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 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?