Australia Day 2019

On January 26 I heard an interview on the radio as I drove to a gig, the interview was about Australia Day, the discussion was essentially saying that this day no longer represents the Australian people as we are in 2019. At the gig I was to sing a number of traditional Aussie songs that I have known and heard for just about all my life, songs and themes that would be unfamiliar to many Australians today.

Throughout my teenage years, my 20’s and my 30’s, Australia Day meant very little - I was either uninterested or too busy with other commitments - recent years have seen me performing on Australia Day, talking about Australia to an audience and re connecting with my own experiences as an Aussie, especially those deep childhood memories that carry so much weight in my life. This reconnection has been a good experience and it has come about through sharing with others.

At the two extremes of the current debate amongst many Australians there are accusations - 1) if I think the day should be changed I am a leftard, a snowflake and essentially un Australian 2) If I think the day should stay the same I am a right wing traditionalist and possibly even racist. In the expression of these two extremes we see age old thinking and cheap allocation of intellect - LEFT is a pussy and RIGHT is tough - so inspiring - not.

It seems entirely reasonable to me for someone to say that a particular celebration does not appeal to them and in fact that it is a reminder of damage done. The following occurred in 1938 - A forced reenactment. For the 150th Anniversary, Aboriginal people were forced to participate in a reenactment of the landing of the First Fleet under Captain Arthur Phillip. Aboriginal people living in Sydney had refused to take part so organisers brought in men from Menindee, in western NSW, and kept them locked up at the Redfern Police Barracks stables until the re-enactment took place. On the day itself, they were made to run up the beach away from the British – an inaccurate version of events. - what a mockery and an indignity.

I have read reports suggesting the government wants to spend $6+ million on a re enactment of Cook’s journeying along Australia’s coastline, and $12 million on events to honour this man. I don’t like the idea. This history is taught in schools is it not? Why do we need to have further public displays about this supposedly wonderful era of British imperialism and the men it created. I have no doubt Cook was a great and very capable man and I particularly like that he solved the Scurvy issue and looked after his crew, but do we really need to applaud this man through the public purse and also continue to rub in the nose of First Nation peoples that we all celebrate the sequence of events that lead to their destruction [in many cases].

The radio interview I listened to was with an Australian Lebanese Muslim - with clarity he stated that he and many in his community don’t feel completely accepted as Australians and much of what is celebrated on Australia Day seems to highlight the differences rather than create connection, he sympathised with the Aboriginal people and their response to Australia Day. What he said made sense to me and it highlighted how different his experience of Australia is to mine….. we were both born in Oz. I am going to read his book.

I search my brain high and low to find a solid answer for myself as to whether the day should change or if it should stay - I debate with myself and neither side comes out on top with a concrete view yet.

Whatever the conclusion for the actual date I suggest that we no longer look back at the 1788 date in celebration - teach it in schools, study it at university, don’t let it fall out of the records but do not celebrate it. When I think about it - what is there to celebrate about the arrival of the great imperial power of the time, the power that existed to profit from others and that had the views on humanity that it did in 1788.

I will close my thoughts with this quote that I attribute to the Australian art critic Robert Hughes, not because of what it says about America but rather, what it says about Australia.

“America was founded on the promise of a religious utopia, the only way from there is down. Australia however, was founded as a penal colony, and the only way from there is up”.

I do hope we are still on the rise.

Guy Walton