It is two weeks before Australia Day: a man on a bus yells “go back to your own country!” He is told to leave the bus, which is heading back from Bondi Beach. Other passengers quieten, but as the doors hiss closed and the man, having hurled his abuse, stumbles on his way. Conversations are resumed and everything continues as though nothing has happened.
It is hard to forget that moment as the nation’s capital celebrates the anniversary of English settlement in Australia on January 26th. Led by Captain Arthur Philip, later a Governor over the first penal colony in the country, the so-called First Fleet of eleven ships dropped anchor in Port Jackson in 1788 and raised the Union Flag on the 26th of January. Well over three hundred years later, the occasion is being celebrated with firework displays, live acts, and, in Canberra’s case, a barbeque breakfast which will offer true “Aussie tucker”, as the Australian Capital Territory events page promises. A popular occasion, it is seen as a national celebration of everything Australian, including the country’s high amount of multiculturalism.
Australians ARE disputing on what it means to be “Australian”
This does not mean that everyone shares the same sentiments about the event, however. Just as recent events in the UK have led to questions over what it means to be truly “British” – especially in terms of immigration and refugees – so too are Australians disputing on what it means to be “Australian”. From the casual racism witnessed on the bus in Sydney, to the rise of the popularity of the One Nation party (think UKIP but Aussie), it seems that not everyone shares the sentiment that multiculturalism holds a place in the country, or even on Australia Day. One prominent instance of this in the past few weeks has been a row over a poster, created for the event, which shows two Muslim girls in hijabs waving Australian flags. This was met with the argument that it was not in-keeping with Australian values, leading to calls for them to be taken down and, within the last twenty-four hours, a bomb threat to the Canberra Theatre for showing the image.
Not only have right-wingers attacked the poster, but so have those on the opposite end of the political spectrum – for very different reasons. In one article shared by an activist friend, a woman explained that whilst the motives for the poster were good and should be praised, the discourse over whether it should exist drew too much attention away from main debate around Australia Day: whether it should be celebrated at all.
For the Indigenous peoples of the nation, the day that the First Fleet came to Australia heralded the start of a concentrated campaign to take their land and wipe out both them and their culture. There were many methods that helped erase whole of the five hundred indigenous peoples who lived in Australia before the British settlers arrived: influence of Christian missionaries, exterminations through poisoning, taking so-called “half-caste” children and raising them as white, and forcing of peoples into settlements are some examples. Government and settler attitudes towards the Indigenous peoples fluctuated between viewing them as parasites without useful skills that needed to be eradicated through violence or peaceful assimilation, to being helpless creatures that needed the protection of Europeans to exist. Whilst policy and structures which acted on these views had begun to be dismantled by the 1930s, remnants of the oppression of Indigenous peoples remain. Despite it being a sacred religious site for the Anangu people, the climb over Uluru, formerly known as Ayers Rock, remains open, continuing its desecration. Moreover, Indigenous peoples are still only recognised under the flora and fauna section of the Australian Constitution, with Liberals blocking attempts to make any change to a document that continues to imply a whole ethnicity’s sub-humanity.
self-definition by a national identity with multiple meanings is not an issue that will be resolved soon
In light of this, it is no wonder that many do not see Australia Day as a cause for celebration if it does not consider all Australians. Termed as Invasion Day by activists, the event is marked by widespread protest, including a march in Sydney. One town, Fremantle, has cancelled its Australia Day celebrations in favour of a more inclusive event, resulting in a local backlash with the Liberal MP, Ben Morton, claiming that the council has overreached itself and should not take part in national debates, whilst encouraging locals to take part in traditional festivities anyway. There is also discord at a higher political level, especially with in the Liberals, over whether to change the date to March the first – the anniversary of the handover of colonial powers to the first Commonwealth government in 1901 – due to these ethical tensions. Former cabinet minister Ian Macfarlane has embraced this proposed change, explaining that the deciding factor for him was considering whether his Scottish ancestors would have liked a UK day set on a historic date when the Vikings invaded, correlating the invasion and the resultant violence to Indigenous experience. However, Deputy Prime Minister Barnaby Joyce has dismissed the idea, calling those who advocated it “miserable” and “gutless”, and wishing they would just “crawl under a rock”.
And then, there is the Love Lamb commercial. Criticised by some as eroding Australian heritage by not mentioning Australia Day at all, and others for its blasé approach to historical genocide, it depicts an Indigenous family welcoming more and more shiploads of people from history to their beach barbeque. At the end, the arrival of the “boat people” – a slang term for refugees from Syria and other war-torn countries – leads a woman to question: “Wait, aren’t we all boat people?” Whilst this is one take on what it is to be “Australian” – multicultural, united, and respectful – it is by no means the sole version; and like the UK, as my experience on the bus proved, self-definition by a national identity with multiple meanings is not an issue that will be resolved soon.