Australia Day

Australia Day, as January 26, is dead. Gone. Already over. It will keep walking around for a few years, maybe a decade or so, but there will eventually be another national day. What day that will be? God knows. But it will have to be a day that marks something of both settler and Indigenous importance. Maybe “1967 Referendum Day”? “Mabo Day”? It might end up being plain old bloody Anzac Day, since Aboriginal soldiers served. They were shabbily treated then and after, but serve they did, a result which might actually be worse than January 26. The day Trevor Chappell bowled underarm? The anniversary of Khe Sanh’s release? Any of these.

Australia Day was gone as soon as it could start to be questioned by more than a small minority of the population. In 1938, Aboriginal activists, Communists and some radical Christians staged the first Day of Mourning on Australia Day. Such a marking came and went — as did regard for Australia Day itself — over the decades, returning to public attention as “Invasion Day” in the radical 1970s, and again on the Bicentennial in 1988. But it remained the preserve of Indigenous activists and the white radical left, overwhelmingly an inner-urban intelligentsia and related groupings.

Why has it suddenly become a live wire? Because, of course, the intelligentsia are no longer a marginal grouping, at the edge of an industrial economy. They are now the knowledge class, at the centre of a knowledge/culture economy. To operate that economy and society, they must be trained to think reflexively, to incessantly reshape their own work, life conditions, etc. When those capacities are turned towards the consideration of social life, the unquestioning transmission of tradition is interrupted. Everything is held up to scrutiny, against the claims of a liberal society: of equality of all peoples, of the right to live, and to flourish equally as human beings.

[Fuck off, we’re full (of contradictions): the discontents of Australia Day]

Once that has become general among the knowledge class, and once the knowledge class has ensured that it becomes general in the wider primary/secondary education system — amidst a world changed so that everyone lives surrounded by a mass culture emphasising equality, a cosmopolitan world — it’s all over red rover. At some point some things start to seem obvious to people, and their inherited absence absurd. At some point, for enough people, the idea that you celebrate the violent destruction of a life-world — the entire realm of being of a people — just became a ridiculous proposition, something one chokes on.

For decades, Australia Day, Empire Day, etc, were celebrations of one thing: the British race, and its expansion to world domination, as its right. After World War II, race identity was discredited, liberalism enthroned. The 1960s-1990s characterless Australia Day — beer, beach, BBQ — appears to have been a de facto cultural shift in that light. By the 2000s, Australia was no longer Anglo-dominated, so even the ghost of a race holiday had ceased to work. Howard, whose policies had ensured the snuffing-out of Anglo-Australia, tried to re-inscribe it with an ersatz Anglo-derived nationalism layered over the top.

The coda to this was the Cronulla white riots. In response, Rudd, adopting the “progressive patriotism” of Tim Soutphommasane, tried to engineer a content-free national pride focused on abstract values entirely — ending on the absurdity of an ad campaign asking the general public to design their own Australia Day, which pretty much blew the whole thing up. That opened the way for the current contestation, which has been given a powerful boost by the new global rebellion against white narratives and unquestioned authority.

[How the Australia Day culture war came to WA]

Conservatives trying to turn this into a culture war are helping hurry January 26 to extinction — because as soon as the contested nature is acknowledged, what remains of the day’s mystique has been wholly surrendered. If they were genuinely concerned about keeping Australia Day, they would retreat to a pluralist position, say that: ‘No one day can represent everyone in a modern society, and no one is obliged to mark it. We will mark it as a simple gesture to continuity, to the past of the present, to the struggles, triumphs, defeats, hopes and dreams of those who went before, to the world they made that we live in.’

That sort of release valve would probably save the day, drawing on Australian conservatism’s best friend: our nation’s deep residual apathy. Instead, whether out of nihilistic political calculus, or sheer stupidity, the right are fueling the progressive fire. Surely they realise by now this principle: in our era, where a proposed reform cuts with the grain of the liberal ideal of universal equality and rights — and makes a law or institution a simpler expression of that universality — it will begin as a progressive/knowledge class cause, and end up being taken up a mass belief. It is only when progressives try to institute changes that enforce their particularistic view as policy and law, that they get rebuffed. Thus, same-sex marriage triumphs, but Safe Schools doesn’t. Recognition and a treaty would get through, but a “Voice to Parliament” probably wouldn’t. Moving Australia Day will eventually come to be seen as a necessary act to live up to a modern liberal ideal. The more the right campaign against it, the sooner that will occur.

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Peter Fray
Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey
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