By Monica Attard
January 21, 2013
It’s not long now until Australia Day.
On that day, some will show their love of Australia by flying the Australian flag atop their cars. Or by draping the flag over their shoulders to parade on beaches, beer in hand. Others will quietly celebrate whatever it is that we think we are when we so publicly and proudly declare ourselves Australian.
Love of this country and nationalism are deliberately fused together on this day – to set an example of how it is we ought to live in this multicultural nation – as Australians! We will be told by politicians of all persuasion that we peacefully co-exist because we all “share” something.
What does “being an Australian” mean to you? Image via waltzingmorethanmatilda.com.
What is extraordinary is that over the years, Australia Day has cemented the notion that there is some quintessential characteristic or set of characteristics that we share that make us all Australian. And even more extraordinary, that we share it simply because we happen to have been born here or happened to have arrived here.
What this is has changed over the years. When I was growing up in 1970s Sydney, even if you were born here, you were Australian only if (a) your parents were born here and (b) you didn’t look Mediterranean. I ticked neither box.
Though waves of Vietnamese immigration, followed by Lebanese immigration, followed by waves of asylum seekers have dimmed this peculiarly 1970s definition of Australia, the notion remains that there is something identifiable which – if subscribed to or accepted – makes you somehow, magically, Australian, and the same as everyone else.
And it’s not mere citizenship of the type, which can be bestowed upon anyone who meets certain government set criteria.
Many have tried to define it, this “Australian-ness”.
Some say it is egalitarianism – that we all have the right to work and live as well as the next bloke (or sheila). Some say it is mateship – that we are there, barracking for or defending each other when the chips are down. Some say it is loving cricket, or loving tennis, or playing rugby, or bagging those who bag us, or loving fish and chips on the beach, or just not being – generally speaking – a douchebag.
Some say you can feel this thing that makes us Australian whether you are Muslim, Hindu, Christian, Jew, black, white, or somewhere in between. Watch this video for evidence of how we now flatten out what it “means to be Australian”.
But in the absence of an absolute definition with which all of us can identify, celebrating sameness when so many of us are so different can surely serve only to make many people feel more different and less like the rest of the country in its Australianness, and therefore less accepted.
The whole “we are all Australian” thing can feel like little more than the jingoism of nationalism on steroids on Australia Day. And that can so quickly and so easily turn very ugly.
Remember those horrific years of Pauline Hanson’s One Nation and John Howard’s “we will decide who comes to this country and under what circumstances” time as PM?
Remember Cronulla in 2005 when mobs of rioting angry, young, Anglo youth rounded up on young, angry, non Anglo youth – throwing bottles at them as they carried signs reading “F*ck off Lebs” and “ We grew here, you flew here”? Relations between Anglo and non-Anglo Sydneysiders still haven’t returned to pre-Cronulla normal.
A violent scene from the 2005 Cronulla riots. Photo via abc.net.au.
Loving the place where you live is a great thing. But lest we forget that it can be and indeed, has been abused to produce behaviour that is most dishonourable. Cronulla is but one example.
There are, for example, the decades we insisted on the notion of terra nullius followed by our refusal to apologise to indigenous Australia for the sins of the past. To do otherwise – on either count – would have been to dishonour the idea of this being “our” country, possessed by us (and no-one before us) in a nationalistic fervour that could be whipped up at whim. It would have been to discount the idea that this is our country where we can institute whatever policy we deem necessary, no matter how inhumane, to maintain our idea of law and order.
And there’s our refusal to see the suffering of asylum seekers and open our national doors for pretty much the same reasons as above: this is OUR country, not theirs. We decide who gets to live here.
As the philosopher Raimond Gaita has said in the past, love of country often degenerates. And it can often degenerate into something we may not like or even have control over. It can often encourage people to think its okay to say “we” in a way that excludes others.
It can also often degenerate into nationalistic jingoism peddled by politicians for their own political purposes.
We can however, enjoy the day off knowing that the public holiday is, indeed, the one thing we all have in common.
What does Australia Day mean to you?
*Monica Attard OAM, is a five-time Walkley award-winning Australian journalist – including the Gold Walkley Award for Excellence in Journalism 1991. She was the host of the ABC’s PM, the World Today and Media Watch. She spent 28 years at the ABC, leaving to start up The Global Mail where she was, until recently, the Managing Editor. In 1997, Monica published a book entitled Russia: Which Way Paradise? documenting her time there as a foreign correspondent. You can follow her on Twitter: @attardmon.