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

January 10, 2011

Racist or Patriot?

Not every young person draped in the flag is a racist.

On Australia Day over 50% of Australians will attend public events or get together with family and friends for the specific purpose of celebrating Australia Day. In recent years we have seen a surge in young Australians celebrating Australia Day – and often they drape themselves in the flag or paint it on their face. Is this a happy expression of benign patriotism or is it an expression of xenophobia?

While Australia is not a racist nation there is no denying that some Australians are racist. It is a genuine concern that some use our national day to promote their narrow view of what it is to be Australian.

If a true patriot is someone who loves and defends their country, then a true patriot will stand against racism. We all have a responsibility to ensure that our national day is inclusive for all of our 22 million fellow Australians.

Some people wear the flag to claim it exclusively for their narrow and exclusionary view of being Australian. Others wear the flag to celebrate a nation which is an overwhelmingly open and inclusive society.

We must be careful not to assume that all young people draped in the flag are racist xenophobes.

January 6, 2011

Australians All?

Australia Day is just 21 days away and it is the time I think about what our national day means. Australia Day does not mark a defining moment in history that can be commonly and equally celebrated by all Australians.

The date, January 26, recalls the day of British settlement, one defining moment on the path to modern nationhood. For many Australians, British settlement represents invasion, loss, or something alien to their experience and identity.

What is celebrated on Australia Day, even how we celebrate Australia Day, remains contested. This is not surprising given the ongoing evolution and multiplicity of Australian identity. It would be deeply problematic if Australia Day celebrated a singular experience of Australia and being Australian.

While many Australians bring a healthy scepticism and larrikin irreverence to their national day, most take their responsibilities as citizens seriously. Australia is not a nation of spontaneous flag-wavers – we are a nation of organised flag-wavers.

Providing event and communication opportunities through which Australians can demonstrate their national spirit is the work of the National Australia Day Council. On Australia Day the Council seeks to highlight the best of the Australian experience so that Australians might reflect upon their shared and varied experience.

The Council has not attempted to produce a reductive account of the Australian experience. Rather, we have sought to acknowledge and embrace the diversity of national experience and the contested meanings and modes of celebrating Australia Day. In acknowledging, and embracing the contestation, diversity has become a means of making the day more broadly accessible and inclusive.

Despite the increasingly cosmopolitan character of modern Australia, the celebration of Australia Day is growing and developing in ways that reflect, and facilitate, a more widely shared appreciation of the anniversary and its meanings. The aim is to see Australia Day become a day of celebration for Australians, a day on which all can celebrate together all that is great about Australia and being Australian.

Warren Pearson

Adapted from a previously published paper

Pearson, W. and O’Neill, G. (2009) ‘Australia Day: A day for all Australians’ in McCrone, D. and McPherson, G. (eds) National Days. Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan pp. 73-88.