There is an ad for Telstra’s Internet service doing the rounds that shows a grandad and grandson flunking a teacher’s question about what Australia Day represents. Their answers of “a long weekend” and “watching the cricket” drew a sharp face of rebuke from the teacher. While we never get to hear the teacher’s answer why we should celebrate the day, the implication from the ad makers is clear - get Telstra Broadband and you’ll find out the answer on the Internet. But is that true? I looked on the Internet today and found no consensus on what today’s Australia Day holiday actually means.
The first site returned on a Google search for Australia Day is the frothy-looking government site. It does not really explain the meaning of the day except to exhort people to "celebrate what's great". It does have a history page which tells us the Australia Day holiday is a recent tradition. It wasn’t until the nineteenth century that Sydney almanacs referred to 26 January, 1788 as First Landing Day or Foundation Day. The word “Australia” did not enter the national vocabulary until 1826. In 1888 Tasmania’s Mercury celebrated “the centenary of the occupation of the country by the British people”. But generally other states resented the focus on NSW and Australia Day did not become a national holiday until 1994.
Nor did the occupied ever never fully accepted the occupation. Aboriginals still call 26 January Mourning Day. Today Prime Minister Rudd knocked back the suggestion from the new Australian of the Year Mick Dodson that there should be a national conversation on changing the date of Australia Day. The Sydney Morning Herald (and most TV news reports) went with Rudd’s sound bite response: “to our indigenous leaders, and those who call for a change to our national day, let me say a simple, respectful but straightforward no.” However those media neglected to say why Rudd wasn’t changing the date. A look at Rudd’s address at Canberra’s Australia Day citizenship ceremony shows he mostly ignored the issue: “There’ve always been controversies about national days. But this is not the point. The central point is what we then resolve to fashion as a nation?”
Andrew Bartlett was quick to point out that the real reason why Rudd wouldn't join the debate was to avoid being wedged. “Calls to change Australia Day are manna from heaven for right-wing radio shock jocks and history warriors,” said Bartlett today, “so it’s no surprise Kevin Rudd wants to shut down debate on it straight away and get us all back to pondering how bad the economy is.” Rudd’s political radar looks smart if the Sydney Daily Telegraph readers’ debate on the topic is anything to go by with many entries skirting racism as they vigorous supported the 26 January date.
Seeking more dispassionate information, I turned to the second Google entry on Australia Day: the supposedly NPOV (Non Point Of View) Wikipedia. Here I was particularly interested in one sentence: “Australia Day has become a symbol for adverse effects of British settlement on Australia's indigenous people.” This is true; it would not matter if you did move the date, it would remain a symbol of adverse effects. As I’ve written before, European settlement was always going to have a negative effect on the earlier settlers. The French arrived in Sydney Harbour the same day as the First Fleet. Sooner or later, there would have been a European Invasion Day to mourn.
Ron Barassi says we should move the date to 27 May to commemorate when Aborigines got voting rights in 1967. But that would put another holiday in the already crowded six week zone that has Easter, Anzac Day, the Queens Birthday (loaded with symbolism itself!) and for us in Queensland, the Mayday holiday. If you must move it, find an excuse to place it in the long dead zone of the second half of the year (there are no national holidays between July and Christmas).
But the fact that people are still looking for a “peg” to hang Australia Day on, is proof positive that its current celebration is not tied to its historical meaning. The end of January may be a good time to have it, given the local climate. Despite the current and dangerous fad for drink-fueled ultra-nationalism, there really is no single national imagining or agreement of what it means. The granddad and the kid on the ad got it right, for them Australia Day is indeed about watching the cricket or having a long weekend. It could equally have been celebrating Chinese New Year or a barbecue or a day at the beach or the park or the Havaiana Thong Challenge or whatever else all the other 21 million citizens did. But you don’t need the Internet to tell you that.