Of the many striking aspects of yesterday’s official Day of Mourning service to commemorate the victims of Victoria’s bushfires, none was more powerful and paradoxical than Joy Murphy’s eloquent welcome to country. A descendant of Wurundjeri people and resident of the region that takes in Healesville, Murphy’s heartfelt and moving tribute was expressed in terms of being “deeply sorry” for the losses suffered by the fire victims. She told them, “you have a special place in our hearts” and promised “we will be there when you need us”. She also referred pointedly to the fire regimes that were an integral part of Aboriginal people’s customary practice.

With the fires overshadowing the 12 month anniversary of the apology to the stolen generations, there was something profoundly incongruent in the sight of this highly dignified middle aged Aboriginal woman extending empathic sadness, sympathy and enacting her duty to care for non-Aboriginal Australians on her country.

Beyond the unimaginable horror experienced by those who survived the fires, there is no question that millions across the country have been deeply shocked and traumatised by the events we have experienced vicariously over the past fortnight. There is something deeply psychologically challenging in the kind of mediated intimacy we experience when we watch images such as these on television: TV brings us very close but simultaneously keeps us distant from what we see. At times this kind of experience can lead to a particular kind of voyeurism, a will to connect ourselves directly to the emotional intensity depicted on our TV screens, with distasteful repercussions, described so appositely by Peter Chambers in Crikey last week.

As we watch the TV coverage we are simultaneously swept up in a particular kind of sense-making exercise, in this case, a continual rehearsing, chant-like, of the markers of our nation’s mythical identity, supposedly forged in passionate engagement with the “beauty and terror” of the Australian bush, a mythology that calls out deep and complex sentiments in many regardless of how far removed the images are from our urban experience. And as we cannot connect directly with those involved we have to deal with the emotional fallout of what we experience in other ways, by donating money, by sending goods, by talking to friends and family, watching more television, reflecting in our own private ways.

So a national day of mourning works at multiple levels — while it is an opportunity for the nation to perform for those who have lived through the fires, beyond this it is a chance for the nation to perform itself, to articulate and reaffirm the principles that underpin our Australian-ness. And we do this over the same televised distance that structures our experience of the bushfires.

The resounding message conveyed at Sunday’s service was, unsurprisingly, “we are one”. From the Queen, and Princess Anne who flew to Australia especially to represent her at the service, to state and federal opposition and government leaders, from the Governor General to the local mayor, across the leaders of all faith communities, this was a powerful performance of harmonious multicultural Australia, of “all of us” standing shoulder to shoulder in the face of an unprecedented “natural” tragedy.

As I watched this service I grew more and more uneasy. As each significant personality rose to address the congregation the messages articulated were the same, none diverted from the script: in the words of Malcolm Turnbull who received spontaneous applause: “we love you, we will stand by you, whatever it takes”.

PM Rudd repeated his pledge to rebuild these communities “brick by brick” and declared that where governments of the past had failed, this time would be different, “let us resolve not to fail these communities.”

Here was a moment of deja vu: “Let us seize the day”, he had similarly urged the nation as he apologised to the Stolen Generations on 13 February 2008.

“Let it not become a moment of mere sentimental reflection. Let us take it with both hands and allow this day, this day of national reconciliation to become one of those rare moments in which we might just be able to transform the way in which the nation thinks about itself.”

Spoken in the intensity of the media moment, all of this compassion floats free of specific circumstances and begs the question for whom is this being performed? That so many buses charted to bring fire survivors to satellite-linked viewing locations across regional Victoria remained empty suggests that those directly affected looked to more localised and private modes of grieving. It is principally the rest of us, caught up in the spectacle of the events who turn to more spectacle for emotional release and closure.

“The worst of nature, the best of humanity” — this stark delineation has been drawn again and again by the Prime Minister over the past fortnight, words that assure us this was a “natural” disaster, one requiring no critical reflection, but rather a simple reassertion of our “ancient values”.

If we affirm this interpretation then there is no need to look beyond the spectacle to pose a further set of questions: what if there is something in the way we have come to inhabit these places, and the policies and building codes that have encouraged us to do so that created the circumstances in which such a tragedy could occur? What if the constant affirmations of “strong communities” that will prevail deflect us from seeing a different reality where life for many is increasingly one of isolated individuals? And what of the prospect that there may be lessons to learn — including from those same Aboriginal people we call on to perform our nation’s essential cultural depth, who continue to live productively with fire — if we are to have any chance of averting similar tragedy in the future?

If we were harbouring any cynical illusions that this memorial service was simply political spin, two survivors of the fires are invited onto the stage to sing a rousing rendition of We are Australian. In that moment the local and the national are brought together and fused, we recognise them as being one and the same (but where, I wondered, were the CFA?).

Memorial services, public ceremonies, statements of collective care and compassion are extremely important events across cultures and throughout history. They help people deal with grief and establish the emotional basis for moving forward after devastating crises. But if they are to have any substantive connection to the reality of people’s lives they will need to transcend the increasingly hollow sounding affirmations so often repeated over the past fortnight.

A truly courageous nation would surely pause in the wake of such a disaster and the deep uncertainty it creates to undertake some hard thinking. Rather than insisting that all we need do is look back on our proud heritage and forge ever onwards, perhaps we should be asking: do we have the courage and creative spirit to face the prospect of changing the way we live?

Peter Fray

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