There is, despite the protests, a definite logic to January 26 being our national day. What better way to celebrate a society built on invasion, dispossession and occupation, which doesn’t even formally recognise its prior inhabitants, let alone have a treaty with them, than the day on which the primary white invasion of the continent commenced?
Australia is a settler colonial society, like the United States, Canada and New Zealand. Its foundational myths — white settlement, Anzac Day — are bound up with British imperialism. Its modern foreign policy, via Vietnam, Iraq and our continuing military role in the Middle East, is bound up with US imperialism. There is no more appropriate date to “celebrate” Australia than on the one day that, above all else, signifies the imperialist nature of modern Australia.
Of course, just not quite “appropriate” in the way most of the people celebrating believe.
But Australia Day 2017 is the most problematic “national day” for many years, being the first since the last year’s federal election brought the fascist One Nation, with its deep hostility toward indigenous Australians and immigrants, return to politics. Coming elections in Queensland and Western Australia look set to deliver further success to that party despite the fact that it is already fragmenting federally.
Many local councils, in a peculiar way, compound the resonance of imperialism by holding citizenship ceremonies on Australia Day, commemorating a founding act of colonialism by welcoming yet more people to Australia. Ironically, that act of welcoming offends a significant proportion of the electorate, the “fuck off we’re full” types likely to vote One Nation or another fascist party out of fierce resentment toward immigration — immigration of the demonised Other du jour (currently Muslims, previously “Asians”, before that “wogs”, “spicks”, etc) in particular, but immigration more generally as well. Not for nothing did Pauline Hanson demand an end to all immigration in her maiden speech in the Senate last year.
This points to the central tension of Australia Day, and why in 2017 it is more problematic than ever: Australia continues to be, indeed is more than at any time in a century, an immigrant nation. According to the ABS, well over a quarter of all Australians in 2015 were born overseas, the highest level since the 19th century. Another 20% of Australians have a parent born overseas; if you include Australians with a grandparent born overseas, first, second or third generation Australians make up the great bulk of the population.
The political resurgence of tribalism and open demonisation of those deemed Other might thus appear at first glance to denote a stress reaction to high levels of immigration. Supporters of One Nation, after all, tend to be old white men of the kind who have fared relatively poorly from globalisation and economic liberalisation in recent years, and recent immigrants make for a visible target for their otherwise ill-focused rage at modernity. But some of the most militantly tribal or anti-immigrant politicians are first or second generation Australians themselves — Tony Abbott, for example, was born overseas (and continues to believe a foreigner should be our head of of state, not an Australian). One Nation conspiracy theorist Malcolm Roberts was born overseas. Cory Bernardi is the son of migrants; a number of right-wing anti-Muslim Coalition MPs are either foreign-born or the children of migrants themselves. The phenomenon of drawbridge migrants is well known, but it produces the unusual result of first or second generation Australians lecturing those of us of much longer local heritage about “Australian values”, how Muslim Australians — many of whom have been here longer than them — should be treated as second-class citizens, and whom we should be keeping out.
This year’s Australia Day is still more problematic because the Coalition continues to seek to, in effect, weaponise citizenship. The exploitation of nationalism by the right is a well-established tradition; while the left can do xenophobia as well as anyone — witness Bill Shorten’s notorious Adelaide speech about submarine building, or the union movement’s disgusting, racist campaign against the privatisation of NSW electricity assets– it has mixed views about nationalism (except if it would be inconvenient for the strategic interests of the United States, in which case separatism for any half-arsed unviable micro-state is enthusiastically endorsed). That exploitation has only increased as economic liberalism has spread across the West, with chest-beating, flag bikini-wearing nationalism encouraged as other communitarian values have been obliterated.
But in recent years citizenship itself has become a tool of this program, first in John Howard’s 1950s-style nostalgia-based citizenship test and now, under the current government, as a weapon in the relentless war against the Other, with dual nationals threatened with losing their citizenship for such grand crimes as vandalising Commonwealth property. “We need to see whether people are abiding by Australian laws,” Immigration Minister Peter Dutton recently warned in a threat to further curtail citizenship, “whether they are educating their children, if they are able-bodied and of working age, whether or not they are engaged in work or whether they have had a long period of time on welfare”.
So, if you’re not “able-bodied”, forget about citizenship, apparently. Should cut NDIS costs, eh Peter?
There’s a more banal dimension to this political use of citizenship: governments have long been anxious to regulate citizenship ceremonies. There’s a 64-page government “code” which, in its current form, was first developed in 2011 that dictates how citizenship ceremonies are to be “formal and meaningful occasions conducted with dignity, respect and due ceremony. They should be designed to impress upon candidates the responsibilities and privileges of Australian citizenship” (and thank goodness it gets the order right – responsibilities first, privileges — whatever they are — second). In particular, local councils are warned not to schedule ceremonies on parliamentary sitting days, which will prevent politicians from attending. But the growing focus on citizenship has taken this further, with the current government trying to ban Fremantle Council from holding a citizenship ceremony on January 28 instead of the offensive January 26.
While the debate about changing the date of “Australia Day” grows each year, often overlooked is that the date itself has no particular historical resonance for commemoration. January 26 was only settled upon across the country in the 1930s and many states were still not bothering to observe the actual holiday on the date itself in the 1980s — it was the Greiner government in NSW that ordered Australia Day should be celebrated in that state on January 26, rather than the nearest convenient Monday. But in 1915, July 30 was Australia Day; May 24 (previously Empire Day) and April 29 have also been proffered at various points. Indeed, the treatment of Australia Day as anything more than a public holiday marking the end of the summer break was due to politicians trying to whip up nationalistic fervour in the shadows of the Bicentennial, that quintessentially ’80s moment of Bob Hawke, bad logo design and terrible jingles.
As the attack on Fremantle Council shows, attempting to change or question the date of our national day, to recognise that it is the worst, most offensive possible date to our indigenous communities, is to wrestle with politicians, and mainly right-wing politicians, over the use of nationalism for political purposes. It is an attempt to disrupt a carefully cultivated agenda of tribal antipathy toward the Other, however contradictory that may be in Australia. A nation of immigrants, where most of us are third generation or less, where migration has played a critical role in both the country’s development and its ongoing economic growth, Australia can’t help but always be somewhat Other itself, to constantly, if partly, be exactly what it fears the most — a fitting outcome for a settler colonialist society that has never come to terms with its imperialist past.