Friday, February 3, 2012

Australia Day. Less is more.

On the 26th of January just passed we had our Australia Day. Since 1935 this has been our countries official production of the modern nation’s obligation. According to Wikipedia only Denmark and the U.K. have no official national day while Pakistan, compensating for its dwarf size next to India perhaps, has three.

Australia day is mostly an exercise in vacuity. This is unlike an event like Christmas which is overflowing with content; Jesus, Santa, Christmas trees and so on. The absent content of Australia day is revealed by its greeting “Happy Australia Day”, a platitude of desert like emptiness. We mean nothing by it other than that we noticed the date. There are no stories or songs connecting one Australia day with another. The only and recent traditional element is a barbeque meal which in Australia is almost like saying we drink beer to mark the occasion. Most especially there’s no Australian Day nativity – no original Australia day to give the day any meaning. 

That’s not entirely true. Australia day is actually on the date on which a Commander Arthur Phillip ran the predecessor of the Union Jack up a flag pole in Australia soil in 1788. This act established a New South Wales prison colony for those first convicts who landed with Phillip, the unfortunate passengers of the First Fleet. This day doesn’t mark the first great disregard for indigenous property rights in Australia. They had been officially extinguished in 1770 by Captain Cook and remained so until the Australian High Court overturned the legal fiction of “terra nullis” (empty land) in 1992. Nor does the day mark the first discovery of the Australian landmass by Europeans. The Dutch were here briefly in 1606. Neither does it have anything to do with Australia the nation. New South Wales was its own separate colony until 1888. 

Quite deliberately I haven’t said Australia day celebrates 1788 or even remembers it; I stated it is “on the date”. Our peculiar history is deliberately and forcibly not reflected upon by most Australians on Australia day. It really is fairer to say that the day has no “ancient” origin in our celebration of it; two hundred years ago rightly or wrongly is “ancient” history to most in this young nation. 

If the complete emptiness of Australia Day is in any doubt then just consider the days’ aesthetic. This is entirely a replication of our flag (a quarter of which is the Union Jack) onto everything from paper serviettes to children’s bodies (in the form of fake tattoos and face paint). The flag is an image which says nothing most Australians want to acknowledge. It says we are a British (ex?) colony. It says we have seven states, ignoring our two territories. It’s only non government related feature is a constellation of stars, the Southern Cross, which is difficult to spot from the brightly lit cities where most Australians live and which makes the impactless point that we are in the Southern Hemisphere. I was told this year that the flag represents “all of us” however that only makes sense with such a low standard of representation that a blank page would do just as well. In fact a blank page would do better.

With nothing really behind it or inside it, it’s predictable that Australia day is not a spontaneous outpouring of Australian emotion. This is a heavily government sponsored event. It is difficult to work out exactly how heavily it is sponsored as all levels of government (Federal, State and Local) throw money at it. Our Shire (local council) allocated a paltry $9,200 to this years Australia Day festivities. However this is likely replicated by every local council in Australia (approximately five hundred and fifty nine) and combines with state and federal government funding. 

Federal funding includes a direct grant of $3,388,000 per annum. In what may be standard dodgy accounting the National Australia Day Council also receives about that amount again as “payment for services”. I suspect that much of this will be services to other Government departments such as Tourism but can’t be sure. If it is that’s more than six million dollars for Australia Day at the federal level alone. I have been unable to determine the State Funding (sixty seven pages of an Annual report and not a dollar figure to it) but have emailed the government hoping to find out more. (If you can help, please comment below.) This government cash is in addition to a range of corporate sponsorship of Australia Day events that will get you a nice tax deduction along with your advertising across public space. I would be surprised if the total national public subsidy of Australia Day isn’t at least ten million dollars and I only mean direct funding (not extra police at festivities for example).

No amount of money however buys any meaning to the day. All the fireworks in all the cities that bother with them are simply the very best sound and fury signifying nothing. But politics as well as nature abhors a vacuum. So we try and say what Australia day is or should be about. Father Bob Maguire, speaking at my local Australia Day council event, (with tongue in cheek) said “It reminds us of Anglo Saxon supremacy” That is an inevitable danger as any celebration of Australia has the same capacity to turn nasty as, say, a celebration of masculinity. It’s only a beer from celebrating something to denigrating its’ other. The other in Australia Days case is those with less real or imagined connection to that first Australia Day – the less Australian.

But no meaning of Australia Day ultimately sticks. The concept stays empty and is therefore up for grabs. As a very recent example the Shake It Up foundation wants people to connect their Australia Day barbeques with raising money for curing Parkinsons. It’s a noble cause but it could just as easily be saving tree frogs for all its relevance to Australia Day.

Personally I remember Australia Day from about fifteen years ago as a home-made affair without any publicly organised joy other than tea cake at the town hall for new citizens. I joined in with those who sought to make the day an opportunity for advancing indigenous rights. That particularly meant the recognition of land claims, compensation for members of the stolen generation and a treaty. The day was unofficially renamed “Invasion Day” with enough success that many Australians have heard the term. Very few would embrace it though. 

I think reconciliation between indigenous and non-indigenous Australians is a more historically apt use of Australia day than finding a cure for Parkinsons particularly. However while I wouldn’t have admitted this in my younger years I don’t think reconciliation is the legitimate use of the day. It is just as much spin doctoring as any other Australia Day meaning. 

Certainly many Australians have convict heritage and I see nothing wrong with this day being an opportunity to remember that. There are some amazing stories. These are stories which have amongst others bled into this country. We should listen to them. So long as owning those stories doesn’t make you more Australian than other stories they should definitely be remembered. In fact given the date Australia Day is on perhaps we should rename the day Convict Heritage day.

Writing this piece has made me nostalgic for Australia Day before the wash of government money swept over the day. The history of that subsidy is really only very short, beginning in earnest in 1988 with the bicentenary. The Australia Day Council only incorporated in 1990. It seems to be continually growing too. The effect has been so much white noise drowning out quieter conversations about Australia’s colonial, penal and indigenous past. Perhaps my biggest concern is that along with the money, flag waving nationalism is being normalised in a country that for the most part has celebrated Australia Day as just any holiday we could get. Whatever Day; now that has a nice ring to it.
A little variety next year perhaps? So much flag.


  1. Hey! Thanks for sharing my photo of Australia Day!

    Please kindly provide photographic credit to me and a link to my Flickr page.


  2. Certainly Paula. If you would like I can also remove the image.

    I think there is a broader discussion about "intellectual property" well worth having but in this instance I just hope I haven't offended.
    For those interested Paula's work they can be viewed either via the link above which shows the image in question or here.. And they're wonderful photos.

    I would like to add however that I definitely never edited out the copyright from your photo (I wouldn't even know how). It wasn't there when I google imaged for it a year ago. It may be best if I simply remove the image as people may locate the non-marked image here. Happy to do so if you wish although it makes the point of this post very well (that we have no diversity of imagery on Australia day).

  3. This article is very helpful and informative. Thank you for sharing!

    Small Business Accountant Melbourne