I am writing from North East Arnhem land, in a community called Gapuwiak – about eight hundred kilometers east of Darwin. It’s hot and humid and everything is covered in red dust. I’m here as a volunteer working with Indigenous kids and teenagers during the school break season.
In the cooler evenings after work, or on my days off, I am working with the ‘Between the Devil and the Deep Blue Sea’ film team. The film is an incredible 52 minute documentary which tells the stories of asylum seekers who made the impossible decision to become ‘boat people’. On February 5th we launch the National Film Tour – which will see the film screened in 30 major cities around the country.
It is in this context that I’m sitting on the porch with the geckos and mozzies for company, and I am thinking about what Australia Day means in this wonderfully diverse melting pot of cultures which we call ‘Australia’.
Australia has a long, complicated and rich Indigenous history that once saw Australia as a conglomerate of hundreds of nations, peoples and languages who celebrated their strong culture with ceremony, stories, art and dance.
More often than not, Australia is described as a young country with only a 215 year-long history of British settlement, and an even shorter history of developing its own national identity. We tend to prefer this story of pioneering settlers and laboring on the land, to the story of dispossession and racism which caused the First People of Australia such enormous loss.
More recently still, Australia has adopted the label “multicultural”. We’ve started using, and many of us celebrating, words such as “reconciliation” and “diversity” and slowly moving towards an identity that better represents the fluid, changing and increasingly varied population of people that make up this country.
But we’re not there yet.
Many, including myself, would argue that whilst Indigenous Australians remain amongst Australia’s poorest and are so grossly overrepresented in our criminal justice system; and whilst both major parties fail to come up with a refugee policy that does not blatantly breach International Human Rights Law – conversations about who we are and what we value, remain not only relevant, but essential to making Australia a country worthy of our pride.
The problem I have, is that on the 26th of January the importance and complexity of thinking about what it means to be Australian seems to suffer the same fate as the crumpled VB cans and cigarette butts.
Perhaps it’s the excitement of a long weekend, boozy barbies and adorning every available surface with Australian flags that leads to this cognitive shut down.
It’s not just the “go back to where you came from”, “ban the burqa” and “stop the boats” bumper stickers that are the problem (though they are abhorrent). And, it’s not the sudden surge of patriotism, green and gold zinc and Australian flag boardies that does my head in. It is the non-negotiability of “Aussie pride” and “being a good Australian” that I find difficult to swallow.
We like diversity when we are hankering after tacos or craving Chinese take out. But, on Australia day, if you’re not eating snags off the barbie with a tinnie in hand – you’re un-Australian.
We like diversity when we’re treated in hospital by an Indian doctor or when we are given legal advice by an Israeli lawyer; but if on Australia Day you want to fly the flag of your home country alongside Australia’s? You’re un-Australian.
I’m simplifying. But that’s what Australia Day does – it simplifies.
Perhaps, the 26th of January (or any other day, if the call of many Indigenous Australians to change the date is heeded) could serve a more productive purpose. Of course it is important to celebrate the communities we are a part of, the neighbourhoods we live in and the absolute good fortune we have to live in a war-free country with free education and health care. I have benefited enormously from living in Australia.
However, many Australians and many people who come to Australia looking for some of the basic human rights that we are afforded here; are not afforded the same good fortune as I am. Perhaps the 26th of January could be a day where we take a moment to challenge the old rhetoric of “Australian” and “un-Australian”; and take a moment to consider what this country could be if the complexity of our history and some of the challenges of our diversity were discussed openly and with respect; instead of being swept under the (metaphorical) Australian flag.