Yesterday was Australia Day. For many years I viewed Australia Day as an insignificant holiday, close to birthday celebrations and the start of the school year. It was nothing much.
Occasionally there was talk of our history; national history, state history and history within each family. My family mentioned proudly our ancestor on the first fleet. A non-criminal lieutenant to boot! We soon found out, through historians in the family, that he was a pretty unpleasant man. His behaviour towards female convicts on the ship was the cause of some discipline meted out to him. Surprise! Surprise! I am sure our British Admirals would not have picked their prized and valued sailors for a long outing from which the participants would be at considerable risk of not returning.
Our convict ancestor on the second fleet always seemed to be a better prospect. After all, his only crimes were, as well documented in his Court Marshal, deserting, not only once but twice, from the Army that was fighting Napoleon. Perhaps that is from whence I inherited my contrariness (and my cowardice).
Then we’ve got my father’s family. Early settlers in W.A. No convicts there! But unfortunately, yet again, they were law enforcement officers. Again were the British going to send their best and finest young police off to a new colony? Not likely. Still, seven generations on one side and six on the other gives me a reasonable pedigree to call myself Australian and be proud. But does it? Does it alternatively give me a more direct responsibility and more intense guilt when I think of my relatives’ obvious roles in causing this to be Survival Day for the Indigenous Australians?
Mild thoughts like this would whirl around as one read the honours list or heard an occasional backyard cracker. (Any excuse was good enough in those days.)
This Australia Day was a bit different from the last few years and returned to those days of old. I spent it quietly with my 14 year old grandson, watching cricket. My only Australia related emotions were twofold. There was pleasure at the appointment of Adam Goode as Australian of the Year and also at Australia winning their cricket match against England. I enjoyed myself. It felt like the old days.
When did things change so the Australia Day celebrations gained such public momentum? I think the commentators, both indigenous and non-indigenous are right. The hype that has now become Australia Day started in 1988. I remember the excitement in 1988 of traveling out to Parramatta to witness a re-enactment of the first wedding that was held in the colony. The wayward Lieutenant married the common law wife he had brought with him on the trip along with their son. His daughter, born in wedlock later, married the wayward deserter. My elderly aunt had travelled from WA to see the ceremony. I took my elderly mother and met remote cousins, several times removed, that I have not seen since. It was all quite extraordinary. And then, back home, we stood on a hill and watched really impressive fireworks over the whole of Sydney Harbour.
There are no two ways to look at the spectacle that day. We celebrated an invasion, and with very little tact.
So OK, accepting that was a gaffe, I can see that there is no point in too much breast beating. The settlement did happen. The Lieutenant and the convict were part of their generation and culture. The idea of bold exploration and unwelcome settlement was fostered through a prism of ignorance coupled with power and belief. The individuals were not the only ones to blame.
But we are to blame if we continue our knowing celebrations, still unthinkingly accepting the past and its impact on Australia now, with a careless assumption of superiority.
After this lovely day I awoke this morning, to a request from Twitter to tweet a picture of Australia Day for a time capsule. The sample picture given was of a lovely beach with a crowd of people, handsome, Caucasian, young, in costumes emblazoned with the Australian Flag circa 1954. Two young men in the foreground bore surf boards with this flag painted on them, of course containing, proudly, the Union Jack.
On my way to my home in the car later this morning I heard an ABC radio program posing the question “Should we eat our Coat of Arms?”
Taking this question as it was meant, my answer is that I have family on the far west coast of WA. I live on the far east coast of NSW. I grew up in the Snowy Mountains, in the desert and in two great Australian cities. I know most of Australia quite well. I love this wonderful country. I want to preserve it and maintain it. If it helps to do this, I am, as were some listeners, delighted if we model ourselves on some of the lifestyle choices of our indigenous Australians rather than John and Elizabeth MacArthur or some mining guru.
If, more significantly, we ask this question symbolically, I even more emphatically say “yes”. Eat the whole Coat of Arms. A Coat of Arms is the last thing we need on any escutcheon or surcoat. We need no symbols of war. And if it is not a sign of war but a symbol of “house” or “family” in that old European exclusionary way, then it also requires disposal as quickly as possible.
And while we are eating that, we should also eat the Union Jack. It, too, is a symbol of a past that is no longer relevant. We can all be represented by the Southern Cross, those indigenous Australians who lived under it for thousands of years, those of us who have lived under it for generations and those more recent comers who may have arrived under our southern sky yesterday or who perhaps will arrive tomorrow. We, never again want to have to subsume poor Australian behaviour under a banner of national expectation. And if we are going to have a flag to represent this nation, and a day that celebrates this nation, we need to keep both as messages of inclusion, welcome, friendship and the future, not as undeserved wallowing in personal pride and our sometime brave but patchy past.