January 20, 2011

A great Australian ritual

I’ve had this cartoon pinned up in my work station since I first saw it in 2005. On Australia Day we wear our national identity and symbols lightly.

Australia Day is not an occasion for great rhetoric or formal ceremony. Rather we mark the day in thousands of small and large events across the nation. We get together with family, friends, neighbours and even strangers to celebrate the great fortune of being Australian.

Our other national day, ANZAC Day, has strong symbols: the digger, bugle call, wreaths and rosemary, even a biscuit. Australia Day has never had a civic ritual which binds the occasion. Australia was not born in revolution and our independence from Britain has been a slow evolution. It could be argued our independence is not yet complete for our head of state is not an Australian citizen.

Our pragmatic evolution as a nation has left us no legacy of symbolic civic ritual. We cannot read a declaration of independence, we cannot celebrate the defeat of an enemy, and we cannot celebrate national unification. What we do have is the freedom to celebrate our national day in any manner we wish – from going to the beach to watching the big concert on the ABC or perhaps attending a citizenship ceremony.

We do not need elaborate rituals for our authentic celebration - we simply get together in groups large and small to celebrate Australia and being Australian.

Arthur Phillip had been at sea for eight and a half months and surely needed to take the day off on 26 January 1788. Two hundred and twenty three years later a public holiday on our national day has become our authentic ritual.

Warren Pearson

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