Ahh, the national day. A time to have a day off, relax, have a barbie, do whatever. Maybe enjoy how lucky you are to be living in a prosperous country on a warm summers day. The cricket on telly, a few beers, great stuff. Back to work the next day feeling a little seedy, but ready finally for another year.
Well, that’s how I remember it, “back in the day”. I don’t remember cars festooned with the flag and stickers with “Love it or leave” written on them. That wasn’t part of Australia Day. In fact, it has always been a rather awkward public holiday – one that you just enjoy without having to think hard about anything. Which makes it different from ANZAC day, which commemorates a tragic episode in our history where to some extent, the nation called Australia was “born”.
Australia was not even “Australia” on January 26, 1788; the day it commemorates. No, it was a land inhabited by, at some estimates, nearly a million people. A people organised into their own nations, proudly managing the land and their lives. It is hard to capture the extent and suddenness of the change that would follow the arrival of the First Fleet. Beginning with the declaration of Terra Nullius (now abandoned), the indigenous population was treated as if they were primitive animals to be eradicated or at least moved aside. A new colony was to be made, and the four corners of the country were to be explored, claimed and exploited. The legacy of these exploits lives on simultaneously in the folklore of explorers and bushrangers, as well as in the collective memory of a decimated indigenous people.
Almost 113 years later, by a very peaceful referendum in which only a portion of people voted, Australia became a federation of states. To this day, we have spent more time as a wild bunch of colonies than as a federated nation. Only once have the shores of our land been threatened, and that was defended successfully with the help of foreign troops. Never did civil war result in a unification, although we have had our uprisings, such as at the Eureka Stockade, the closest we’ve come.
Today, the Eureka Flag, with its Southern Cross emblem, has become a symbolic undercurrent in a new wave of patriotism. A patriotism that does no justice to what it means to be a patriot. The Eureka Flag, and the National Flag, are important symbols in our nationhood. They should be respected as such. One marks a turbulent but nation-building episode, the other the formation of one nation out of several colonies – an independent break from colonial status.
We should be able to wear the flag if we want, but then, we should consider what our behaviour under that flag means. White Australians plastered in national flags, drunk to the eyeballs and screaming slogans like “Australia: If you don’t like it, leave” do nothing for this country. That, therefore, is not a patriotic act. The riots in Cronulla a few years ago have signed off on a period where the flag could be worn in pride. Now it is just an association with the ugliest side of our society. More’s the pity. Most of the true patriotic acts require no flag at all. Australia Day may use the flag as a symbol (it hardly has a choice) but, unfortunately the day’s meaning is scared by the awful behaviour of a few under that flag. I wish I could say, “Australia’s not like that”, but then I am made a liar every year, at least once. All I can hope is that it is a shrinking minority that is getting the attention. I fear it is growing.