December 23, 2009

Where have all the convicts gone?

I once was an English teacher. On a Friday afternoon late in the year I ducked out of the classroom to retrieve a book from the staffroom. On my return I found Melissa Cassel, the dux of the year, in blue-eyed tears. She was sobbing because Tran Phuong had called her ‘a convict’. I am not sure what racial slight Melissa might have passed on Phuong to receive the response she did.

The convicts arrived on 26 January 1788 when Captain Arthur Phillip had the Union Jack raised on the shore of Sydney Cove to proclaim the newest British colony – New South Wales. The 750 convicts he had transported across the globe however remained on board the fleet of ships viewing the proceedings from afar. In the founding of the colony, the convicts were absent.

Ironically it was emancipated convicts who first began celebrating First Landing Day. Many had thrived in the colony and celebrated their good fortune with an annual anniversary dinner. In later times the Anniversary Day celebrations were led by Currency Lads and Lasses and then by the Australian Natives Association in the colony of Victoria.

By the centenary in 1888, the penal beginnings of Australia had become a ‘stain’ and they were a blot on the celebrations. In Adelaide the anniversary was considered linked to the ‘unpleasing circumstances of [New South Wales’] early occupation' while in Brisbane it was noted that Australia has been infected with 'the cancer of convictism'.

In 1938, the sesqui-centenary year, the convict embarrassment was at a peak. There was no mention of convicts in the official parade in Sydney, and convicts were absent in the officially commissioned historical painting of the 1788 event. In a day of re-enactments, did no one notice their absence?

In recent decades much has changed and many Australians now choose celebrate their convict ancestors. Despite this new embrace of convict heritage, the convicts remain absent from celebrations on Australia Day. But now also absent in contemporary celebrations are Arthur Phillip’s, his crew and marines. I suspect that for many, re-enacting the role of the convicts and their captors on Australia Day would be an awkward reminder of the unwelcome arrival of the First Fleet for the original inhabitants of this land. This is a real and valid concern.

Perhaps Phuong’s direct hit was aimed not just at Melissa but at the nation more generally. Why should the modern nation be embarrassed about the circumstances of its founding? Melissa’s tears might have been born of confusion and loss, rather than of embarrassment.

On that hot Friday afternoon close to Christmas I was laughing inside as I tried to smooth the tension in the classroom. I was rather impressed by Phuong who was Melissa’s rival as dux. What a smart insult, I thought.

But back the question - where have all the convicts gone? They were absent in the beginning, then they were central to the celebrations and then they disappeared again. Is it time to bring back the convicts? Is it time to at least consider how the foundation of the colony of NSW has profoundly shaped the contemporary nation we celebrate on 26 January each year?

How can we appropriately bring back the convicts? What is the positive legacy of the convicts and their captors?

December 18, 2009

Nationalism is the evil cousin of Patriotism

The title of this blog is a quote I heard at a recent ethnic affairs conference in Shepparton, Victoria. I sometimes think that people collapse these concepts to be the same.

Patriotism is a good thing. Patriotism means that you are committed to your nation and the welfare of your fellow citizens. Being proud of your nation is critical if we are to address our shared challenges for you don’t invest time and effort on projects about which you don’t care.

Nationalism is the chauvinistic and insular cousin of patriotism. Its premise is the superiority of a select group to the exclusion of others. Blind pride allows for no self-reflection and therefore provides no opportunity to grow and develop.

Australia Day is a day for inclusive patriotism. It is an occasion to celebrate the achievements of our fellow citizens with our fellow citizens. It is a day to celebrate all that is great about Australia and being Australian. It is a day for patriotism – it is not day for nationalism.

November 13, 2009

Citizenship is something we do

When the Howard government introduced a formal citizenship test to replace the former less formal oral test, there was much public debate about Australian values. The question was asked: is there a unique set of Australian values?

In answering this question some said ‘no’: Australian civic values are common to most western liberal democracies. Others said ‘no’: Australian values are universal human values.

At one level these statements are true, but I answer ‘yes’. When you write our values, they are generic. When Australians live the values, they are unique.

Australia’s civic aspirations are perhaps best expressed in text in the words of the Australian Citizenship Pledge.

I pledge my loyalty to Australia and its People,
whose democratic beliefs I share,
whose rights and liberties I respect, and
whose laws I will uphold and obey.

Bob Carr said that "There’s nothing flowery or poetic about these words, but their force and clarity never fails to stir..."

As good as these words are, they are not particularly unique to Australia. You could replace the name ‘Australia’ with ‘New Zealand’ or even ‘Canada’ and it would sound right to our Aussie ear.

I recently read in the Museum of Australian Democracy in Old Parliament House that citizenship is not something you have. Rather, citizenship is something you do. It is the way Australians live and enact the values of liberal democracy and the rule of law that make the values and uniquely Australian.

Many of the basic tenants of Australia’s political and legal system were borrowed from other nations. These foreign tenants and institutions have been profoundly shaped by the Australian people – by generations of migration, our first Australians, and by the continent’s unique climates and landscapes.

No other nation has had a Harvester judgement or a Mabo judgement. Few other nations have compulsory elections. Our policy of multi-culturalism was uniquely shaped to Australia. In few other nations does the Prime Minister invite you to call him by his first name.

Australia’s civic values are made unique by the way we live them. And the way we live them, is shaped by the generations that have come before us and the unique landscape of our island nation.

Citizenship is something we do.

November 6, 2009

Welcome to the Australian Being blog

We have a great job at the National Australia Day Council. Our work involves communicating and organising events and activities for Australia Day on 26 January, as well as coordinating the public nominations and selections of the Australian of the Year Awards. We’re a small team of 13 working year round on these projects.

As part of our work, almost every day we talk about what it means to be Australian and what we celebrate on Australia Day. We thought it was about time to have some of these conversations with you, and get your perspective on being Australian, Australian identity, the history that has shaped us, what is great about our nation today and how we can make Australia even better in future.

The National Australia Day Council leads a network of eight state and territory Australia Day Councils and Committees and hundreds of local committees and organisers around the country. Our mission is to inspire national pride and spirit to enrich the life of the nation. We’re an non-profit, government-owned company and our operations are overseen by a board of Directors. You can see more about us at – About Us – National.

We hope you find this blog at least interesting, and maybe even thought-provoking. The one thing we ask is that if you’re going to post a comment, you be considerate and polite in your response.