we will stop to have a break, step back, have conversations, strategise, zoom out and get a bigger picture. It’s all part of solving the puzzle. 

And that is what Australia Day is and why it’s so important. It presents an opportunity to take it all in, reflect, celebrate how far we’ve come and unite in building a better Australia. Or at least, that is what it should be.

Rethinking the date – and ourselves

Australia Day is currently set to 26 January – a day that for some time has been fairly criticised. Full disclosure: I’m not a fan of the current date nor the arguments against changing it, especially since there are precedents for changing it in the past. The date is debatable. But I absolutely stand by the need for the event itself, reiterating the reasons above. 

Australia Day has given rise to valuable discourse, such as us whether we should have a national day at all – and if so, whether it sits with the values we hold as a society and if it is as culturally inclusive as it should be. As these debates move forward, they spur us on to take ownership of our values and our future. In effect, to consider what it means to be Australian.

To use another puzzle analogy, you can’t solve a puzzle unless you turn all the pieces over to see every piece. To miss even one piece is to ultimately miss the whole picture. Similarly, Australia Day cannot be a one-sided day of celebration that ignores the ugly and difficult parts of our story as a society.

Much of the divisiveness surrounding our national day comes from factions warring about one extreme or the other. That brand of nationalism is myopic, supremacist, destructive and counterproductive. Reality isn’t ‘either/or’. It is both. 

If we are ever going to get closer to solving the puzzle that is Australian society, we need to see it in its entirety – warts, beauty marks and all. And we need to celebrate and revel in our achievements, no matter how small or large.

Regardless of what you happen to think of Australia Day, it is undeniable that Australia has a black history, with the First Nations custodians of this land and their culture forever changed by colonial invasion. Since that invasion, many people have come from all over the world to call our nation home. We aren’t an island. We are a diverse multicultural society, a regional partner and a global nation. 

We can’t make a better past – but we can build a better future. We need Australia Day. It is our moment to unify around our common values, zoom out, galvanise, reflect on how far we’ve come, recalibrate and reaffirm our desire to build the better future for all Australians that we want and know is possible.

Travis de Jonk is the features editor of the Sydney Sentinel. Twitter: @JonkInTheTrunk.

Australia Day has, arguably, become a chance to celebrate our values of inclusivity. Video: Australia Day/YouTube.

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Australia Day is an anachronism

By RICHIE BLACK

One of my defining Australia Day experiences occurred when I was stumbling down Enmore Road. As you do.

Looking up from the pavement, where I had directed my gaze to avoid the contempt of passing hipsters, I saw there had been an accident on the road ahead, which was now backing up traffic. As I got closer, it became clear two cars had collided – one of which had been in the process of changing lanes – and now, forcibly joined at the hip, neither vehicle was going anywhere. The woman whose car had been sideswiped was standing in the road on her phone. She was obviously in shock, hysterically crying while trying to call for assistance. 

The accident had occurred outside the Queen Victoria Hotel, then in its pre-Justin Hemmes revival period, a magnet for TAB, Tooheys New and meat pie fans. In the heat haze of the January arvo, a group of boozed-up patrons, some of them wrapped in large Australian flags, had evidently risen from their national celebrations on their barstools to gawk at the aftermath of the accident. 

This group was now gathered on the pavement, jeering and heckling the distressed woman. There was a real frisson of shock on the street, from bystanders, at the horrible drunken callousness of the scene.

The chanting was predictably about “women drivers” but I remember some of them were also singing Waltzing Matilda. It was as if someone else’s misery was analogous to a mouldy piece of Australiana – a hymn to misfortune suddenly applied to the present day.

Aussie, Aussie, Aussie, Oi, Oi, Oi

In a way, it seemed disturbingly apt (if extreme) – summing up a lot that’s wrong with Australia Day and the tenets behind it. The sense of pissed-up exceptionalism; the island nation, Fortress Australia complacency that says “I’m okay” even if you, over there, ain’t. 

“She’ll be right.” No, she isn’t, she’s crying in the middle of the road. But you can expect more of this messaging this year from people who use Australia Day to promote themselves as “the lucky ones”. 

People like our Prime Minister, who – you just know it – will probably, come Wednesday, have a photo-op with a can of VB on his Facebook page somewhere.

It suits Morrison’s agenda to try and convince people their horizons are limited. 

“They want to live their lives,” Morrison told The Sydney Morning Herald recently, of the people he is working for.

“They want to run their businesses, they want a country that is safe and secure where they can have their own choices and make their own way … These are the great aspirations.”

Don’t get me wrong, I don’t hate Australia – or a celebration of identity, for that matter – and I can also see that much of the latest messaging around Australia Day emphasises multiculturalism and inclusivity.

And yeah, there is plenty to celebrate. I also acknowledge that it should provide an opportunity to reflect on ourselves, warts and all.

But a lot of the boozy parochialism and nationalism that’s manifest on the day feels baked in – and bone-headed. Especially for a country that has been barely able to forge an empathetic relationship with its nearest neighbours – let alone the Chinese or the French. Hell, lately we’ve struggled to display empathy with our own people, who just happened to be overseas when a pandemic broke out. 

It seems particularly incongruous to celebrate when, as much as our politicians try to get us to forget this, our most pressing existential issues are very much global ones. When the worst kinds of extreme nationalism evident in other countries are being aped by local dickheads like Clive Palmer (“Make Australia Great Again”).

And, of course – perhaps most importantly – the massive insensitivity of the date itself speaks to a collective “whatever” on behalf of the entitled.

Of course, people need a chance to celebrate and understand what we are collectively – and only a curmudgeon would say Australians aren’t, on the whole, good, generous people. But we deserve something more inclusive, more worldly, less insular; something that acknowledges the complexity of our history – and our future.

Australia Day, as it stands, feels like an anachronism. It needs a full reboot. And a new producer.

How about a “ScoMo Is A Fuckwit Day” instead? An alternative which would surely unite Australians of disparate backgrounds and walks of life. And we can invite the French, the Serbs, the Chinese, the Kiwis, the Pacific Islanders …

Richie Black is the deputy editor of the Sydney Sentinel. Twitter: @NoirRich.

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