Australia Day used to be controversial. I kinda liked that. I remember going to the Big Day Out in Sydney 1996 on Australia Day and hearing Rage Against the Machine’s Zack de la Rocha do a big rant about Invasion Day, and feeling stirred when the crowd roared in approval. I should add: no one, no one would have worn a flag to the Big Day Out then. Let alone the Australian flag. You’d have looked a goose, you’d have been teased for being one. Man, TISM would have teased you mercilessly from the stage. But those were different times. After all, John Howard was still about two months off being elected, and it was only three years after Paul Keating delivered that Don Watson penned speech that, the legend now has it, re-ignited white Australia’s love of itself, its flag and its old diggers.
Australia Day is an odd selection for a national day. I mean, most nation-states celebrate independence: independence that they fought for, or won, or were given. I suppose this is impossible in Australia, seeing as we effectively refused it when given the opportunity. Nonetheless, the obvious choice is Federation, which was on January 1, 1901. It would be the technically correct choice, since before that, ‘we’ weren’t a nation, just a bunch of self-governing British colonies. But it would also be the hungover choice, given that it’s also New Years Day… in Australia. Scotch that.
But it gets weirder as soon as you ask what Australia Day actually purports to commemorate. I mean, the arrival of a bunch of stinking prison hulks full of transported convicts, mostly men, and their introduction of smallpox to the local Aboriginal populations… Well, it doesn’t seem like our finest moment. Convict origins, shit food, barely potable water, various types of pox, no toothpaste, insufficient opportunities for conjugal bliss… it seems like an experience that most peoples would prefer to forget.
But I like the weirdness, just like I liked the controversy, precisely because both weirdness and controversy are states that say something about who we might be as a nation. We’re a weird mob, and we don’t agree on much, or even have much in common.
Two years ago, Mark Seymour wrote an outstanding piece about Australia Day that is worth a close read. For me, what he really nails to the wall is the way in which Australian nationalism – post Howard, post 9/11, post Cronulla nationalism – has, at certain points and for certain groups of people, transformed into a narrow, hardline, aggressive dogma, one that precludes any ambivalence (let alone leaving room for weirdness, controversy, or TISM fandom). In every nation-state I can think of there are people whose views sit within this spectrum. But it takes a culture to empower them, a sense of cultural dominance, entitlement, something that not only says it’s okay to have these kind of feelings, but that it might be awesome to go yell them at someone (then tell them to fuck off if they don’t like it). And whether it’s satire or not (but I think it’s not), this facebook page says a lot about this spectrum of belief, as well as the way in which it’s expressed. Then I read this interview with Charlie Teo, whose Australia Day speech is rightly making waves, and heard about what happened to his young daughter, repeatedly, and I felt very sad. But, having been to Bondi recently, not that surprised.
But I can’t help but think that a further mutation within Australian nationalism has taken place in the past few years, one that is less to do with sledgehammer assertions about identity and the defence of a set of values perceived to be under threat, and more an unabashed expression of consumerism, a thing without history, memory or gravity. We’re not even dealing with nationalism anymore, just notionalism.
No doubt you’ve seen it at yours, if you’re a shopper (and how could you not be, if you’re Australian). When I look at this rack, I see nude capitalism: the emptying out of everything. Rack upon rack of cheap, tacky, Swanston St-quality merchandise, whose only uniting factor is the flag (on which, weirdly, the flag of the colonist still looms large). Check just around the corner at bigger stores, Woolies are also pimping be-flagged boogieboards. Ten years ago, Australians would have laughed at gullible tourists for buying this crap… now, judging from what I’ve seen on the Mornington Peninsula and at the tennis, we’re lapping it up. Then check out this website – which, mind you, is put together by the Australia Day Council of NSW. Merchandise and Website, together, suggest that Australia Day, really, is just a bunch of dickheads waving flags. Australia Day has become something irredeemable, full to the hat brim with its own emptiness. But, as I see it, there’s a way through this. It’s the difference between celebration and remembrance.
ANZAC Day engages in a form of remembrance. However selective and partial it may be, it still carries the gravity of sacrifice and the dead. We might dispute the meaning and value of each conflict’s complexities and contradictions – we ought to. I’m not comfortable with all of it, but I feel like I can converse with it. I feel that, at least, I want to talk about it, to contest it. Being engaged in remembrance, it is, at least, historical, or at the very least, it is potentially open to investigation as such. Australia Day, which takes place as a ‘celebration’ has become antihistorical; it practices a form of flag-waving consumerism which is contrary to any form of meaningful remembering. As the website says: show your pride. Pride in what? Certainly not in the actual history of the First Fleet, the British policy of transportation, or even that Australia was chosen as a destination for the transported convicts – in part – because America fought and won its independence (though having said that, I would love to see Woolworths merchandise these episodes in our Australia Day history). And it certainly has no interest in considering the ‘boatiness’ – the boats, the boat people, and their arrival at what we now know as Sydney – that the day might actually denote. Remember that: Australia Day is fundamentally a day of boat arrivals. But no, don’t remember, just celebrate: show your pride! Wave your flag. Buy your merchandise. Or go to Bondi, and alienate a little girl by yelling at her ‘cos she looks other… There are many qualities to celebrate about Australia, just as there is much in our history that is worth remembering. My future hope is that the present emptiness of the flag-waving merchandise celebration that is Australia Day becomes a historical lesson for the better future which I know we are capable of making, either under this flag or that of an independent country.