Australia Day and the Conversation We Should Be HavingThe Australia Day that sticks out in my mind the most happened in 2007, when I was seventeen.
I was in the town of Newcastle, Australia and spending the day with a friend. He is Australian through and through – he even had a dog that was part dingo as a pet. His mother is half Filipino, so he has lovely tanned skin – similar to mine in colour – and dark features.
We’d just eaten a delicious meal of fish and chips from the local co-op by the harbour. It was one of those clichéd, beautiful Australian summer days, that are becoming rarer as time goes on and the planet heats up – not too hot, not too cold. Sunny and perfect.
We were walking back to his car, when a car full of boys pulled up near us. They were around our age, maybe a bit older. They were all white.
“Go back to where yous come from!” one of them hollered out the window at us. His friends burst into laughter and they drove off with a screech of their tyres, as all big men do.
But… I am Australian!
I was as confused by that statement then, as I am now. I was born in Sydney, the largest city in Australia, to an Australian father and a British mother. I was pretty sure they weren’t indicating I “go back” to England – a place I’d never been to anyway, seeing as at that stage, I’d never stepped foot outside my native country.
My guess would be that my friend and I were probably just about as “Australian” as those idiots in the car, depending on the definition of the word. The main difference was that we had dark skin. They were white. And that made us outsiders, as far as they were concerned.
I’ve been lucky, in that I’ve encountered minimal racism throughout my life. People can never pick my heritage, so they either choose not to comment on it, or make general assumptions with the intent to offend. However, it has happened enough that I notice it… and I remember each and every time with a shocking clarity.
The history of Australia Day
For my readers who aren’t Australian, Australia Day is celebrated on the 26th of January, marking the “beginning” of Australia – the day that the First Fleet stepped foot on Sydney Cove and claimed it as British territory, due to the land being considered terra nullius by Europeans, literally “no one’s land”.
SUPER AWKWARD as the Indigenous Australians had already laid claim to Australia, tens of thousands of years ago. However, the Europeans had guns, the Aborigines didn’t and it marked the beginning of Australia’s modern, violent history.
There is no question over the fact that European Australians did their best to wipe out the Indigenous population, with the spreading of disease, massacres of tribes, the closure of communities (which still continues to this day) and the entire Stolen Generation. This saw families torn apart, with children being forcibly taken from their parents, to be assimilated into white society. This continued into the 1970s, so the repercussions of these actions are very much present today.
Australia Day marks the beginning of all this pain and suffering and thus is considered to be a slap in the face by many Indigenous communities, who refer to it as “Invasion Day” and boycott celebrations.
Alternative Australia Day celebrations
Many Australians (myself included) feel that the 26th of January is the wrong day to celebrate Australia Day. Technically, Australia became its own, separate country of the 1st of January, 1901 when the six British colonies united as a single nation under the Australian Constitution. Before that, those living in the colonies were considered British subjects. Not Australians.
There’s a lot of arguments for moving the date we celebrate Australia Day to the 1st of Jan. I’ve also heard well-educated people who I respect complain that they might lose their public holiday, which just makes me sigh.
In any case – those living in other colonies around Australia were initially reluctant to embrace the 26th of January, because it was seen as a day of significance for the state of New South Wales, where the First Fleet landed. They were worried that by embracing the day, it would signify NSW as the senior state and no one wanted NSW to get too big for her boots.
This year is different. It’s the first I’ve spent in the country in a couple of years, for one thing. Yet, my main motivation this year stems mostly from the actions of Fremantle council.
For those who haven’t heard of Fremantle, it’s a small port city, south of Perth in Western Australia. I’ve always liked the sound of it, imagining it to be similar to Newcastle, in its general vibe.
Fremantle has made news this year, for being the first city in Australia to move the Day’s celebrations from the 26th of January to the 28th – entitled “One Day in Fremantle”. This is a really small step forward, in the right direction I would think, too.
Naturally, this action has been met with nation-wide whinging – even being called an act of betrayal against the entire country. The Australian government responded to this gesture by banning Freo from holding citizenship ceremonies on any day other than the 26th.
Traditionally, the national youth radio station triple J have held their “Hottest 100” countdown on Australia Day. Even they are considering moving the countdown from the 26th to another day of the year. We’ll see.
What Australia Day SHOULD be about
Look, I’m not anti-Australian. I love my country – why else would I be dedicating a whole year to seeing as much of it as possible?
But I really do think that Australia Day brings out the worst in us. I see it year after year and as I stated in the beginning of this post – I’ve experienced it myself.
So, I won’t be celebrating “Australia Day” on the 26th of January from this year onwards. Instead, I’m going to my local cinema on the 29th to watch Red Dog: True Blue and enjoy a sausage sizzle, because deep down, I love this land and wish to celebrate it, plus films and sangers are two of the finest things in life.
On a final note – Do you know why the kangaroo and emu were chosen to be on the Australian crest, out of all the weird, whacky and wonderful animals that Australia has on offer? It was because neither animal has the ability to move backwards. Our founding fathers wanted to design a national crest that was symbolic in indicating a country that was intent on moving forwards – away from British rule, to forge our own identity.
All I’m saying is that we should take a leaf out of their books and continue to move forward.