Why we need an Australia Day

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At the age of six years, six months and 10 days, I landed in Australia. It was September 1973. I was 3′ 7″ tall and I didn’t understand why it was raining in the “Sunny Country.” I was pretty sure that my smallpox and cholera vaccinations, along with the two-day flight didn’t make me as lucky to be arriving as I was supposed to be.

I was terrified of bugs, and eternally grateful to the big boy who taught me the secret snake-repelling song and dance. I never quite got over my distrust of the girl who tried to share her homemade passionfruit cordial. Were they really seeds or were they bugs?

As a child, Australia Day didn’t have much impact on me. As a proud Sandgroper (West Australian), I was busy commemorating the foundation of the Swan River Colony, and that Mrs Helena Dance was the first person to swing an axe at the ceremonial tree felling. And that WA was the second state to grant women the vote, after South Australia.

A patriotic poem found on the back of a postcard, circa 1919. Photo: State Library of Victoria

My local focus isn’t surprising. In Australia’s early life, each state was a separate colony. Literally an independent semi-self-governing country type of situation, with its own stamps and taxes. Despite Federation, we still think state first.

Now that I’m a Gum Sucker (Victorian) I participate in the ritual rivalry with Crow Eaters (South Australians) and Cockroaches (New South Wales). Cockroaches routinely contest Banana Benders (Queenslanders). Taswegians compete with themselves (North v South), while the Top Enders (Northern Territorians) ignore everyone else and hunt crocodiles. And as for the Sandgropers? They have never forgiven the rest of the country for nagging them to join the Federation.

Thank goodness the State of Origin football and Sheffield Shield cricket allow us to work it out amicably. Not to mention so many beers that you can hedge both sides of your bet and a pergola too. And we can unite as a country for some good-natured sporting combat with other nations of the former British Commonwealth.

On 22 August 1985, pursuant to section 13 of the Australian Citizenship Act 1948, I became a citizen of the Commonwealth of Australia. It was an unassuming and uneventful Thursday. My family was so excited about becoming Australians that we went to the ceremony, publicly swore our allegiance, and came straight home for tea. Just like usual, because Australia Day and Australian-ness still wasn’t a thing.

But becoming an Australian citizen gave you a convenient hierarchy of allegiance:
1. Australia.
2. State.
3. Religious, occupational, or educational affiliation.
4. Country of birth.

It was like a DISC or Myers-Briggs personality evaluation. It somehow explained everything about you, if only you could figure out what it was.

Two boys dressed as Aussie diggers during WWII. Photo: State Library of Victoria

Oddly enough it wasn’t until the 1990s while working in the United Kingdom that I gave Australia Day any thought. And that was only because an American (of all people) wished me “Happy Australia Day” and asked me how I was celebrating. Which is kind of funny, because the National Australia Day Committee (now Council) was established in 1979 with the vision of overcoming our statehood to make Australia Day a truly national celebration. They call it a day to “celebrate what’s great about Australia and being Australian. It’s the day to reflect on what we have achieved and what we can be proud of in our great nation. It’s the day for us to re-commit to making Australia an even better place for the future.”

All very well in theory, but lately it seems as though we don’t know what it is to be Australian. We’re much better at defining who we are by excluding those who are “un-Australian.”

Back then we were proud of our cultural distinctiveness. We lived in Australian designed houses, sat on Australian-manufactured furniture, planted Australian natives in our gardens, and drove Australian-made cars. We were proud of our laconic larrikin nature. Regardless of who we were and where we lived, we all secretly thought of ourselves as Banjo Paterson-esque Aussie bushmen.

We learned what it meant to be Australian while watching The Sullivans. We saw ourselves in action on Hey Hey It’s Saturday, and heard it in our music on Countdown. When we went to the pictures, we saw our indomitable spirit in Mad Max and mateship in Gallipoli. We heard the siren call of the bush in Crocodile Dundee and of course The Man from Snowy River.

It was all about Australians being Australian. Now we are citizens of the global community, our distinctiveness overwritten by a steady diet of cheap American tv shows, blockbuster movies and popular music. Now and again you might see an Australian character with some weird accent that comes via South Africa (dude). But it isn’t us. It’s a stereotypical caricature. Is it any wonder we don’t know who we are anymore?

The kangaroo and the emu cut a familiar figure on our nation’s Coat of Arms. Picture: It’s an Honour

There is no doubt in my mind that we need an Australia Day. But first, we need a shared identity we can all be proud of, because it must be a day celebrating our uniqueness. Otherwise, it’s not about us at all.

We don’t have a significant nation-building event like a Declaration of Independence or the storming of the Bastille. But we do have an enormous body of literature celebrating all things Australian. It explains where we came from, created our shared language, and remains the source we draw against for identification.

Perhaps a better date rises from the birthdates of those who have created our national stories:

  • 17 February: romantic poet Andrew “Banjo” Paterson, author of Waltzing Matilda, The Man from Snowy River, and Clancy of the Overflow.
  • 17 June: realist poet Henry Lawson, author of The Drover’s Wife and one-time face of the $10 note.
  • 1 July: Dorothea Mackellar, (OBE) author of the poem My Country from which almost everyone knows “I love a sunburnt country…”
  • 7 September: Clarence (CJ) Dennis, author of The Sentimental Bloke who was commemorated as Australia’s Robert Burns.
  • 28 September: David Unaipon, our first published Aboriginal author and face of the $50 note.

Based in Melbourne, Australia, writer and philosopher Alexandria Blaelock advocates embracing precious things like beauty, friendship and wisdom. Visit her website here or connect with her on Twitter, Facebook, Instagram or Goodreads.