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Adelaide Advertiser, Adelaide  by Susan Johnson
21 Jan 2017
Weekend - page 20 - 1807 words - ID 716269494 - Photo: Yes - Type: News Item - Size: 1301.00cm2

Australians have become more like Americans in their willingness to wave the flag, but is January 26 the right day to be celebrating the nation's foundation?

Not so long ago, a lot of Australians were sniffy about Americans and their penchant for fevered patriotism - all that hand over heart stuff and pledging allegiance to the flag, liberty and justice. Australians held their country close but we didn't need such sentimental displays of nationalism.

So what happened? How did we go from putting a snag on the barbie on Australia Day to tattooing our skin with the stars of the Southern Cross, from making jokes about American flag-waving to draping ourselves in the Aussie colours and attaching tacky plastic flags to car windows?

The fact is, Australia's been growing more and more flag-waving and more feverishly patriotic every passing year. Where once Australia Day was just an excuse for a public holiday to watch the cricket or have a party with friends while listening to Triple J's Hottest 100, it's become a far more "Americanised" version of national pride.

According to University of Queensland Associate Professor in Australian History Martin Crotty, Australia Day now rivals Anzac Day as the symbolic bearer of the country's supposed national characteristics -namely equality, mateship and sacrifice.

"The rise of Anzac Day and Australia Day are connected," he says. "Anzac Day has become the de facto national day, and Australia Day's a close second. We like telling stories to ourselves about how wonderful we are and Australia Day has ridden in on the coat tails of Anzac Day."

According to Dr Elizabeth Kwan, author of Flag and Nation: Australians and Their National Flags since 1901, and who wrote a history of Australia Day for the National Australia Day Council, the tradition of marking January 26 - the day in 1788 when Captain Arthur Phillips sailed the First Fleet into Sydney Cove - is a relatively recent one.

Originally referred to in New South Wales as Foundation Day or First Landing Day, it wasn't until 30 years after the First Fleet arrived - in 1818 - that governor Lachlan Macquarie declared the day a public holiday (but only for Sydney).

In 1988, with the Bicentennial First Fleet re-enactment in Sydney Harbour, every state and territory agreed to celebrate Australia Day on January 26 itself, rather than with a long weekend. This was the year indigenous Australians renamed Australia Day "Invasion Day" and from 1992 Survival Day Concerts were held. But it wasn't until 1994 - under the Paul Keating Labor government - that the official celebration of Australia Day on the actual date of January 26 began.

By 2001 and the centenary of federation, then Liberal prime minister John Howard's campaign of encouraging Australian patriotic fervour was flourishing. "Show The Flag on Australia's Day" promoted Howard's particular brand of nationalism. "When you come to this country, you become Australian," he said.

Howard's term in office (from 1996 to 2007) coincided with the rise in nationalistic fervour. Crotty experienced this momentum personally: "I'm a migrant myself (from New Zealand). I actually arrived here on Australia Day 1994 and I can tell you no one gave a bugger about it then. I've seen the feeling of nationalism grow exponentially over the last 22 years."

He argues that the rise in patriotism under Howard was not accidental: "There (was) a general resistance to refugees and a very self-confident celebration of Australian nationalism under John Howard's prime ministership, he gave it a real boost."

Crotty says a reaction against multiculturalism and globalisation was also encouraged by external things such as the September 11 attacks, which resulted in Australia moving ever closer to American principles of protecting cherished freedoms, which Howard saw as also representing core Australian values.

It was during these years that Howard made speeches that might have been straight from the mouth of an American president, such as one in 2001 in which he spoke of ours not being "a tradition of brutality or triumphalism, it is a tradition of being willing to sacrifice all to do the right thing in the cause of freedom".

Kwan says market research surveys charting Australians' growing awareness of Australia Day went from 75.2 per cent in 1980 to 99.6 per cent by 2007, which marked the end of Howard's time in office.

However, in the decade since his prime ministership, debate around Australia Day -whether it should be celebrated at all or whether the date should be changed to another date altogether - has not faded, but only grown more heated.

A growing social media #changethedate campaign is gaining momentum and last year a campaign by an independent Schwartz Media-owned publication encouraged a boycott of Australia Day until the date was changed to one "that does not mark a dispossession of land". Several Australian organisations signed up, including Melbourne design company Floate, whose staff agreed to come into work on the holiday for a day in lieu.

The independent website New Matilda, owned by Cordell Media Pty Ltd, got in on the act too, producing Change The Date pilsner beer for purchase through the Adelaide-based Sparkke Change Brewing Company in a crowd sourcing scheme through Pozible. Publisher and editor Chris Graham wrote that Australians "still, apparently, expect Aboriginal people to celebrate a day that marks their dispossession and slaughter. Sparkke is hoping to 'spark' a big discussion in the lead-up to January 26 about the appropriateness of the date".

Last year, too, the ABC's youth radio station Triple J came under pressure to move its iconic Hottest 100 countdown away from Australia Day. A popular event at that station since 1989, senior management considered changing the date but a statement released late last year announced that while the January 26, 2017, Hottest 100 would go ahead as usual, the situation was "under review".

"Triple J is heavily involved in the growing dialogue around Indigenous recognition and perspectives on 26 January. This is really important to us. We will continue to talk to Indigenous communities, artists and our audience about the date for the Hottest 100 in future years," the statement read.

Australia's troubled Indigenous history is also what inspired Fremantle City Council's failed attempt to move its Australia Day citizenship ceremony (where migrants are awarded their citizenships by the Mayor) away from January 26 to what it refers to as a more "culturally inclusive" event called "One Day in Fremantle" on January 28.

Last August, Fremantle Mayor Brad Pettitt announced that for Aboriginal Australians, January 26 is "a day of sadness and dispossession". He was proud to see his council support change and said he hoped to see "a wave of change across the nation that will see Australia Day fundamentally shift to a more inclusive and respectful approach".

And that's when the proverbial hit the fan.

West Australian Liberal MP Ben Morton alerted the Turnbull Government about Fremantle Council's decision to change the date, calling it "a disgrace".

In turn, Assistant Minister for Immigration Alex Hawke issued a statement saying the Government took "a very dim view of Fremantle council's decision to cancel their Australia Day events on political grounds".

Even the Fremantle Chamber of Commerce got involved, roundly criticising the council's decision.

Finally the Prime Minister himself couldn't ignore the brouhaha any longer: in an interview with Melbourne radio station 3AW, Malcolm Turnbull acknowledged there was "controversy" about the date, but said, "Let's stick with Australia Day on the 26th".

And the result? The Fremantle Council performed a spectacular political backflip, issuing a statement in late December declaring that while the feedback from new citizens was that they would be happy to be conferred citizenship at the "One Day" event, the Federal Government "did not support" a ceremony on this date. Therefore, it said, "the City will write to all new citizens to inform them of the option of attending the ceremony on 26 January, or the following ceremony on 14 March, 2017".

The University of Queensland's Dr Melissa Harper, whose research specialities include Australian cultural history and national identity, argues that much of the anxiety around Australia Day comes about because it taps into confusion about what it means to be Australian.

"I think there's still a concern about who we are," she says. "Questions about moving the date or whether Australia Day should be celebrated at all feeds into an anxiety some people have about diversity in Australia. I don't think there's widespread popular support for changing the date at this point. I can't see it happening anytime soon."

The Federal Minister for Immigration and Border Protection Peter Dutton agrees. In a statement he says he believes Australia Day is "a day of celebration for all of us. It's not a political day and it shouldn't be hijacked for other purposes. It's a day on which many people formally take up Australian citizenship, which is great for our future".

Perhaps surprisingly, the increasingly popular Australian Republican Movement, chaired by journalist and author Peter FitzSimons, doesn't feel strongly either way on the matter. He says he's happy to wait until Australia has either Republic Day or Independence Day, which he supposes will be celebrated on the anniversary of any successful referendum.

"That'll be the day we show the world and ourselves we can stand on our own two feet 'neath the Southern Cross - look Mum, no hands! - and that we don't need English overseeing!" FitzSimons says.

For many Indigenous Australians, however, there's no getting around the unpalatable fact that January 26, 1788, marks an ending.

Award-winning Indigenous author Melissa Lucashenko (recently announced as the winner of the prestigious Copyright Agency Author Fellowship) says that it's fine to celebrate Australia Day as "soon as the Jewish community starts celebrating Hitler's birthday and just as soon as Ireland throws a big potato famine party".

She argues that while history is important, it's also about today and the consequences of that history. "People in the Kimberley have the highest recorded suicide rate on the planet - not just in Australia, in the world. It's about our children being shackled and hooded (at the Northern Territory's notorious Don Dale Detention Centre), it's about now, not just 1788," she says.

The #changethedate movement doesn't hold much appeal for Lucashenko either. "It's like rearranging the deck chairs on The Titanic. It's just a sop to the liberal conscience to change the day. You don't undo two centuries of attempted genocide with a goodwill gesture. You repair the damage and achieve justice through a process of treaty and reparation and then one day we might become a nation we can be proud of."

It seems that date change or not, the debate around Australia Day is far from over.

"It is a tradition of being willing to sacrifice all to do the right thing in the cause of freedom."

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