Who stole the Australia Day long weekend? Once upon a time, not very long ago, it was the ultimate take time out, end of summer holidays three days! The image of Australia Day was beaches and barbies maybe (but not with a national prescribed meat, sponsored by advertisers), symbolising shrugging off summer sloth! And it was taken lightly, with some mixture of pleasure and piss taking about the occasion. A radio broadcast last week of some past material included satiric games with language and concept of what being an Aussie was about. There were a few public functions, maybe some citizenship ceremonies but mostly it was a holiday long weekend.

All that seems to have been lost! We now have a plethora of official functions and an implicit pressure that being a good citizen should include attending at least some local function. There has been at least a week of politicians making Australian day related speeches, a Royal visit and a wind up through state heats to the selection of Australian of the Year. Dick Smith said in 1986, when he won, he was just rung up and told about it, when the selection was over. Now it’s a big public event in multiple stages. There are also Australia Day local Ambassadors in their myriads, appointed to go to local celebrations to deliver an appropriate speech to locals, mayors and dignitaries.

I must confess that I was nearly one of these ambassadors this year. I was approached a couple of years ago and then the following year. I agreed to do it this time, with a sense that maybe I should be prepared to thank Australia for taking me in 1948 as a refugee from Hitler and Europe. However, my wish to give back was truncated by the formal expectations and commercial sponsorship.

I resigned when I realised that I was assigned to talk to people in a very upmarket locality under conditions I found problematic. My main problem was the paragraph headed ‘Recognition of Woolworths’ which suggested we should appreciate their ‘generous support’ without which there would not be ‘the benefit and opportunity’ of the ambassador program. I decided that I couldn’t give such official acknowledgements to a company that did this for its commercial benefits. And I was concerned that we were asked to not make comments that were political or biased, whatever that means.

So I resigned which surprised of the local organisers who saw nothing odd in the local Woollies manager joining the Ambassador on the platform. Why do we need commercial sponsorship for our national day? Local donations of snags for barbies maybe, but national sponsorship of official functions by a major self interested corporate seems to me to be too symbolic of what the day has become! While there are lots of mentions of Indigenous acknowledgement and recognising diversity, in the official guff, the catalogues of our major supermarkets flog T shits with dodgy use of national symbols and lots and lots of booze.

It is this misuse of symbols, mixed with excessive patriotism that is making me anxious about what this holiday has become. It seems to have started shortly after the Bicentennial but has escalated into an ever more problematic symbol of the splintering of identities. How did we manage to change this holiday into a celebration of something that we used to think was a bit naff?

Five years ago that Cronulla riots became a new benchmarks of a particular type of nationalistic thuggery. The flag is everywhere! This is not local developed change but imitates the USA, which is always flying flags and has a flag day! I object to flags on cars, on faces, on T shirts on towels and probably on condoms! The Cronulla pictures should warn us that such misuse of symbols is both tasteless and dangerous as it allows for the type of mindless mob rule that feeds into totalitarianism.

Nationalism and patriotism have their place in our histories and present but should not ever be used as rallying points for including and excluding groups on the basis of tacky assumptions of loyalty and commonalities. I can appreciate living in Australia without a need to indulge in hyperbole. Concepts like ‘Australian’ values are hard to define, as most seem to be what we would expect in any reasonably civilised community.

The one area that once seemed to be typically Australian, our inclination to not to take ourselves too seriously, is not often seen. This type of ‘deadly’ humour I think owes some of its uniqueness to what we learned from Aboriginal humour, but we often ignore that possibility. However the piss taking, self deprecation seems to be losing out to much more pompous nationalism, and fulminating against critical views. Like our egalitarian dream, it seems to be becoming more mythical as materialism and individualism rules.

Maybe the politicians have unleashed a streak of mindlessness by reiterating scare tactics about boat people and others. Maybe they have convinced many that it is both OK and easier to go with the mob than think from ourselves. But that is a scary possibility, and I don’t like it. So I think withdrawing as ambassador was the right thing to do because it would feel wrong. I don’t think what I am saying here would have gone down well with the burghers of Mosman and the Woollies version of Australia that promotes grog and flags to its cash registers’ content. We need to reclaim the weekend from both nasty nationalism and commercialisation.