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January 26, 2004

Australia Day: some puzzles

It is a public holiday in Australia today. Goodo.

I started off the day watering some trees (some Euc. Ficofolia flowering gums) in the public reserve opposite the holiday shack at Victor Harbor, whilst Suzanne walked the dogs around the Bluff. We had breakfast (fruit, museli and coffee) on the balcony, as we watched the clouds over the southern ocean slowly give way to the early morning sun. We plan to go the Raywood Nursery in the original stringbark forest in Deep Creek, Fleurieu Peninsula, have a picnic lunch there and buy some native plants for the garden.

Australia Day is about conservation for us.

But what are we celebrating today on Australia Day? Who is the 'we'? Australian citizens or Australian people?

Well, we are not celebrating the formation of the nation because that happened with through federation on January 1 1901.

Alan Moir has his own idea:

As an immigrant from New Zealand l have been reliably by those born here informed that on Australian day it is a celebration of Jame's Cook's discovery of the Australian continent.

Me? I thought the continent had been discovered well before that. By the people who have been existing here for around 30,00 to 50,000 years. Maybe that doesn't count. Only Europeans count. But were not the Dutch here (in Western Australia) well before the English?

I reckon it has to do with planting the British flag on the soil of the continent. An act that says 'this land belongs to us.' An act that signifies colonial conquest. An act that looks towards a bloody history of conflict to dispossess the indigenous people from their land whilst proclaiming that the continent was empty.

Is that what we are celebrating? The foundation of the British colonies in the great southern land?

If not, then what are we celebrating today?

Down at Victor Harbor its all about buying and selling property. It's cooking real estate down here. A frenzy in fact. The heat from the property boom burns the skin, if you get too close to the action. The BMW's are everywhere. Over in Melbourne they are celebrating sport---the Australian Open and flawed Australian heroes.

And Sydney? Hasn't the global city disconnected itself from Australia by going cosmopolitan? Back Pages reckons Australia Day is the anniversary of the day the first British convict fleet landed in Port Jackson to set up a penal colony. That means it's all about New South Wales. That's hardly Australia.

You know, I cannot shake off the feeling that we Australians are doing a two kick shuffle on what we are celebrating on Australia Day. It's a bit of an identity crisis.

Posted by Gary Sauer-Thompson at January 26, 2004 08:47 AM

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if you're talking Europeans, also try the French. nah, just enjoy the holiday mate.

Posted by: saint at January 26, 2004 09:39 AM

oh and Bill Leak
http://www.theaustralian.news.com.au/cartoon/ who got there before Moir

Posted by: saint at January 26, 2004 09:41 AM

I saw the Leak cartoon yesterday. It was more about the state of the union than Australia Day.

It is the waltzing song that gives us Australia Day--ie nationality.

As for the Freanch. Well, in the Pacific Asian Rim they are European colonists who drop atomic boms and get up to dirty tricks, such as sinking the Rainbow Warrior in Auckland harbour.

Posted by: Gary Sauer-Thompson at January 26, 2004 06:01 PM

It's pretty simple, really - we are celebrating the founding of Australia as a modern nation. It started with the landing of the First Fleet on January 26 1788.

It's true that federation of the colonies into a single nation-state didn't take place until 1901 but the beginnings of all of our institutions of government, law and civil society can be traced back to that first act of European colonisation.

Like it or not, that's what we are. Modern Australia, from our parliamentary democracy and common law to our primary language owes infinitely more to British colonisation than to 40,000 years of aboriginal pre-history.

Most of the people I know seem to be pretty clear about what Australia Day is celebrating - the birth of our nation.

Posted by: Bob Bunnett at January 26, 2004 11:33 PM

British colonies do not equal Australia as an independent nation state. British colonies mean being part of the imperial British nation state.

If we are celebrating the birth of our nation it should be on Jan 1.

As you rightly point out that date in 1901 was when the separate Brish colonies federated and Australia became a nation.

On your account I, as a South Australian, am celebrating the formation of New South Wales as a British colony under the guise of Australia Day.


That equation is not on, no matter what those in NSW may think.

Posted by: Gary Sauer-Thompson at January 27, 2004 04:13 AM


Most of what you now refer to as "South Australia" was in NSW in 1788, so even a pedantic approach won't work here. (If you don't beleive me, check out a good historical atlas). If I remember correctly, Western Australia is the only Australaian state that was not "separated" from territory that was part of NSW.

But pedantry misses my point. The institutions and a God-awfully large part of the culture that define modern Australia have their origin in British colonisation. Some people might like to get terribly depressed about it, given some of the adverse impact on indigenous people, but most of us reckon on balance that it's a cause for significant celebration. By the way, that goes just as much for my indigenous workmates as it does for me - and indigenous folks outnumber non-indigenous in my immediate workplace by a significant margin.

My workmates are every bit as much citizens of the modern world as I am. They have access to the riches of the arts, sciences and culture of 6,000 years plus of recorded human history. In particular, they have received the profound benefits of Western civilisation, the Enlightenment, the English language and tradition, fundamentally British institutions and some of the best of every modern culture on the face of this planet in (what is now) a peaceful, tolerant and prosperous nation. And, of course, they celebrate what is unique, vibrant and strong enough to survive this onslaught in their own ancient cultures.

I don't know any indigenous person who thinks that our indigenous people should have been left in some kind of living stone-age anthropological museum (do you???). Given the level of European sophistication at the time (ie not too bloody sophisticated by today's standards), contact with the outside world en masse was never going to be pretty. Thank God we survived and formed together what we have today.

Australia Day is a day of deep significance and joyful celebration to most Australians. Certainly Australians of my generation anyway, who have some understanding of the event that it commemorates and what that event means in the history of this nation (God only knows what they teach kids about it today). The British colonisation of Australia is self-evidently the single greatest watershed in its history.

Posted by: Anonymous at January 27, 2004 07:46 AM

Sorry, my browser didn't "remember" me. It's me again.

Posted by: Bob Bunnett at January 27, 2004 07:47 AM

Australia day is about going to the cricket.

Posted by: Scott at January 27, 2004 08:06 AM

I saw a lot of people at the beach and playing around with boats yesterday.

I saw hundreds cruising the open inspections on hot property down along the seashore.And cutting deals with real estate agents.

Strikes me that those leisure activities are different from sport.

Posted by: Gary Sauer-Thompson at January 27, 2004 10:39 AM

I'm not challenging your main point at all about British colonisation. I accept it.

I'm pointing out that the 26th of January is the wrong date to celebrate that heritage.

That was the date of the formation of a penal colony not the Australian nation.

You need a better date if you want to talk in terms of the nation--ie., the Australian people as a people bonded in liberty, equality and fraternity.

Australia Day is supposed to be about Australia as a nation-state.

This is not a pedantic point.
You are collapsing the birth of a sovereign nation-state with the territorial spread of British colonialism.

My point is that we need a better date for Australia Day.

Posted by: Gary Sauer-Thompson at January 27, 2004 10:48 AM

It loooks like we could continue talking at cross-purposes, Gary. I still see the deep significance of 26 January 1788 to what we have become and I don't necessarily accept that 26 January has to be "about" Australia as a unified nation state.

That was a pretty nifty riposte about NSW=Australia being true in 1788, though, hey? Maybe I should have stopped there! There was a shift in the declared western boundary of the colonies (a meridian of longitude) sometime along the way but I can't recall if it was prior to or simultaneous with the separattion of SA.

Posted by: Bob Bunnett at January 27, 2004 01:56 PM

Gary, I know what Moir was saying. I guess I was pointing out that it's not just our identity but more besides which is increasingly viewed as being tied up with that of America - at least in the press, perhaps in the popular and political mindset as well.

As for the French, no arguments with you there. But history tells us we were very nearly a *French* colony as well. Maybe something to be grateful for.

As to the date, your point taken as well and sometimes I do get tired of the Sydney and British centricity of al things Oz. But it's a bit like me sitting next to Aboriginal kids at school while our teachers used to tell us about 'terra nullus'. You'd look at each other and roll your eyes and think: who are you trying to kid? Sometimes laughing is a good option and energies better spent elsewhere.

*ducking for cover*

Posted by: saint at January 27, 2004 07:10 PM

You can't change it though because society has got used to having a long weekend in late January; the feeling is very much, right, this is the Australia day weekend, so we are winding up from the Xmas-New Year Holiday season.

In many places, people are only just getting back to work; 2004 really only starts now.

I went to the cricket. Like I do every year. For me, Australia Day is about going to the cricket.

Posted by: Scott at January 27, 2004 10:58 PM

God what a depressing business this Australia Day is.

A so-called independent nation still celebrating its national day when a bunch of sea-sick .. scurvy riddled foreigners rocked-up on a New South Wales beach.

Yes ..there is historical significance in this date .. but it's all about the New South Wales Colony.

Until Australians GET January 1 as the date .. there's no hope for a republic ... let alone getting that massive foreign image off the Oz flag.

Speaking of the flag ... people who parade around wrapped in the flag on Australia Day etc .. all we ever see is that bloody Union Jack.

My solution .. rip it out and put the Federation Star in its place.

Beatifully simple and truly Australian.

And don't get me started on that fucking green and gold.

Posted by: andrew at February 2, 2005 03:32 PM

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