A thoughtful piece by Don Aitkin about the purpose of Australia Day
Don Aitkin: What is Australia Day for?
As Australia Day approached I kept getting new messages about what it was about. One was that it would cause the largest number of claimed ‘sickies’ every recorded by Australian employers on Monday, because the holiday fell on Tuesday. Another was that I would show myself as a true Australian by having a barbecue in the backyard, having bought the right tools from a hardware store. Another said I should be eating lamb on Australia Day. Yet another, from Adam Gilchrist, a former Australian of the Year, was that I could do almost anything (I think), as long as I stopped to think about what it meant to be an Australian.
I do think about that matter quite a lot, and wrote about it, in the context of Anzac day, three years ago. Let’s start with the issue of having such a day at all. It is a tribal festivity, one where we remember that we are part of a tribe. I’m not much into tribal stuff myself, and can’t stand the ‘Aussie, Aussie, Aussie, oi, oi, oi!’ chant. But every nation, so far as I know, has such a celebration. It is a time where we see (and say) that we are distinctive. We are ‘us’. In our case, being a large island continent (not forgetting Tasmania) makes that sense perhaps sharper than might be the case elsewhere. Perhaps not. Maybe one’s sense of national identity is sharper if there are foreigners on several borders, as with Switzerland.
Australia Day is a time of celebration. What are we celebrating? Two distinct though inter-connected matters. The first is the reality of contemporary Australia, a rich, safe, well-connected, stable, aspirant democracy that has few problems in comparison to most other nations. Lots of people want to come here, and indeed our population grows steadily as we admit each year about as many immigrants as the net increase of native births over native deaths.
It is not that we lack problems. Australian society could be improved in many diverse ways. But here we need to recognise that intending and actual immigrants see our country as enormously better than where they are coming from. They are prepared to work hard and build a place for themselves, learn the new language, and shape the future of their children who, they hope, will become successful in their chosen walk of life. People have been doing this for two hundred years, since the colony of New South Wales began to open its doors to free settlers.
Our ancestors and ourselves have built a nation to be proud of, and on a day like Australia Day we can take pride in our achievements and those of our parents, grandparents and so on. Yes, there’s been some luck in it. Australia proved not to have an inland river system like that of the USA, but did have a lot of useful land, and underneath that land were useful minerals. We are still exploiting them, and will go on doing that for a long time to come. Australia was dealt some handy cards. And we are a hard-working lot ourselves.
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